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Foliate Oak October 2016
Intimations of Annihilations--No. 10
By Philip Brunetti
Then one day, all of a sudden, I was old. I didn’t ask for it to happen. I was looking out the window of a local café and felt a minor collapse inward, into myself. And then I felt myself as old, even though I was only middle-aged. But middle-aged was not young—was no longer youth, and was pointing and proceeding daily toward old age. And suddenly, I was old. It didn’t really have anything to do with my numerical age. And it had only a little to do with my outlook. No, mostly I was old because I felt old in that moment. I felt myself like my father even, my father with a young woman—the strange aloofness of my father. The young woman almost always walking away, bewildered. And the fear and trembling of my father’s face grown old. He’d grown old and I’d taken a step toward his grave, which might be my grave someday too.
Simon had done it, in his way. He’d brought the Revelation of John back to life, brought it back to the place it, and we, should’ve been and had unconsciously gotten to. Simon’s words were bricks—bricks to the face. They were short and firm and forceful. Every word or clipped sentence and one’s head was knocked back. That’s how I remember it at least. Reading excerpts of it in the boys’ bathroom initially. It’d been left on the windowsill by Simon. We’d—some of us—wanted to read what the King had raved about. But Simon wouldn’t allow anyone to take the manuscript home or to have it copied. In fact, no one could read it for stretches greater than 5 minutes—or they’d face the King’s wrath, breaking his 5-minute bathroom edict. “Take five,” he’d say, grudgingly releasing the hall pass. “And no more than five,” he’d add with a wicked wink. The controlling of the bowels, Simon called it, and we would laugh. The King would grin slyly. Sometimes he would sigh. He knew of Simon’s defiance and the strange air of suspicion he received from Simon. The way Simon circumvented him, dismissed him, and disbelieved his praise even.
Deep down, we were afraid. Afraid of Simon and his renewed Revelation and announcement of the 12. Afraid of the kind of world he was setting up inside of us. How he had gotten into our heads and would hold our futures hostage until we wrote our own dark parts. It was ingenious and sacrosanct and troubling. The kind of thing only 13-year-old boys could believe in. Maybe some 13-year-old girls even.
Morags was caught most roughly. And he’d been living in two ways from the time I met him at age 9. In third grade. That morning I was wearing a Captain America-Red Skull sweatshirt and had my broken left arm in a sling. It was October or early November—but cold. I blew frosty breath in the schoolyard. I strayed over to my class’s lineup line, waiting for the whistle to blow. I wasn’t playing anything. The kids ran around the yard manically like any morning. No one seemed to notice my injury. Except for Morags. Maybe he’d seen weakness or an easy target. Anyway he approached me and commented on my shirt. I learned he was a comic-book freak. I'd seen him around before then. He was a big kid and he’d fought my neighbor Mick Rouse on occasion. They’d had several fist fights that I’d witnessed. At the time, I’d rooted for Mick Rouse to win. And Rouse usually won, though he was shorter and smaller—but much more savage and vicious. A fierce hyena child, snarling. And Rouse was probably one of the 12 too but, being a born artist, wholeheartedly resented it. He exploded a few neo-Pollock-like affairs on canvas later in life to expiate himself from the mission. Or maybe to fulfill it. Anyhow one of those works was especially incredible and, at least for the time of its creation, allowed Rouse to break free.
Morags acted like a doomed man even at age 9. I might have myself. I’d already been through the ringer, the ferocity of my father’s house. I’d been tamed by him and I hadn’t been very wild. I’d been trapped, boxed in, inverted—obliterated almost. I barely had a spirit left. I had watchful eyes. I had a lifelong wound. I had crap poetry. None of this was enough to create or recreate a person. No, I’d been indoctrinated, drilled into with words. A severe course had been set.
Eventually, I’d feel anger. I wouldn’t merely feel it. I’d bathe in it—as one bathes in a deep bath. I’d bathe in the deep bath of hate. Wallow in it. It’d keep me filthy. And let he be filthy still. It’d keep me lowdown and demeaned.
No, I hadn’t stomached him well, John Baptist. I’d been born to love him, and did, as his son. But then I’d been born to become him too. Metaphysically he forced his way inside me, raped my ego while still in its formative stage. Then left me as scrap. Over time I suppose I reformed and all the dispersed shards regrouped. I claimed a kind of identity—but with severs. With cracks and fissures. Anyhow, an identity. And not very long after that, I met Simon.
Metaphysical rape...call me a victim. But no, please don’t. The seizing of my ego—the attempted overtaking of it. Sometimes with stealth but most times with an uproar. With lots of wall banging and household drama. “Get your fuckin’ face out of my fuckin’ sight!” Just the gist of growing up then.
Anyway it was years later and I had a manuscript to write. It’d been deigned or deemed from the beginning. And now the time had arrived: I was responsible. After all, Simon Baden was dead, my father was feckless, and Todd Morags was in a state of paralysis. For years his poetic efforts had excluded him from the testament. The testament that masqueraded as a revelation. Still, Morags wrote some of it. A few dozen or so pages, out of thousands produced. It would highlight the future, predicting ever-oncoming dooms and tribulations. It had creatures. It had blackness and darkness. It had wit. It crept upward through states of being. It exacerbated sensations. It tricked itself with language like tabs of gum—one went chewing. It used facts. It used fictions and myths and labyrinths of language. It used visions and marijuana words. It used Greek and Latin alphabets. It used cheese, Gouda, Blue and Feral Goat. It had surprises—sluices of justice and feeling. But it was a bridge that had busted. As Todd Morags had busted. As Todd Morags—and all of us—would have to bust to live again. That was the implication. It was inside the holy cross and it was inside the Bodhi Tree. The bare symbology, extrapolated. The inner-outer way, redeemed. But mostly something that had to bust and break free. Like old Romantic Blake’s mind-forged manacles—busted open.
The reintroduction of outlaw Jesus. That was part of the purpose of the new Revelation. That,—and the things that had come and would come. The terrible state of the world: the diseases, disasters, and mass deaths. These fit in too, poetically even. It all made lyrical if not literal sense. But Simon’s style transitioned this, as it leapt from lyrical to literal sense. Fiery truths excised from a thimble of nonsense. More surreal than the Revelation of John but more real too, somehow. He’d deadened it. The Island of Patmos revisited—but caustically. And Simon calling on the ontological phone, communicating over time and space, surpassing the trite and the mundane. But the mundane still present and overwhelming too. And if a man was sipping a glass of water, that man suffered too. The water was poisoned—and filled with toxins. A water of revenge then. A Second Coming water. Wine becoming water again. Other reversals of fortune...Todd Morags wrote there too but got lost in it. Or stymied or spit out. “Write the next lines.” That’s what Simon would’ve instructed. And the next lines would have to be better than Simon’s because they’d been anticipated for more than 30 years. But never penned. Never put down in words. Not by me. Not at the moment. But maybe yesterday, today, tomorrow…
John Baptist only believed in the invisible world but he didn’t really know it. And for that I guess he had to suffer. We all did, as a family. I suffered the most because I was the youngest, the most ignorant and innocent. I didn’t know what he was getting at, searching over and under and around the walls, like he did. I didn’t love a wall inherently either. But I wasn’t ready to bust through. Instead I’d sit in its shadow for years with John Baptist crucified against it. The wall. Quasi-crucified against it. Banging his head there—speaking in half tongues. Sometimes threatening me. Sometimes just slouching away.
There’d be the ones to come suffer after us but they’d still be me. The Jesus Girl, the Tree Girl, Simon Baden, Mick Rouse, Morags—Trunky even. They’d all be me, and not me. Because I was them, and not them. In better moments I felt our infusion—all of us as one giant entity of energy working in synchronicity. A hive of human bees, not any better than that but good enough. And still these others were significantly apart from me. They’d insulated themselves in their own egos and I had my ego too. We were people, persons, individuals. There was that solemn task—of being alive. How it was done. How one went about it. It seemed that John Baptist had some objection to this. A severe objection that started in the first person—but then blitzed into my person. And I’m a toddler still, having to wrap my head around it and trying to understand it. But I couldn’t understand it. So instead I’m filled with fear and trepidation. And I’m never sure what will be my next move—or what’s the right move. But of course it was a situation without logic and so there were no right moves. Just your instincts and even these would be turned into burdens, repressions, half-truths.
There were a half dozen or so nurses on shift at the Facility. I couldn’t keep track of their schedules. They weren’t attuned or regular or steady. Unusual for such a facility—this improvisation of nurses, this stutter-step approach. If it meant something its purpose never materialized, not to me, and it remained a pattern unset.
In general, I had no public presence at the Facility. Meaning I almost never interacted with the other habitants. When inside, I stayed in my private room. I even ate my meals there. In the garden or common room, I said hello or nothing at all. Usually nothing at all. I was conserving myself.
One day Margo Gwidder called the Facility. She sounded panic-stricken and manic. I assumed she’d tracked me down because she’d awakened—her time capsule had initiated. My clue was she was ranting about the Revelation and Simon Baden’s writings. Anyway I told her to calm down. I told her not to worry, even if she was one of the 12. I told her I was gathering my strength. I was going to take care of it.
She didn’t say anything back for a half minute. Then she said: “I know what you’re talking about. But why do I know what you’re talking about?”
I tried to explain to her about Simon. About mesmerism and the wild and weird workings of the unconscious mind.
“I’m not really getting this,” she said. “Even if I’m getting it.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m making it my problem. But I appreciate the call.”
“It wasn’t exactly my idea,” she said. “It just…came to me.”
We spoke for a few minutes more. She confessed she had “made love” to the King back then, which we’d all always suspected. She also admitted she wasn’t 100% sure who I was. Yes she had called the Facility and yes she had asked to speak to me by name. But, she wanted to know if somehow she was speaking to Simon Baden.
Philip Brunetti writes innovative fiction and poetry and much of his work has been published in various literary magazines including Word Riot, the2ndhand.com, decomP magazinE, Lungfull! Magazine, and Crack the Spine. Most recently he has just completed the (currently unpublished) antinovel—Newer Testaments, of which this is an excerpt.
* * *
Kombucha... on Tap!
By Patrick A. Howell
“You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, and most beautiful person I have ever known- and even that is an understatement”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Yes, it was one of the worst storms in recent history. It had been forecast since meteorologist identified it swelling in the Caribbean Sea in October. I remember one of my neighbors telling me about it and thinking, 'So fucking what? Who pays attention to the weather forecast that far in advance?' But this storm was worthy- worthy of prophecies. News reports flashed headlines: 'Wild Weather - El Papi Grande is on a rampage along Pacific Coastline' a byline reads somewhere that El Papi was looking for his baby El Nino. The comedian in me appreciated that deft touch. The flash flood warnings we were all given, however, were only moments before La Jolla, Downtown, El Cajon and National City were flooded so severely that California was officially taken off the drought lists. Floods, snow and sub-50 degree temperatures in Southern California - only two weeks ago, the sun was baking us at 80 degrees in the dead of winter. I thought we might have a Hawaiian or Trinidadian summer. From the vantage point of cliffs, surfers looked like a body of sea lions migrating onto San Diego beaches – now the shoreline is a hazard zone, spotless with crashing white water shores and gray coastlines.
But after the storm, double rainbows were everywhere galore. We could look up and all want to grace, fall or fly endlessly into an ocean clear blue sky - clear air renewed us all triumphant for a new year. People walking around with their smart phones, looking with abandon at the sky above, snapping photos and posting endlessly on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook so that what we are dealing with is refracted reality.
Now, it feels like the way you would imagine the earth after Noah and the flood - clean, fresh and crispy. Anyhow, it is a new year and I am happy - happier than in a long while and happy with good reason.
My positive impressions are based upon my overall impressions and a review of all my Facebook and Instagram postings- rest, peaceful scenic walks on the beach and in the parks, catch with the dog, catching up with my reading, good quality organic soul food like cooked greens seasoned to perfection, really thoughtful presents and cards- at least everyone I gave a gift to and a Christmas card with some authentic joy... but I think I already said that. And this, to me anyhow, was worthy of saying I was 'blessed'. So, blessed holiday season.
But then, suddenly, like the denouement of some galactic symphony, the skies cast clouds over the clear blue skies, and the cold air becomes bitter, dank and stark. I close my eyes, smile and walk though the library doors almost bowing my 6 foot 4 inch frame. It's a children's library and I feel gangly pulling a seat up to the little kids table with their round tops and red, green, yellow, and orange chairs.
So it's just me and this electric vibe filled with promising New Years platitudes, joyous fuchsia, true triumph and zero melancholy. Well, maybe just a hint of melancholy. Anxiety keeps creeping into my euphoria but I know better than to give it voice and am determined to have the ultimate affirmative attitude. So I just let go and open up a book by Shel Silverstein, my stepdaughter's favorite author. When Joy finds me sitting folded on top of myself reading Falling Up, she cracks the most radiant and brilliant smile and I know- I am completely confident that the sun has broken the milieu of those mundane clouds above. Children shouldn't have such powers but Joy was born to special purpose and children, magical, have always had and exercised these powers. Adults are dashed dumb and dipshit, made flat by so-called reality, unwise and unhip to the incredible work of these little magical beings. My wife and I would always marvel and talk about Joy and how she is a special child – how she brought the spiritual world into connection with the material, if even just for moments at a time.
Today, she looks perfectly cute- ball of psychedelic angel energy in the plaid skirt, white shirt, navy blue cable knit of her girl ' uniform and I ask her, almost without thought "Do you want to go on a date young lady?" I put on my trench coat, affix my tie, grab my umbrella and grab Joy by the hand gingerly. We skip out the school gates. Shel Silverstein had been saying:
Birds are flyin' south for the winter.
Here's the Weird - Bird headin' north,
Wings a-flappin', beak a-chatterin,
Cold head bobbin ' back n'forth.
He says, "It's not that I like ice
Or freezin' winds and snowy ground.
It's just sometimes it's kind of nice
To be the only bird in town.
When Joy's mother passed away two Christmas' ago I wasn't sure how to respond. I loved her truly. Part of me wanted to lie in the ground with her and eventually travel in the direction ancestors and spirits go. But Joy remained real – I think intent, focused with purpose and determined to live - and if I loved my wife, I loved her too. Joy's father didn't even bother coming to the funeral. So even though Joy was only 7 at the time I basically explained the difference between a sperm donor and father to this little precocious spirit with even larger amber eyes.
"I've always got a father even when my biological doesn't bother" pint sized chimed without the slightest hint of resentment tickling her tone.
"That something you wrote Joy? Take away The Pain?"
She laughed, "Noooooooooo! That's Dr. Shaquille O'Neal! He dunks the ball with authority but just can’t seem to make a free throw!"
And, of course I laughed and we got a meal at Eat 4 Now! So it's been a tradition for a bit now. Ever since the accident in 2013. I found the car redacted to half of its size on the 5 freeway- crushed and smoking- on the way to our home in Del Mar. What I saw didn’t sit well with me for a long time, still doesn’t – it was as if my spirit had been redacted from it’s body. I think they call the experience as spiritual “dissonance” – without getting into too much theology, it’s when one’s spiritual world is completely unrelated to reality.
Joy, of course, she would, grabs a coconut and oatmeal cookie almost as large as her head, red deviled cake and wants to order a natural root beer at Eat for Now. She has wrapped her cable knit sweater on her head like a turban. To me, in my current state of glee, she looks like a pint sized Carmen Miranda.
The cashier is a young light wave dancer made of cocoa, molasses, coconut oil, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg spices- some vanilla for variance, mahogany and onyx for fiber. Her face is bursting with tropical fruit- cherries, pineapple and mangoes. Her core fashioned with gold, maybe copper. Some silver in the spine- a variety of other gems and stones.
She says, I’m not too sure why, lost in thought, ‘Aww, that's so nice…’
Ecstatic I smiled a face full of cherries and said, "You too! There's something lonesome about you too. Wholesome too though. I see that a beneath all the fun and sun, you are a gentle soul who is looking for authentic connection.
“What?” She says seemingly confused, “What would you like to drink? We have beer but also natural Root Beer, Blueberry, Ginger Ale and Kombucha… on tap.”
"What's that lady? Shhheeeeeeeaaaash! You have Kombucha on tap? Is it alcohol like beer?"
"It's fermented, non-alcohol... sir"
Maybe I've seen her eyes before - this lifetime or another but I sense the chemistry is right, alignment too. Also, I have a tendency to fall in love more often than not. Dangerous addiction from the Russian gypsy part of my bloodline.
“Kombucha… on Tap! That's fantastic!”
She says again, carefully and slowly, looking me in the eyes this time" it's like beer, fermented, but without the alcohol. A bubbling beverage of live probiotics. Yummy for your tummy!"
She sounds like a celebrity. She sounds like some sort of euphoric zany infomercial. Pretentious, sure, but also, somehow, authentic.
There is an awkward silence for a few moments, so I offer, "...I see that a patented black woman side eye comes quite easy to you. So, I’m wondering if you have several unclaimed lawsuits for copyright infringement that you’re not telling me about. I see, also… that many men sit outside your door waiting anxiously for her majesty..."
"...Are you a prophet, a clairvoyant or... asylum escapee?" She retorts gleefully, the reflection of me in her eyes.
I just smile. No point in affirming or denying what could or could not be. But then I say, "No no No! I've just been reading people for awhile and I got a.... whiff of your entire vibe, your whole universe inside."
Joy and I pick a seat outside by the stone hearth which is lit bright and warm with an intense heat and crystal-like blue stones and she is sulking, has taken the turban off her head and is not interested in her meal, macaroni with green beans, soda or dessert. She is visibly upset. Her face though still glows. The clouds begin to crowd, floating from the ocean, inland. Hovering over our little beachside city like judgment day.
I know better than to ask but do so anyway. I see her mother's face in Joy, speaking to me. "You seemed mad at me pint size. Did I do something wrong?”
“Why were you flirting with that lady at the check out when you are married to my mommy? Don’t you love us anymore?”
The whole time she is... explaining, I am doodling. Writing a capsule for this pill- pint size telling a 35 year-old man what to do - and he's fucking listening!
She ceases her rant, the smile ever peeled on her gorgeous face, "why are you writing Daddy while I'm talking?"
"Nothing baby" I say quietly and gently, "just taking some notes on you while you talk”.
She says nothing and grabs the napkin. After staring at it quixotically for a moment or two, she basically throws it back at me crumpled.
"I can't read it Daddy. Can you read it to me? And don't make it up - I know you like to improv– which is another way to say, make things up. But I want to hear what you wrote, exactly the way you wrote it."
"Kay." I say all resigned. Pint sized packs a wallop and never pulls her punches. She can be all fire and brimstone, scorched earth kind of shit. I know if I do any of my routine with her, she'll see it in my eyes, hear it in my voice, call me on it and we'll lose our connection. I'll become a liar dastardly instead of "joker papa smurf" as she likes to call me. I breath deeply, and read:
"Joy is that sweet quality of forgetting and simple being. Joy! Oh Joy, radiance. Joy brilliant. Joy is releasing. Joy is change. Joy is fun! Joy is exercising. Joy is the exercise of dimple bearing... a ton. Joy is quiet, quieter than the sun. Joy is moreso forgetting than remembering. Joe flies - free spirits soar. So she is loud too, chile'! Joy is exercising demons. Joy is a magic of the spirit. Joy is connection. Joy is conscious. Joy is so, so sweet. Joy in unconscious all the same. What a treat- Joy is towering but she can also be miniscule, a bedazzling jewel. Joy is momentary ascension - no need to excuse yourself. Ha! Joy is raucous laughter with the period of peace. Joy is the elation of spirit -spirit over mind. Joy is the transmission of Love Almighty. Joy is all light energy. She is energy red, yellow and good. Bursting with color and energy, yes, she is a sweet cousin to depression… and exasperation and desperation. Joy's mother is Brevity. Her step-father is Humor. Her creator is Love. She knows something of Hope. - now witness- Joy. Joy, joy, joy. "
Tears are streaming my face. This was cathartic. Really must do it again soon – like the next lifetime or, even, never.
