Foliate Oak May 2019
By Sally Bunch
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Relax your body but stay upright and aware.
Okay, I’m as comfortable as I can get. Lower my shoulders, don’t arch my back. Maybe too aware; after four cups of coffee I have to pee.
Notice your breath. Breathing in, breathing out.
Hyperventilating, since waking up at four and thinking that reviewing my finances would provoke sleepiness. Yeah, right! Thanks Mr. Mindfulness, sir, for reminding me to breathe, I imagine under normal circumstances I’d take this basic bodily function that’s keeping me alive for granted.
Focus on where you are feeling the breath. Is it in your nose? Your chest? Your belly?
Breathing in the mouth. In, out, in, is Cooper in my two o’clock? Or is he going to cancel again? Oh right, Callie called the meeting. He favors her; she kisses up to him. That Propelco account should have been mine…
Now focus on the rest of your body. Do you feel any warmth, or coolness?
Not enough coolness. I could meditate in the nude, but I’d have to close the blinds. I’m not the only early bird with a two-hour commute.
Make a mental note of your senses: hearing, smelling.
Hearing: thunder. Not looking forward to the drive in. Smelling, no, gagging: must be a dead mouse. Certainly not food. I miss Amanda, how she kept the apartment clean, the refrigerator stocked.
Be aware of the sensations that come up without judging them.
What kind of sensation? The pain of returning home to catch your girlfriend in bed with the Starbucks barista? The one who made your double espresso soy chai latte every morning? The pain of switching to Dunkin’ coffee?
If your mind wanders, just return to the breathing.
It’s your fault, Mr. Mindfulness! You got me thinking of Amanda again. One month—you’d think I’d be over her. I should meditate unguided. Well, not like yesterday’s attempt, when I fell asleep and missed that 9:00 meeting with Cooper and the VP of Finance. Ironic given they prescribed this meditation as a “corrective action.” In any case, carry on sir. Keep me on track. Bladder don’t fail me either.
Now allow your awareness to expand. Notice the thoughts as they move through your mind.
I forgot to set up another meeting with Cooper prior to meeting with the VP of Marketing on Thursday. I should schedule it right after this sitting, before Cooper’s day fills up with more private appointments. Well-dressed, one at a time, whisked away to his office. Are these thoughts moving through my mind? No, they’re congested in the cubicle of my consciousness. Who are these people? Why are they all so young?
If you find yourself pulled into thinking, simply return to the breath, and begin again.
Damn, I’m screwing up this meditation. If this were my performance review, I’d get “needs improvement.” Or, as Cooper calls it, “emerging.” What does emerging mean anyway? All I know is the pain emerging from my chest. It’s probably heartburn again. Or the pain I want Cooper to feel when I submerge the knife.
Breathe through the mouth, it still stinks in here. Uh oh, my phone. Can I see without opening my eyes? Just a peek. Meeting invites from Cooper? With Don from HR? What project is he on?
If the thoughts have fear in them, be aware of the feeling and let the thoughts come and go.
Come on, battery, 12%! I need you. Okay, let it go. Meditation is supposed to be fifteen screenless minutes. You would think for once I’d make it past minute ten, without the thought of LOSING MY FUCKING JOB.
Maybe I can discuss this with Cooper before the meeting, work something out. Pause the meditation. Can he can do ten-thirty, send. Conflict? Ten o’clock, send. Again? I’m going to get to the bottom of this, and I’m going to do it with mindfulness, dammit. Okay, 9:30 works. Back to you, my sageness.
Notice what happens to the thought as you’re mindful of it. Does it change? Does it disappear?
Oh, it certainly didn’t disappear! But I changed that motherfucker. No longer a fear about my dimming prospects. That lady on the Calm app could never deliver me to this moment. No sir. I can focus on the meeting I have with my breath. Good morning, breath. Make yourself comfortable and stay a….aaaah! Cooper canceled our private meeting!
Callie can help me instead? No way! Okay breath, slow down. I’m closing my eyes. My ears will be my front line. Pee-ew, not my nose. Okay, breathe, breathe…
Over time you’ll notice that every aspect of your experience becomes part of the meditation practice. You may ask yourself…
Ask myself what? My whole experience keeps invading my practice whether I like it or not. Go away, shitty boss! Go away, barista who stole my future wife!
Shit! My battery! My only charger’s at work. Amanda took the others. All the clocks, too. But the microwave clock is set. Right?
Oh great. Power’s out, and it’s still dark. Find my tie, find the blazer that goes with my pants. Find the bedroom door. Ow! Shit! I really should have peed before meditation.
Is this the toilet? Oh yes. Ahhh.
What do I do now? Go in on time as a bruised, slightly wet, sartorial nightmare? Or wait until sunrise to dress at the risk of being late and adding to the justification for my dismissal? Or just sit it out until the power comes back?
Waiting. Breathing in, out, in, out.
Feeling: cool toilet seat. Hearing: soft drumming of rain. My chest feels…better. Smelling: bread baking next door. I should begin again, Mr. Mindfulness, don’t you agree?
Sally Bunch lives in Boston with her daughter, works as a grant writer, and plays guitar in the rock band Thrust Club. Her short fiction has appeared in Litro Online, Magnolia Review, The Binnacle, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere.
* * *
By Adam Cheshire
The gray matter held sturdy through our childhood, save a few cracks that ran jagged along the court’s edges. We didn’t dribble our basketballs there anyway, so it didn’t bother us. Balls in the backyard like a pumpkin patch; my brother and I would pretend as much when dad told us to pick them up so he could mow. We’d toss them into the wilted wooden floor of the swing set, along with sticks and brush from previous summers. The swing set was demolished around high school, the family of branches and balls—now just half-moon husks curled inward, fetal—separated and hauled away, leaving behind a long, dark patch of grass.
But the loss opened up an end zone for football, and I doubt we ever missed the rusted swings, or that yellow, molded-plastic one that we had outgrown years ago but still dangled there, all the same. And dad had to’ve enjoyed his Hall of Fame role as all-time quarterback more than the monotony of watching his sons travel back and forth to nowhere or staring at a pile of rotting and useless things.
There had been a dog lead attached to the top of the swing set. It had stayed up there long after our first dog had been given away, perhaps for sentimental reasons, but its loss never affected us, and truth be told, that dog had a weird, unhinged vibe. So it was with great relief that when I had no other choice in college but to bring Huck home to my parents that he turned out to be so kind and loving. And since none of my old friends were around town anymore, and my brother off to law school out west, my dad had no use for the football field or his throwing arm, so Huck had a yard of his own in which to flip and wag. Dad would watch him all day with a goofy grin as Huck ran in circles or wiggled his back along the dark grass, as if this land had only ever existed for this and this alone.
No swings, no sticks, no sports—no welcoming barks.
Dad and I are looking out the kitchen window. A cold, wet morning. The backyard a dark, dreamy green--the glisten of my daughter’s eyelashes as she attempts to dribble a basketball, smacking at it with arms made stiff by her thick pink coat.
“Strange about the grass there,” Dad says. “How much darker it is than the rest.”
I bite at a nail. “It’s seen its fair share of wear and tear, wouldn’t you say?”
He stares for an uncomfortable moment.
“There’s been a lot, huh?”
I nod. My daughter is making snowless snow angels. We’d hoped for something sparklier than rain.
I look past her to the concrete court, fuzzy from years of fallen things. There have been no sneakered feet cracking through its thick layers, no imprints of youthful summers. I almost forget it’s there.
“You know what might be nice for her to have out there?” he says, a giddy idea brightening his clouded mind.
An edifice of memories, stacked one on top of the other. That might be nice. Something to hold us up, our terminal minds.
“A swing set you thinking?”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” He grabs my shoulder, rubs it roughly. I almost tense, wait for a slap on the back, him sending me off to run a buttonhook up the middle of the field. A touchdown in the end zone, for certain.
“And maybe I can even call a buddy of mine. Lays concrete. Get a court set up. Have her friends over, huh?”
What might come from this? What might she retain from it all? What might I, in time, lose?
He’s not here, he’s in the past.
“That little yellow bucket thing. You were on it, but you couldn’t move your arms to pump the swing. Or an arm, you had just had one of your shots. A vaccine or something. It was sore, your arm. The teenage neighbor hopped the fence and pushed you. You were so happy, I can see your face as if I were looking at it right now, from this window. She had saved you from the stillness. I can still see it.” He is wide-eyed, transcendent. “You remember, don’t you?”
I want to, but I can’t. I’ll try, though, even if I have to make it up.
Adam is a writer living in Hillsborough, NC.
* * *
By Marlene Olin
I'm a creature of habit. I count on the old woman's appearance like I count on the mailman, the lawn guy, the dented truck that flings the morning papers. Every day I peek between the curtains and watch her scuttle down the street.
Cruise Miami and you'll see gated communities, houses with bars across the windows, cars with darkened glass. But our little slice of suburbia is family friendly. Wide sidewalks. Signs that say, "Drive like your kids live here." Teens skateboard. Mothers push strollers. Toddlers trike.
And everyone knows the old lady. She heads straight for the road, her spine hunched, her spidery hands reaching, her feet encased in orthopedic shoes. And with her, always two paces ahead, is the dog. A dachshund terrier combo--barking, yapping, scrounging-- and never on a leash. The two of them loop figure eights up and down the block, past the mailboxes and the garbage cans, dodging traffic and sprinklers. Cars honk. Cats hiss. The sprinklers sometimes missing, sometimes not. Arcing. There and not there. Like waving hands. Hello. Goodbye. Hello.
It's been what? Three four days. So I figure the old lady is visiting some friends. Everyone knows her living arrangement. It's the lady, the dog and the nephew. After all Thanksgiving's coming up. Why couldn't she have friends?
At night the lights are on. The nephew's car is in the driveway. I can swear I hear the thump thump thump of rap music fisting the air. Who really knows? Show me four walls and a roof, and I'll show you a house full of secrets.
The holiday, as always, presents challenges. I hang a wreath of festive corn on the front door. I plop a bowl filled with decorative gourds on the coffee table. My menus are pumpkin-inspired. Pumpkin bread. Pumpkin ravioli. Pumpkin soup. But no matter the effort, despite my cornucopia earrings and russet colored nails, the world's atilt. The old lady still hasn't made an appearance. If I watch the street long enough, if I stare without blinking, I see her shadow. She's there and not there. A ghost. A flicker. Her and that dog walking and not walking down the street.
"Mom, can we go outside!"
On Thanksgiving day the temperature drops. It's a brisk seventy degrees, the air's crisp, the sky's clear. It's Miami's version of autumn. Since there's no school, kids are tossing footballs. A few fitness fanatics are jogging, their earbuds roping round their necks.
The enthusiasm is contagious.
"Can we go outside! Can we go outside!" shout the children.
Jacques is nine and Jacqueline's seven and they itch to be anywhere else.
"Let's play frisbee!" says my husband Kurt.
That lasts for around fifteen minutes. By nine o'clock they're back in the house glued to the TV. Like the rest of America, we watch the Macy's Day Parade. Snoopy balloons. Marching bands. Teenaged celebrities no one's heard of.
You can tell it's really cold in New York. The TV announcers have a mike in one hand and a steaming mug in the other. Onlookers are bundled in millions of layers. But the temperature doesn't faze the performers. Mary Poppins waltzes with her umbrella, Eliza Doolittle prances with her flower cart. Some thirty-year-olds dressed as high school kids pretend they're at a prom.
We love it. Doesn't everyone love it? When I glance at my family sitting on the couch, I feel my heart lurch. It's a Kodak moment. The children have their mouths open, their little fingers tapping the tunes. Kurt's sipping his kale/carrot/acai protein shake while the world's cutest foam moustache sits on his upper lip. It's impossible not to smile!