"That's silly Mr. Man." Joy giggles guff and gruff, not in the least impressed. " It's like that song by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock" her mother, god bless her eternal soul was a huge hip hop head. "That’s not improv! That’s plagiarizing! Joy and Pain... like sunshine and rain." Her giggling, this time, intensifies my anger.
Why would I cry right? Joy is a precious morsel of terrorist in the galactic order of things. But I will say this, in all seriousness - the world seems to me today, to be ethereal, part and parcel, a portion of heavenly cathedral, the spirit world – a cross sectional of effects, vibes, planes and realms. Perception has everything to do with real effect. Joy's just a baby - why on God's earth should I take this sweet child seriously? God bless her.
"Joy" I say with sudden authority and sternness, "bus your tray and throw it away in the trash. Let's go".
She does as she is told, comes back and throws her arms gingerly around my neck, "Daddy, I just don't like to see you so sad. I don’t want you to be mad. Just glad Papa Smurf Joker. But I feel The Pain too. I know The Pain. You know that, right?"
'Mother fucker.' I am thinking, “The Pain is a Mother Fucker.” I flash a mental image of Al Pacino's Scarface laying waste to an army of Columbian assassins sent to murder him at his Miami mansion for betraying a drug crime lord. Riddled with bullets but undeterred, animated only by a course spirit and vengeance, Tony Montana spits, "Come on! I take your fucking bullet! You think you kill me with bullets? I take your fucking bullets! Go ahead!"
"It's ok Daddy. Don't cry. I miss mommy a bunch too. Wish she had stayed longer. She wouldn't want you to cry. What's done is gone- remember she used to always say that? She wants us to go on. I have to go Daddy." I know.
I'm so sad I called Joy a terrorist in my inner mind, also for all the profanity. But the regret is short lived. Ms. Cashier who is now bussing tables gives me her number as Joy is leading me out the door. Light dancer cashier wrote the number on the back of a card of Eat for Now! It says, “HOPE” and then her cell phone number and email (email@example.com) – She whispers in my ear, “You’re so fucking satirical – I loved it! Call me and let’s see if we can hang.” The dissonance is no more. It’s dissipating. She closes her eyes. I connect with reality and Joy’s spirit flies off into the heavens effortlessly – I believe because I am connected, even by a smattering, or at least a desire for the future, to Hope.
Prophesies. Shamen. Lovers. Clairvoyants. Futurists. Heavenly bodies. Good feelings. Acerbic beginnings. Shitty endings. Dissension, the spirit of War. Fucked up beginnings. Apocalyptic dissension. Visionaries. Healers. Futurists. All the New Age Dreamers. Me. Joy. Her Mother. Hope. Now.
I pull out of the street side parking of the ocean-side village. Palm trees, clear blue skies, winter crisp, and the Pacific Ocean.' I feel fresh material for my next comedy routines at the Sunset Blvd and Irvine Spectrum Improvs this weekend. It'll end with the dead-paned line of, "it's all so fucking halarious. Laughing my ass off. FUCKING JOKER" If I do my work well, the audience will be roaring. Or, I can just drop the mike and disappear into the night. Ghost.
Patrick A. Howell's early work was published in UC Berkeley’s African American Literary Journal and Daily Cal. His critiques and vision been published with the Quarterly Black Book Review and Vertical Radio. His blogs and essays have been published by MyBrownBaby, The Goodman Project, Opportunist Magazine, XO Jane, jicho.co and equities.com.
* * *
The Screaming Man
By Michael Clough
That morning the Goon Squad appeared in his doorway. They told him to strip. They said it was procedure and he had to live with it. He left the gray flannel suit on the bed, along with his socks, boxers and shoes. They marched him naked to Ad Seg, security lights flashing above every clanking door.
They said solitary was for his own safety but there was more to it than that. He figured that the guards couldn’t bear to be around him knowing what he’d done. Moving him meant there would be no need for simple human communication, no need to speak to him when they dished out his chow. It was like feeding a rabid dog, he supposed. You slam in the tray. You come back when it’s empty. You kick the dog and leave it alone to lick its wounds.
You had to wait for permission to enter this corridor and that. It was a maze of human suffering. There were kids here who’d done nothing more than burn up on cheap drugs. By when he got to his cell there were goose-pimples down his arms and legs and he was shivering badly. He expected he’d get something to wear but there was nothing.
The cell was grey and damp, with a thin mattress in the corner and a stool that had been bolted to the floor. There were no shelves for books or anything. Once they’d gone he lay on the mattress in the fetal position, wrapping his arms around his legs to keep warm.
He could only guess at how long he’d been here. They hadn’t fed him and his stomach ached with hunger. He supposed this was all part of their plan to forget about him, forget what he’d done. Don’t feed the dog. Let it die a slow, agonizing death. He could holler all he liked about the rules and regulations they’d to abide by, all that wordy legal talk.
At last he heard the distant clanking of doors and then footsteps approaching, voices. Whoever it was, this con wasn’t coming without a fight. He could make out a lot of cussing and the sort of deft punches and kicks that the Goon Squad took pride in.
The screaming began. It continued for how long he didn’t know. He fell asleep and then woke back up to it, longing for silence. Occasionally he heard a thud, as if his neighbor was throwing himself against the walls.
He called out to him but all this did was to make him more frantic. There was more thudding now, and more screaming.
What was the point? After all, once you were down here there was no one to hear you, at least no one who had the power to do anything. And even if there was someone, there was no reason why they should care. The screaming man was screaming for the sake of it, for his own troubled soul, and there seemed little point in that.
He wanted to communicate this. He wanted him to know that he was not alone. He wanted him to know that he too was suffering, only silently. There was a black lead pipe running between the cells and he decided that he would tap out a tune on it, from an old show he liked to watch. It was from his childhood, and there was a comfort in hearing it, even in this cold, echoing chamber.
The screaming stopped but it took a while for his compatriot to tap anything back. These taps were hard and then soft, tat, TAT, tat, TAT, and he wondered whether it was a code. Morse. Perhaps it was that. The screaming man knew Morse.
He knew his initials and a few words.
He expected an acknowledgement, a new word perhaps or the screaming man’s name, but all he got back was his own sequence. At least the screaming had stopped. If he wanted he could get some sleep.
He closed his eyes and almost at once began dreaming. He dreamt he was back in the world. He was on a bench in the park he liked to go to being towered over by three officers; they said they would beat him to a pulp; they said they would dump him in the river. He told them he wasn’t doing anything, only looking, but they cuffed him anyway.
He woke to tapping. He was parched and he needed to defecate. There was no toilet, not even a bucket. He paced for a while, and then he sat on the stool holding his stomach, all the while listening to his neighbor tapping. There was no rhythm to the tapping, no meaning, and it was right there in his skull, inescapable.
He slumped on the mattress and again tried sleeping. He did better. There were no arresting officers, no parks, only darkness.
Time had gone by, but how much he didn’t rightly know. His eyes were heavy and his mouth dry. The screaming man had gone back to screaming.
He hammered his fists against the door. “I have rights, you bastards! Hey! I have rights! I have to have food. I have to have water. An’ I need to take a shit. There’s no place to take a shit in here. What the fuck.”
Footsteps approached but whoever was there didn’t say anything, and this was the worst punishment of all.
“You can’t keep me down here. Not when I haven’t done anything. At least provide me with food and water. Common decency to do that. Common humanity.”
At last the guard spoke, “And what would you know about decency, humanity?”
He emptied his bladder in the corner. He watched the yellow liquid gush around the stool, against the mattress, and it disgusted him.
He couldn’t help but think of how he’d been a bed wetter. The psychologist said it could be a cause, standing around miserable in soiled pajamas watching the sheets being changed, an abuse of sorts. He couldn’t be sure. He didn’t rightly know. All of that was in the distant past when he was a kid.
He sat on the stool looking at the wall, imagining it had a window through which he could see things, moonlight streaming through a valley, that kind of thing. And then it happened. On the wall the figure of a girl appeared, no older than twelve he guessed, her golden locks flowing down her back and across her bright blue eyes. He raised his hand to touch her. He wondered what it would be like to take her into his arms. He couldn’t decide whether he was awake or dreaming. His eyes were closed and then they were open.
The stench of his guts rose up around him. Reaching down he felt a sticky residue on the backs of his calves. The tune was being tapped out on the pipe, over and over, unbearably loud.
A while later, the door clanked open and he saw two guards coming towards him. They shouted and screamed, which he expected – he’d shit himself after all.
They swore at him, said they were going to teach him a lesson.
He was dragged by his arms along the corridor. “You’re a filthy bastard,” they yelled. “A filthy bastard that needs putting down like a rabid dog.” Later he would wonder about that. He would wonder whether he’d been frothing at the mouth, thinking of the girl. A frothing rabid dog, the judge had said to him.
He made no effort to resist. What was the point? It would only make it worse. He took their punches without saying anything.
They’d brought him to a shower room that stank to high heaven of shit, vomit and death.
“One minute,” he was told. “You got one minute.”
“I’ve not been charged,” he said. “You can’t keep me down here if you don’t put a charge on me.”
“You’ll be charged, you stinking bastard. You just get in there and keep the fuck quiet.”
Afterwards he paced the cell. He did press-ups, push-ups and sit-ups. He tapped the tune on the pipe and when there was no reply he shouted at the wall.
In all likelihood his neighbor couldn’t hear him, or he was choosing to ignore him. Perhaps his neighbor was dead; perhaps he had likewise shat himself and the guards had taken him to that shower room and strangled him. It would account for the smell.
In his mind he wrote a letter to the governor. It began, “For certain my rights as a prisoner have been violated.” But it got no further. His mind was blank.
Anyway nothing could be done about that, not for the moment. He had to wait it out. Still, he determined that on leaving Ad Seg he’d find someone who knew something of the law, someone who didn’t know what he was in for. He would not let them get the better of him.
He had erred. He had to be punished. But this was a step too far. They’d put him in here for his own safety, after all, and because they couldn’t bear to look at him. He was not up on a charge.
He sat next to the pipe clanking out the tune.
Later a guard unlocked the door. He wanted to know what he was doing trying to damage state property. “Those pipes are old and brittle and they could easily break. The cell will be flooded then and you’d have to pay for repairs.”
“I was communicating. Speaking to my fellow man.”
“Ain’t no one around, baby.”
The guard towered over him and slapped him hard eight or nine times. There was nothing he could do. He could only curse the bastard and take it.
Once he’d left he could barely move. His stomach was wet and there was wetness on the floor. At first he thought it was blood. It took him a moment to realize he’d urinated.
A tray was pushed through the slit; it had on it dry bread and a cup of water. He crawled towards it. He gulped down the water. He devoured the bread. And then he slept and dreamt she was bending over him, kissing him. It wasn’t right but he couldn’t help his dreams.
He woke to see a sliver of light coming from the corridor. The screaming was back. He cursed the screaming man; he wished death upon him. He didn’t care that the Goon Squad was in there with the bastard, kicking and punching him.
It would be his turn next, he knew that. He had to prepare for the worst.
They were in their vests, shields and masks, although there was no need for that, not with three against one. One of them held a bone towards him, which he accused him of making. There was no point in disputing this. There was no point in disputing anything. He kicked out with his remaining strength but there was not much too it. If anything it only made it worse.
He felt the cold steel of the bone against his throat.
No one said anything.
Once they’d gone he tried standing but fell uselessly back on the mattress.
He didn’t know where or when. He had to constantly readjust to keep anything in focus. A tray had been posted. He drank the water but left the bread.
He sensed that someone was in there with him, and the cell seemed much brighter than before.
“Your room stinks to high heaven.”
“It’s not my room. It’s my cell.”
“Not a hotel. You think this is a hotel or something, well it’s not.”
“Some hotel. Bit of bread and water. All I’ve had in I don’t know how many days.”
“That’s no good. That’s no good at all. You’ve got to eat. Three square meals a day is what you need. Three square meals. That way you become fit and strong, you become a man. And you listen.... if ever I catch you doing that again, I’ll do more than take my belt to you. I’ll kill you with my own bare hands. We’re lucky they didn’t involve the authorities.”
And with that his father was gone.
He could hear the screaming again, loud and persistent. He moved towards the pipe and tapped out his tune. There was no reply and he knew then that the screaming man was gone.
Mike Clough pays his bills by teaching English. He has published stories in literary magazines in North America and Europe, as well as contributing articles to a national newspaper. He has also taught in British prisons.
* * *
The Leaf Moths
By Elizabeth Genovise
The husband and the wife are twenty-four, newly wed and freshly ensconced in a rented house in Clinton, Tennessee. The mountains curve around the house from behind like two great arms, and the road that winds its way from the main thoroughfare to their home looks like a glimmering river when the moon is out.
It is May, and the wife, finished with the school year, delights in waiting for her husband to come home from the highway crew. She stands on their front porch with its five concrete steps and moves her hand along the warm brick of the wall where they have arranged a family of miniature cacti, each one wearing a pink or coral blossom like a showy little hat.
“Quite a fashion statement, that,” the wife whispers, bending low over one of them. She could kiss it, prickles and all. She is in that stage of love when all things have the power to call up both joy and sympathy; earlier, checking the mail and finding a small brown envelope from the postman with a note asking for twenty cents to cover postage due please for a package a cousin had sent, she had a wild impulse to leave the postman a big tip along with the two dimes, or maybe a card, thanking him for his faithful service. The envelope, so quaint in this time of phones and flickering screens, seemed to need her protection.
On a wicker table purchased at Goodwill is a stack of books from the used bookstore. The wife has not opened any of them, as it is their policy to wait for each other when they open books. They have a strange luck when it comes to used books; frequently they unearth mementos in the old pages, everything from plane tickets to letters to bank notes. They cherish these odds and ends, talk about the people who at one time possessed them. Once, finding a note tucked in a book that stated, Margot and Dean: We hope this sparks the renaissance you’ve been waiting for, they wound up talking long past midnight on this porch, plotting out their future, one in which renaissances always came, always revived what the years threatened to subdue. At twenty-four, they claimed to know all about it, love’s depreciation. They said it to each other: I know what can happen.
Warming in the kitchen now is a carefully-gathered dinner, meatloaf and baby carrots and sweet potato fries the wife has prepared while dancing to music blaring from a 1940’s radio they found in an antique store. She likes to see her husband eat enormous quantities of food after his long day. She likes his posture as he eats, and the way he takes off his cap and moves one hand over his eyes first as though to wipe from his mind the parts of his day he doesn’t want to bring to their table. He is a good man, a descendant of ancient kings, she sometimes thinks. Quietly noble, even plastered in grime.
Her husband’s battered truck is now visible, coming around the bend where a stream meanders beneath the road. The truck rumbles its way across the planks of the old bridge, making the boards murmur coming for you, coming for you. A storm is gathering in the distance, behind the truck—bruised clouds huddling together as though seeking safety in numbers. The wife can smell rain. She turns swiftly to press her nose to the mesh of the screen door, which always wears the scent of wet pennies when the air is damp.
The husband snaps off the radio in his truck as he pulls into the gravel drive. He’s been listening to two people talk passionately about the disappearance of bees from bee farms across the Southeast, and it troubles him enough that he’s been talking back at the radio for ten miles: “Where are you, bees? What’s happened to you?” He has a memory of his father stroking the furry back of a bee and telling him, “They’ll surprise you, with this patience.” His father has been gone a year—went into a coma after a stroke and didn’t come out—and this morning, penciling out directions to a worksite on the back of a gas receipt, the husband saw that over the years his handwriting had become a perfect match for his father’s, down to the last letter. He wanted to tell his wife about it but she was so sensitive, so easily moved to tears, that he knew he couldn’t.
Just last night they got to talking about childhood toys and obsessions, and he told her about a careworn GI Joe figure he’d had, a plastic man whose arms and legs had repeatedly fallen off and been tied back on with rubber bands and string. “I always got him working again,” he told his wife, whose eyes were large and wet. He, too, caught himself blinking fast when she spoke of a troll doll she’d gotten at a piano recital, when her teacher was handing out prizes after all the performances were done.
“Nobody wanted her prizes,” his wife said. “That poor lady had no idea what kids liked. Everything was so strange.” She’d made a point of choosing the ugly thing and had kept it in her hands for the duration of the party so that her old teacher would see.
His wife is waiting on the top step of the porch, wearing a fluttery white blouse. When he climbs out of his truck, she moves quickly toward him, arms open. He tries to warn her about the dust and debris on his clothes but she wraps herself in his limbs in that way she has, like a gift wiggling its way into the paper and the bow. He smells vanilla in her hair. “Shower with me?” he mumbles into the sweetness.
“Any headaches today?” Over her head, he scans the porch rail for the damp cloth he sometimes finds draped there when she’s been in pain.
“I finally had a day without one.”
They start up the steps together, awkwardly because he is so much taller than she is, her hips so much wider than his. One day soon, he thinks, they will have children. Children who will look like them and like the parents they have lost. Those children will plant jelly beans in the garden in hopes of growing candy flowers and they will scribble maps to hidden treasure in the mountain laurel. They will hide in closets and under beds, falling asleep there until the husband or the wife taps them on the shoulder to awaken them.
“Stop,” his wife says suddenly, grabbing his forearm.
She motions him to crouch down with her on the steps. She points; motionless on the concrete is what at first looks like a stray autumn leaf, palest brown, veined and delicate, a ghost of its once-vibrant self. But when the husband leans forward, he sees that it is actually a moth. The creature’s wings are outspread but utterly still. He can see its rounded body and head, its fragile antennae.
“Is she dead?” his wife asks, turning her wide eyes on him.
“I don’t know.”
With exquisite gentleness his wife takes one wing between finger and thumb. She lifts. The creature does not move.
“She’s fighting me,” his wife says in surprise. The moth shakes her off, hopping to the left and then taking sudden flight. The husband watches it move on the wind until it vanishes into the woods behind the house.
“She’s okay,” his wife breathes.
They go inside together, arm in arm. “I wonder who they are, where they go,” his wife says.
“The leaf moths.”
“You mean, what they are,” the husband teases as they begin to undress each other.
“I mean who.”
He is forty-four now, married to another woman, hiking in the Smoky Mountains with their eight-year-old son. The two of them kneel together in the shallow waters of a trailside stream. It is May and the river stones glitter blue, rose, and gold beneath the tiny rapids. Something catches the man’s eye. It is a lizard, under the water, camouflaged among the stones. The man thinks he can see its tiny pulse, or perhaps it is only the current, bobbing with the sunbeams over the lizard’s silken skin. The boy follows his father’s intent gaze. His hand shoots out to grab the creature—a child’s instinct—but the man seizes his wrist with such force that the boy lets out a little cry.
“Don’t,” the man says. “Leave it be.” He doesn’t want to know if it is dead. And yet he can’t bear to see it dart away, out of sight.
Elizabeth Genovise is a 2016 O. Henry Prize recipient and has published two collections of short stories- A Different Harbor and Where There Are Two or More. Her fiction has also been published or is forthcoming in Natural Bridge, Cimarron Review, Southern Indiana Review, One Throne, and many other journals.
* * *
Dead Baby Jokes
By Elizabeth Gonzalez James
What's worse than ten babies in one garbage can? One baby in ten garbage cans.
Don’t worry: I this that joke is disgusting too.
When I was thirteen my girlfriends and I used to trade dead baby jokes the way some kids traded Spiderman comics. We’d snicker about them while leaning up against our lockers, we’d scribble them on college-ruled paper and sail them across the room when our English teacher’s back was turned, with poorly drawn illustrations in blue ink: babies on spikes, severed arms shooting out of blenders, tanks bulldozing our middle school and shooting aerodynamic babies like missiles through the windows of the cafeteria. It was no coincidence that my interest in dead baby jokes began in the fall of eighth grade, when I got up off the toilet one morning and looked down to find the bowl red with blood. When has anything good ever happened after finding the toilet filled with blood? I hadn’t wanted my period, hadn’t wanted to join my mother and her friends around the kitchen table as they smoked Winstons and drank pink wine from a box and commiserated over child support and unpaid bills and lost youth. Dead baby jokes were my rebellion against impending womanhood, me clutching at the doorframe and refusing to be pushed any further inside. I had the right idea.
Here’s another one: How do you make a dead baby float? One scoop of ice cream, one scoop of dead baby.
Sean brings me a pillow, a bolster from our bed, and props it under my knees. More things appear: hot tea, a tabloid magazine, Advil, a box of chocolate turtles. My husband is best when he’s doing something. Sitting and waiting are torture for him; I’ve come to terms with them. I flip through the magazine—so and so is pregnant again but who’s the father? Tabloid babies are a plotline, a B-story tacked on to make the protagonist more three-dimensional, more relatable. As if I could relate to someone who collects children like Faberge eggs.
I drop the magazine on the floor when I feel my stomach tighten. I squeeze the bolster between my heels and my ass and try not to scream. It feels like my midsection is being strangled by a thick rubber hose, a hot, rolling band of pain working its way from my ribcage down to my rectum. Something sharp but amorphous sits at the base of my spine and I want Sean to take a knife and cut it out, whatever it is, squeeze it in his fist until there’s nothing left.
A minute later the contraction ends and my forehead is slick with sweat. Sean holds up the tea for me to drink and I push it away so some sloshes over the top of the mug and splatters the carpet. He’s unfazed, only setting the mug on the floor and padding to the kitchen for paper towels. He won’t argue with me. That morning, at the doctor, when I said I wanted to come home, he’d begun to protest. I could see the argument sewing itself together in his mathematician’s brain, facts and logic shining a path through dark landscape, but I said no. I want to go home, I said. I want to go home.
But home is a slippery concept. This condo, this nine-hundred-square-foot beige box overlooking a nail salon, has only been ours for a month. We don’t even have a coffee table. I walked through the door this morning and it felt like I’d entered a stranger’s house. Did we always have that ugly Guernica poster hanging in the dining room? Why did we buy a condo with orange linoleum in the bathroom? I wouldn’t go into the bedroom. Sean saw my face and hurried to close the door as I staggered to the couch so I could collapse and stare at the power lines hanging over our balcony. He knew, without me having to say it, that it would be his job to put everything back into boxes and drive it all to Goodwill: the onesies inherited from my sister, the stroller that had been an early gift from my parents, the rattle shaped like Peter Rabbit we’d seen in San Francisco and couldn’t resist buying. If I see them I’ll destroy them. I’ll find a sledgehammer and pummel that City Jogger until its carbon frame is as useless as I am. If we’d only been more restrained, less joyous. If only, if only, if only.
Another contraction starts and I’m thankful for the pain bringing me back to the couch. Sean’s opened the sliding glass door and a hot wind blows in off the street. Why would I want it over quickly, I asked the doctor. And he looked at me with a furrowed brow, in the patronizing way old men have perfected for just such moments as when they need to tell women how to run their lives, and he told me most women do not wish to suffer more than is necessary. And I said, good luck with that.
How many babies does it take to paint a house red? It depends on how hard you throw them.
Disappointment is a slippery concept, too. There are five stages of grief and about fifty for disappointment. Grief implies an end, a finality. Dead is dead…until it isn’t. You can always try again, is what my friends will say. This is just a setback. Don’t give up. These are the things we tell our friends, that we tell ourselves, because to give up is to deny our own freedom to hope. But hope costs nothing. Lying here on the couch, rocking from side to side as I enter my fifth hour of labor for a baby I’ll put in a Ziploc bag and drive to the pathology department of Kaiser, I’m cycling through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance at a pace of about one emotion every ten seconds. And when the contraction finishes—more disappointment. This is my birth story, the only one I’ll get to tell, and who the fuck would ever want to hear it?
Sean pulls a dining room chair up behind the couch and strokes my hair and asks if I want something to drink. Vodka tonic I say, half-jokingly, and he tells me we can have a hundred vodka tonics as soon as I’m better. When will I be better, I ask. Sean just strokes my hair and we listen to the whoosh of street traffic filtering up through the open balcony door.
The contractions are getting closer together. Sean tries to help me breathe through them but he doesn’t know how. I’m only fourteen weeks along—the childbirth classes don’t come until later. Was it the fourth course of in vitro or the fifth? When we spent Memorial weekend in Tahoe and I got my period at the Hard Rock Hotel? And I got so mad I threw an ice bucket at the bathroom mirror and we sat there waiting for someone to call security but Sammy Hagar was having a huge party somewhere else in the hotel so no one bothered to report us? The fourth, Sean says. I’m sorry, I say, and Sean kneels on the floor by the couch and I lean into him. He smells like dryer sheets. You changed your shirt, I say, and I pull away from him, feeling betrayed by his desire for clean clothes. How much can you wash out of a t-shirt?
I’m making a sandwich, he says. And I narrow my eyes and pull my legs up to my chest as the next contraction begins. Sean is forty-seven, five years older than me, and though I know millions of forty-seven-year-old men help conceive healthy babies every year, I want him to feel responsible for this too, sentenced, as I am, to lie fallow.
Why did the dead baby cross the road? It was stapled to the chicken.
When we got the diagnosis of low sperm motility we actually celebrated. Huzzah! A cause! A plan! An antidote! But the giddiness waned when the treatments failed and failed and failed. Sean plugged numbers into spreadsheets—IUI post-wash counts, luteinizing hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin levels—but the faith he put in numbers was never repaid. The numbers we got from doctors were always of the declining variety: four viable embryos left, three, two, one, none.
And then—a miracle! A natural conception. Twelve years and our life savings and it happened on New Year’s Eve in a friend’s basement bathroom after too many Mai Tais. I thought I had food poisoning. No person should ever be made to throw up so much. I remember joking that, if men got morning sickness, it would have been cured sometime in the nineteen-twenties. I left the stick on the bathroom counter for weeks, even brought it to the new house when we moved, planning to add it to the hospital bracelet and the first lock of hair and all the other tchotchkes I’d lovingly gather. My first pregnancy, my last—does pain have a chronology?
A spasm in my lower back causes me to contort and lift my ass off the couch, as though being six inches higher will help. My moaning brings Sean back from the kitchen with garbage bags and a pile of old towels. It’s happening. This is where I push. My body doesn’t know how to make a baby but it apparently knows how to push one out. I see the Ziploc bag lying on the floor and I scream at Sean to get it out of my sight. Sean lays garbage bags over the dull brown carpet and then covers them with a layer of towels. He drops a few pillows to the floor as well and helps me down off the couch. As I hit the ground I feel a pop and a stream of amniotic fluid and blood flows out onto a beach towel printed with a surfing penguin. At fourteen weeks the baby should be about the size of a hamster—how can I be in this much pain? Sean puts a cold washcloth on my forehead and holds one of my legs up as I bear down.
Spontaneous abortion is the medical term for a miscarriage. I saw a nurse write it on my chart like, whoops! I spontaneously aborted my fetus! My bad! Expectant management is the term for what we’re doing here at home: managing our expectations, expecting nothing, managing.
What’s funnier than a dead baby? A dead baby in a clown suit.
A lot of blood is coming out but Sean is calm. He’s saying something but I’m not listening. Our condo is west facing and it’s late afternoon and the sun is shining full bore through the sliding glass door and the light is blinding me but I don’t look away, thinking that it might actually be nice to go blind. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, bargaining, acceptance, denial, depression, anger. The cycle continues in the span of one contraction. I can see the clock on the bookshelf. It’s been nine hours since the doctor told us there was no heartbeat. Pretty soon, twenty-four. Then a week, then a month. So this is how I will mark time: every moment defined by its proximity to the event. The clock of my life will reset and I’ll only know two phases: before and after. I’m so scared. I’m afraid to wake up tomorrow and have nothing. I’m afraid to walk downstairs to the bagel shop and have to listen to people talk about the Warriors and the new mayor. What if I grab some stranger by the shoulders and shake them and scream in their face about how afraid I am? Could they blame me?
And then? Something new: relief.
Two weeks ago I was on BART headed to San Francisco on my day off to meet Sean for lunch. As we reached the lowest point in our journey, as we rocketed one hundred thirty-five feet below San Francisco Bay, with sharks and humpbacks and sea lions swimming somewhere far above us, the train stopped. The main lights cut out and the brakes squealed and there was a long pause just as the car stopped when no one spoke. The emergency lights were on, filling the car with a thin red glow, and many smaller blue and white lights shone from cell phones scattered among the seats. A crackle came out over the loudspeaker but was followed with more silence, no reassurances of equipment failure or medical emergency or the ominous phrase, police activity at the Embarcadero Station. People were calm. Small conversations erupted—an older woman in the seat next to me tsked and lamented that she’d be late for work—but no one rose up out of the crowd with comforting words or timeframes. I tried to text Sean but I had no service. I tried to look up what was going on with the train but I couldn’t connect. Two rows in front of me a baby started to cry. I got a pain in my stomach which, at twelve weeks, was already grown past the waistband of my jeans, forcing me to undo the top button and keep the zipper down an inch at all times. The woman next to me must have noticed me wringing my hands because she smiled and said, This shit happens all the time. They’re gonna make us sit here five or ten minutes and then we’ll be on our way.
Five minutes turned into ten into fifteen. The baby was crying again and I’d almost broken the leather strap of my purse from how hard I was twisting it. And the mother of the baby, who wore a Ramones t-shirt and looked to be my same age, put the child on her shoulder and jiggled it up and down while she sang something softly in Spanish. The baby, hairless except for a set of impossibly long brown eyelashes, surveyed the train car with sleepy interest. He blinked once, twice, and opened his mouth for a prolonged yawn before resting his head on his mother’s shoulder and falling asleep. I looked down at my hands, red and raw, and my stomach, performing its own anxious aerobics under my skin, and I was afraid. I wondered: what have I done?
Sean is crying. I can count his ribs, he says. I can see all of them. They’re perfect.
I drop my head on the ground and stare out the patio door. Three floors below me Oakland hums. The thing with jokes is they let us make fun of the things that scare us. We lift the veil and say boo to whatever monster is hiding underneath. Sometimes the monster says boo right back.
Elizabeth lives with her family in Oakland, California. Her essays have appeared in The Bold Italic and Mothers Always Write and her short story, “Cosmic Blues”, was named a finalist in Glimmer Train's 2016 Short Story Award for New Writers. On Twitter @unefemmejames.
* * *
The Window She Looked Out of Until She Died
By Jon Herring
I recovered the bounce and passed the puck back to Jack. He released another rip. The puck flew towards the upper right corner. Doug screamed to Benji, positioned near the post, “Block!” he said. Benji ducked. The puck zoomed over his head and found its target. Jack and I erupted with cheers, crossing our sticks in the air.
“What was that?” said Doug. “Who ducks? What the hell?”
Benji stood red-faced and fuming. He slammed his stick into one of the goal posts. “Shut up Doug,” he said, emphasizing the “ugg”.
“Seriously guys, can we switch teams for once? Look at what I’m dealing with.”
“I’m warning you Doug,” said Benji. “You shut your big stupid mouth.” Benji gripped his stick, cutting off circulation to his knuckles, his white hands twisting around the shaft.
“I’m real scared Benji. What are you gonna do? Dodge me to death?”
Benji swung back his stick like a bat and whipped it through the air. The stick propelled across the asphalt and struck Doug in the shins. He immediately took off after Benji, who fled down the street, running on his blades opposed to any form of graceful skating. Doug caught up to him in seconds and with one arm he lassoed Benji’s neck into a headlock and brought him to the ground, where a brotherly beating ensued.
The beating ended with the sound of Mrs. Wilson’s voice. The voice came from above and met our ears as a feather meets the grass.
Mrs. Wilson’s face hung like a Chinese lantern in the void of their attic window, her floating head framed by diaphanous curtains, white and draped on either side. Her voice, scratchy and archaic, sounded like the first rush of air from a freshly opened tomb. She wore a white prairie-style shawl atop her bald head and what looked like a nightgown, whose only visible feature was a delicate collar resembling the ornate filigree of a paper doily.
Doug ceased whomping his brother and helped him off the ground. “Sorry mom,” said both boys in complete obedience.
Mrs. Wilson smiled—her face skeletal and haunting. The smile seemed inauthentic and a source of a pain for her, as if each manipulation of her face involved the concealed movement of ten thousand gears of which no one could see, but existed as part of some malevolent machination to convince strangers of her humanity. She waved to Jack and myself, her bony fingers curling, and then disappeared behind the curtains. Blue light flickered with ghostly resonance behind the window, with occasional voices from the television audible between the breeze and birds.
Throughout most of my childhood, the only interactions I shared with Mrs. Wilson occurred through the interface of that attic window.
I waited until Mrs. Wilson had fully returned into her hidden domain before seeking an answer to a question I’d long held.
“How come your mom never leaves the attic?” I asked. I used a cautious tone, sensitive and without judgment. Jack shot me a look that said, What the hell man? I ignored him and maintained composure. The question did not strike me as rude or crass. I wanted to know and it seemed fair to ask.
“Because she’s dying Yoni,” said Benji, quite candidly, as only a small boy with no understanding of death would do.
Doug reflexively slapped him in the back of his head. “She’s not dying,” he pronounced, glaring at his brother. “And she does leave the attic… That’s just where she has her bed and stuff.”
Out of the corner of his eye, I noticed Doug cast a furtive glance at the window, where his mother lived, sometimes looking out.
Through fault of my own immaturity and imagination I developed somewhat of a fear of Mrs. Wilson. Inside the grey mush of a not yet fully-developed brain, the myth of the woman in the attic evolved into something beyond all rationality. Whenever I noticed her shadow lurking behind the attic curtain, an uncomfortable eeriness would course through my body, turning my flesh cold.
Soon after, my mother began delivering the occasional meal to their house, as part of a volunteer network in the neighborhood. I asked her once about Mrs. Wilson and her bizarre existence inside of the attic.
“I didn’t know she was living in the attic,” my mother said. When I inquired further, my mother told me what I’d already learned— that she was sick.
“But what kind of sick?” I asked, confused by the notion, failing to see the logical entailment between sickness and one’s dwelling in an attic.
My mother sat me down and adopted a serious tone. “She has a disease Yoni. It’s one of the worst types of sickness. It comes in many forms. It’s called cancer.”
The word meant nothing. I had no conception.
Lacking understanding and any context for meaning, I conjured demons, fearing the strange and yet unfamiliar presence of death.
I ventured through the neighborhood to the Wilson’s house. Doug and Benji had been absent from school and I’d been tasked to deliver their homework— something I found unusual, as typically students simply completed their assignments upon return. I also found it strange that the principal had charged me with delivering a message, stating that the due dates for the assignments had been temporarily waived and left to their father’s discretion. I asked the principal if I too could have a few extra days on my assignments, to which I received a look of such disgust that my face flushed red with embarrassment and I hastily exited the office.
Mr. Wilson opened the door. He looked exhausted, gazing through me for a moment before acknowledging my presence.
“Hello Yoni, the boys can’t play today. I’m sorry,” he said, and began to close the door.
“That’s alright. I’m just here to drop off their schoolwork.”
Mr. Wilson thanked me and took the books and papers.
“Are they okay?” I asked.
His lower lip quivered. He looked sick himself. “They are fine Yoni. Mrs. Wilson… is just having a bad day.”
I left the house confused. I’d never stayed home from school because my mother had a bad day, sick or not. Venturing back down the sidewalk, I glanced up at the attic window and to my horror, found Mrs. Wilson’s cadaverous face staring down at me. Her mouth appeared outlandish and large upon her withered face. Her eyes bulged from the sockets and reminded me of an insect. She flashed a smile and disappeared behind the curtains. I ran away as fast I could.
The boys hadn’t been to school in over a week. The principal had requested, once again, that I drop off their assignments, a rather large stack of books, which I found burdensome to carry on the bus. I stopped home to use the bathroom. My mother was in the middle of preparing a meal in the kitchen. The house smelled wonderful, the odor of marsala sauce and mushrooms permeated every room.
“When’s dinner?” I asked.
“There’s pizza rolls in the freezer,” she said. “This is for the Wilson’s. They’re having a real go of it this week... Those poor children.”
Mildly annoyed, I asked, “Why do you always cook the best meals for the Wilsons?” My mother looked at me appalled. “Mrs. Wilson is very sick Yoni. We’ve talked about this. Do I really have to explain? The last thing that family needs to worry about right now is cooking dinner. I pouted for a moment before growing bored with being upset.
“I have schoolwork to drop off for Doug and Benji.”
“Well we can go over together then,” my mother said. “Would you like a taste?” She held out a fork with a piece of chicken on the end, steaming and dripping sauce. I remember the taste. I remember my envy.
Mr. Wilson opened the door, pallid and disheveled.
“Hi Margaret,” he said to my mother. They hugged for what seemed like ten minutes too long. “I can’t thank you enough, the boys will be thrilled. We haven’t had a proper meal all day.”
“It’s the least I can do,” she said. “How’s Rose?”
“She’s having a good day,” he said, with a tired smile. “But it’s been a rough couple...” Tears welled up in his eyes and he brought his hand over his face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just tough.”
He looked down at me. I lowered my head, not wanting to witness his emotional display. I’d never seen a grown man cry.
“But she is going to be okay,” he said. “I know it.”
“Of course she is,” my mother said. “Rose is strong. If anybody can beat this she can.”
I stacked the boy’s assignments on a small table just inside the front door. My mother handed Mr. Wilson the tray of food.
“Is there anything else we can do?”
His face squinched up and I thought that he might cry again.
“If you have time to spare, I know she’d love to see you. Today’s the first time in a while that she’s been strong to get out of bed… and I know she could use the conversation.”
I pulled at the back of my mother’s sweater signaling to her my wish to leave. The thought of climbing the stairs and entering the attic seemed like a nightmare.
“Of course we have time,” my mother said. “Are you sure it won’t be a burden on her?”
“Not at all, she’ll be overjoyed.” He placed a hand on my shoulder and guided me into the house.
“The boys are out at their grandmother’s until seven, but they will be happy to hear you stopped by Yoni.”
“Great,” I thought. “No escape.”
At the end of the second floor hallway stood a thin doorway. The glow of blue televisual light flickered in the shadows.
“You can head up the stairs at the end of the hallway,” said Mr. Wilson, “She’s awake.”
Each step towards the attic seemed like an encroachment into a sinister realm. The stairs were unfinished, wooden, and creaked. The narrow stairwell seemed much too impractical for human use and the air immediately took on a scent of dust and mothballs.