"Look, Mom," says Jacqueline. "The singers don't have sweaters!"
I try on my most assured voice. "They're professionals," I tell her. "Professionals don't need sweaters. Professionals can do anything."
Kurt puts his glass on the coffee table next to the gourds. He forgets to use a coaster even though there's a tasteful display of coasters three inches away.
"Professionals my ass, " says Kurt. "They're lip-syncing."
I look closer at the screen. I can't believe it but he's right. Thousands of people have lined up for hours to see this parade. They've dragged their kids. They fought the crowds. And for what?
And suddenly I picture The Scream. You know. That famous painting of the man opening his mouth, soundless, with not a peep coming out.
"You mean they're faking it?" I say. "They're just opening and closing their mouths pretending to sing while everyone else is pretending to listen?"
The kids have that watery look they get seconds before they cry. Kurt sits back on the couch, smug.
"You got it, sweetheart. I hate to burst your bubble. It's all part of the show."
I spend the rest of the day agonizing over dinner. One cooking website is more depressing than the next. Eat Your Way To Lower Lipids. A Probiotic Is Your Best Friend. Fifty Ways to Leave Out Butter.
A confession. Since the day he turned forty, Kurt has been obsessed with his health. He tracks his steps, his heartbeat, his calorie intake. He studies nutritional labels like they're encrypted codes. So in place of a bird, I'm serving up Tofurky. Then I artfully arrange artisanal vegetables around a platter. It's more still life painting than food. When it's time to eat, the kids sink into their chairs, sulk.
"My, doesn't this look delicious," says Kurt.
He figures sex is good for three four hundred steps and knowingly gives me a wink. Then he taps his spoon on the water glass. While he's not teaching Sociology at the community college, Kurt sells insurance. Either way he's used to a captive audience. We all know a history lesson is coming our way. The kids look at each other, smirk.
"Today, families all across this country are commemorating a holiday. But does anyone at this table know what we are commemorating?"
Jacques is one of those kids set on autopilot. Potty-trained himself at two. Taught himself to read at three. His little hand flies up while he wiggles in his seat. But Kurt quickly jumps in.
"We are celebrating the destruction of our indigenous tribes," said Kurt. "We are celebrating the decimation of unique cultures. Sure Squanto gave us corn but what did we give Squanto? Smallpox! That's what we gave him."
Everyone's quiet. The kids aren't eating. They're just rearranging their food.
"I'm hungry," says Jacques.
"Is it time for dessert?" says Jacqueline.
Ten minutes later a milk-free gluten-free low cal cheesecake sits on the table. Even the dog's not interested.
"I think that Grinch cartoon's on TV," I say in my chirpiest voice. "How about if we stay up a little late tonight and watch?"
For me, the holidays are all about corny movies. Who doesn't love those corny movies? I love the commercials best. I love carolers and egg nog and robotic Santas that smile and wave. And everything's covered in snow. Don't you love snow? Clean white snow.
Jacqueline claps her hands. Some kids are happy happy happy no what matter what.
"Hurrah! Mommy says we can stay up late! Hurrah!"
Meanwhile Jacque's twirling his fork, his head at an angle, his little chin twirling with it. The vegetables and gravy look like spin art, the Milky Way spun on a plate. But suddenly he looks up. Then holding the fork like a scepter, he lisps. "Dr. Seuss was an anti-Semite. Didn't you know? You're not supposed to watch Dr. Seuss."
The day after, the temperature's dropped even further. The curbs are piled high with Hefty bags while the neighborhood dogs go nuts. They're thinking turkey carcasses, pecan pie, string bean casserole. But I'm thinking body parts. I'm thinking the nephew carved up that little old lady and is serving her almondine.
Years ago, I'm told, there was a husband. But instead of kids, they had pets. A regular pied piper, the old lady was the sort of person who fed feral cats, cooed to pigeons, left bowls of kibble for errant ducks. But when the husband died, things slid. Then one day, Mrs. Schwartz on 71st Court found her wandering in her housecoat. Mr. Castillo nearly a half mile over found her chasing that dog in his backyard.
You'd see a plumbing truck whiz by and know right where it was heading. It's that old lady, everyone would say. She's flushing lettuce down the toilet and storing toilet paper in the frig. You'd see one of those appliance repair guys and think what did she do this time? Microwave her fry pan? Throw a cat in with the wash?
So around a year ago the nephew Carlos moved in. A gold tooth, gold chains, slicked back hair. He made no secret of his master plan. Growing up in Miami, I speak a fair amount of Spanish. But this guy talked Cuban. He'd chat to anyone who'd listen but the words flew fast.
"Jou see, eet's like this. My tia, she old. She die. I get rich!"
There's a big football game on so Kurt's invited a few friends over to watch. I guess the game's kind of boring because soon everybody's talking politics.
The top item on the news is the murder of that journalist in Turkey. One minute the poor guy thinks he's getting married, goes to pick up some paperwork at a consulate, and the next minute he's sliced and diced. There and not there. Poof! The story seems pretty black and white. Even Trump's foot soldiers in Congress are mumbling into the cameras.
"Of course, the Saudis killed him," says Kurt. "The whole thing had to be planned."
Then Kurt gets this look on his face like the world has only so many questions and he has the answers to all of them.
"But does it matter? Even if they caught the whole thing on video--which, by the way, I'm sure they did--would it make a difference? There is no truth. There is no fiction. There's only news."
Well that shuts everyone up. I'm heading in and out of the kitchen, refilling the guacamole and replenishing the chips. Then all of a sudden Harv, the guy who lives two doors down, pipes up.
"I hear Carlos bought a Harley. V-Twin Engine. Six speed transmission. Now how the hell can he afford a Harley?"
By the end of the day, the sun's baking on the asphalt and whatever's in the trash is starting to ripen. The garbage trucks were due hours ago and who knows if they'll ever come. Meanwhile every dog in the county seems to have gravitated to the old lady's house. They're sniffing and pawing a Hefty bag like the world's fattest turkey leg's inside it.
The kids are pulling at my sleeve. Dinner's supposed to be leftovers but they're itching for Pizza Hut.
"The dogs sure like Carlos' garbage," said Jacqueline.
We peek between the curtains and collectively blink. The Hefty bags are slowly shredding. Little pieces of black plastic are flying up and down the street. Meanwhile Mr. DelGado's Bichon is running around with a piece of calico snatched between her teeth. Red and flowery. It looks vaguely familiar. Like housecoat material.
Once again Jacques has tears in his eyes. "I'm worried about the old lady," he whispers. "Do you think she could have died?"
The following morning Jacqueline walks into our bedroom bright and shiny. She's hopping on one foot then the other while pulling on her crotch.
"Guess what?" she says. "The old lady's back. The old lady's back with her dog."
I jump out of bed, put on my bathrobe and run into the living room. Then together, we look outside. And there for all the world to see is the little old lady in a brand new housecoat. That dog, that mangy mutt, is peeing on the mailbox right in front on my house.
I'm shocked. And to tell the truth, a little disappointed. It's like when a hurricane's heading your way. You buy the batteries and the flashlights. You stock up on water and canned tuna. You spend days boarding up the windows. Then just at the last minute, when you've done everything you possibly can, it turns and heads straight for Pensacola. There then not there. Gone.
"Stay here," I say to Jacqueline. Then I run toward the street.
The old lady's walks in a waddle, listing from side to side, her knobby knees miles apart. It's takes me two three minutes just to get her attention. Since she's really old and mostly deaf, I speak loudly and slowly. Since I don't know her name, I just shout "Excuse me" instead.
"EXCUSE ME. EXCUSE ME, " I say.
She looks at me like I'm her best friend. Then she takes a shaky finger and touches my shoulder. Her grin is jack-o'-lantern scary, as toothless and hollow as an empty sock. Then she leans over and with a blast of fetid breath says either "How you?" or "Kung Fu." Before I can answer, before I can process her crazy gobbledygook, she waddles down the street a little more.
I suppose the best part of Thanksgiving is when it's over. Then everyone can concentrate on Christmas. Parking lots are filled with evergreens, our mailbox is stuffed with catalogues, palm trees are wrapped with blinking lights. I love driving to the mall and hunting for bargains. Who doesn't love malls? Who doesn't love shopping? But Kurt says that money's tight. Kurt says in no uncertain terms we're on a budget this year. The kids have all they need, he says. Do they really need more?
So finding the receipt was a little confusing.
A confession. I really wasn't snooping when I found it. I was cleaning his closet and there is was...a piece of paper lying on the floor. Okay it was on a shelf. Well, not just sitting on a shelf but more like tucked into his wallet. After working out, he's in the shower for twenty thirty minutes. I doubt he'll know it's missing. It was there then not there. What's the harm?
The receipt is from Tiffany's. A whopping $2,000 bracelet bought last week in a store across town. Of course I don't usually wear bracelets. They're a pain to clasp and a pain to unclasp and try yanking off those yellow cleaning gloves with a bracelet on your wrist.
So is there a message here? Is Kurt saying, Sweetheart. You need a bracelet. You deserve a bracelet. After all, the best gifts are those you'd never buy for yourself. You may think you don't like bracelets. You may consider them impractical or wasteful and maybe you had your eye on that $500 Vitamix blender instead. And don't worry about the money! Who worries about money? The best time to splurge is when you're nearly broke!
But then again there are other possibilities. Possibilities that push and pull my brain in all directions. Like that twenty-something trainer at his health club. Or the new secretary in the Sociology Department. Or that grad student who leaves him messages day in and day out on his phone. Not that I check the phone...
Marlene Olin's short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.
* * *
Outside the Forest
By José Sotolongo
She hung up the phone and had to sit down. One end of the sofa seemed to be angled up, away from the floor, off kilter, and Claire put her hands on the seat before she dropped her weight on it. Still, she almost toppled off, dizzy with the suddenness of the news.
When the room had righted itself again, she picked up the phone to call her mother.
“I just spoke to Dad,” Claire said.
Her mother snorted before she said, “So?”
“Did you know he has liver cancer?”
“How would I know he has liver cancer? You know the last time I spoke to him?”
“Not since the divorce?”
Claire shook her head. It had happened ten years ago, while she was in the convent.
“He doesn’t have long, Mom.”
“So what am I supposed to do? What’s done is done.”
“He’s too weak to leave the house. He’s got a visiting nurse service, but it’s not enough.”
“This is not my problem. What goes around comes around. Let his little friend help him.”
Claire frowned. “Mom, what are you talking about? What little friend?”
“I’m not getting into this with you.”
Claire pleaded into silence, until the phone’s honking signaled her mother had hung up.
On Saturday she drove the three hours to her father’s apartment in Newark. She wondered whether it was too late to bridge the gap between them, and was unsure about making the trip at all. There was coursework she had to complete. She felt pressured to finish her therapist’s certification, her masters in psychology granted several months before.
The young woman who opened the door had striking green eyes. Her hips filled the blue health aide scrubs. “Are you Claire?” she said. “Your father said you were coming. I’m Sofia.”
Claire followed her into the bedroom. A sweet, unwanted smell reached her as she neared her yellow father sitting up in bed. His smile was a trench of teeth. She wanted to prolong the hug, but her father’s hands on her shoulders pushed back a little.
She had to know things before she could accept this reality. How long had he been ill? What treatment was he getting? Why the secret? He shrugged at everything. “What’s the difference?” he said. But she insisted, and with a look of unwilling acquiescence he told her about the years-old hepatitis C, the difficult, intolerable treatments that had almost killed him, the new cancer diagnosis.
“But hepatitis C? How did you get that?” Dirty needles was all she knew, but her father was sixty-seven, had led a boring, bourgeois life.
“Fred, I’ll be in the living room if you need anything,” Sofia said, and left the room.