I cowered behind my mother, afraid of what awaited us at the top of the stairs. As we reached the final step and entered Mrs. Wilson’s domain, my fears dissolved into a cautious curiosity. In the center of the attic was a twin-size hospital bed, positioned on top of an oval oriental rug. A nightstand littered with pill bottles and a solitary lamp was positioned next to the bed, as was an IV, unconnected, its tubes dangling. Beside the solitary window rested a rocking chair with an afghan blanket draped over the back. The only other objects in the attic were a row of boxes along the right wall and a small television set against the opposite, next to a small bathroom. A giant golden retriever lay beneath the bed, curled up and sleeping. A massive lump protruded off the dog’s side. It breathed in staggered puffs that sounded discomforting and sad.
Mrs. Wilson lifted her head and initiated movement to exit the bed. “Don’t fuss for us,” my mother said, rushing to her side. “We just stopped by for a quick hello.”
“No fuss at all,” said Mrs. Wilson, waving her off. “I’m in this damn bed all day.” She strained to lift herself and gave my mother a fragile hug, before sitting back down on the edge of the bed. She gestured my mother to take the chair. “And I know you,” she said to me.
Her bulbous eyes, while initially frightening, contained an obvious kindness that set me at ease.
“I’ve seen you playing hockey with the boys.” She said this with a hint of nostalgia, as if recalling an event she had long ago committed to memory. “Thank you for dropping off their schoolwork while they’ve been absent. It’s been a difficult time for them. And every friend helps.”
I said nothing in response. I lacked words entirely. Her humanity ignited an awakening in my nascent mind. Guilt flowed through my system in waves of unsustainable shame, my conscience reacting to past perceptions, like an overactive autoimmune response.
She had no hair except a few thin strands and wore the aforementioned head shawl. A frilly white nightgown covered her shoulders down to her ankles. Her body was nothing but bone, every muscle in her neck and feet visible beneath her translucent skin.
“How are you feeling?” my mother asked.
“Better than yesterday,” she replied. “The chemo’s been unsuccessful. But I’m trying to find moments to enjoy.” Mrs. Wilson said all of this without a modicum of fear.
“I’m sure the doctor’s will think of something,” my mother said.
Mrs. Wilson chuckled at the thought and fell into a coughing fit. “That would be something if they did,” she eventually replied between coughs. “Excuse me,” she said and made her way into the bathroom, closing the door. My mother and I listened as her cough evolved into vomiting. The toilet flushed, the sink ran, teeth were brushed, and she opened the door. “I apologize,” she said. “My stomach isn’t as strong as one would hope.”
“No need to apologize at all. Would you like if we left? I can come back another time,” my mother said.
“No, no… please stay. I’m only getting worse.”
Mrs. Wilson noticed me staring at the dog.
“It’s a tumor,” she said, “the lump. But it’s benign.” The dog, recognizing the attention, attempted to stand, struggling. His paws slipped out beneath him and he fell onto his stomach. Mrs. Wilson shushed him and told him to sit. He happily obliged. “My husband wants me to put him down,” she said. “Can you believe that? He wants to end his life because he’s got a lump.”
“Is he in any pain?” my mother asked.
“No more than I,” she said. I stared at the mass on the animal’s side. The tumor nearly doubled the size of the dog’s torso. “My husband is an interesting man.... Wanting to put down a living creature… Who’s as happy as can be. Yet he does everything in his power to keep me alive and I do nothing but hurt. Well I won’t do it. He’s got me to take care of him. As long as he’s not suffering, he deserves his life.” Mrs. Wilson had to speak up over the ragged breathing of the dog.
“Mrs. Wilson?” I said, addressing her for the first time. “Can I ask you a question?”
She turned to me, taken aback by the change of conversation. “Of course, you can ask anything you like.”
“Why do you live in the attic?”
“Yoni,” my mother said. “That’s not something…”
Mrs. Wilson held up a hand, signaling that it was all right.
“Well there’s a very simple answer to that. I decided that it would be best. You see, the chemotherapy has me up all night, tossing and turning, getting sick at all hours... Mr. Wilson works two jobs now to pay for my care. He needs his sleep and I don’t want to disturb him. Plus, it’s best for the boys. Children should not grow up around death. A sickness spreads through a house like a shadow, smothering all of the light. A home should be a happy place. That’s all Yoni.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. How could I have thought her a monster? She sacrificed everything. She chose to live, secluded, up in the attic, away from her loved ones, heaving in the toilet and lying in bed, in that thin nightgown, suffering with that tumor-filled dog while her children played hockey outside and ate chicken dinners. She served her family while facing death, refusing to allow the coldness of dwindling life to infect the delusions of their everyday existence. She withered alone so others could live together.
Her funeral took place on a cloudy fall day. Benji and Doug didn’t argue with each other once. Mr. Wilson stood straight and showed little emotion, remaining strong for his children. A small forklift placed her coffin into a mausoleum—on the highest shelf from the ground.
For months afterwards, I was haunted by dreams of her body, decaying in the windowless crypt, alone, cold, and without witness.
Jon Herring lives in Philadelphia where he works in editing and writes during the evenings. In his free time he also serves as the Assistant Fiction Editor at Cleaver Magazine. His book reviews and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Cleaver, Piker Press, and Baby Teeth Magazine.
* * *
Beckoning Mr. Bierce...Clothed or Not
By Lasher Lane
A difficult birth, she’d been named after Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases, as if the namesake were some sort of amulet promising a lifetime of protection, although living life
as a ‘hopeless case’ at times seemed more of a cross to bear than a lucky charm.
Now fifty years later, alone and lonely, Jude exited the ferry and drove toward the saltbox.
Surrounded by sun-bleached marsh grass, under a slate September sky, the house sat secluded on an outwash plain beside the modest dirt runway of Katama airfield, its drab landscape saved only by the neon shock of randomly scattered cosmos. She’d spent many summers on the island as a child, then with her husband and children, after inheriting the place from her deceased parents.
Before removing luggage from the car, she bent to pull some of those bright, magenta blooms
from the yard to place in a vase, hoping to lift her spirits. Across the road, a small plane took off, its engine’s whir evoking bright summer days, sitting on the beach, watching planes fly over the open ocean, while her son and daughter attempted sandcastles. Now in their early twenties, an age having no room in social schedules for parents, their lives had separated from her own.
“They’ll come back,” her mom often said. “Children depend on us when they’re young, but
as they grow older, wanting freedom, they leave for a while, then return. Husbands are the
opposite. They rarely come back.”
Mom was right. Jude wasn’t surprised when after twenty-five years of marriage, her own left her for a woman half her age. But were husbands who left their wives for younger women really to blame, when wives became strangers, forced to trade off suffering nearly a half-century of menstruation, their only reward being the many tokens of menopause? Waking up in a strange body, after knowing their own for decades wasn’t fair and should have earned older women the right to be left alone with their new, unwanted symptoms, including impatience and irritability.
She unlocked the door, instantly searching kitchen drawers for a corkscrew to open wine she’d
bought on her way to the house. In one she found the red, rubber lobster, its squeaker still intact,reminding her of when her daughter Jane was three. Windblown, salty, and red themselves, the family stopped at a seafood store after the beach, to buy two live lobsters to bring home and cook. Jane had asked if they could buy a rubber one for sale by the register.
Back at the house, when Jude’s husband placed the big metal pot on the stove, announcing the crustaceans with taped claws would be Mom and Dad’s anniversary dinner, Jane broke into tears. The whole time Jude assumed Jane wanted it for herself, her daughter really thought the lobsters were pets and planned to offer them the toy. Once having read shellfish didn’t feel pain when scalded to death, Jude wasn’t convinced. She sympathized, never having boiled any living creature alive, and and admitting to herself that she wasn’t looking forward to witnessing the task, took her children for a walk, while her husband did what was necessary. Telling her son and daughter that while they were out, Dad took the lobsters to the beach, their real home, and set them free, she hid their murdered dinner hidden until the children ate their own, were bathed and put to bed.
Coming back to the present, Jude poured some wine, remembering her need to get away for a
while. She’d come to Katama to write, deliberately leaving all electronics, including her cell
phone in Boston, seeking an escape from her job at a well-known publishing house. She also
needed an escape from aging, but was foolish to think running from a city and the present to an island where past memories were locked away in the saltbox at the end of each summer would restore her youth. Ignoring her reflection in the kitchen cabinets, she reached for a wine glass, knowing only too well that hair dye was no longer covering the gray and wrinkle creams had long stopped working. She put the cosmos in an old Mason jar, then switched on the radio for company.
Kicking off her shoes, she lay on the couch to read, blindly reaching for the canvas bag by her
feet which held the novel she’d brought with her, only to realize she’d left the book, along with
her journal on the ferry. And by the looks of the sky, waiting until after Labor Day was the
wrong time for her sabbatical. She’d hoped for a tourist-free beach and an ocean warmed by
months of summer sun. Instead, weather reports predicted a bad storm, followed by days of
Before the rains came, after a few glasses of wine, Jude drove to the small bookstore in town to
find something to read before bed, to hopefully help her sleep. Once there, a collection of
Ambrose Bierce stories fell off the shelf at her feet. She took that as a sign to buy the book.
Studying him in school years ago, she recalled his “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The
Boarded Window,” but his essay, “The Clothing of Ghosts” always stayed with her. His amusing
argument, doubting that “apparel of the grave,” along with the hair on our heads, which was
“purely vegetable growth and no essential part of us” could resurrect itself and materialize
anywhere, at will, after having decayed in the ground. He believed if ghosts were real, they
should appear not only naked but bald.
Back at the house, she studied the book’s jacket, its photo of an attractive Mr. Bierce, mildly
resembling a mad scientist, reminding herself they shared similar predicaments: dizzy spells from old head injuries: hers as a child, not paying attention while crossing the street, his, earned more courageously while fighting in the Civil War. They also not only shared failed marriages but impatience and irritability.
Reading herself to sleep on the couch, Jude woke to complete darkness, rain and wind charging the windows. A loud knocking sound coming from the downstairs bedroom had woken her.
Reaching to switch on a lamp, she found the power was out. Thinking someone had broken in,
with shaking hands and a pounding heart, she quietly crept through darkness, feeling her way
toward the kitchen, searching drawers until finding a useless flashlight with expired batteries,
then matches and a candle.
The knocking stopped, as she crossed the room to the stairs leading down to the bedroom. In the silent house, with only candlelight to guide her, Jude paused on the stairwell, lightning, like firmament camera flashes, illuminating her surroundings. Hearing the sound again, she
descended the steps, finding one of the casement windows open. After securing it, she returned upstairs to spend the rest of the night in the living room. Finding sleep difficult, she read by candlelight, realizing that alone in the dark, she’d chosen the wrong author to keep her company.
After a week of relentless rain, at least the power was back on, including the landline: her only
connection to the outside world. With a brief break in the clouds, she took a walk on the beach.
Having read his work each night, Jude felt closer to Mr. Bierce and chose him as her fictitious
friend. Walking barefoot in cold sand, she questioned him about marriage, children, politics and writing, imagining his answers. In the past, she’d relished time alone, but since her divorce she felt lonely, maturity teaching her too late that alone and lonely were two very different things.
Was she in that much need of male companionship to obsess over a man who’d disappeared
without a trace a century before and was surely long dead?
She read the usually ignored beach signs, asking four-wheel-drive vehicles to respect the nesting terns, and after a few miles, came upon the remnants of a house, possibly lost to a hurricane. The only traces left were the foundation and fireplace with chimney. Climbing a dune and standing on the stone platform, she looked out to the ocean. Her clothes damp from mist, wind whipping around her ears, she swore she heard a man’s voice whisper her name once or twice.
Back at her own house, she found the downstairs window open again. Closing it tightly, she
returned upstairs. The rain had stopped. Sunbeams bathed the room, surrounding a man sitting at the kitchen table. Jude froze at the top step, quietly studying the intruder from the stairwell.
Ruggedly handsome, she instantly recognized him, in all his tousled finery, bushy eyebrows and unkempt hair, like some ancient holographic projection.
She called out, “Mr. Bierce?”
He stayed facing the kitchen window, his head tilted up toward the sun’s brilliant light, eyes
closed, legs outstretched, as he reclined in the chair, hands folded in his lap. He then turned and looked in her direction, waving Jude to come closer.
“Come keep me company,” he calmly ordered, patting the empty seat next to him. When he
smiled, the corners of his eyes wrinkled up, a trait she thought most sexy when asked once what she found attractive in a man.
Joining him at the table, he pulled a flower from the Mason jar, and with piercing eyes, handed
it to her, saying, “Why the tears?”
“I haven’t cried for years.”
“You’re crying now.” He reached across the table, wiping her cheek with the back of his hand.
She instinctively flinched, remembering what she’d read about this bitter, sarcastic man, acting as if he hated everyone and everything, even once writing of murdering his own parents. Was he mocking her emotion? Yet Jude saw a sad, sincere kindness in his eyes.
Waking on the couch, her clothes dry but her face wet, she wondered if she’d even been to the
beach. Looking to the kitchen table, with its empty chairs and jar of flowers, she counted the
blooms. None were removed, no Mr. Bierce, no sun shining through the window.
Unnerved, and in need of talking to a living person, Jude phoned her daughter, asking if Jane
remembered the lobster toy. She laughed but seemed distracted, too busy to talk. Jude heard
music and voices in the background. She asked her mother when she was leaving the island.
“I don’t know. I might stay longer.”
Her daughter kept talking. Jude closed her eyes, listening to Jane’s voice, not her words,
remembering happier times, summers spent as a family on Katama, when Jane and her brother
ran in the foggy front yard, hoping to summon the Black Dog Ghost, or when they fought
bedtime, having Jude read Reeve Lindbergh’s The Midnight Farm again and again, even their
4x4 getting stuck in the sand at the shoreline, with the tide coming in. Novices that they were,
they’d neglected to take air out of the tires before driving on the beach, the nice man with the
the wench on his truck, rescuing the car as they stood nearby, helplessly watching. Even though it was almost lost it to the sea, they were all together and happy. Saying goodbye, Jude hung up and drove into town for groceries and writing supplies. She had three more days before she was booked to return on the ferry, a reservation made months in advance.
The living room couch too uncomfortable, she put the downstairs bed to use for her last few
nights, writing until she fell asleep, trying to recall as much as she could from her lost journal.
The morning she was scheduled to leave she heard, “Are you sailing home today?” Jude turned, half-asleep, to find Mr. Bierce again, this time standing with his back to her, his right hand resting in his jacket pocket, as he looked out the bedroom’s casement window, which was open again. She realized that under the sheets, she was without clothes. Feeling for the hair on her head, she wondered if the author was right about ghosts, if she’d crossed over. Relieved to find hair still there and her clothes on the edge of the bed, she wondered why she’d undressed.
“I’m not sure,” she answered, staring at the ceiling, avoiding the gaze of someone she wasn’t
sure was really there. Wondering if she should choose between either finding a good psychiatrist as soon as she got back to the city, or staying on the island for the rest of her life, hiding from the world she’d known, she opted for the latter, switching off the alarm before it had a chance to ring. She then turned to look where he stood, but he was gone. Pulling the covers tightly around her, she stayed in bed, leaving the casement window open.
Lasher Lane has worked many years for Prentice-Hall's art department in book composition. Published in Volume 1 Brooklyn's Sunday Stories, Hippocampus, The Zodiac Review and Down in the Dirt, she currently resides in Los Angeles with her family, where she uses the city as inspiration for her stories, as well as a small town on the Hudson where she grew up.
* * *
By Katie Darby Mullins
Obviously this story starts in the middle of the failure, in the moment after I realize that I cannot sing and the moment before I decide that I am going to go on all those anti-anxiety pills, after all. I don’t need the judges to say anything (even though they are about to, oh God, and it will hurt) because I can see the camera man stifling a laugh. He has a ring of sweat around his collar that crudely connects to the aged-cheese colored stain underneath his armpits. His sweat smells like smoke. He is so distinct, so musty, that for a split-second I can feel it leaking out of the corners of his eyes. But he is smiling so wide I can see his slightly yellowed teeth and I focus on them, hard, to avoid what’s coming next.
The silence washes over me—over everyone, I imagine—like a wave at the beach, its own kind of crush in the distance. But the little red light is on and I realize I only made it through the first round because they wanted me to fail. I am the Monday night audition joke. Why had I chosen a Whitney Houston song? It seemed so stupid, now, that I thought I could use her power and make it mine. I’d chosen an easy one: “It’s Not Right, But It’s Ok.” I felt myself losing rhythm, falling faster and faster towards a resolution, as the poker faces of the judges cracked and everyone looked like a shark with blood in the water, like horrible raccoons on trash day. Like animals. And I was the chum. The delicious garbage.
Why didn’t anyone warn me?
I could see, looking back, moments where friends didn’t react as I expected. I could hear hesitation in their voices. Oh God, I had thought they were jealous. Jealous. My parents loved my singing—but now, playing their praise back in my head while I watch the first judge roll his tongue over his teeth, I can hear that it was measured. “We love when you sing,” they said, and I can hear now that it was careful. I can hear it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve sung in front of people. I sang the National Anthem at a minor league hockey game—I knew then that I hadn’t nailed “land of the free” but I’d stuck “home of the brave.” I had. I sang at a talent show in 7th grade. Mariah Carey. “Hero.” I keep catching myself closing my eyes, like maybe if I just block my vision, the memories will stop. I can pretend that I am the camera guy.
And for just a split second, I can see myself as him, looking at my body—my hair curled and wound so tightly that it practically dances on top of my head as I move, dyed box-red, and even though he doesn’t know I spent all morning taking those horrible teal foam rollers out and cursing at them, he seems to know I tried.
This makes my failure funnier.
I am in a sequin tank top. One arm is reached out in front, like I think I’m Diana Fucking Ross, and I’m singing, “Stop! In the Name of Love.” When I see this from SmokeMonster-CameraMan’s perspective, I drop my arm and pick at one of the sequins, spinning it around and around. One red sequin.
“Say something,” I say, and then I remember Jeb Bush saying, “Please clap” and my heart breaks for that stupid son of a bitch all the sudden.
“Well, it wasn’t very good now, was it?” says the first judge in a horrible French accent. Is it a put-on? Wikipedia says he came from Oklahoma.
“It seems to me you’re very passionate,” says the second judge. A woman. It’s her job to soften things. Her naturally wavy hair falls perfectly at her shoulders. I do not imagine she was wrestling with plastic snap curlers this morning. “You love to sing. I love when people’s hearts shine through.”
That. That is what Mom used to say. But now I hear the thick subtext.
The third judge giggles. “I don’t think it was all bad,” he says in a way that lets me know that yes, actually, he does.
This is the kind of embarrassment that is too awful to watch. The kind that makes you angry so you don’t have to feel it. Of course. They need someone to set the tone. Someone to make the same old Lady Gaga covers seem more impressive than they are. Something to elevate everyone else. I am the pace horse. I am the expectation setter.
I am the worst.
I can see my immediate future stretching out in front of me. I will go back to my Days Inn room and take off this itchy tank top, shiny symbol of my defeat. I will order a pizza because even though no one has seen it yet, I am pre-hiding from my humiliation. I will call my mom and cry and she’ll reassure me in some pyrrhic way and all I will hear is how carefully she avoids saying “talent” and “beautiful singing.”
And even though I can’t fully predict what is coming, I know soon that my name will be shorthand for “awful,” that I will be turned into a human adjective meaning failure. I can see it unrolling and even though I don’t know the nuances of the isolation, I know none of my friends will understand on a national magnitude.
So tonight, I will drink whisky until my head gets swimmy and I am out to shore, walking purposefully towards that silent crashing noise on the horizon, as water fills the space around me and there is no reason to exist outside of the cool cradling water. And each cresting wave will fall and all I will hear is please clap, please clap, please clap.
Katie Darby Mullins teaches creative writing at the University of Evansville. In addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize and being the associate editor of metrical poetry journal Measure, she's been published or has work forthcoming in journals like The Rumpus, Hawaii Pacific Review, BOAAT Press, Harpur Palate, Prime Number, Big Lucks, Pithead Chapel, The Evansville Review, and she was a semifinalist in the Ropewalk Press Fiction Chapbook competition and in the Casey Shay Press poetry chapbook competition.
* * *
By Ellen J. Perry
Last Friday I was driving home from a springtime ritual near Athens – a sunny celebration of Persephone involving a spiral walk and various pagan and wiccan priestesses leading the group in joyful song – when I saw the Bojangles sign: “ORDER YOUR BISCUITS NOW FOR EASTER SUNRISE SERVICE.” Then damned if the McDonalds next door didn’t try to one-up Bojangles by declaring, on their sign, that the Easter Bunny himself would be in attendance the next day, maybe to eat a Big Mac and sign autographs. Well, I don’t guess he’d sign autographs. He’d hold some kids on his lap and make happy hoppy gestures without saying two words about like he does every year in Winterton, Georgia.
Suddenly, even though I was just a few minutes from my little house off Main Street, I got a bad craving for either a biscuit or a Cadbury crème egg. Not the fancy kind with caramel or fudge, but the original egg with the white and yellow sugary substance inside; it was hard to find it with all the other new-and-improved versions out, though. I decided I’d have better luck with an egg and cheese biscuit from McDonalds so I turned around and headed for the drive-thru.
The parking lot where I sat eating my biscuit overlooked the Methodist church. Children were playing outside on a grassy field between church and cemetery, the cool wind wild and troublesome. The weatherman was calling for frost over the weekend and I worried about my daffodils, white and yellow like the crème eggs, fighting their way up through the depths of winter like Persephone risen from the underworld to the earth, finally, finally, her mama Demeter says, finally.
A lone woman supervising the church kids stood beside a cross with a black cloth draped carefully over its wooden arms. She was there but not really there, which put me in mind of a story my own mother told me some time back. As I crinkled up the biscuit wrapper and tossed it in the paper bag, I pictured the scene in my mind: in 1952 Mama was a little over ten years old, playing outside on Good Friday with the Methodist youth group. (Mama’s family was Baptist but the Baptists went to the Methodist kids’ programs, and the Methodists went to the Baptists’ programs, and on it went so that all Winterton children were thoroughly infused with the horrors of the crucifixion by at least age 12.)
Mama said that while she played with a jump rope her eye was drawn to one of the houses nearby. On the back porch steps sat a high school girl who had done a shameful thing – gotten pregnant without a husband – and there she was in deep sorrow, sitting stooped on her mama’s steps watching the kids play, knowing that in a few days she’d be sent off out west somewhere, or so the talk went, to spare her family any, well, public embarrassment.
“What happened to her, Mama, after she left Georgia?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but after that Easter I never saw her again. To this day I can’t forget that poor girl just sitting there, by herself, watching us kids. I wanted to go over and see if she’d jump rope with me but Miss Hanson said, when I walked toward the house, ‘Come on back, now, Pansy.’” Mama looked thoughtful. “She was one of the Collinses but I can’t recall her first name. Her mama was Inez. I used to hear your Gran whisper with Aunt Lil about how Inez and them was so tore up they didn’t know what to do.”
“So they just sent her off?”
Mama nodded. “It was different in those times. Gran said the girl wound up dying fairly young of cancer, maybe in her fifties. They printed the obituary in the Winterton paper but wasn’t a thing mentioned about where she’d lived or what she’d done in the meantime. It was like nothing had ever happened, which maybe was true for all anybody around here knows.”
The sound of the train whistle brought me back to the McDonalds parking lot. I cradled my belly, feeling the life inside. My first child, a daughter named May, was due in a month. I had no husband to speak of, didn’t want one, and even though Daddy grumbled some about me breaking off with Donnie and spending time with pagans, of all things, Mama never said a word. Maybe it was because she felt haunted over the years by the Collins girl who disappeared like Persephone to an underworld of small-town Georgia’s own choosing, somewhere as far away as Hades and maybe twice as lonely as those back porch steps.
I called Mama when I got home.
“I won’t ask you how that service or whatever was because it upsets your daddy too much,” Mama said. “Lord, pagans. What in the world? I wish you’d read the book of John – the Gospel John, not the ‘I John’ in Revelation that you got all fussy about that time. At least come to Easter Sunday sunrise service with us. Preacher Ed’s going to talk on resurrection and eternal life.”
“I don’t care to hear Preacher Ed but I’ll take y’all to lunch after.” I looked out my kitchen window, watching the wind jostle the new buds. “You know, Donnie wanted to cut down my Bradford pear tree,” I told her, probably for the tenth time. “Just said he didn’t like it. And there it is blooming so pretty.”
“I know, and he was funny about those daffodils you planted too.”
“You reckon they’ll make it through the frost?” I asked.
“Yeah, your daddy says they will,” Mama said. “They’re tough little things.”
“Ok. Oh, don’t forget to order your Easter biscuits from Bojangles.”
Mama laughed. “Has Hector got that sign up again?”
We both giggled and I felt my girl move. She wasn’t due until May 1 but kicked like she wanted to bust on out into the world with us right then.
“Hold on, now,” I said to May after hanging up with Mama. “I’ve got to have a little more time to work on your room, all this yellow and green and white.” I reached for a paintbrush in the hall closet and tied my hair back. “Soon enough you’ll be Queen of the May, little springtime miss, soon enough. It’s all in the timing.”
Late into the night I finished painting my daughter’s room with the Collins girl – nameless, faceless, dejected – in my mind. Had her “illegitimate” child been born? Was the Collins girl a good mother, if so? Did Inez ever write her daughter a letter, and did they ever make peace? Had she longed for home? The saddest truth, I realized, was that had the Collins family lived now, in the 21st century, not too many folks except maybe Preacher Ed would bat an eye about the pregnancy. “Everything happens for a reason,” Mama says but I don’t know. It’s mostly just luck and chance, seems to me. All in the timing.
May kicked again. Or was it her elbow? Either way, I felt a sharp jab and I winced to think about all the mothers and daughters down through time, starting with Demeter and Persephone and ending up with Mama and me, and now me and May, and millions of others in between, and it was all I could do to take a breath. I felt terrified and hopeful at the same time. Is it time?
Finally, finally, May . . . surely you will be among women free to dance around the Maypole like goddesses. Oh, finally, please.
Ellen J. Perry is a Literature and Humanities instructor based in western North Carolina. Her academic interests include 17th- and 18th-century British life and literature, Restoration drama, and Southern/ Appalachian culture. Ellen's short story "Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks" was awarded First Place in Fiction by the Bacopa Literary Review and published in their print journal (October 2015). Additional works of original fiction have appeared in Steel Toe Review, Deep South Magazine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Gravel among others. Ellen enjoys traveling to the beach, dancing, reading, and playing with her stylish cat, Ms. Coco Chanel.
* * *
By Michael Wayne Hampton
Promise to forget me
rather than remember me an ugly
period a mistake of youth of
Innocence brought on restless
without forethought of year’s end and
The questions to come
Swear to me, though I'll never hear
To hold genuine what was genuine and
forgive the wrong-minded romance
if romance is wrong or any
joy stolen and once called ours
still present crushing under covers
Because this much is true, if the world is true
that the lost gather the lost as
the without crave the missing to
shepherd and grieve when minds fail
in the quiet that creeps between
one day cherished and the next
About the author: Michael Wayne Hampton is the author of three books, and his work has appeared in numerous publications such as decomP, McSweeney's, and Atticus Review. He can be reached via his website or on Twitter at @motelheartache.
* * *
By Caroline Knickmeier
I was groundwater and you were a constant current
of joy and tears and moisture from your breath
became part of the clouds since you passed
but all water is reused and your tears became mine and I slowly release you every time I cry
I'll greet you on mountain lakes
swift moving rivers fresh drinkable spring
in brief showers
that form rainbows
that wouldn't be possible without the moisture passed through you
since you've left behind
I’ll breathe in ocean salty air greet you once again
that which was once your tears
as continued life ebbs and flows
form endless color prisms through the changing sky
Caroline S. Knickmeier is a literary and visual artist. Her work promotes positive change amid difficult circumstance. She exhibits widely and is published in the Yahara Journal, F-Stop Magazine, The Voices Project, LED Publishing, Thought Notebook Journal, The Artist Unleashed, and is forthcoming in Apeiron Review, among others.
* * *
By Brandon Marlon
Sand dervishes whirl as the pir appears,
causing roans to whicker and forget their groats;
I, too, dispense with nibbling unsatisfying orts
in order to listen as the surreal figure
elucidates arcane esotery for the benefit
of man and beast alike, imparting his trust
in the theurgy of Providence.
His connection to the otherworldly
seems umbilical; the mystic adores the divine
like thieves love the night.
His words penetrate the latticed shutters
of my mind, embedding my braincase
with overwrought thoughts
vaster than the wasteland landscape
we have been traversing for a fortnight.
He utters of the unseen web that links and knits
creatures with Creation, invisible fibrils and tendrils
binding all in a cosmic fabric woven
by the shaping hand of heaven with love.
How will I explain my atypical tarriance
to those awaiting me? They will scoff
at a known kafir and mutter of sunstroke,
and perhaps they will be right after all.
But even if it was only a desert vision,
a daydream of the weary, I offer thanks
for sudden insight bound to last a lifetime.
Brandon Marlon is a writer from Ottawa, Canada. He received his B.A. in Drama & English from the University of Toronto and his M.A. in English from the University of Victoria. His poetry was awarded the Harry Hoyt Lacey Prize in Poetry (Fall 2015), and has been published in 120+ publications in Canada, U.S.A., England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Greece, Romania, Israel, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, Trinidad, & Mexico.
* * *
Things that Tear
By Domenic Scopa
A sheet of paper. Swollen eyes.
Clouds pierced by sunrays
after summer showers.
A blade does something like this
against skin. A bitter marriage.
Twenty tender heartstrings wrenched
by a lover’s note. That note.
New asshole. Bandages.
strained (not torn).
A doctor points out tumors on a lung X-ray,
and some section of stomach churns unfamiliar.
If enough blood wanders erratically
from a young man’s stab wound,
and the mugger thwarts, and dodges cops,
we will most likely say the mother’s heart is torn.
Cushions. Worn asphalt.
Morals--a child in a smoggy factory,
standing still in an assembly line for fourteen hours.
Domenic Scopa is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the 2014 recipient of the Robert K. Johnson Poetry Prize and Garvin Tate Merit Scholarship. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry and translations have been featured in Poetry Quarterly, Reed Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Belleville Park Pages, and many others. He is currently an adjunct professor for the Changing Lives Through Literature program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and at New Hampshire Technical Institute. His first book, Walk-in Closet (Yellow Chair Press), is forthcoming in 2017. He currently reads manuscripts for Hunger Mountain and Ink Brush Publications.
* * *
Three Poems by Max Sheppard
After Kafka on the Shore
Suddenly, beneath the clouds--
descending from bruised night
like a conclusion toward the Earth--
a strange melody plays.
Words chain together like
dead lights strung in the trees.
I think of empty bowls
in my room. I think of
stories I forgot to tell you,
the ones I can’t remember.
I wait for the end of a journey
that cannot end,
aisles always rushing
toward another gate. B21 A15 B26.
They flip the entrance open,
adhered to this time like trees
rooted, inescapable time. Soldiers
in lost woods. Taut rope. My body
like a blurred line in the billowing
fourth dimension. Disappear
in every way, disappear
into the center of the elm and birch.
In the pith of my head, fingers
of ghosts grasp at the fuselage,
sinking us to the grey world below.
The ending is always less than you expect.
Door shut. Shore melt. Earth reappearing.
in the sound of a giant flute,
that world hazing away like a lantern
carried into a blizzard, the light
paling, like a laughing corpse,
into the darkness
you put inside me.
When You Are Ready To Drown
And suddenly, the music is quiet.
The sacrifice of known moral
grounds is necessary for the
development of great nations someone says.
I put my hand into a small well. Your body
can be a small well. I can fall into your
body and wake up drowning
in the words you keep in there.
I swam for many years. I was never a star athlete.
But swimming in a well is different
than swimming in a pool someone says.
Someone has never been inside you.
Dead batteries in my mouth. Live
rounds in my jogging pants. I am
running from something very large.
I shoot a very large gun but the gun only shoots blanks.
I am running from an empty coat filled
with the outline of a person.
No stone unturned. I shot out the
bowels of a sleep I couldn’t shake
and I have been swimming in a black pool
in the darkness in the darkness in the
darkness ever since. So it goes,
two red violins playing underwater.
How hard can you listen? How hard can you
get when you put your hand in your pants
finding only your empty hand?
Bloated corpse on the shore. How can you be sure
that you meant to eat that last meal?
How can you be sure that you wanted a choice?
How can you know when the person
on the other end of the line is sure?
I turn my hand over and I see fifty
different ways to feel for you. A hundred
to look for your ghost. One to go to sleep.
One to make the sun set. One to turn you
on and off until the bulb burns out.
Across the ocean,
the sand is in its billion pellets.
Stare into the glowing television.
There is nothing to do.
Lift your hand
to point an object
at another object,
and press a button
that allows escape
from the body. People run,
on the screen
they move across the beige
toward black shadows.
They look like small mice
escaping some black hand.
The shadows stretch across
the ground like a large animal
is standing somewhere
The smoke moves along
the ground. It is an uneasy
cloud that has come to visit.
Outside, the light has come on.
You walk to the window
in the pantry, scan the yard
for something living,
the light flooding into
a dark, frozen world.
Choose to ignore
this, turn away
your wandering gaze.
about a place you have
never been. Say
that this is the apocalypse
because truly, you have no scale
on which to judge.
In the living room, watch
blurry images shift
across sparkling pixels,
and know these are humans.
Look into the eyes
of a man who says words
you don’t understand.
Glare of a blade
the only contrast against
the velvet-black figure
Another man kneels
on a banner of script
The bag around his head
means he could be anyone;
means he could be you
When they pull the bag off
there’s nothing there.
The man on screen
drops his blade and
looks into the bag
like a surprised magician,
and, like a magic trick
it is empty.
from the comfort of your home,
sink into the fleshy cushions,
change channels of light
into what you desire, like molding,
or like the press of a button
the world changing course
with fractal neurons firing--
this is your greatest power.
I look into the camera.
I smile at you
as you watch me on the screen.
I hold the bag in the air
like a net without the holes.
The black smoke plumes
into me, air wavering
in a heated aura.
The real trick is to
catch the smoke while it’s young
like baby birds, or butterflies fresh
from their primordial ooze.
If I can just capture
enough of this darkness
I can capture this
Max Sheppard is a BFA Painting graduate from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and can't help himself but to muddle the arts by making poetry as well. He enjoys small town cafés, surrealism, and 3-hour Japanese dramas.
* * *
By Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad
The hum of two verses, in Arabic, broke
from a dream when I opened my eyes
I only knew scriptures in English
until that morning when I remembered
the story of the Messenger
hauled by an anchor of sorrow,
a suffering that simmered
in his expulsion from tribesmen
and normalcy. A rope, tied and twisted,
perched on the orphan’s back.
On the path of prophecy, a divinity
revealed, grief still circled him,
but did I not expand your breast,
He asked, removed you from burden,
raised you in rank,
He wrote in His letter called Solace
For indeed, with hardship will be ease
Indeed, with hardship will be ease
because God knew even His favorite
needed persuasion, repeated
the affection of a tireless counselor.
Those lines now, fourteen hundred years
later, wafting dawn-soaked air
before I knew my own hardship,
the enemy shroud, opaque curtains
hung in folds around each organ,
and what about my breast, never
even selected, how far can it expand
before it bursts like a balloon
spilling the nothing inside of it.
I was born and raised in New York. My poetry has appeared in The Missing Slate, Passages North, HEArt Journal Online, Chiron Review, and is forthcoming in Natural Bridge and Pinch Journal. I currently live in New York and practice matrimonial law.
* * *
By Milla van der Have
She wants to be gone.
I can see her take stock
by the side of the road
counting trash like flowers:
bones of course, but also
little specks of plastic
that seem to serve no purpose;
cigarette butts, trampled
catch-weeds and brown
skulking leaves, shed like
youth; a collar, she weighs
on her hand as if wanted,
thinks for a minute,
(and I tremble, shy away
into the undergrowth)
then puts it in her jacket.
In a moment, she'll straighten,
raise her hand, be out of here.
Milla van der Have (1975) wrote her first poem at 16, during a physics class. She has been writing ever since. In 2015 she published her first chapbook: Ghosts of Old Virginny. Milla lives and works in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
* * *
By Bailey Workman
we’ll sit under the weeping willow,
tears dried by carefree blossoms
drifting in and out of a fuzzy breeze,
laughing while we sink our teeth
into the soft flesh of an overripe plum,
juice falling off our smiling chins.
And the world will bring us another eulogy
with an expressionless gaze,
but it wont be able to touch us any longer,
the ear-splitting cries so distant,
they sound like the gentle hum
from a far-away radio.
About the author: Bailey Workman has appeared in Digital Papercut, Torrid Literature Journal, and Rat's Ass Review, among others. She is currently pursuing a degree in Mass Communications from UNC Asheville.
* * *
A Box too Thin
By Jada Yee
Your voice, heavy cake
in a box too thin.
Please sing like birthdays should.
The next time you promised is here.
I know your diseased intoxication delays your worries and cares.
I know your eyes fill then drown fast,
still assuming this kitchen caters only to your footsteps.
You piece of
do you even know that you’re late?
Your arms have cradled me weakly,
always finding an excuse as to why I could never be
a pal, a girlfriend to the flawless you,
always coming up with last minute errands
before you could make time for your son.
Once a year
he’ll play along
until you play a song,
you know the one
dressed like the you
I knew before,
before I became a Hooters cardboard cutout,
before I had to listen for the rattling ice cubes,
and pour before your blood began to boil.
But, now I’m the one making demands
because my son and I deserve more than a
drunk stranger’s lullaby played on a guitar
you swear you never stole.
Save our ears from your excuses and those
decorative lies on an expired cake.
Jada Yee's work has appeared in Birds Piled Loosely, Poydras Review, A Quiet Courage and others.
* * *
A Spinster Praises Segregation
By Allison Chestnut
Before I graduated high school in 1975, my parents and I went college hunting. Many of my older female friends had attended Judson, the first tier women’s Baptist college in Alabama. I felt sure Judson would become my alma mater, too. We traveled to Marion, to make a perfunctory campus visit, thinking that finding the small town college would prove effortless.
We were wrong.
After driving nearly each squared road in Marion, my father stopped at a mom-and-pop convenience store and asked for directions. From somewhere between the car and the store, the proprietor’s dog circled behind our car. He introduced himself by sampling three inches of my father’s polyester covered thigh. The store owner, an older version of the unfortunate female in the American Gothic painting, told us that her dog was an excellent judge of character and advised my father to “git back in yor car and go ‘long.” Finding the health department proved an easier task.