Her father’s face was an amber mask of warning, eyes defiant. Through her cropped brown hair, Claire scratched her scalp furiously with both hands. “Dad?” she said.
Fred called Sofia back in. “I need to rest,” he said to Claire.
She sat with her papers in the living room, but could not focus, her mind a whirligig of questions. Who would take care of him? Should she move in? What about the job offer in Philadelphia when she got her certificate?
Sofia came in from the bedroom. “He’s sleeping,” she said.
Claire learned from Sofia that she was there two hours at time, twice a day. His insurance didn’t cover, and he paid the agency directly. Claire gave the young woman her phone number. “Call me if he can’t pay you, or if anything happens.”
Sofia nodded. “I won’t be doing this much longer. I graduate from nursing school in three months. But, of course…”
He wasn’t going to be around that long. Isn’t that what she was saying? “Does anyone come to visit? Any friends?”
“A woman comes to see him once in a while, but I’ve never met her. He says she does things for him. Groceries, errands. I do the laundry, change the bed, cook a little.”
She wondered if this visitor was the little friend her mother had referred to.
“She doesn’t come in every day? Just once in a while?” Claire asked.
“That’s what he says.”
Sofia left, and Claire looked in on the sleeping figure, a ghoulish mannequin version of her father. The years of emotional distance as far back as she could remember, his utter lack of physical or verbal warmth, mocked her. Too late, too late.
She had never received physical affection from either parent, even as a child, and blamed herself, some undesirable quality. In the psychoanalysis she had undergone as a requisite for her masters, she had explored that issue with the therapist. Her conclusion, with input from the analyst, was that her parents were emotionally limited, were unable to express affection, maybe even to feel it. She feared she might be made of the same stuff, and the analyst had left that point vague. “Only you know,” he had said. Maybe that’s why she had never been in a serious relationship and had sought isolation in the convent. There, her sole emotional attachment had been to Sister Mary James, but Claire had not brought that friendship up with the analyst, had not considered it significant enough.
It was time to leave. Sofia would be back later.
Outside, the sky was like slate, flat and hard. She wanted to flee from its menace, and turned her collar up to the mild day. The neck, she had read once, was the most vulnerable structure, the essential jugulars and carotids protected by nothing but soft muscle. She walked with long, hurried strides to her car and stood beside it, wondering whether to go back to her father. Unfinished business. Try harder. But no, it was done for now.
A week later, Sofia called. “His mind is going. He doesn’t know who I am. He calls for Gordon. Do you know who that is?”
“I have no idea. Has he mentioned him before?”
“Not to me, no.”
Claire called her mother with the news of his worsening. “I don’t care,” the old woman said.
“He can’t be alone now. We’ll have to get round the clock care. It’s expensive.”
“I can’t afford it, Claire. He’s probably left it all to you anyway. Can’t you can cover it for now?”
Claire would handle it. But she had to know. “Who’s Gordon?” she asked.
She heard a screech like a menacing hawk through the phone, unintelligible words, and the slam ending the conversation.
She stood and looked at the phone, mouth open. What had gone on between her parents that she didn’t know about? Their life together was as mysterious as a forest, the leaves and branches glimpsed through the years giving no clue as to its complexities.
There was a flutter of memory of her days as a nun, while her parents’ marriage dissolved. Sequestered in the convent, she had learned of their divorce years after the fact. Both had remained cryptic as to the reasons.
In the convent, there had been few personal connections. Only Mary James, a sweet, brilliant nun, had brought her true happiness. They had walked the wooded grounds of the nunnery together in the evenings, after dinner and before vespers, speaking of their past lives, filling each other in. They grew to know each other, became close friends. The memory of this colleague withering as she died of breast cancer was unbearable now. And yet, at the time, Claire had inured herself to the nun’s deterioration so she could care for her day and night. When Mary James passed, her eyes had remained dry in stunned disconnect while the other sisters wept. She had kept her arms at her side when one of the nuns hugged her and murmured something Claire was too numb to register.
She called Sofia. “Can you move in with him?” she asked. “I’ll pay you privately. He can’t be alone.”
“I could do that. I’ll have to cut some of my hours with the agency, though,” Sofia said.
She researched hepatitis C, but nothing of what she read made sense. When she called her father’s doctor, he wouldn’t speak to her, citing privacy laws. She spoke to the psychiatrist supervising her counseling work, who only confirmed what she had read. “Typically it’s acquired through intravenous drug use, and also unprotected rectal intercourse with an infected partner,” he said.
She noticed the pink-flowered pattern of the curtains in his office. They were open, letting in the sharp light of the sunny day. She wanted to close them.
“Why do you ask?” he said.
Claire shook her head and shrugged. “A friend.”
The funeral was two weeks later, a brief, one day affair with rare mourners. Sofia introduced her to Roberta, the visitor she had mentioned. The woman had been there the day her father had died. Roberta was about Claire’s age, and she wanted to ask this woman how she knew her father, and about Gordon. Who was he? Why hadn’t he shown up yet? But she didn’t want to put this stranger off by asking questions that might seem like an interrogation. Roberta seemed kind but shy, and Claire was grateful to her for being present. Her mother hadn’t come to Newark from Pittsburgh, of course. She hadn’t shown much emotion on the phone when Claire called with the news. “Well, I hope he’s at peace now,” is all she had said in a quiet voice.
In the still moments, when she was by herself with the casket, sometimes with Sofia, she was struck by the fact that she was alone on this earth. There was no other family that was close, emotionally or geographically. She had no real friends, just acquaintances, colleagues at the clinics where she did her training, no one she socialized with. She saw her solitude and detachment as confirmation that, like her parents, she was emotionally deficient. Her choice to go into the religious life, an escape from personal entanglements, was undeniable evidence of that.
At the end of the day, before the remains were taken away to be cremated, Sofia said, “I can help you sort through his things if you want.” She wore a grey blouse, and a black skirt that looked too big, as if it had been borrowed.
They met at the apartment the next day.
Among the documents Claire found in a file folder were his will and a health care proxy designating her as the decision-maker, both dated the previous year. She also found an envelope from a cemetery near Newark. The documents inside indicated where the remains of Gordon Hess had been buried five years before.
Sofia came into the bedroom. She had been packing books to donate and going through boxes of stuff: New Year’s Eve hats, star-shaped sunglasses, bunny house-slippers. “I think you may want these,” she said, holding out a stuffed animal and a photograph.
The smiling teddy bear, its arms open wide, had a sign around the neck that read “I love you this much.” The photograph showed her father, not so many years ago, standing next to another man, their arms around each other’s waists. The other man was pale and thin in the color print, but he had been handsome once. The blond hair was greying, the skin sallow, but the blue eyes sparkled. And in her father’s forced smile for the camera was a down-turning of the corners of the mouth, a worried furrow of the brow, as if he was about to lose something he loved very much. She recognized her own dread about losing Mary James, the person she hadn’t mentioned to her analyst.
José Sotolongo was born in Cuba. His prose and poetry have appeared or will soon be seen in Atticus Review, Litro, Third Coast, and Blue Fifth Review. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction of 2019. A novel is forthcoming in June of 2019. He lives with his husband in the Catskills of New York, where he is working on a short story collection.
* * *
Threat of a Tangled Line
By Julie Wakeman-Linn
Standing on the rocks lining the shore, I cast my line. The sun eases down to the horizon. It’s the time of day the rockfish love to break the surface and snatch up the littler fish. My old lady promised to have her spicy sauce ready to top my catch. My bobber rides on the surface of the gray-blue water. My old lady would call it lavender, but she’s crazy.
It's half way to high tide and the rocks are damp and slick from the rising waves. Any more wind, the waves will kick up and the fish will bottom down.
Around the corner of the peninsula, skirting the rocks is a goddamn kayak. Screaming orange, too. If fish had color sense, the orange would scare them off.
“Git away from my lines, you fool,” I shout. It’s a woman, young, I guess.
She’s all dressed in a slinky black wetsuit. I can’t tell her shape for her mae west which is also dang orange.
“Not to worry,” she calls. Her voice skims the water like her paddle, sluicing into the waves, barely cutting in.
“You’ll go faster if you stick your paddle in deeper.”
She laughs, a low, throaty chuckle, unusual for a woman. “I don’t want to go fast.”
“You’re messing up my fishing,” I shout again.
“What are you catching?” She stops paddling. Her kayak rolls side to side as each wave laps it.
“You’ll tip if you’re not careful.” Do I have to reel in my line, so she doesn’t tangle it?
“You didn’t answer. What are you catching?” She’s close, maybe ten feet off the shore.
If she capsizes, do I have to jump in and haul her out? Will her mae west be flotation enough?
“Rockfish.” Dammit if she doesn’t side paddle and let the kayak drift up to the rocks. If she ain’t careful her kayak will get beat up bashing into them. Except—up close—I see it is a plastic boat, not fiberglass, not likely to dent.
She points her paddle at me. “Hold this for me?”
What the hell does she want? I can’t hold my rod and her paddle, so I tuck my rod into a gap in the rocks. Shit. I hope I don’t get a strike on my line while this foolishness is going on. I grab the paddle. She releases her feet from the braces. She glides out of the boat, graceful-like, but into the Chesapeake?
“Ain’t it cold?” The spring sunshine warmed the day’s air temp, but the Bay won’t warm up for months.
“Not bad.” With one hand, she guides the kayak to the rocks. She ties it to an outcropping, a tuft of rock sticking up. She knots her rope deftly—she’s done this before. I’m holding the damn paddle, but she reaches for the other end and starts to climb up the damp rocks.
“Careful. Don’t smack your head,” I say. She keeps coming. She’s half way up and my bobber is yanked under the waves. “Hurray up, I’ve got a bite.” I can’t drop the paddle, or she might fall, but my rockfish is on the line. I know it.
She twists to sit on the wet gray-black rocks. I drop the paddle and grab my rod. My bobber is going berserk. I have to let the line out a bit, give the fish room to play and sink my hook.
She slips off her mae west and she’s got no curves, almost boy-skinny. “I’ll help.”
I want to sputter ‘I don’t need no help from some girl,’ but I can tell she means well. My line spins out. It’s a big-un, running. I plant my feet, steadying myself, waiting for a bit of slack or for the fish to turn.
She’s picked up my net. She billy-goat climbs, foot to foot, on the rocks. I’ll be damned—she’s ready to land whatever I pull in.
My rod bows, a tribute to the waves, and my rockfish is set. I crank the reel, sucking in breaths to keep up. The fish dances in its rise from the water, arching its muscles, twisting and spinning. I grab my line in my fingertips, stopping it so the fish can’t run. If it does, the line will razor cut my skin.
She swings the net into perfect position. I pivot toward her. With an easy sweep, the fish is secure. I grab its lower lip, keeping my thumb clear of my lure’s hook. I dangle the fish next to my arm.
“Is he a keeper?” she asks.
“Yup. He’s big enough.” I’ll heat up the grill. Three minutes on each side ought to do it. It’ll be so tasty.
“I though a catch had to be twenty inches long.” She extends her fingers, thumbs touching. “From my left pinkie to my right is sixteen. Is he longer than that?”
“Nearly.” I’m thinking of grits with my hot sauce drizzled like a ribbon.
“You have to measure him.” She’s narrowed her eyes, judging.
“I caught him in spite of you and he is my dinner.” Hell, I’ve never seen her before. I don’t know who she is, where she came from. She could be a county inspector or from Fish and Wildlife. “Go ahead, Miss Measuring-stick.”
I lay the fish on a rock for to her to measure. She crouches, touching its sparkling scales. The rockfish’s midsection pulses at her touch. Its gills pant faster.
“He’s too small,” she pronounces.
“I’m keeping him. If you hadn’t interfered with my line—”
The fish lurches and flips. I reach to grab, but she’s in my way. The fish lands on a damp patch. Its tail flaps. Sloop, a wave hits, and it slides down the wet rock into the Bay.