My mother joined my father in an examination room; the doctor provided requisite debriding, stitches, and antibiotic ointment to the wounded thigh. I waited alone in the outer area which resembled a typical small clinic. The waiting room offered molded Formica chairs in avocado and maize colors and a glassed-in receptionist’s enclosure which separated two halls. I decided to find the facilities, and approached the receptionist’s cubicle for directions. It was empty. I started down the hall on the right and saw a door marked “Girls.” Just as I reached out to push, a wide hand grabbed my wrist, gripping so hard as to put me to my knees. The hand whirled me around, and I faced a woman who could have handled a prison insurgency.
“Where do you think you are going?” barked the matron, still holding my wrist. My hand was turning blue. Speechless through pain or surprise, I pointed to the sign on the door.
“Humph,” she snorted. “Only nigger girls and white trash use the ‘Girls’ room. You should know better.” She pushed me backwards and let go of my wrist. “You use the ‘Ladies’ room on the other hall.” She shook her head and stood watch as I headed to the correct designation. “Your water fountain’s on that side, too, if you need it.”
I bit my lower lip to keep from speaking, as I trekked to the appropriate stall. Never, from nursery school to senior high school, had I experienced racial or cultural segregation. I attended public school in Pensacola, a city housing three military bases. My schools were close to the Naval Air Station and housed students from every major ethnic category. (In fact, the only other personal encounter occurred much later in 1988. The junior college where I worked in Mississippi was located in a town which still had “colored” and “white” engraved marble water fountains at city hall.)
After our introduction to the community, my parents and I abandoned our visit to Judson. We traveled as far as pain would allow. That distance, ironically, landed us in Columbus, Mississippi, a bastion of a different sort of segregation. Columbus is home to Mississippi University for Women, known regionally as the W. There, I met Miss Louise Terry, a seasoned admissions counselor, who knew an easy mark when she saw one. She offered my parents a cold Coca-Cola and a brochure, took me on a tour of the campus, and arranged a quickly assembled voice audition.
By the time we returned to her office, I was hooked and signed the paperwork. That fall, with scholarships in hand, I would enter as a music major. When my cousins learned I would attend the W, they laughed. The W had a stellar reputation as a finishing school for girls. My reputation fell short, they reminded me. They had only to reference my participation in the Escambia County Junior Miss Pageant to prove their point. Everything leading up to that performance enhanced their position.
When I was a little girl, I had wished my life a fairy tale, filled with ball-gowned girls in silver heels, like dolls with wardrobes fit for far-off princesses. I enthralled myself with stories of damsels, maidens (who looked like me), who could ride horses and visit far off lands. Each Christmas, from the age of three, I asked Santa for an evening gown, somehow knowing even then that the wardrobe made the maid, that clothes trumped family name and social standing. In 1963, my wish arrived in a Sears-Roebuck embossed box, a dress with full-length pink tulle waves and tiny rosebuds tacked taut upon the bodice.
I tugged and scratched and scratched and tugged, fighting rough seams where, like needles, the netting and stiff fabric joined to poke and pierce my skin. Ensuing perspiration stung already irritated flesh. Miserable, I banished fairy tale and dress to a back room closet. As my blond hair turned to darker brown, and my blue eyes required glasses to remove perpetual squint, I gained adolescent height while still a child. Then in junior high I learned that imaginary/fairy tale beauty required real life financing, or at least a real-time fairy godmother.
I had neither.
As a senior in high school, I tried a different venue. The Junior Miss Pageant valued average looks and average clothes, but emphasized grade point averages and talent in a perfect contestant. Gone were my childhood dreams of “Little Miss,” “Little Miss Petite,” “Little Miss Little,” “Little Miss Teensy-Tiny.” I could enter the Escambia High School Junior Miss Pageant. I could salvage some portion of the fairy tale and eradicate childhood disappointment. At the appointed hour, I joined 12 other hopefuls from our class of 675 seniors. To my parents’ surprise, the judges included me among the three who would represent EHS in the Pensacola Junior Miss Pageant. My Welsh senior English teacher spoke for family and friends alike, “What in bloody hell do you think you are doing?” I had no idea.
My first revelation occurred in wardrobe. Before Junior Miss I had worn jeans and t-shirts, sneakers or flip flops to class, but not any more. I yielded to a change of wardrobe- skirts, dresses, makeup, contacts. The Junior Something Auxiliary, sponsors of the pageant, treated us like Olympians. We had receptions at the Executive Club and at Meat Packers Gallery. We were the stars of photo-op sessions at Fort Pickens and The Driftwood Restaurant. Print and television reporters interviewed us and followed us as we participated in parades in our honor. Local aestheticians gave us fashion and cosmetic makeovers. I enjoyed the newfound attention. We practiced waving, walking, turning, smiling. Outwardly, I encouraged and befriended the other contestants: secretly, I hoped for their defeat.
At the end of the week, rehearsals gave way to true competition. The pageant began as the contestants entered the auditorium and walked to a microphone planted center stage. We introduced ourselves to the 2200 spectators and the judges. I wore a simple navy dress, with navy stockings and navy shoes: navy was my lucky color. As soon as each girl finished her introduction, she rushed backstage and changed into her gown for eveningwear competition. I chose a white gown with a sailor collar trimmed with navy grosgrain ribbon.
The pageant world has a saying, “The girl in white wins.” As usual, every rule has exceptions. Until that night, however, I had not known the dangers of wearing white on stage. As the emcee announced my name and I walked onto the runway, the audience collectively snickered. One of the pageant workers on the front row frantically waved to me. “How nice!” I thought as I matched her enthusiasm and waved back. She shook her head and pointed. As I struggled to understand, I lost the rhythm of the pageant walk and fell off my three-inch high heels. Only then, as I looked down to regain my footing, did I see two lacy blue haloes bleeding through the white bodice and waistline of my dress.
Talent competition found me singing a mashup of “I’m Late,” from Alice in Wonderland and “When You Wish upon a Star,” from Pinocchio. Shelley, a contestant from Washington High School, played a Chopin piece before me. In rehearsal, I lost a contact, and not wanting to wear glasses in the actual performance, I had counted the number of steps from the piano to the edge of the stage. After rehearsal, however, the tech crew decided to move the piano to better accommodate the spotlight as Shelley performed. That night I dutifully counted: 44, 45, 46. There was, however, no 47: just emptiness. I dangled like a gymnast on the balance beam. The audience gasped their sympathy.
According to old wives’ tales, things happen in threes. Our final competition, a physical fitness routine based on tennis, only remained between me and going home. I had never played tennis. Only after much effort and prayer did the choreographer feel confident enough to let me take the stage. I managed to finish without inflicting major injuries, although I did whack one girl over the head with my racquet. She, by the way, won. I like to think in some small way I helped.
The emcee asked us to form a lineup across the stage, which placed me dead center. As he asked us to turn clockwise, I wondered why all the other girls were facing me, but a quick about face fixed that. I struggled to keep my composure, even though every word over the audio sounded like gibberish. When the audience laughed, I decided to laugh with them, so no one would know I couldn’t hear. I turned to the girl on my right, but she wasn’t there. Immediately I turned to the girl on my left, but she wasn’t there, either. The stage held only me and two halves of a slowly closing curtain. Dear God, I thought, please let this night be over.
My parents went home without me. On the following Monday, the principal berated me for deliberately embarrassing our fine school, as no one could have been that klutzy. He was wrong. In 1975, I banned myself from further pageant experiences. “Now,” my cousins asked, “you really want to attend a finishing school?”
“Obviously, I need help. At the very least I’ll graduate unraveled, but I’ll graduate. It can only help.” That pretty much ended their teasing.
By the summer, Miss Terry had evaluated the incoming freshmen and made room assignments according to areas of interest, both academic and extracurricular. I shared a room with Bridget Smith, of Louisville. She liked music and English and had been in the Mississippi Junior Miss Pageant. As an only child, however, I knew only two types of ownership: what’s mine is mine and what’s yours in mine. Sharing became a new word to my vocabulary, and the room sharing went well that first year. Bridget went home every weekend, so each week I had almost three whole days of guaranteed privacy. Only rehearsals for and performances of Camelot and Chapel Choir changed the arrangement.
The W lived up to its reputation as a finishing school. In order to graduate, students had to pass swimming. It offered an elective course in such basic and ladylike social necessities as getting in and out of a vehicle, crossing one’s legs while sitting, standing and sitting with good posture, setting tables with appropriate silverware, making public introductions, writing thank- you letters, and choosing appropriate seasonal wardrobe. I, of course, did not enroll, although I now wish that I had.
Not until I taught at Louisiana State University did the benefits of attending an all-girls university become blatantly evident. The first freshman composition course I taught in 1980 at LSU had a boyfriend/girlfriend enrolled. The girl had a 4.0 in the class; the boy, a baseball player, barely a 2.5. When finals approached, the girl asked me what she needed to do to make a C in the class. I hoped I had misheard her.
“Why would you want to make a C?”
“Because my boyfriend is making a C, and it makes him mad that my grades are better than his. I’m afraid he will break up with me.”
“The only thing I can think of is to miss the final exam. But I hope you won’t.”
She missed the final and took the C. Their courtship did not survive through the baseball playoffs; the C lasted forever.
In the spring semester of the same year, I taught Henry Thomas, Jr. Henry, a true freshman student athlete who later played for the Minnesota Vikings, needed help with a paper. I met him on the benches outside in the quad. As we talked a young woman walked by and dropped a key in Henry’s direction. He ignored it, but I, thinking the drop accidental, picked it up and called after the girl. She, in turn, ignored me. I sat back on the bench. The hotel key had a room number, date, and time written with a Sharpie on the fob.
“What is this about?” I asked Henry.
“Girls know we are on the football team. So some of them, when they see us, throw us hotel keys. The date and time are when we are supposed to meet them. They want us to be their babies’ daddies.”
“Do you want this?” I shrugged.
“Nah. Just leave it.”
The true benefit of attending an all woman’s college had nothing to do with catalog options. For the first time in my academic career, deferring to the male classmates was impossible. And we were allowed to take positions without being labeled as unfeminine or as dykes, without teachers inadvertently or otherwise being prejudiced toward males, without the pressure to secure a husband or to defer to a male. Sometimes male professors dated students; occasionally a male would make sexist comments. The W is part of the real world, after all. Attending the W, however, gave each female student a back-up plan should other events interrupt the stereotypic Cinderella path of wife, mother, family.
One day, when I was in my late 20s, my cousin Andy, my father and I went shopping. As I walked behind them, I overheard Andy. “Uncle Wayne, aren’t you worried Allison will end up an old maid? That she won’t have anyone to take care of her?” I had never considered my marital status to be something for which I should be ashamed, but his question bit my self-confidence. I stopped and held my breath waiting for my father’s answer. “No, Andy. It’s not like it was when your parents and I were growing up and women were expected to get married. She doesn’t need a husband. She can take care of herself.” As I exhaled, I don’t think they knew I had heard the conversation. They didn’t mention it and I didn’t bring it up.
Allison Chestnut, in the MFA Program at Mississippi University for Women, has studied with Moira Crone, Kris Lee, Kendall Dunkelberg, Mary Miller, Shayla Lawson, and Allen Wier. She received a 2016 poetry honorable mention in the AWP Intro Journals Project and has read poetry at SAMLA, SCMLA and MPA conventions in New Orleans, Baltimore, and Dallas. Allison holds the PhD from Louisiana State University and is on faculty at William Carey University.
* * *
By Mary Jumbelic
Opening the wrapping, I see there are two severed arms in the package. Their pale white skin is speckled with tiny yellow bumps, and very cold. Chipped coral polish, inexpertly applied, is visible on the fingernails, bitten to the quick. An aroma of astringent emanates from the limbs along with a sour smell.
“Where were these found?” I ask the young cop, who is shifting back and forth, breathing out puffs of winter air. This is the start of the questioning that helps me do my job as Deputy Chief Medical Examiner.
He points to a white pickup truck with the passenger door hanging open, parked in an otherwise empty lot. The vehicle gives the impression that someone is just running in to buy a pack of smokes at a corner store, though none is nearby. There is a large hand-made ‘for sale’ sign at one edge of the property, advertising the real estate. The red spray-paint on the wooden notice is stark against the snowy backdrop. The truck is 50-feet away; a patina of white powder covers the hood.
There are two teenage boys standing near the front, heads bowed, kicking the gray slush on the asphalt with their sneakers. A suited, middle-aged man leans into the conversation, putting his hand on the taller boy’s shoulder. Curly wisps of red hair mark him as Detective O’Connor. The teen recoils at the touch, looking alarmed, and shakes his head vigorously. The youths appear to be denying everything.
“Was that the condition of the car when you got here?” I ask.
“I didn’t touch anything. Not even this,” he says nervously, looking down at the partially opened parcel laying at our feet.
“I know,” I pause to look at his brass name plate on the left breast pocket of his uniform, “Officer Shane.”
He nods, comforted by my tone.
I try a different approach, “When was this body found?”
Glancing at his spiral notebook, he replies, “2200, Doctor.” He looks earnestly at me, waiting. It is already past 11 PM. Office Shane has been standing outside guarding the remains for over an hour.
“Anything else turn up yet?” I say, squatting down to take a closer look. The arms are only partially exposed, but are clearly detached from the rest of the person. There is a whole lot more of a body out there somewhere.
“No, sorry. We’re waiting on the search warrant,” He stomps his feet to warm them up.
All of my other questions wait for the detective to finish up interviewing the teens. Shane fills me in on the basics. The boys broke into the pickup and stole a package that was wedged under the front seat. Having carried it to an adjacent alley, they used a pocket knife to open up their treasure. It was tough work getting through butcher paper and multiple layers of heavy plastic wrapping until they exposed what was inside. The horror of it made one of the kids lose his macaroni and cheese dinner.
What did they think they were going to be rewarded with on this cold February night? Booze? Drugs? Something more basic — food, clothes? My curiosity over this question will never be answered. The result of this juvenile prank traumatizes them with an emotional retrograde amnesia. The event as they repeatedly recall to investigators, started with them opening the container; they couldn’t reconstruct the timeline backwards from then. One boy keeps saying, “When I cut it, the hand just fell out,” over and over. Their naiveté and sincerity is the only thing preventing the police from considering them suspects in the murder.
O’Connor finishes with the youths and walks quickly over to me blowing on his ungloved fingers. Despite the chill in the air, he looks flushed.
“What have we got here, Doc? White girl, right? Teenager?” he says. He is speaking quickly, and anxious for my reply.
“I don’t know,” I hesitate, “I can’t really see the details of the skin. It appears pale but…” My voice trails off. Only a cursory exam is possible here at the scene. Not wanting to supply erroneous information, caution about the age, gender, and ethnicity is needed. A forensic pathologist needs advanced microscopic and radiologic analyses to make those conclusions.
“I need better lighting. I’ll know more when we get to the morgue,” I say. X-rays will help too, showing the growth plates in the bones which are distinctive markers for age. At first glance, the arms appear to be from a young person, but radiographs will be more accurate. Looking at tissue cells under the microscope, not in this dimly lit street, will reveal male or female, and ancestry.
“Okay, I get it, but the chief is ready to move on this. Could be it’s that missing girl from the next county.” His eyes bore into mine, emphasizing his words.
“Maybe,” I say. A young blonde girl has been missing for months. There are posters all over the region — at throughway rest stops, convenience stores, post offices. Her face is well known. Yet, there must be dozens of other girls who are missing, too. Another consideration is the timing doesn’t feel right. The condition of the arms indicates they have been preserved for a longer time. “Can you get me any reports from the past 10 years on missing teens in the area?”
“10 years?” He scoffs. “No way, those have been out here that long.”
“Sure, not in the truck. But they look like they were stored somewhere, maybe for quite a while,” I say, “someone might be mobilizing them now.” My words sound bizarre even to me. Who cuts up a person, uses fixative, meticulously swathes them, then leaves them in a box in their truck?
“Yeah, whatever, we’ll get you what you need,” O’Connor replies and turns to his sedan, leaving Shane and me to wait for the transport vehicle.
The rest of the examination of these two lonely body parts takes place in the bright autopsy suite. Each portion of the wrapping is photographed and carefully retained. The perpetrator may have left a trace hair or fiber or fingerprint behind. There are so many layers of plastic and paper to go through before the arms themselves can be inspected. Surgical instruments and a dissecting microscope assist me in the evidence collection.
What had looked like Caucasian skin at the scene, was not. When I stretch the arm open, darker cutaneous clumps appear at the elbow crease. The exposed dermis is white and shiny, usually hidden beneath the epidermis, that holds the characteristics of skin color. On these arms, a majority of the pigmented surface has been denuded. Histologic slides confirm the extensive melanin deposition of an African American. Radiographs of the humerus and radius reveal the person is approximately 13-17 years old. Additional studies prove the limbs are from a female. Someone’s daughter, sister, grandchild, niece.
It is a long night and another day before I fax my summary over to the police department describing the severed upper extremities. They originated from a young teen, and it appears as if she has been dead quite a while. Hack marks are noted at the amputation site of the long bones of the arms near the shoulders. These saw wounds are postmortem; she had died before this barbarous act. Bits of soil are trapped in the coverings indicating she was in the ground. The remainder of her body is still unaccounted for.
It is my responsibility to name this girl. To do this, I need to know who she might be. There is no super-computer that can quickly assign an individual’s identification. Telephoning the station, my call is transferred from the desk sergeant to the records clerk to the lead detective in my search for missing African American teenagers. Told repeatedly that there are none, the police chief assures me personally, no black female teenagers are missing in the city.
Where did she come from? Where was she going? How did she end up as a discarded sack in a truck?
An eventual search of the vehicle owner’s residence uncovers more, but not all, body parts. Each parcel is wrapped in precisely the same method and well hidden on his property. Her head and thorax are never found.
This case makes the news with the gruesome allure of tragedy. Luckily, this reporting leads to an interview with a distraught man claiming that the victim must be his granddaughter, Keisha. He describes that she was last seen in the company of the suspect, who had been a neighbor. This young girl has been missing for five years. The police captain is quoted in the paper as saying ‘there is no way’ these remains could be this teenager. This bold statement shocks me.
“Detective O’Connor, please,” I say, counting from one to ten in my mind, to control the emotion in my voice.
“Doc,” he says as he picks up the phone, and starts to talk, but I interrupt him.
“My case, could it be Keisha?” I ask. Before now, there were no possibilities.
“Well, Doc, the body doesn’t look like it could have been there all those years,” he says.
Inhale, exhale, then speak, my inner self cautions.
“Forensically, I’ve determined that she could have been there that long. It’s in my report. A preservative was used. She was buried,” I explain. There is a pause as he considers the information.
“But Keisha was never really missing,” he says, hoping to end the discussion.
“What do you mean she wasn’t really missing?” I ask, disbelief in my voice. “The grandfather said she’s been gone since she was 13 - that’s five years. You never gave me any records for missing black girls. He said he filed a report.”
O’Connor doesn’t answer right away; maybe he didn’t hear me. I’m about to speak when he responds in a quiet tone, “They were considered runaways. Not missing kids.”
They. More than just one overlooked report.
Stunned by this news, I hang up without a further word. My stomach roils at this blatant racism. Ultimately, a multi-agency meeting will establish that there are three city girls that fit the profile for the victim at my morgue.
The newspaper article lists Frank McCavey on the byline. The reporter describes the conversation with the grandfather in a phone call with me, though most of the pertinent facts were already in his written account. Tracking down this relation of the missing girl, takes me one step closer to her identity. He is grateful to tell Keisha’s story — her troubled youth, friendship with this older man, the family’s pain and years of loss.
The official scientific identification takes a long time. It isn’t like a television crime show where results are immediate. In government work, the medical examiner’s office must compete with other agencies for precious tax dollars — fire safety, police surveillance, social services — an unending list of protectors and caregivers for the living. The dead, particularly the long dead, must wait in line. The DNA testing takes months and months. The tissue is degraded; the measurements are complex. Federal and local laboratories coordinate their work. The analysis compares Keisha’s mother’s genes from a cellular organelle called the mitochondria to similar material from the victim.
Speaking with the family every few weeks, I keep them updated with the progress. All of the other evaluations indicate it is Keisha laying in pieces in my morgue. We wait for the official results; science must prove her identity conclusively.
Finally, all that remains — the arms, thigh, pelvis and leg — are linked to this missing teenager. As devastating as this is to the family, they are amazingly grateful to me for letting them know what happened to her, for caring who she is. More than a year after the gruesome discovery in a deserted parking lot, they hold a memorial service for their little girl.
On the day of the funeral, I meet Keisha’s grandfather at the front of the white clapboard church. We go into the sanctuary where a simple but large wooden cross adorns the altar. There is no figure on it, just slats of wood. He hands me an elementary school photo, on a piece of cardboard with crayoned decoration around it, secured by yellowing tape. The child in the picture grins broadly with a missing front tooth. Her yellow top has a plaid Peter Pan collar. There are small red barrettes in her short, black hair. Tears well up in my eyes. Her grandfather leans in to hug me as I cling to the photo like a talisman.
With a dignified nod, he heads to the front of the church, as I slip into a seat in the back pew. A mournful tune sounds on the upright piano while the family and congregants file in. Everyone is dressed in colorful Sunday-best including matching hats, gloves, ties, and breast-pocket-liners. The reverend begins with the 23rd Psalm, as quiet weeping is heard in the background. A semi-circle of votive candles flickers on each side of the altar.
Then, as if signaling an end to the mourning, the music crescendoes and the choir, dressed in white graduation-style gowns begins singing. People rise to their feet with energy and enthusiasm. My heart starts pounding with the rhythm of the clapping. The row of supplicants in front of me moves side to side. Neighbors in my pew rock against my shoulders, too.
“And upon the streets of glory, when we reach the other shore, and have safely crossed the Jordan’s rolling tide,” the entire church is alive with singing.
Hands rise in the air with the next lines, “You will find me shouting ‘Glory’ just outside my mansion door, where I’m living on the hallelujah side.”
My eyes drift up watching the swaying arms as the heat from the crowd makes wavy lines in my vision. I imagine the body parts coming back together to form a whole, no longer a lost little girl, but one with a name and a family, and finally going home.
Mary Jumbelic, MD, is a retired forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner. In her career, she has worked with hundreds of victims of violence and abuse. Writing since the age of 13, she is currently working on a book that blends stories from her personal and professional lives.
* * *
By Cecile Sarruf
Woodpeckers are revered in the Atlantic Northeast and within many cultures. They are considered lucky birds that bring friendship and are a guide towards wisdom. The red on the head represents the stimulation of intellectual capacities. The “pecking” stimulates new rhythms to dance to within our visions and might be telling us to seek change in our lives. Carl Jung interpreted the woodpecker’s nest within the tree as a return to the womb, “or the liberating image of thought and desire born of introversion.” This short essay is written as a metaphor. The woodpecker represents an abusive father.
I’m held captive by the creature. I must get to the lake and swim away, but I am trapped by the angry manner in which it pecks the skin of the day. My thoughts are little paper boats drifting beyond the birch trees and sugar maples, down towards the softwoods along the lakeshore, where cool calm waters lap against scattered driftwood.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
It hammers madly into one spot, as if with purpose. It has no purpose, other than to call attention to itself. So strange and arrogant, it forgets how it is precariously perched, perpendicular to the backyard slope, which leads to my impending freedom. It grips the neck of the tree with its long claws and remains perched on its dogma like the bishop of all chess pieces.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
It stops its madness and glares at me; its beady wild eyes lost to my very existence. I flinch. Atop its head is a pointy red hood with a peak similar to that of the KKK, its black and white striped face reflects an inflexible dualism within. It jeers. I take a step backward and almost stumble to a fall. It screams. I nervously cross and uncross my fingers and toes. It raises its voice at me again. I stiffen. It pecks the air as if it were my eye! We are at an impasse. He tightens his grip, makes threats, and then returns to the task of knifing and attacking. I must go past this point, I think to myself. I must escape this madness.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
A dragonfly has taken the warmth of the sun and flown away with it. I feel a cool breeze, as it plays with a butterfly from wildflower to sunflower to the pale grass along the path. The butterfly has already metamorphosed, I have not. The breeze lifts my hair and kisses the back of my neck, just behind my ear. It caresses and guides me. I am barefoot, each toe explorative, careful to avoid the sting of nettle, as I walk with caution. I know where I want to go. I know where I wish to be in my solemnity. I know who I am.
The creature lowers its head and drills yet another hole to make its point, while peppering the tree’s neck with permanent marks. Vicious and voraciously violent, it suddenly stops again, acutely aware of my desire to escape. It glares at me. I pretend I do not care. I pretend I am a statue. I raise my head like a shaman about to embark on a journey. It hurls absurdities at me wanting to tear my face off.
I look away in saddened silence, gather and arrange my thoughts; one flower at a time. Then I carefully edge my way behind and around, slipping past my nemesis, as he argues the validity of natural law. The water is olive hued, calm and undisturbed. My breathing is shallow. I keep my wits about me. I’ve heard of melon headed children losing their ability to think straight after a sharp beak pick - picked its way into the inner workings of their emotional landscape, leaving nothing but fodder to folly. Their eyes would role away like marbles gazing upward into an abysmal sky, forever lost between willows and pine.
Underfoot, I feel the earth soften, giving way and inviting me to the very edge. I hear him behind me, chastising the tree for its stupidity.
I break the lake’s serene surface, which mirrors the clouds above, and my reflection is but a shadow of several intermingling shadows, awakening. I wade in, cup my hands and embrace this wonderful newfound freedom. I submerge myself into the peace and quietness and cleanliness, where the sunlight softly ribbons the water’s depths and where the green algae moves to and fro in a graceful dance. This is temple, this is church, this is mosque; a holiness unto itself. I swim to the bottom, where silt slopes off, facing depths of the unknown; where truth resides.
Cecile Sarruf holds a BA in Creative Writing from CSULB and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is a multi-cultural instructor for the University of Phoenix. Cecile writes fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. She is an active member of the Third Street Writers in Laguna Beach, CA. She started writing at the age of 13 and resides by the sea in Orange County, CA. Some of her online publications can be found in many literary journals including Rawi (Radius of Arab American Writers FB).
* * *
By Gian Carla Agbisit
Past tense does not suit her.
She sings the things she has to do, in a New York New York cabaret tone. I have a paper, due tomorrow. 4 pages down, 8 to go...
She collects books and piles them up and calls them towers. The Bradbury tower, the Beats tower, and so on. She piles them up like she piles pain, stacked one after the other, waiting for a collapse.
She winds up the kitchen timer and hums a sad song. She kneads the dough to make a fresh batch for some friends I've heard about, but never met. I get agitated. The clock ticks away, and I hear the time that I'm losing, and she hums a sad song, her beat the ticking of the clock.
We have a fight over the incessant tick tock. I slam the kitchen timer against the counter top and its plastic face comes off. It still works. She buys another one, though. Being perfect, complete, is everything, she insists. And you could hear two alternate ticking.
If embryos have souls, then I could be Lewis Mumford. Calculate it. He was born on Oct 19, too. And died on Mom and Dad's wedding day. Considering the time zones, and the 9 months after, he could be me. I could be him. she says. Come on, try it yourself. Find out if we knew each other.
I already wish we don't. I say. I do not know who Lewis Mumford is, but if you believe in reincarnation, then you are already dead. A million times over.
We always share a room, bunk beds and white walls and Ikea furniture. I always get the top bed. Sometimes, when she thinks I’ve fallen asleep, she prays out loud.
I close my eyes and feel like God. I remember her prayers: long atonements of guilt, a hastily woven list of questions, and excuses, and accusations. Why? Why? She asks to be chained to God, to be stripped of the freedom to wander, the freedom to not believe. We are 15.
I am disgusted with her doubts. I am always here, I want to tell her. Who else do you need? But gods are gods because they don’t respond. So like gods, I shut up and I pretend not to hear.
She makes sure everything was in their places, constantly disarranging my mess. For her, perfection is everything that she begins cutting herself for not being so. At first, there are lines and red marks that starts retreating to the safe unseen thighs and inner arms.
In college, black long sleeved blouses cover the bruises.
She spends nights at the study table scribbling sad realizations of the place that she holds in this world: ugly, fat, stupid, pig. I am useless. I am useless. I am useless, she writes. And I read on, thinking about how I always have to pick up the pieces. We are twins, but I couldn’t agree more.
She keeps all her precious things in a shoebox: letter kits and stickers and magazine cut outs and movie tickets, memories and memorabilia of her uneventful life. Every time we fight, I would steal something from that box—a tiny life, an insignificant memory—and she never notices.
She goes to the cinema 10 minutes before the movie begins and sits there in the dark. I know because I follow her. She just sits there. She thrives in darkness, in poorly lit rooms, and closed cramped spaces. It is always as if she was physically simulating the coldness of her insides, when she closes her eyes, she is comparing how one tone darker her mind must be that no physical blackness can replicate.
She drinks 3 cups of coffee for breakfast and another 3 for dinner. She says she likes feeling her heart beat. She says, it is as if she is alive. And I laugh at her nonsense because palpitations don’t make one any happier.
She lives in alternative universes: Middle Earth, Jazz and Beats New York, science fiction Mars, and Victorian England, and 19th century France. She loves the alternative universe, the packets and pockets of histories that at least pulsate with life, posts and walls that allow sound to reverberate when she calls out.
She tells my mom, over and over, that she wants to stop. My mom thinks it was the pressure. It must be the school, my mom told people when it happened, the pressure. Maybe, the people, my mom dared to suggest.
She changed, people say.
She came undone.
She told my mom, over and over, and I pretended not to hear. It has always been a request. Let her go, I tell myself, she was gone even before this.
Once, she told me that it was not the fall that matters. Icarus felt what it was like to fly, she assured me.
I close my eyes. When she jumped, she must have been happy.
Gian Carla Agbisit is a Philosophy student in University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines. She believes that more than academic writing, creative and/or experimental writing better articulates philosophical ideas and their affects.
* * *
The Neighbor's Dog
By LoriAnn Bloomfield
It was the neighbor’s dog that woke me. And it was the neighbor’s dog that kept me awake. The damn thing wouldn’t stop barking. Which was odd because he’d never barked at night before, not in all the years he’d been next door. But you don’t wonder about things like that at two in the morning. All you want to do is sleep.
He must have finally stopped because when I woke it was to silence.
It was early, just barely light, when I looked out the window and saw the ambulance parked next door.
The dog was on the porch, his big yellow head cradled on his front paws. His dog eyes followed the paramedics as they got the gurney down the porch steps. He only lifted his head to watch them as they drove away.
No lights. No siren. No need.
I tried to remember the neighbors’ name and couldn’t. I’d been told it, but had never made enough of an effort to lock in it where it could be retrieved when needed.
But that was the thing: it never was needed. We were cordial, the neighbor and me. We said hello or waved if we happened to see one another. But that was it. We were both happy with that arrangement. And now I didn’t need to know his name because there wasn’t a chance that I, or anyone else, would ever be talking to him again.
When the ambulance turned the corner at the end of our street the dog let out a sigh with his whole body and dropped his head back down.
It was just about the saddest thing I’d ever seen.
The dew seeped through my slippers as I walked across our two yards.
The dog’s name was Charlie. I knew this because the old man called him inside from the backyard at least once a day.
“Charlie,” I said and touched the fur between his ears.
His eyes flicked upwards to meet mine but other than that he didn’t move. His look told me that I’d let him down. He knew that I’d heard him, and had ignored him. He knew it wasn’t me who’d call the ambulance. My guess was it had been the woman across the street. I don’t want to say she’s nosy, because she’s not. Not exactly. She’s more attentive, as in not so much as a leaf twitches in the neighborhood without her noticing and trying to figure out what she should do about it.
The dog hesitated only a second before getting to his feet. How do dogs get so damn wise anyhow? Neither of us had any idea how long this impulse of mine would last. Best to be quick.
It was the barking that had done it. I wanted when my time came, and who knew, it could be tonight, a voice to rise up and split open the silence. I wanted to go out knowing that someone, or hell, something, was trying to call me back. I wanted to believe I’d be missed.
Lori Ann Bloomfield is the author of the novel, The Last River Child (Second Story Press). She has published over a dozen short stories in Canada and the U.S. She lives in Toronto, Canada.
* * *
By Ute Carson
During long afternoons when I was about seven years-old and the war in Germany had ended, I learned to darn socks. Sitting beside my beloved grandmother I felt safe. From my perch I watched her nimble fingers thread woolen yarn across large holes and small. And I asked countless questions as we did our handy-work. Although I did not understand it at the time, darning would come to mean much more to me than repairing worn socks.
I had experienced chaos and heartache in early childhood. When I was very small I overheard my mother’s desperate sobs upon learning that her husband had been mortally wounded in the war. I witnessed my grandmother’s deep sorrow when both her sons--one 19, the other 21—died in battle. As my mother, my grandmother and I fled from the advancing Russian army in 1945 I witnessed bloodied and delirious soldiers on a transport train from the front crying “Mama, Mama.” When our westward trek ended, I saw bombed-out buildings everywhere and the bloated carcasses of animals littering the streets. In the icy winter of 1946 I was quarantined in a provisional children’s hospital with diphtheria. Amid rampant contagion I contracted one life-threatening disease after another and survived them all. But when my friend Eric died in the bed next to mine, I dove under my blanket and could only be coaxed out for meals. I suffered with night-sweats and hallucinated about losing my mother.
As the afternoon began to darken I laid my partially darned sock aside and asked my grandmother, “Are there any happy lives?” After a long pause she replied, “Our friends in Sweden have good lives. They have everyday concerns, of course, but tragedies are rare. When I visited them before the war, they were seldom gloomy. We laughed a lot and I felt lighthearted.” I pressed her for more. “But why do we continue to live when there is so much sadness around us?” She put her darning down and drew me to her, tears filling her eyes. “We go on because we love each other so much. That’s why.” She held me for dear life and rocked me back and forth. Then she composed herself, took up her darning, and told me to do the same. Which I did.
Life’s unpredictability still scares me. Childhood fears persist deep down. Nevertheless, looking back now, recalling my seven year-old self asking big questions about life’s meaning, I realize that my grandmother’s answer satisfied me for more than one reason. The words she said were simple and true to my experience of being loved by her and my mother in the midst of the upheavals of a war-torn time. But what clinched it for me, I now see, was her matter-of-fact return to mending—socks, lives--and her instruction to me to do likewise.
German-born Ute Carson has been a writer since youth. She has published two novels, three collections of poetry and numerous essays and short stories.
* * *
First Prize for Fight Free
By Melodie Corrigall
Penny climbed unto the platform squeezing her flowered dress to her side to prevent the wind blowing it over her head. Her day had arrived. She was a winner, ready for the crown—albeit only a paper Mache one—but even more important, ready for the cash prize.
As had been pointed out at a recent town council meeting, the podium (where the ceremony was taking place) was constructed such that it resembled a medieval gallows. But unlike at a hanging, the crowd wasn’t cheering. Even at this late date, the other contestants—who Penny considered suspicious poor losers—were jealous and might try to grasp victory from her.
Mayor Higgins sidled over to her and hissed, “Where the hell is Fred?”
“Had a turn for the worse, but here in spirit.”
“Forget spirit. Get the lazy bugger over here and fast.”
As usual, Penny’s husband presented a challenge. But she wasn’t going to let him dampen the proudest moment of her life: the prizewinner in a competition that most couples in town had contended.
Prior to this day, Penny had never won a prize—except the basket of food from the Cats Are Us pet store (which even their dog had refused to eat).
The present competition had been sponsored by Wellness Times Two—a local counseling service—in response to a regional newspaper report naming Bucksville, with more marital disputes per capita than any other town in the country, “The Fightingest Town in the North.”
Local couples were competing to be fight free the longest; the last contestants standing were to be the winners. The initial reward had been increased by the town’s funeral parlor and was now over $4,000 bucks. In a small town, with half of the locals laid-off when the Better Bows’ jobs moved to China that was nothing to sneeze at.
The hitch was that the crowd couldn’t believe Penny and Fred were the winners. Over the years, the couple had attained a local notoriety for the volume and intensity of their arguments.
When the contest began, local folks had tried to catch she and Fred squabbling. For the first few weeks it was a terrible challenge. If someone had heard angry shouts and recorded them or caught Penny and Fred out the back yard arguing about fish livers or fertilizers, the couple would have been disqualified in a flash. But no one had. After years of swiping at one another as if they were mosquitoes, they had lived peacefully, as far as could be heard from outside the home, since the day they signed on as contestants.
“Needs must,” she said to her friend Mable.
It helped that Fred wasn’t getting out like he used to, and that she spent most days hunkered down at the library. And they both were solid sleepers afternoons and evenings, which cut down the opportunities for quarrels.
“I thought the contest was crazy,” Mable had admitted, “But if it brought you and Fred together, it wasn’t all bad.”
“All good in fact,” said the loving wife.
“How is he anyhow? The back still bothering him?”
“No, but he does have other health issues.”
Since the contest began, the locals who had signed on had tried desperately to keep from fighting and focused on catching others who couldn’t hold their tongues. But finally one by one, often with goading from neighbors, couples had been disqualified and only Penny and Fred remained in the race. Now it was time for their crowning moment; Fred was the only fly in the ointment.
The crowd, roasting in the afternoon sun, shouted at Mayor Higgins to get a move on; they were anxious to tuck into the promised back-ribs and beer offered by Eat More Foods.
Finally, unable to persuade her to hustle home and drag Fred back to the event, Mayor Higgins plopped the crown on Penny’s head and announced. “As Penny’s better half isn’t here, I’ll hold the check. They can pick it up at City Hall.”
Grumbling about the injustices she faced, Penny hurried home to reread the contest rules. Surely she could get by on a technicality.
“You’ve screwed us up again, Fred,” she said to her husband. “I’ve already booked my tickets for Hawaii. You never think how your actions affect others.”
In frustration, she reeled off the many times her husband had not been there for her. For once, Fred didn’t high tail it down to the corner pub to avoid her comments.
Finally, she was forced to shut the lid on him. Even at the best of times, the cellar wasn’t warm, and this afternoon the cold air from the freezer was giving her a chill.
Melodie Corrigall is a Canadian writer whose stories have appeared in Litro UK, FreeFall, Halfway Down the Stairs, Six Minute Magazine, Mouse Tales, Subtle Fiction, Emerald Bolts, Earthen Journal, Switchback, InfectiveINK, and The Write Time at the Write Place.
* * *
That Way, Away
By Nina Ficenec
I’m not going to lie to you.
Yes, I was driving drunk with my three-year old daughter when the tornado picked us up on Hwy 370 towards Bellevue, Nebraska, and dropped us in some marsh at Little Black River just outside Savannah, Georgia.
No, I wasn’t hanging out with a mystic beforehand or singing about rainbows.