She laughs, that damn chuckle. “Shall we try again?”
“Hell no.” I stomp off the rocks, gathering my gear. It’ll be beans and grits for dinner again.
Julie Wakeman-Linn edited the Potomac Review for a dozen years. Her stories have appeared in over two dozen lit mags, most recently Front Porch Review. She lives and writes on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
* * *
Pretend Conversations a Regretful Father has with His Deceased Lesbian Daughter
By Tara Wine-Queen
You know, you really need to get more comfortable with who you are. Accept yourself. Show some confidence. I’m not saying you need to strut, but you need to have a little more nerve about you. Got to, if you wanna make it. Gotta have some pride.
Take your old Pops here, for instance. Ain’t much special about me, is there? But you’ve never seen me walk around here, my shoulders hunched over, scared to make eyes with someone. Anyone meets me on the street or in the store or on the docks, they know they’re getting someone ‘s gonna tell it like it is. So let me tell you.
Now I don’t know what it’s like to be you, baby girl. I mean, hah, maybe I do, ‘cuz I liked girls my whole life, too, but that was an easy thing for me. Well, as easy as it is for anyone.
I know it’s different with you. I know you’ve had it rough. Fittin’ in ain’t easy when you’re different. Them other girls ain’t treated you the way they should, and those boys’re even worse. I tell you what, if I was their age, oooooh, I’d ha’ beat the shit out of them two punks that did that thing in the bathroom to you. I am not a violent man, well, mostly not, hah, but anyway I don’t want you to be doing any beating. But I want you to know that I know now that shit wasn’t right. Someone shoulda showed those boys the difference between right and wrong. No one shows ‘em, they gonna grow up with that hatred in their hearts. But it ain’t really hatred, you know. It’s just fear dressed up in ignorance.
Sometimes I’m scared I failed you. And I worry you’re bringing it on yourself ‘cuz you ain’t got no pride in who you are, and maybe that’s my fault, maybe I done that. I was ignorant, and I was scared, and I didn’t know better, but I do now.
I raised you to be a lot of things, you know? And proud, proud is one of ‘em.
Ain’t that one of them real important things for gays? Like if you’re gay, you’re supposed to have that pride, you know? They got the flags and everything. So where’s your pride, honey? You want me to get you one of them flags? I seen they have those rainbow stickers in the store now, you can put them on your car or guitar case or wherever.
I remember when you first got that guitar, ten years old. I didn’t know nothin’ about them, but boy, did you want that thing. You were so happy when you got it, you cried. I remember you watchin’ them videos over and over and practicing till your little hands had blisters on ‘em. I thought maybe you’d give up, but you just kept goin’. I’ll never forget walkin’ past your room one day, hearin’ this beautiful song comin’ out. Thought it was one of them videos you was watchin’, learnin’ from, but then I looked through the crack and saw you sittin’ there on your bed, guitar in your hands, workin’ those strings like you was born to do it. I was stunned. Couldn’t believe somethin’ like that could come outta someone who came from an old ham-handed lug like me.
Now you don’t have to be scared people ain’t gonna accept you or love you for what you are anymore, because I’m gonna love you so much and so loud them other folks’ll be scared to do otherwise. That’s what fathers are for, you know? Show you how you should be treated. Show you how to walk with your head held up high, with no shame.
You want, I’ll take you up to the parade they have in the city over the summer. I saw online they have these shirts now you can order, they say, “LOUD AND PROUD PARENT” and they got the rainbow behind it. I can get me one of them if you want, I’ll wear it and walk tall as can be, meet all of their eyes with mine, show you how it’s done. You and me’ll stand together, and when you look up at me, you won’t see any shame. I’ll be shoutin’ out to everyone who’ll listen, “That’s my daughter! That’s my baby girl. Anyone who thinks she got anything to be ashamed of, oooh, they got another thing comin’. They’re so wrong. They’re just scared and ignorant and wrong, and they can’t see a perfect thing right in front of ‘em, perfect and beautiful just the way it is.” And they’ll see the pride then, oh buddy, they’ll see it.
They’ll all know how proud I am then, how proud I am to be your Pops.
Tara Wine-Queen is a storyteller, teacher, wife, and mother. She works passionately in her rural community for the representation of all people and desires to make people feel things like gratitude, hope, and unity through shared experiences. She was most recently published in the February issue of The Write Launch.
* * *
Two Poems by Ute Carson
In our house we know where the sofa is,
and the television and the comfortable chair.
We’re familiar with the color of our walls.
Our inner furnishings, though, are hidden from view.
Our organs make themselves known only when distressed.
They break their silence when the liver swells,
intestines cramp or kidneys fail.
Leaders among them, heart and lungs,
hold honored positions.
They are the Givers of Life.
And the nervous system gets credit
for its tireless communicating.
It’s the army of foot soldiers--
pancreas, spleen—diligent companions
who keep us functioning unawares,
performing their tasks like clockwork.
They are seldom bathed in the warmth of appreciation.
The New Normal
If we are fortunate enough to survive
all matter of bodily insults
and land relatively unscarred in old age,
we may believe that we can live like that until we die.
Then life teaches us otherwise.
When my young grandson challenged me to a footrace,
I did not hesitate,
despite the seven-decade difference in our ages.
(Had I not been a sprinter in my youth?
The dash from staring blocks was imprinted in my mind.)
I bolted confidently forward, only to fall flat.
My body could no longer oblige.
Other infirmities have become constant companions.
My doctor tells that this is the new normal!
Ute Carson has been a writer since youth. She has published two novels, a novella, three collections of poetry and numerous essays and short stories.
* * *
By Molly Dickin
I was fifteen when you taught me that my body wasn’t mine
You could put your hands wherever and that was just fine
Only it wasn’t
We live in a world that condones rape culture
Where women who speak out are picked apart by vultures
Where the skirt I was wearing takes total bearing
On whether it was my fault
Where the question “were you drinking?” is followed by “what were you thinking?”
Not as a means of understanding the incident
But as a means of oppressing my voice
As if the vodka I was drinking means that I made the choice
To forfeit the word no
The scar on my knee reminds me of who I used to be before I met you
And because we were friends and we had flirted before it meant I let you
I couldn’t look in the mirror or at myself in the shower
Without seeing bruises
And when I reported you to the police, I wanted to feel safe
But all they gave me were excuses
“You have a past”, they said, “this will be difficult to prove”
But I’m the one that couldn’t move from the spot you left me in
Clothes tattered, face battered, thought I wouldn’t survive
And what do you get? A bunch of high fives from the guys
As if you’d won some great victory, a cause for celebration
Not commit an act of cruelty with such degradation
And when I finally got up the courage to tell my parents
Their first question they asked me was "What were you wearing?"
I started to cry, "Please take my side"
When her tone was ice cold, I wanted to die
“That depends were you high?”
My mother asked me
As if my being entitled to safety and security
Was completely dependent on my level of purity
When it happened the first time she was sympathetic
But as a repeat rape victim, I was pathetic
In her eyes
I was told “you can’t tell anyone what happened, especially other family members”
As if my inability to keep fighting you off meant that I had surrendered
And therefore it was okay
The question she should have asked that night
Is "what’s wrong with the world for thinking this is right?"
The media tells us
Men shouldn’t have to fear women accusing them
I tell them you have nothing to fear if you’re not abusing them
I still hear your words at night, haunting me in my dreams
And your hand covers my mouth to muffle my screams
That’s what the men in power do, too, metaphorically
It’s time to change how we’ve been treated historically
Molly is a writer focused on social justice. She uses a direct voice, and has a personal philosophy that her art is successful when it stimulates thoughtful reflection in her audience. Molly’s greatest source of pride as a writer is her ability to put words fearlessly and unapologetically onto paper.
* * *
Two Poems by Annette Gagliardi
I Thought I Loved Your Breakfast Bacon
it wasn’t the sound of the sizzle
as you browned the edges,
the tantalizing smell that drifted
through the house,
nor the crisp first bite making my mouth
water tasting salted meat
now I realize
it wasn’t the taste of bacon I love
but the linger of salt
on your lips your skin
after we’d eaten
Any kind of wartime rescue needs
Music with a driving beat.
The wail from Steppenwolf smites the skies,
Moaning Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith
Vibrates our chests. Iron Butterfly’s double
Bass rumbles—channels the thunder
Amid the running and gunfire,
Poppies trumpet their bloom.
The music is all around -
Metal grates against metal.
Wind rushes as it rises.
Smoke and ground fog blasting
Past seed capsules that burst -
Milky alkaloids scatter.
A screaming guitar
And bulletproof soldiers
Burn and blend while
Air buses swallow the skies,
Fused in a fast get away.
Troopers dodge and discharge
As music blares.
It’s percussion roars a final
Crescendo then recedes
As the scene fades.
Annette is from Minnesota & has poetry published or forthcoming in the Gideon Poetry Review, OWS Ink LLC, Moon Magazine, Dreamers Creative Writing Online, Down in the Dirt Online Magazine, The Moccasin, The Poetic Bond VIII, ASPS Sandpiper, Dreamers Creative Writing Year 1 Anthology. She has poetry in and is one of two editors for the anthology Upon Waking: 58 Voices Speaking Out From The Shadow of Abuse. She teaches poetry at a nearby elementary school as a volunteer. She has won two national and four state awards for her poetry.
* * *
By Colleen June Glatzel
I need to stop dancing tonight.
I can’t keep dancing.
I’m energizing the world too much.
Do not do too much.
You can do concerts at night
on the right days.
Your tour dates
will be carefully planned.
Dance in the morning.
Dance like the chance
I was awakened
By the love of my life
who loved the ones
who did not know
Get ready for bed.
Do not respond
go to the big white room.
and dance with the
No. The door.
Bust through that shit.
We stick together.
Stick together. Woohee.
Go wherever you want.
God did not write this.
We get ready
for bed first— calmly.
Who am I?
Periods after sentences.
Colleen June Glatzel is based in Waukesha, WI. She’s the author of Hey, Joey Journal. Her poetry has been published in Blue Heron Review, Pochino Press, Bramble, and Synaeresis. When Colleen’s not writing, she is painting, studying numerology and dealing antiques.
* * *
Girl of Yesterday, How I Miss You
By Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas
Both of us fragile together, too young
to know of the weight of sky
pushed open, the gale against a petal.
Stems entwined above the soil
we became the other in a mystery
even to ourselves— a labyrinth of interiors
in a shared benediction, a wish of understanding.
What lies beneath
the warm veil
of high grass
when the body finds the grave
where no goodbye is ever given? Is it a place
of homelessness or hope
while everything tumbles towards infinity…
how do I gather these flowers, without you?
You who loved me with a sister’s zeal--
our arms full with cymbidiums, delicate
yesterdays too precious to bury in every sleep.
With you, there was more of me,
and the joy of being part
of another. Through you, there was kindness
healing as the warmth
of midday sun over a field
of wilted orchids.
Once I watched you pull apart the blossom’s
calyx, press it to your face savor its scent wholly,
and say dying made its beauty.
You were orphaned early, a cluster of skeletons
loomed in your eyes.
There are days I listen for the sound
your breath made
when you said my name. The way
you’d whisper behind my ear
your voice halved by grief,
a sigh that echoed through the hours--
I felt your weeping on starless nights,
nights that swallowed you
with sadness, until I heard your mother
call back to you from death. Through it all
you said nothing but became a daughter
howling with a broken heart,
until you gave up,
dug apart the earth, climbed inside
so she could love you
Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas is the 2012 winner of the Red Ochre Press Chapbook contest with her manuscript Before I Go to Sleep. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of online and print magazines including: The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Poets and Artists, War, Literature and the Arts and many more. She is a nine-time Pushcart Prize nominee as well as a seven-time Best of the Net nominee. She has had several collections of poetry published including On the Edge of the Ethereal, Aldrich Press and In the Making of Goodbyes, Clare Songbirds Publishing House. Her book Epitaph for the Beloved, will be released later this year from Finishing Line Press. She is a member of the Saratoga Authors’ Hall of Fame and the Sacramento Poetry Center Board of Directors. According to family lore she is a direct descendant of Robert Louis Stevenson or at least her mother says so. www.clgrellaspoetry.com
* * *
Three Poems by Charles Grosel
The God of the Random
My college roommate
carried his father’s
like a worry stone,
heavier than it looked,
distending his pocket
like an old man’s scrotum.
Every so often
he’d take it out, rub it
with his memory:
heart attack, age 37.
It was the weight
at the end of his pendulum,
a time bomb, one we
all carry with us,
to be sure, but
most of us can keep it
the final at the
end of the term.
Of all the paths
he might have taken
he opted for the middle
ground. A B-student,
an intramural athlete,
a one- or two-beer man,
a good but not best friend.
If anything set him apart,
it was his voice and a yen
for Gilbert and Sullivan.
But even there,
he was secretary of the club,
not president, and content
to be in the chorus.
On opening night I barely
recognized him. There was
the costume, of course,
some kind of tin soldier,
but that wasn’t it.
When he dance-marched
with the rest of the chorus,
raised his voice in song,
the song raised him in return,
let him set aside the stone
if only for a short time,
leave it in his other pants.
After college, we sent
a few cards, ran into
each other at the first round
of weddings, lost touch.
I hadn’t thought about him
for some time when
I read of his death
in the alumni magazine,
heart attack, sure enough.
Then I remembered
with a shudder, that, yes,
that was the exact age
his father had died.
After the first silent shock--
someone my age was dead,
and a friend—I came back
to myself and wondered:
how can biology, usually
so messy and imprecise,
taking millions of years
to give a fish legs, say,
or a dinosaur feathers
and hollow bones,
a young man enough
music to sustain him,
be so precise
in this instance?
It shatters faith in
the god of the random.
You can’t remember
When you were two years old,
My mother scoffs,
Perhaps afraid I will.
And I do. I remember
The promise of a popsicle,
And the confused rush into the gap
As Mom backs away from the hospital crib,
Her voice firm with a young mother’s
Resolve but eyes teared red,
Heavy hands not hers prying
My fingers from the metal bars,
Pushing me down, cheeks mashed
Drooling into the rough sheets,
Pants shucked past my thighs,
The hot prick of the needle,
Shrieks of protest, a medicinal tang,
And this one last thought--
Lear at the Beach
I could tell of how the weathered
Boardwalk hints at the passing of time,
How the ebb and flow of the tide
Counts off the years, or how
The smell of the sea is mortality.
But the fact is, this was the first
Time the whole family had done anything
Remotely like this, and we were
Too busy diving in the waves,
Laughing at our siblings’ drunken
Put downs, and playing Hearts
Around the large country table
To notice our now-retired father,
Author and financier of this grand assembly,
Watching us from his beach chair,
Face all too eager for sanctuary,
The life of the party washing over him.
An editor, writer, and poet, Charles Grosel lives in Arizona. He has published stories in Western Humanities Review, Red Cedar Review, Water-Stone, and The MacGuffin as well as poems in Slate, The Threepenny Review, Poet Lore, and Harpur Palate, among others. To pay the bills, Charles owns the communications firm, Write for Success.
* * *
By Katherine L. Holmes
There is a room
that is known
there is a chair
that is worn
In the room are sleets and silences
the blushes and clarity of sky
the fiery and frosty abrupt as a solstice.
The one sitting has ridden the swirls
that lead the feet to a passageway
blames the side table for straying
but does not straighten it
only stares at scrambler boughs
outside in their usual thumbing.
One overshadows the petals
upholstered in silver on the couch
until they are a collage
of ogres and grins like
the soft who fester within.
Dust is uncovered lashing at
lamp-stand feet and chair aprons
the rake tuftballs the neutral
gray in old photographs.
And daily confronting the art:
Know today what
is in the shade
where the skiff is
headed and who
the ostrich listens
for stooped in
and the ruins.
One day, everyone comes into
the room and yearns to
walk out of nothing. But
the anonymous dust needs to be
deciphered and anyone can
sit until dark startles them.
Then a hair can fall in front
of the eye and sliver the
gleam from candelabra bulbs
bought in grocery stores
and there is
Who sees what names and makes
wand-swift meanings of things
can get up from the chair
and go again from the room.
Katherine L. Holmes' poetry, short stories, and one-act plays have appeared in more than seventy journals, most recently The Courtship of Winds, Ginosko, Animal Literary Magazine, and ArLiJo, A short story collection, Curiosity Killed the Sphinx and Other Stories, was published by Hollywood Books International.
* * *
By Tabatha Jenkins
It was there,
where the gravel takes over.
A patch of weeds
gone back to pasture.
Never much more,
never close to
any hope of welcome.
where they’d stopped,
and were gone.
Tabatha Jenkins graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing. She has been published by the Adelaide Literary Magazine, Helen Literary Magazine, The Write Launch Magazine, The Scene & Heard Journal, The Bookends Review, Havik Literary Magazine, and Gravitas Literary Magazine. She still currently resides in southeast Arkansas with her fiancé and puppy, JP.
* * *
i fought god behind the 7/11
By Oliver Kelley
the sickly sweet lights of the floating gas prices
reach around corners to illuminate
Her - tall and dark and inhuman, yet
warmskinned and butterflywinged and holy, holy, holy.
i haven’t been to church since my cousin’s
first communion, before that, hardly ever,
yet her eyes - everywhere - and her
hands, soft, take me somewhere only god can see.
our cheddar cheese chex mix and my three
dimes in change hang heavy, the coins on my eyes
and pretzels in my lungs hold tight as subaru
headlights keep me aware, held at arms length, known.
minutes pass and the gilded halo around her
turns softer, yellow now, almost green in our
swamp-stained brick and metal castle, here just
for us to conquer to share sticky secrets and coca cola.
when i left, we scraped our initials into its loose mortar
and split a pack of m&ms over quiet goodbyes and flashlight
beams late at night, stuck through windows and quiet - and
my church, my pastor, and my god stayed with her.
Oliver Kelley is an aspiring writer, creator, and cat owner. They work mainly in narrative work, but they also run a long term Dungeons & Dragons campaign and write a lot of poetry.
* * *
By Abigail Lewis
It’s what he would drink
every night since I could remember.
At first I didn’t notice how much,
but maybe I blocked it out.
He’d create towers with them,
stacked as high as his recliner,
some not empty
he’d learn when they tumbled over.
I never used to notice his habit
maybe because I was small
and he hid it from us.
Or maybe I didn’t see him at night enough
to know what was going on.
I can still smell it in my dreams
The stale, sour taste
that would haunt the basement air
as he sat in his throne.
I still remember
days coming home from work
where I would be chastised
while he sat there,
telling me I was worthless,
you would never want to hear
or when he’d slur to sit on his lap
“My baby, sit with your daddy”
but I was seventeen, and the thought
made my skin tense and crawl.
At times he would try to hug me,
but it made me want to scream out
“Don’t fucking touch me”
but I know I never could.
I always thought I was crazy,
having this rage against him.
Then I realized
as he called my mother a bitch
kicked the dog
sitting, mouth agape
no underwear on
laptop idling on live cams
I always hated the beer,
but instead, should’ve hated the man.
Abigail Lewis grew up writing poetry that many middle school girls pining over an average-looking boy would froth at the mouth for. She has been working to move on from twelve-year-old sob stories by perfecting her craft at Champlain College, as a second-year Professional Writing major. She has worked on articles for the Hollis-Brookline Journal, however poetry is more her forte. She is currently working on a collection of essays that will be turned into a memoir.
* * *
By Michael Lyle
Rain like gobs
of liquid lead
pelts sodden ground
or banshee wind
like a flying vandal.
The sump pump hums
or the well goes low
as wrappers swirl the road.
Mild days taunt
with what is lost
like the final leaf
on the silent oak.
Michael Lyle's chapbook The Everywhere of Light (Plan B Press) was published in October 2018. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Canary, The Carolina Quarterly, Dappled Things, The Hollins Critic, Mudfish, The Opiate, Pilgrimage and other magazines and journals. More at http://www.michaellylewriter.com. Michael lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
* * *
By Brandon Marlon
The train rumbles and wends across the city center
at a precipitate pace, its bowels clogged
by reticent commuters lost in private thoughts
of to-dos, aches, deadlines, sleep, debts, losses,
things to have said in long-gone conversations.
Then without warning she steps off the platform
onto my rail car and sits opposite me, wearing red,
redolent of lavender, a conspicuous birthmark
complementing lips puckered and glossed, skintight
nylons catching my eye as she crosses her legs
and, succumbing to her suasive ways, I lose my train
of thought to imagine what her name is and who she is;
what it would feel like to have her body,
prone or supine, pressed against mine;
the expression on her face when her toes reach her ears;
the pitch of her panting as we climax in tandem.
I bypass my stop by seven or eight hopeful of a glance,
a connection transitory or lifelong, and when she alights
I gulp sour sighs, detesting the tang of what if.
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 his writing has been published in 300 publications in 30 countries. www.brandonmarlon.com.
Thank You For Asking
By Bruce McRae
“Why is it always raining
in your poems?” someone asked me.
“What’s this thing about night you have?”
their inquisitiveness bordering on wonder.
“Dark this. Dark that. Doesn’t daylight
interest you? Is there no poetry in morning?”
I made to reply but was interrupted.
“And there are no stories. No people.
Isn’t poetry meant to save the world?
Are you antisocial or something?”
Before I could speak thunder cracked,
night closing in, rain starting to fall.
Over the world came a deathly silence.
The storms and stones were telling their stories.
Bruce McRae, a Canadian musician currently residing on Salt Spring Island BC, is a multiple Pushcart nominee with over 1,400 poems published internationally in magazines such as Poetry, Rattle and the North American Review. His books are ‘The So-Called Sonnets (Silenced Press), ‘An Unbecoming Fit Of Frenzy’ (Cawing Crow Press) and ‘Like As If” (Pski’s Porch), Hearsay (The Poet’s Haven).
* * *
"Is It Mine?"
By James B. Nicola
When my cousin, Puerto Rican by birth,
Asked my cousin, his wife, blonde and blue-eyed,
“Is it mine?” at the birth of their second,
It broke my cousin’s heart. As if she’d had “time
To f**k around” while taking care of their darker firstborn
For the last four years, she said. The faux pas
Cut her to the quick and to the heart.
So he moved out and they got a divorce. Or vice versa.
And the way he never really helped take care of Mara,
He really doesn’t take care of little Colin.
So I think it must have been when God
Moved out on Mother Nature, after the birth
Of their second joint venture, Man. He asked
“Is it mine?”
And it broke our Mother’s heart.
By the way, I grew up looking like neither
Of my parents. Until the day I turned 30, when
For a week I looked like my dad when he was 30.
My aunt showed me pictures of him at 30, and told me
To go to the mirror, and I saw.
By the time I was 31, either the resemblance faded,
Or I stopped looking, or thinking about it. I don’t recall.
Now I dance with my mom, who’s 91, to make up
For, well, everything. (I am childless, so have time.)
Usually she remains seated. Sometimes I hold her up.
Either way, her face and body and everything
Transform with the rhythm as she sings like a co-ed
And I wrap around her, or twirl under an arm.
It’s a dance of joy of what life was
In the age of Swing, before the buffets of wifedom,
And we salvage not just a memory, but a world.