My daughter was a good toddler. I never had to worry about her picking things from the floor and putting them in her mouth, grabbing random objects off tables and shelves and qualifying their deconstruction. Rather, she would eye an object for some minutes and make silly noises, glance to me for approval. She looked like me, only better, which, at times, pleased me, and, at other times, made me resentful. Hence, sometimes I would let her have the object she desired. Sometimes I wouldn’t.
Before the tornado swallowed us, we were on the subject of names.
My daughter decided she didn’t like her name and wanted a new one.
Penny. Grace. Sophie. Liz. Bobby. Porter. Charlie.
We hadn’t decided on one by the time we came to in green and yellow and black reeds and water pruning my feet.
The walk across Talmadge Bridge was unbearable. The heat was relentless, my chest felt like caving and I thought everything around us was sinking. My daughter, frightened, latched onto me, then, frustrated with our predicament, pushed me away. She mumbled incoherently and then kept saying she wanted to go back home.
I finally became fed up and pointed away from the Atlantic and said, “Fine. Head that way and you’ll reach home.”
I left her.
She called me and I turned back. She pointed to the expanse of ocean and asked, “Where does that go?”
“Away from home,” I said.
“Can we touch it?”
“Of course, sweetie.”
“Not sweetie. I’m Hestia.”
Her face, my improved self, brightened. We ran towards one another, arms reached. I put her on my shoulders and trudged across the burning asphalt into the city.
I found a job as a cleaning woman in a hotel overlooking the Savannah River. We lived in a studio apartment and Hestia, I would call her Tia, would accompany me to work every morning. We spent afternoons walking along the cobblestone Riverfront where Tia would discuss various conversations with ghosts she said lived at the hotel, all of which apparently disliked me.
“Henry said you forget to dust.”
“Diane said she saw you kick 302’s used condom under the bed.”
“Lino said you stink of the alcohol you keep in the towels.”
“Paulette said you’re a shit mother.”
I snapped at her. “You don’t talk to me that way, Tia.”
“It’s Hestia and that isn’t my name anymore.”
“Okay. Then what the hell is it, now?”
She let her ice cream melt to a brown gloss before dropping it to the ground. I cleaned it up as best I could while she proudly watched the onlookers watching us.
After this incident I quit drinking at work, only allowing myself a few cocktails in the evening after Artemis, I would call her Missy, was asleep in the middle of our bed.
I watched her while she slept, wondering what dreams her unconscious may be conjuring. More ghost stories? The thought tied a bitter knot in my stomach that seemed to tug down on my throat while simultaneously yanking up on my cunt.
The Riverfront was weighed by the swarm of tourists the city was receiving for a conference. Clusters of people took all the air in large swallows and I was scared that Missy was unable to breathe properly walking at my side. I lifted her up to my shoulders to tower over everyone.
She hadn’t spoken of the ghosts recently. I had been more disciplined in my work, making sure every corner, every crevice was wiped clean of any past. I would picture some obscure form behind me in the rooms, noting with quick ghost-hand movements on a spiraled ghost-pad of paper how much I had improved before reporting back to my daughter.
Missy lifted her right leg and slammed it hard against my right breast.
I lost my breath momentarily, staggering against three men who quickly held me upright so my daughter wouldn’t fall.
But then she kept kicking. She pulled my hair. She did this all without making a sound, with the utmost concentration. Two of the men grabbed her from my shoulders and set her down. The third man put his arm around me and asked if I was okay. I was suddenly very tired and jerked away from him rudely.
I looked up to see Missy running away and immediately followed. When she glanced back and saw I was behind her she began weaving through the people as though she were trying to outrun an alligator. She stopped once she reached the railing that separated the Riverfront from the water.
I had to choke my words out.
“What are you doing, Missy?”
She glared at me. It was like looking in a mirror, only different. She still looked better than me, and it was also apparent that she would grow to be more intelligent. I felt, at least, some relief.
“You said I could touch the ocean.”
“You can, Missy. Let’s go right now and we’ll play in the water.”
Her hands were clenched white.
“I don’t want to play. And my name isn’t Artemis. Or Missy.”
With that, she quickly climbed on the railing and dived over the side.
Some women screamed. About a dozen men jumped in. I ran to the railing and was held back, fingers sinking hard into my limbs. No one found her.
When I went home late that evening she was sat in the middle of the bed, dry and comfortable. She never told me what happened, only that she decided on her name, and she wouldn’t tell me that, either, for a few more years.
Nina Ficenec currently resides in the Southeastern United States. Her work was recently featured in Wigleaf's Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions of 2016.
* * *
Norman Archambault Meets his New Neighbor
By Elizabeth Gauffreau
Norman Archambault had just started across the north pasture, a block of salt tucked under each arm, when he heard it again. For the third time in as many days, the sound of a lone man hammering carried on the September breeze. The hammering sounded as though it were coming from the old Snyder place, which had recently been bought by a couple who taught at the college across the river. Distorted by the distance between the two farms, the sound reached Norman as intermittent blows, as though the man hammering were not entirely sure of his purpose.
Norman continued across the pasture, the morning sun unusually warm on his back. Once he had replaced the salt licks and gone back to the house to eat dinner with Betty, his chores would be finished until the four o’clock milking. It was seldom that Norman had so few chores to do on a given day, and he felt a small twinge of pleasure as he paused to enjoy the sun on his back. He set the salt blocks on the ground and sat on a flat rock to light a Pall Mall with a wooden match, a sharp burst of sulfur spiking the first draw. He wondered what his new neighbor was building or, more likely, repairing. The Snyder place had stood empty for years. The neighbor—Betty had told him the name of the new people but he couldn’t recall it—was most likely working on the roof. There was no point in repairing floors or windows or doors if a house didn’t have a sound roof.
He smoked at a leisurely pace as he continued to think about the neighbor’s roof and whether this fellow, this college professor, would even know how to fix or, more likely, replace a roof. Norman had heard stories of city people from out-of-state, lawyers and accountants, doctors and stockbrokers, buying old farms and knocking out load-bearing walls or setting the chimneys afire or pulling entire lath-and-plaster ceilings down on their heads. Norman hated to think that this new neighbor, this college professor, might be such a fellow.
His smoke finished, Norman carefully stubbed the cigarette against the rock and placed the butt in the pocket of his denim frock. His new neighbor’s roof was none of his business. Nor was the hammering any of his business if it was doing something other than repairing the roof.
Norman picked up the two blocks of salt and resumed walking. When he had replaced the salt licks, he smoked another cigarette, gazing thoughtfully in the direction of the woods which adjoined his pasture. He began walking again, in the direction of his new neighbor’s house. He walked across his own pasture, a short ways through the woods, and across his neighbor’s pasture, the hammering louder and more purposeful the closer he got. Once he was close enough to have a clear view of the house, he began looking for his neighbor’s silhouette on the roof, his head bent to his work, his arm arcing against the sky.
Norman reached the weed-choked driveway of the old Snyder place with still no sign of his neighbor. The hammer continued to ring loud and true, each nail driven home with only three blows.
The house was in bad shape, windowsills rotting, clapboards missing, the paint completely weathered away. The roof did not appear to have been touched, its tin covering dark orange with rust. The only evidence Norman could see of recent repairs were some new window panes, although the remaining panes still needed reglazing, and the outline where the collapsing front porch had been removed.
Norman walked around the entire house with still no sign of its owner. The sound of the hammering finally led him to a shed attached to the house by an ell, also in serious need of repair, although from some discoloration of the wall and the floor, he could see that the junk which the ell had sheltered for so many years had been carted away. Until the last Snyder had passed on, the shed had held a wagon, old tools, tangles of baling twine, rolls of fencing too rusted to straighten, and a lot of trash, a good forty or fifty years’ worth.
Norman stood in the open doorway of the shed, watching his new neighbor hammer on what looked like the beginnings of a platform of some sort, which covered the open space where the wagon had once stood. As Norman’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, he could see that his new neighbor was a lean man in his mid-forties, the same age as Norman himself, give or take. He wore a faded red sweatshirt spattered with paint and dungarees with the bottoms rolled up, the way the kids wore them. His face was smiling as he worked, and surrounding the smile was a goatee, which brought his thin face to a perfect point at his chin. Norman, who still remained unnoticed as his neighbor concentrated on the wood before him, took the opportunity to stare at the goatee. He had never seen a man with a goatee. A few old men he knew, including a great uncle, still wore beards, but Norman had never seen a man with a goatee.
Just as Norman decided to take a step forward into the shed, his neighbor stopped hammering, looked up, and said, “Hello, Norman.”
Norman stopped and patted his pockets, quickly, front and back, as though checking to make sure nothing had been slipped inside which did not belong to him. “How do you know me?”
“We met your wife. You look alike.”
His neighbor continued smiling in a way that Norman did not like. “We ain’t no kin atall,” Norman said.
“No, of course not,” his neighbor said, still smiling as though unaware that he had just offended a visitor. Setting the hammer down, he wiped his hand on his dungarees and extended it to Norman. “I’m Max Schuller.”
“Pleased to meet you, Norman. Can I get you a beer? I’m about ready for a break.”
“No.” Norman continued to stand awkwardly in the doorway. “I don’t drink beer in the morning.”
“Well, I’m going to have one if you don’t mind,” Max said. “I’ll be right back.” He left the shed through a door leading to the ell. Norman took a step forward into the shed and examined the project Max was working on. He couldn’t tell what it was. It didn’t appear to have any part of repairing the dilapidated farmhouse.
Max returned with a bottle of beer in one hand. “What do you think?” he said, gesturing toward the project.
Norman carefully cleared his throat before speaking. “I don’t know what it is, so I can’t say.”
Max tilted his head back and took a long drink from the bottle. “It’s part of a set.”
Norman shook his head.
“For the fall production.”
Norman again shook his head.
“It’s for a play,” Max said. “At the college.”
“Oh,” Norman said. “This is your work?”
“You could say that. I wanted to start this particular set here, where I could be alone to envision it. We’re doing ‘Desire Under the Elms’, so of course—” He stopped speaking.
“Do you want me to leave?” Norman said, taking a step back.
“No, no, of course not. I’ve stopped working.” Max raised the beer bottle in salute.
Norman didn’t say anything more until Max had finished his beer and tossed the bottle into a cardboard box full of trash. “When I heard the hammering,” Norman said, “I thought you was fixing the house. The roof, I thought.”
Max picked up his hammer. “Oh, no! I’ve hired someone for that. I don’t know anything about repairing houses. Good God, no!”
Norman nodded his head once. “I’ll be going now.”
Elizabeth Gauffreau is the Director of Individualized Learning at Granite State College in Concord, New Hampshire. Liz’s fiction publications include short stories in The Long Story, Soundings East, Ad Hoc Monadnock, Rio Grande Review, Blueline, Slow Trains, Hospital Drive, and Serving House Journal, among others. Her poetry has appeared in The Writing On The Wall, The Larcom Review, Natural Bridge, and several themed anthologies. Her most recent publication is a short story in Shifts: An Anthology of Women’s Growth through Change.
* * *
By Jimmy Hicks
October 31st. One of our favorite days and the perfect time for our performer to come out. We hear the door to his balcony open, and we know he is ready to begin. This has become an almost daily ritual for him, and as he approaches the railing, we can see acceptance in his expression. Perhaps even determination. Today is the day he joins us in our world; he feels it too. He steps onto the railing and inhales deeply, no doubt contemplating the euphoria, freedom, and release that would punctuate the fall. Despite the cloudy nature of this day, a few rays of sun manage to poke through and shine on our performer. A spotlight dawns on him as he looks down to his safety net of asphalt and cars. Our eyes are upon him, and we hold our collective breaths as he balances on his tightrope between realms.
Instead of a drum roll, we hear ringing from his apartment. A phone call, reminding him of obligations elsewhere. He steps off his hallowed ground between worlds and reenters the one that has so often brought him before us. A moralist might denounce us for being disappointed, but we had come here to witness a spectacular transition of a soul. At this point we can do nothing but apologize to our eager audience. Our act chickened out, we apologize for any inconvenience, show's over folks, no refunds.
Jimmy Hicks earned his MA in English from East Carolina University, where he served as an editorial assistant at North Carolina Literary Review. His work has appeared in Renaissance, and he currently teaches English at Wake Technical Community College. He resides in Pikeville, NC.
* * *
By John G. Rodwan, Jr.
When sitting at the desk where I habitually write, I face two windows through which I can see several houses, all of which contain mysteries, as houses inevitably do. While the actions or inactions of several neighbors might at times seem curious, one house in particular strikes me as especially mysterious. Indeed, I think of it as the Mystery House, which stands on a corner one street to the east of ours.
During the summer when we moved into and began fixing up our house, work was also being done at the Mystery House. I saw a new roof being completed around the same time we had ours replaced. A neighbor told us that work had been going on at the house on the corner for a couple of years. It obviously had new windows. Over the course of the next several years, more work was done on the place. The large stone-walled front porch was rebuilt, which, as I learned when we had our more modest brick porch replaced, was no small or inexpensive endeavor. Some trees were planted.
Yet during this time, no one lived in the Mystery House. The new windows had brown paper taped over them on the inside. Instead of a front door, the Mystery House had a piece of plywood across which someone had painted “Not 4 Sale.”
Beyond the oddity of a large brick and stone Tudor house being restored but remaining unoccupied, what made the place seem strange were the rare appearances by people who either owned it or were tasked with periodically looking in on the place. One day, a burglar alarm went off (which indicated to me that someone was paying for the barely used electricity). Not long afterward, someone with keys showed up, entered the house, turned off the alarm, and immediately left. About four years after one delivered our belongings, a moving van pulled up beside the Mystery House. It idled in the street for a while, but it pulled away before anything was carried in or out of the house. A year or so later, a flatbed tow truck stopped near the garage attached to house by a covered walkway. A silver BMW convertible was removed from the garage and hoisted onto the back of the truck. I didn’t see the car return, but about a week later, I noticed a van stop near the garage. Since any activity at the Mystery House intrigued me, I stopped whatever I was doing to watch what happened next. A woman got out of the passenger side of the van as the garage door powered open. She pulled the same BMW out into the street and sat in it while the driver of the van took a broom and swept out the garage, after which she returned the two-door car to its spot. As the garage door closed, the pair climbed back into the van and drove away.
Now, as someone who knows what it costs to replace a roof and windows, who is painfully aware of what it takes to insure an automobile in Detroit, who knows about what property taxes are, and who also pays for alarm service and utilities, I think this might be the most expensive parking garage in the city, especially since the Mystery House is bigger than my house (just as the car kept there is pricier than the one I drive).
If my neighbor who told me that work had commenced a couple of years before we bought our place was correct, then the owners might have been able to buy the Mystery House very cheaply. It would have been at the height of the subprime mortgage crisis and economic recession that drove housing prices dramatically down. Even so, whatever the purchase price, owning, rehabbing, and maintaining what I’d guess is a four bedroom house with at least two and a half bathrooms (not counting whatever is on the third floor) is no trivial affair.
Why would anyone take on such a financial burden but not live in the house, rent it to someone else, or try to flip it? Why would someone choose to use a large house in a city with notoriously high car insurance rates as no more than a place to store a luxury car? Hell, why would someone have a few dozen windows replaced but not have a proper front door?
Puzzling over the Mystery House, I’ve tried to think of plausible scenarios for what I’ve witnessed. Perhaps the buyers fully intended to move in once repairs were made but an unforeseen change in jobs occurred taking them to another town. Sure, that could happen, but then why not try to sell? And why did alterations continue to occur over the span of several years? And who are these people responding to alarms and moving the car in and out of the garage? Perhaps there’s some major problem, much greater than a missing door, invisible from outside that needs attending to before the place can be inhabited. If so, though, why hasn’t it been attended to if the owners could undertake multiple other large projects (the roof, the windows, the porch) as well as relatively minor ones (the trees). It just doesn’t add up.
Maybe one day people will finally move in, tell me the full story, and demystify the Mystery House. Then I will be able turn my attention, as I gaze out my office window, to the peculiarities of the house across the street from the Mystery House, of which I have an even better view, at least when the leaves are off the trees in the yard of the home of certain neighbors who are almost never seen, which, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is somewhat suspicious.
John G. Rodwan, Jr., author of the essay collections Holidays and Other Disasters (Humanist Press, 2013) and Fighters & Writers (Mongrel Empire Press, 2010) as well as the chapbook Christmas Things (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2011), lives in Detroit, Michigan.
* * *
By Madison Shaddox
I was once told before that people are born with minds and bodies made of gold, luminous but full of impurities, and that when we begin our lives, we are exposed to a fire that burns these imperfections away. It is a nice platitude full of pretty words, but burning alive has never been called pleasant.
When life is easy, there is a fire in my body, burning in my muscles as I dance, leaping and turning in front of the mirror until my oxygen burns away. I ignore the scorching in my muscles because of the flame in my chest that reminds me that I am determined to succeed. This fire has driven me to the places I had imagined for myself. This is what has taught me to burn beautifully, my limbs dancing like the tongues of the flame.
There is another fire that I have learned to live with whose dull flame scorches my skin with a ferocity that I cannot explain. The flame in my head put a tremor in my hands and a hesitation in my voice. I have tried to speak it out of me or extinguish it with water and pills, but the spark is always there. This fire has burned holes in my life, a barrier in front of my friends and family. A bed of hot coals has been placed between me and the rest of my life, but I tread with bare feet and a steady step. I will not be deterred.
I have found that one fire can easily overtake another, and sometimes I feel helpless as I stand and watch them burn, but it is my choice which flame will expire. I will dance in the flames, but they will not burn me away.
I was once told before that people are born with minds and bodies made of gold, luminous but full of impurities, and that when we begin our lives, we are exposed to a fire that burns these imperfections away. It is a nice platitude full of pretty words, but burning alive has never been called pleasant.
Madison Shaddox is a Pre-Law student at Hendrix college who studies History and French. She is a member of the Hendrix dance ensemble and enjoys reading, making music, and spending time with friends. She would like to thank her parents, biological and otherwise, for allowing her to pursue her interests.
* * *
Photography by M Calhoun
M. Calhoun is a Christian author/artist, and she lives with her family in Alaska. She has had paintings and art photos shown at Vivachi Café as well as 2 Friends Gallery. Nocturnal Vows is her first novel, Nocturnal Vows was published by Black Bed Sheet Books, 07/2016. She is currently working on submitting more artwork to various places, as well as on her second novel.
Photography by Wess Haubrich
Wess A. Haubrich is a 30 year old self trained photographer from Quincy, IL. His aesthetics are influenced by film noir, gothic literature, southern gothic, and the depression he suffers with daily. It also influences his choice of subjects, his urban noir (street photography or urban decay) series is included.
Photography by Betsy Jenifer
Betsy Jenifer is seventeen years old and from India. She is tall, lanky, looks like a boy and obsessive.
She loves art, music and literature among other things. Her work has been published in magazines like Teen Ink, Amazing kids! and Quail bell while more of her writing and artworks have been chosen to appear soon in Polyphony H.S, Sprout and Moledro magazine, among others.
Electric City by Daniel Montesi
Daniel Montesi is a husband, father, teacher, coach, and story collector. For the past 28 years, Daniel has counseled teens away from making costly mistakes and has helped them become the best possible versions of themselves! His passion for photography challenges him to capture images that most of us overlook. It slows down a hectic day and enables him to "refocus" on all the amazing things life has to offer.
Photography by Thelma Wurzelbacher
After returning from Peace Corps, Thelma Wurzelbacher began teaching at Columbus State Community College in Columbus Ohio. She enjoys creating poetry and photography to reflect life's mysteries and surprises. A moment of reflection is always a time for learning and appreciating the world within and without ourselves.
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