James B. Nicola has been published in Antioch, Southwest, Atlanta Reviews, and Rattle. He has received two Willow Review awards, a Dana Literary Award, and six Pushcart nominations, and published the following full-length collections: Manhattan Plaza, Stage to Page, Wind in the Cave, and Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists (2018). Nonfiction book: Playing the Audience (Choice award).
* * *
By Benedette Palazzola
when the roads were black
with ice my solar plexus
ached with that absence
white knuckles on the
wheel the driving force behind
help me will. i’m cold
as a stone madonna with
a chipped face, out there
Benedette Palazzola has published free verse and her own version of haiku in Hanging Loose, POEM, Jewish Literary Journal, Come and Go Literary, Bonsai, Ariel Chart, and elsewhere.
* * *
Two Poems by Laura Potts
The evening of your days
on the other side of a hospice night.
A funeral in my face,
your ghostcandled fatherlight
still laughing, bright,
in the winter of your age.
The world in your ember days
lit up its lights in a biblical rain.
Long and far,
the crack of the night
in that dark throbbing room
showed your four-medal war arms,
your eyeballs stars.
The nightjars were still and did not stir you
when Death in his formal garden
took the bones of my grandfather,
took the hissing skin
that brimmed with disease
in all the mists of that morning,
at the edge of his sleep
Your terminal cry I heard long.
After that, the morning hours ran on.
In a dawn darkly,
on a singing white page
at the rim of my memory,
the long wartime age
of your history
your lost laugh,
your long love,
all the days of your life -
and never your death at all.
But then parts of you
are dead. I sent the world a postcard from a fusty
window that said
I am wearing my grief.
Sling clothes into the bin: your socks, your skirts,
the notebook in the pocket of the moth-eaten dress;
that locket - yes - the one etched with that lover's name
you would never speak, but traced with warmer words
in the tepid curls
of firelight. Death in his Sunday finery asleep in the hall.
I call. Mother. Hear you still singing while washing
Now. Minds do many things. Canteen food garden gate
passing-bells rings. A wind slips beneath the door and
I hear you humming,
a voice swollen with the years of rolled-up sleeves
and tired eyes. The cries of a child at its mother's knee.
I remember Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats, dripping
from your tongue in a terminal bed. Mother, I said,
forty years from
the child in your arms. There are parts of you dead.
Bottle and Bible. Now this is pleasurable. Somewhere
on the other side of the night I am hearing you say
The fields are alive
when the moon is bowed. Your name is stirring
in the trees and is gone. No. Look what you're doing.
Look at me now.
Laura Potts, twice-recipient of the Foyle Young Poets Award, became one of the BBC's New Voices last year. Her first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas. She was recently nominated for The Pushcart Prize and received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018.
* * *
By Cindy Rinne
It’s raining harder. Thunder crashes longer nights,
leaves crunch, trees bare orphan bones.
In crisp darkness,
the world births
from stars, shivers
as the woman screams
and animals stream around
her split spirit body,
octopus, spider, and snake.
harvest moon colors
outline the birth pain.
couched for a phoenix
to marry a dragon chasing
Cindy Rinne creates art and writes in San Bernardino, CA. She brings myth to life in contemporary context. She is the Poet in Residence for the Neutra Institute Museum and Gallery in Silver Lake, CA. Cindy is the author of seven books: Mapless with Nikia Chaney (Cholla Needles Press), Moon of Many Petals (Cholla Needles Press), Listen to the Codex (Yak Press), and others. www.fiberverse.com.
* * *
DO NOT ANTAGONIZE THE BEARS
By George Ryan
They say more bodies
are buried deep in
than have been found in
all the volcanic
ash on Pompeii
No, that woman is not waving to us.
She’s cleaning the inside of her window.
On the screen of her computer: the time,
temperature, wind speed, precipitation:
New York, San Diego, Salt Lake City,
Amsterdam, Aberdeen: one way she keeps
in touch with her family and with friends
The pink pussy hat she knitted and then wore
to the women’s march in Washington DC
she put in a box and mentioned in her will
David Runciman wrote
artificial intelligence requires
vast amounts of data
that machines can filter
in searching for patterns
on which to make inferences and then
for further patterns in their own failures
to draw the optimal inferences
George Ryan was born in Ireland and graduated from University College Dublin. He is a ghostwriter in New York City. Elkhound published his Who You Need To Start a Riot in May 2017. His poems are nearly all about incidents that involve real people in real places and use little heightened language
* * *
By Patricia Walsh
The grief having its part, sold out to hardship,
simple mathematics dog the fairest of notions
nutrition in the detail, text permitting
graded circumcision of souls looked at sagely.
Running after spouses, higher call every need,
own to a fault the debris falling away,
stormed over packaged woes fell seeming
enclosed order hitting through the weather.
Touched at inopportune moments, measured at the time
common knowledge now, speaking out of turn,
kissing the proper order repaying dividends
still asking for it, catcalled out of doors.
Commodity engagement, by the stroke of a pen,
not worrying about the next day, laughing silent,
as long as there’s info you will be rewarded,
stench of writing pervades the better bearing.
Nailed to the spot, is there any consolation?
Beating to the band is not about the truth,
conveniently though it is, a childhood entity
sold out to proper order, this ace of space.
Bad sex a reward for screaming the odds,
scuttling on with our lives a cursory position
form over function an invisible position
laughed over silently, a landslide awaiting.
Patricia Walsh was born and raised in the parish of Mourneabbey, Co Cork, Ireland. To date, she has published one novel, titled The Quest for Lost Eire, in 2014, and has published one collection of poetry, titled Continuity Errors, with Lapwing Publications in 2010. She has since been published in a variety of print and online journals. These include: The Lake; Seventh Quarry Press; Marble Journal; New Binary Press; Stanzas; Crossways; Ygdrasil; Seventh Quarry; The Fractured Nuance; Revival Magazine; Ink Sweat and Tears; Drunk Monkeys; Hesterglock Press; Linnet's Wing, Narrator International, The Galway Review; Poethead and The Evening Echo.
* * *
without a sky
By Lindsey Warren
absence weighs more
than a creak in
the floor, how
the thirst is the body
the wind there close
to what beauty
saw, what beauty
misses in the room
where my mother is
still alive, and the
blue trees come in,
over them I keep winter
reflecting on the
star that was, and
Psyche with her shaved
head blows a love
across it because
I opened. I
opened. watch me
shine here over
all who fight
for breath, those
without a sky,
though a sky comes
down looking for them,
to see them, the ones
who cry when no
radiance is around, holding
drils in the yard
my empty hand that
no electron jumps
to, the knuckle
given and taken
back, what else is
left for a
spark. not this
thing, a surrender
spent on time’s green.
blood, too, a
Lindsey Warren is a graduate of Cornell University’s MFA program. She has been published in Josephine Quarterly, American Literary Review and Hobart, among others. Lindsey has been a finalist for the Delaware Literary Connection Prize and the Joy Harjo Prize.
* * *
Something About Rain
By Matthew Berg
Something about rain depresses us, causes us to lose hope. Despair and hopelessness enter our lives, enveloping us in gray clouds pouring down rain upon our naked humanity. In the hopelessness we are left to wonder how to truly live, to thrive as we are meant to( I know I do). In the wind and electricity brought by such storms entering, our sanity is lifted up and tossed violently as we are utterly ruined in such deep sorrow.
In such violent uprooting of ourselves we discover opportunity though. We begin to take in the wreckage of our lives, looking intently for any good, for anything and anyone that matters. In our searching clarity takes hold of us, and we see as we are meant to, the most important thing of all: hope that’s certain and possible of any good still here.
Sifting through what’s left we learn how to endure, and in these moments we grow stronger. The uncomfortable and unwanted becomes the needed and necessary as the useless and worthless are tested, revealed for what they are, and washed away as should be.
Hope grows as good is discovered. Perspective changes in us and we change, becoming better, healthier for it. Here we understand what is worth value and what isn’t; realizing true hope can’t be destroyed, even in the worst circumstances and trials. Hope that can be destroyed is no hope at all. Something about rain does this for our lives and we are left better for it, even when it doesn’t seem like it.
Matthew Berg is a renaissance man with varying interests and hobbies. A husband, father, and man of faith in Jesus who is a writer of many styles, specializing in poetry and lyrical writing.
* * *
By Michael Seymour Blake
All kinds of warning lights are flashing on the dashboard, and the front bumper is mostly held together with duct tape. My girlfriend Chelsey and I are driving my cousin’s car through the Catskills, searching for a trail that leads to an abandoned hotel at the top of a mountain. It’s supposed to be crumbling and overgrown, a long-ago meeting place for communists.
It’s getting late but we figure we have time to hike out, see this thing, and get back to the car by sundown.
The GPS has us turn up a narrow, dirt path that circles the mountain in a steady ascent. We tell ourselves all the private property signs are probably just more abandoned relics from a bygone age. Soon, there’s a sheer drop to our right, and jagged walls of rock to our left. The car trembles as we gain altitude. It feels like there’s an earthquake under our asses.
“Didn’t your friend come here once?” I ask. “She mention anything about this?”
“Not that I remember.” Chelsey’s chin juts forward with determination and her red hair is filled with dying sunlight.
Last week, while we ate dinner on the floor in front of the TV, the psychos above us in 3B got into another scuffle. Flakes rained from the ceiling as they tumbled around up there, screaming at each other, “I’ll kill you this time. I’ll kill you!” We don’t have the money to move, and they’ve already declared war on some of the other tenants in our building who’ve complained, so our tactic is to huddle down and turn up the volume. “This city has been closing in around us for a long time now,” Chelsey had said. “It’s starting to feel like I can’t even stand up anymore. What the hell is left here for us anyway?”
“We are,” I’d replied.
This afternoon, when the hot water turned off unexpectedly for the fifth time this year, we came up with our last-minute Catskill Mountains escape plan.
Round and round we go, creeping up the exposed path at a crawling pace. Big houses appear now and then on our left, each with chunky-tired, tough-looking vehicles parked on long, rugged driveways. This is no place for a borrowed, beat-up Nissan Versa hatchback.
“This must be a mistake,” I say.
“You think everything is a mistake. Relax for once.”
I turn on the radio. The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music” is playing.
The path bends to the right and then slopes upwards at what seems like a seventy-degree angle.
“No way,” I yell over the Doobie Brothers.
“No way are we making it up this thing.”
“We’ll be fine,” Chelsey says.
And for a short while, we are.
But then the car comes to a rumbling standstill about twenty feet before the path levels out. Up ahead, there’s another one of those long driveways leading to a house that’s all wood and windows with a big balcony overlooking the green treetops and thin, wormy roads below. A man in a silk robe watches us from that balcony. We’re churning up explosions of dust and rocks, not making any progress. Chelsey hits the brakes, but instead of stopping, we start rolling backwards. The gritty sound of dirt against wheels pierces through the music.
Chelsey’s eyes widen. “I don’t like this, I don’t like this,” she says.
I tell her to give it some gas—which she does, but we’re still losing momentum. And the curve in the path below is too sharp to navigate backwards without any traction.
My brain kicks into high gear. I notice a small, snowflake-like chip near the top right corner of the windshield, and beyond that, the blood-bright leaves of a distant red oak waving in the breeze as if to say, “Bye-bye, dummies!”
I’m struck with the possible reality of us leaping from the car seconds before it plummets down the rock face. This is not an option. The speed of life returns as I realize that no one is going to save us except us.
I jump out, slide down into the cloud of debris, and throw everything I have at the rear bumper. Pebbles ricochet off my skull. With the bitter taste of dirt and dust in my mouth, I yell, “Floor it.”
The man in the robe is gone so I figure he’s on his way over to help. I’m thinking, “If this thing goes over with Chelsey inside, I’m jumping after it.” Then I realize I’d probably be crushed before I even got the chance to jump.
I attack the car with everything I’ve got as The Brothers continue to belt it out. Even on the verge of physical and financial disaster, some part of my mind is still cognizant of how good this goddamn song is.
I give one more big push. Blood surges through my small frame. My temples throb. “Come on you son of a bitch,” I yell. Then the engine roars and the car blasts off like a Roman candle. Chelsey cuts to the left just in time, skidding to a halt at a strange angle across the man’s driveway. I scurry up after it.
Chelsey stares straight ahead, still gripping the wheel. I reach through the window and turn off the music. The man is back on his balcony, but now he’s got a mug.
“You OK?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Chelsey says. “You?” She places her clean hand over my filthy one.
The man sips whatever’s in his mug.
“Fuckin’ guy would have just casually watched us fly off the mountain,” I say. “Probably sees people fall to their death every day. Not this time, buddy.” I pat our car’s scalding hood. “Not this time.”
“Now what?” Chelsey asks. “GPS says the trailhead is only ten minutes up that way.”
“GPS is wrong. Only thing up that way is certain death.”
“That’s it then? After all this?” she says, but I can tell she agrees we’re done here.
“Want me to drive?”
She climbs across the center console to the passenger seat.
“Hope you enjoyed the show,” I say to the man before getting in.
He makes no indication that he hears me, but as I buckle up and shift to reverse, he raises his mug to us and nods.
I pull out of the driveway and we begin our sliding descent down the path, past the boulders and out of the woods, back to our world of psycho neighbors and crumbling ceilings and shitty jobs. But we still have rolling wheels and a working engine and oxygen in our lungs and bones that aren’t crushed. Things could be a lot worse. Duct tape can work wonders, and we’re not finished yet.
Windows down, we watch the sun cut into the horizon and the sky burn orange.
Michael Seymour Blake’s work has appeared at Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Barrelhouse, Fanzine, Flapperhouse, Entropy, Waxwing, Corium, Paper Darts, People Holding, and Heavy Feather Review. He writes and doodles and sleeps in Queens, NY. He is often lost.
* * *
Letter to a Dead Girl
By Margaret Emma Brandl
I am listening to songs I used to know all of, songs from undergrad by Regina Spektor, whose music I remember suddenly one day in the car with my boyfriend, who is fluent in Russian and has of course also heard of her. If you were still alive we probably wouldn’t agree about anything, probably wouldn’t be speaking—you deleted me from your Facebook and I had stopped talking to you anyway, not because I necessarily disliked you but because I didn’t think you liked me, not really.
When we were in undergrad and a boy I barely knew glimpsed me in the student union and thought I was cute, you conspired with our mutual friend to arrange a way for the boy to meet me. I was uncomfortable and hung up on someone else and leaving the country soon and anyway it sounded like you were into him so when he was on his way over I pretended I’d be gone for just a minute and then disappeared into a study room down the hall. I sat in a tiny corner behind the door and instructed the other people in there that I was, in fact, not, should you or anyone come looking. We never mentioned it.
I heard you kissed our suitemate’s crush at another party. I heard you and our mutual friend went to parties where there was drinking. I was too afraid to do things like that, too afraid of the pressure of others, too afraid that drunk people were all unpredictable and violent, too afraid of being arrested, too afraid of being taken advantage of by frat boys and sensitive, artsy, guitar-playing boys alike, so you and our mutual friend became better friends and I became more introverted.
I didn’t hold it against you, but I did feel a little sad, like when you and our mutual friend visited me in my hometown and laughed at how small it was. The two of you left early, for a part of the state completely out of the way; you invited me but I would have had to drive there and back alone. Every time you did something impulsive I didn’t understand where you were coming from, and every time I shied away you didn’t understand what I was afraid of or why. I had missed the part of being a college student that makes one blind to consequences.
When our mutual friend wrote me that you had died I was a publishing intern in New York City, sweaty and exhausted at the end of every day from walking for blocks and poor air conditioning, too busy feeling things for my new Connecticut Yankee boyfriend. I don’t know that I answered her, our mutual friend—that I did anything at all really other than tell my boyfriend about it and take the elevator to the roof of my building, where I looked out into the hot night and couldn’t convince myself to cry.
This isn’t to say that if you hadn’t died I would have remembered and written you then, or even that I would necessarily have written you anytime between then and now but if you weren’t dead I’d probably be writing a different letter to you today. I’d probably write you about Regina Spektor and my Russian-speaking boyfriend, about my English department and living in dusty West Texas. Afterwards I’d feel silly but also regretful that my boyfriend still talks to old friends on the phone, that he seems to be supportive still of so many people he’s been friends with in his life while I don’t even talk anymore to 98% of the people I started spending time with when you and I stopped talking to each other. I’d feel silly and so I wouldn’t send it, the letter I’d written you in which I reached out to tell you that I had remembered driving to Barnes and Noble at night to eat expensive cafe foods and sit around working because we thought that was a good idea and how we listened to Regina Spektor after, and how my friend Megan and later my brother Matt had driven the same car you did. But the fact is my father got rid of Matt’s car just after you died in a wreck in that same model, just after he—my father—had to make a quick turn and saw how easily the vehicle could tip.
As it is I never wrote that letter, just this one. As it is I may not even have gotten all the way to writing that letter down—I probably would have started composing it in my head before forgetting it in the next moment, putting that thought away for a rainy day and congratulating myself for not spending so much time worrying about people who turned out not to be my friends. But as it is you are dead, and here I am writing to you anyway, apologizing mostly for things I didn’t do that I’m not sorry for—not really.
Margaret Emma Brandl is a Ph.D. candidate in English specializing in creative writing at Texas Tech University, where she has taught English courses and serves as an associate editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Yalobusha Review, and other journals.
* * *
Tobacco and Patchouli
By Rebecca Brings
We decided to get married. The beginning of the end. You gave me a ring in your bathroom. You were upset with yourself until I was upset with you. Things got complicated from here on out, complicated to a point of no return. Our promises weren’t empty. We were trying too hard until we stopped trying, and to blame was the other. We were so scared the other one would be the first to give up, to get cold feet, we challenged each other until it hurt. Were we ever sure of each other?
I still want you. Some days. More days than I like, but I know we are not good for each other. At least this is what I tell myself.
I see you with your girlfriend on social media. You look so happy. She looks like the better version of me. She probably has her shit together. I can see you like her and I feel like I am loosing this game. The who-gets-over-it-faster game. Does that mean I cared more than you? I should stop and I put my phone down. I pick it up again and switch from Instagram to Facebook. I am in the loop – stuck.
No one wants to hear about you, about us anymore. People give you a certain amount of time to grieve and then they stop understanding. So I keep you to myself. I keep to myself how much you are really on my mind, how many dreams I have about you.
Sometimes, I buy candles in hope the smell reminds me of you. I made fun of your taste in candles, tobacco and patchouli, now I look for the smell everywhere. When I get close enough it triggers the memory of us on your smelly, tan leather couch and my heart drops. Be careful what you wish for, they say. I keep that to myself too.
I am with somebody new now. New in the sense that it’s not you. New because there is still you, the old I can’t quite get rid off. Not actually new. Language can be funny that way.
I replay you, I replay all those happy moments between sheets, flashes of your smile. I replay the you with one drink too many, honesty in every word. I reply the you that pushes me against the car, honesty in every touch. Why hasn’t it faded? Why do I only remember the good times? I just wasn’t done with us.
He is good. He makes me feel like I am enough. Sometimes I push him away, I challenge him to leave. He doesn’t. He knows all my secrets, the ones that you know and the ones I was too scared to tell you. I have to let go, I know I should. I just don’t want to. Pain is a memory too and I am desperate to hold on to those. What becomes of us when I forget?
I keep asking myself if there are different kinds of love. I don’t mean friends and family, I mean lovers. Does it feel the same? Maybe it should feel different, maybe that’s good. Maybe I should be enlightened by Coleridge or Wordsworth, be sensible to the Aeolian harp, but isn’t their work the work of crippling sensibility and anxiety?
Commercialization of tragedy, nothing new about that. Every writer needs a sob story, I’ve been told.
Rebecca Brings is currently a PhD Candidate in English Literature at Oklahoma State University. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English and German Literature from the University of Bonn and her Master of Arts in Comparative Literature from the University College London. She was born and raised in Germany and is currently residing with her two dogs in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
* * *
Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now Daddio
By Maggie Dove
I called the radio station once an hour for days. Every time the DJ picked up the phone and my 11-year-old girl voice said, “Can you play “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship?” he responded, “It’s coming up.”
An hour later. Nothing. A day later. Nothing.
The only recording I had of the song was the one I’d made by holding my tape recorder up to the television speaker when the movie “Mannequin” was on. It was a low quality bootleg, at best, and even worse, my sister had barged into the living room while I was recording it to yell at me for taking the last Little Debbie Zebra Cake. I would listen to my bootleg recording, fully immersed in Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, only to have the Kool-Aid Man of reality bust through the wall in the form of my sister’s voice.
“…and we can build this thing together, standing strong forever, nothing’s gonna stop…did you take the last fucking Zebra Cake, you asshole? I KNOW IT WAS YOU.”
It was, frankly, a Starship boner-killer; a mellow-harshener. I liked my Starship like I liked my Burger King Original Chicken Sandwich: Plain, with no additions. No mayonnaise or lettuce to dampen the flavor or the crisp.
I needed a pristine recording of this song. Cassettes were $10, which might as well have been a million, but if I could record it on tape directly from the radio? That was 99% as good as the real thing.
I called the DJ again and he sounded annoyed as soon as he heard my voice. He said, “It’s coming up, okay?”
An hour later. Nothing.
I called the DJ again and put on a fake voice, a cross between a surfer dude and a wacky retiree guy - not dissimilar to the DJ’s own voice. I used old-timey lingo that I had learned from “Back to The Future”.
“Hey there, daddio! Can you play that new Starship song? It’s outta sight! Yeah!”
He laughed and said, “Right on, buddy!”
The song started playing five minutes after we got off the phone.
Every time I called him after that and used my fake voice, he played my request immediately.
The DJ made an in-store appearance at the drug store up the street from my house later that summer. I stood in front of the folding table as he autographed his 8 x 10 black and white head-shots. He didn’t look at me.
When it was my turn, he asked who he should make it out to.
He looked up.
Maggie Dove is a Southern writer who is petty, immature, and has many tribal tattoos from the 90s for which she refuses to be apologetic. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, JMWW, Cosmonauts Avenue, Drunk Monkeys, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The New Southern Fugitives, Crab Fat Magazine, and elsewhere. Her blog is at romcomdojo.com.
* * *
By Michael Farrell
There isn’t a place quite like one’s home church. It had been a while since I was last home, and I was glad to be. The pastor’s wife had sent me to the children’s room, for those aged three to five, to retrieve some cleaning supplies.
Walking over those laminate-wood floors with the smell of freshly painted drywall was so nostalgic, the whites and blues brilliantly etching into my retinas, the brass door knob sliding coldly into my warm hand, the door pushing away to...
Reveal the comfortable carpet and tiny plastic tables for children. The room was filled with decorations that hadn’t been there before, wood stands with picture books on them, paintings of dogs and flowers on the walls, a television…
Attached at one end, and hanging in the middle of one wall was a cute little-
Noose. How carefully those threads were woven, strands intertwined, knotted up so perfectly, looped appropriately small. How odd, how horrible, how fitting, to get rid of little devils so cleanly. That noose was empty for the moment, but
a moment later I could see that I was in it. Limp, cold, grey, hanging like a piñata for the children, all of them dancing around me, laughing and giggling and shouting, grabbing for the attention of my dead eyes. Then… silence. No color.
Just me, hanging: no one else. They’d find my body in a few minutes, deafened by silence, blinded by death.
Wait… that rope isn’t a noose. It’s for a tire swing! Silly me, I’m sure the kids loved that.
Don’t listen to the meshuggener, nonsense will contaminate every thought seeping through the spaghetti maze in your skull. Fear psychosis, it will animate and give life to the neurosis in your nerves. Schizophrenic.
What does this mean? Is it all in the mind? The Greeks had many philosophers with many philosophies, yet none of their philosophy solved the problems of psychology. Psyche. Psukhē.
It was common belief of pre-Socratic Greeks that soul and mind were one and the same. Modern thought might disagree, but that notion permeates the name of the field. What is called “study of the mind” is actually “study of the soul.”
If soul and mind are synonymous, then each fragment of consciousness splits the mind as many times as skhizein psukhē. Phrēn now fiend, not friend any longer. Do separate pieces of the same soul have separate destinations in the afterlife?
Black is red and night is dead, bathe the head in color stars bled. If one finds others of kind, hide the mind, keep the soul blind. Cry into the silence, no one sees the violence that creeps past darkened eyelids.
Alone but not.
Even in the careful crafting of this voiceless shout, words take shape into whispers and screams. Why is there no in-between? Perhaps because the visions and the voices are both terrifying and comforting.
To the common ear, these words are meshugaas, crazy talk, nonsense. People fear what they don’t understand. We fear the meshuggener, who is just as fearful of others, but even more afraid of the self.
Who can be trusted when the mind itself can’t be trusted? Yet this also brings comfort; Anything that is horrifyingly detestable can be attributed to fiction: rejection, competition, contradiction, affliction.
“You are a failure. You are a disappointment to your parents and your entire family. You are a sickness, a darkness, a disease. You are the reason your friends attempted suicide. You are the reason your sister left.”
“You are the burden, the problem, the demon in everyone else’s lives.”
Could it be that demons haunt the troubled soul? Or is it that the troubled soul is a demon in disguise? Would the demon know itself or would it be too twisted to recognize its own identity? Unless psychology is a misnomer…
Divide soul and mind, as some later philosophers would suggest, and come to a different problem: how does schizophrenia divide with them? It’s not so easy to quantify.
What if it’s all just in your head, in my head? The soul is merely a deceptive construct of the voices, meant to distract from the real problem. It’s just you, me, there is something wrong with us that cannot be fixed.
My friend came running at me, ecstatic that I had showed up. He had such a silly grin on his face. I realized he was so happy because of the dead puppies he carried by the collar in each hand. They were so cute.
The puppies had pale, golden hair that looked soft enough to have been put on a plush toy. I imagine they probably felt like plush toys, soft, lifeless, limp, cold… black eyes glossing like plastic beads, ears flopping every way.
“Hannah, do you see…” My voice trailed off because what once appeared to be two dead puppies now revealed themselves to be a pair of sandals.
“I thought for sure I had seen him carrying dead puppies.”
Emotions go haywire when you don’t know what should happen and the unexpected always happens. It’s easy to become calloused to others and react in the wrong way to the wrong situation. It’s easy to hate yourself, myself.
It’s hard not to know yourself, or maybe to know yourself too well. There isn’t a single easy answer. Maybe there is. The easy answer is that it’s all in my head.
I am not a solipsist. I am a meshuggener.
Michael is currently an undergraduate student enrolled in the English program at Cedarville University. He lives on campus during the semester and comes home to the beautiful woods of Adams County, Ohio during break.
* * *
There's a Pinot I Can't Drink
By Jane Marshall Fleming
I think what fucks with me the most are those minutes after Michael realized what he had done, his hands shaking, eyes glazed with rage from someone else’s mouth. The smoke clearing with screams and an empty chamber. Click.
She says it wasn’t his, that rage. She said his marble eyes were somewhere else. Someone else. Because he couldn’t wouldn’t shouldn’t have done it if it were just him.
The Michael we knew.
But we all knew he had a gun
between his teeth, long and slick, but twinkling with laughter and the idea that nothing was ever wrong. He just needed some sleep that day. He just needed less liquor.
Violence is a handgun in his palm, pointed towards his wife. Like my husband says, there is a thin line between love and hate.
Michael’s father told a story at his funeral about a mouse that he used for a prank. The little mouse, tiny and gray. He didn’t want to let it escape. He wanted to feed and hold it in his room, but his mother said it couldn’t stay. His dad told us that he took the mouse to a nearby field and soberly watched it crawl away.
And if he had been sober, maybe we wouldn’t be living with smoking slick holes in heads and shoulders and collapsed lungs that smell like ash and gunpowder. That bloom like poppies, red and wide and deep. That seep into stock carpeting and haunt upscale apartment complexes for twenty years or more. Deep in seeping hue vermillion and maybe even cerulean too. It’s not the kind of painting we wanted him to do, but it’s his last work like Velvet Buzzsaw and we’ll have to take it alongside the rest of him too.
We always wonder if we can separate artist from the art and I think that conversation is appropriate for Michael too. We wonder whether we can ever separate the person we knew from his last act on earth. Violence is not the word we would use for Michael. And yet, it is what took him from us. There is no wisdom to take, just the knowledge that he can be many things at once. He can let the mouse run and also hold a gun.
Two weeks before, I told Michael I wasn’t afraid of the shotgun my husband left in our apartment. I still asked him to hold it for me because I just didn’t understand it. And it was a steel bogeyman in my home without the knowhow,
but I didn’t have the knowhow to have him in my home either.
And all I can see is the Michael that I heard at the gun range but without the headphones or eye protection and just barrels against barrel heads and houses and homes. I know I said I like true crime, but I didn’t know what it really meant to have true
time in my life like I do now. And the family members who I called bullshitters because how could they not know? But we didn’t know. And we love you.
So, I guess what fucks with me the most is the feeling that I could have called him in those few minutes and maybe he would have picked up. And maybe I would be talking to him through metal bars
instead of iron-laced tongues.
Maybe I wouldn’t be able to feel him shaking with fear and wondering whether it was better to be a spirit or in metal chains--
and many changes, but at least we could still speak with him.
When I search his name, I just get wedding photos and a LinkedIn profile--
And his smile. And Google remembering that when I type in Michael
it asks for shootings
and obituaries. And I just want some sort of reason. Some reason that I thought I saw him, trailing his poppies down fluorescent hallways, buzzing like they were waiting for him, just Michael to fire directly into tile floors pocked with flowers of that vermillion hue. Like I would find it in empty police reports that don’t even call him by his name. They don’t call his name like we do.
No, what fucks with me the most is the nagging feeling that I should have known. I should have known like the grass knows to move from a lightning strike. I hugged him two weeks before in my pajamas. He just stood in the door and gave me wine that I still can’t drink.
It just sits in the holder on my wall and I think--
if I drink it he’ll die again
Or I will lose the last remnants.
But now I’ve gone and made him wine and phantom ooze. I can still hear his voice in my head, his laugh. I can already imagine what it will be like to lose it like if I drank that wine and replaced the empty bottle in the rack like some talisman of violence and some sort of call back.
Because we still love him and know him. At least part of him, we do.
I wish I had understood him better and told him to lock it up. And maybe given him a better hug. So that they would both be whole and our group could be whole too. Like I could hold them both in my arms and he would just heal like we want him to--
Jane Marshall Fleming is a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Ocotillo Worship (APEP Publications, 2019) and Violence/Joy/Chaos (Rhythm & Bones Press, 2020). Her poetry, collages, and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Ghost City Review, Barren Magazine, Pussy Magic Magazine, and Honey & Lime, among others. She is currently a Contributing Editor at Barren Magazine and blogs at lunaspeaksblog.com.
* * *
By Harrison Geosits
I woke up in the stale air of an apartment sans AC. In the kitchen somewhere, Maggie was mixing the solution in a Tupperware bowl interchangeably used for cereal, keys, and hair bleach. In the place we shared our sophomore year, cold rays of morning light streamed from the only windows soldiering through the frosty January air. I stumble into the living room, because, without my glasses, the world reduces itself to exclusively shapes and colors. I knew Jon by his shape and by his color, by the smell of his warm skin and the grooves in his fingers and the feeling of his breath on my neck.
Stop, I thought, he’s the one who got you into this mess.
Suddenly Jon was in my life again, brought back this time by what must have been the scent of desperation; touch-starved boy. This time, it was Jon, pixelated and in technicolor and naked in the reflection of a dirty mirror, frozen in place by the flash of his phone camera. I might’ve seen a foot, his boyfriend’s, bare and in the corner of the mirror, if I had looked close enough. He didn’t bother with the small talk this time; he hadn’t bothered since the moment he knew he had me.
But I was the kind of person who didn’t look closely, not even when he knew he should, the kind who was often swept away in the urgency of Jon’s erection, high off another man’s desire.
Before that, I woke up in his bed—their bed—and the evidence of our tryst was already fading, splotches of red and purple under gooseflesh, stains on the sheets that I knew John’s boyfriend would clean. That’s when I got caught.
Before that, he called me from his dorm room, the one he shares with his boyfriend, where the beds are pushed together and the closets are interchangeable, where he moaned and panted and grunted into the phone as I described the way in which I would extract an orgasm from him, given the chance, if he ended things with he-knows-who.
Before that, he sent me a message, one line: I miss you. Then: He’s out of town.
Before that, we became “friends,” but only on the app that his boyfriend doesn’t monitor, and it’s then I should’ve known, and maybe I did know, that I was making a mistake, but how could I not pick the forbidden fruit that hung so low and appeared so ripe? It had been four years since the Branson hotel room and my still-blooming sexuality, since the first time Jon and I collided, since I turned him away and into someone else’s arms.
Before that, I ran into him—literally—in the cafeteria, flocked by his boyfriend and other jazz majors, their brass knobs and horns still slick with spit. It was physical, like it always is with him, two bodies colliding for a third time, this time with an audience, this time not naked, this time with his boyfriend and that looming title.
Enter Maggie, who knew I was gay even when I swore to our Freshman choir class that I liked her, like-liked her, and despite that lie she became my best friend anyways. I have fallen in love with a woman twice, and both times it was Maggie: once in high school because she was my only friend, and again in the first months of college because she was the only friend worth keeping. We were bound together by painful homecoming dances, by nights spent retching boxed red wine into the toilet of our first shared apartment, by joints rolled tight enough to make us forget our personal traumas. She knew Jon, and his boyfriend; in high school, they shared the same circle of friends (choir girls). Maggie was my moral compass, an unwavering force of nature, the girl who made me promise if I texted him again, there would be consequences.
“Are you ready?” she said, the bleach now sufficiently mixed, nothing left to stall us.
Sitting in the wooden kitchen chair that makes my ass stiff, I let my anxious hands fiddle with my phone, opening and closing the same four apps in an empty attempt to occupy my mind. Maggie places a hand on my shoulder, and I began a silent goodbye to the tangles of dark hair on my head, and then to him.
Bleach oxidizes all of the molecules in your hair, each midnight-black follicle scrubbed down, wiped clean, made good again. It burns the scalp, chemically, a particular sort of burn that is scarier than others, maybe because you did it to yourself—this is what you wanted, isn’t it? To change yourself irreparably, to finally change. I didn’t want Jon. I didn’t crave whatever cold comfort he might supply; even if we were together, really together, biblically, I would only be satisfied that he wasn’t with anyone else. It was envy, not desire. Deeply rooted within me was a strange and hungry compulsion to want what Jon and his boyfriend had, and to ruin it if I could not have it.
Maggie combed the poison through my hair carefully, meticulously, and I thought of those little ducklings in the dish soap commercials, drenched in blue, being scrubbed down by pretty volunteers in white shirts after one oil leak or another had left them dripping in pitch. After the spill, a thick, onyx-black muck had clung to their feathers, nearly killing them; the same black dread hung on me, a desire to have what others have in the elemental-sense—what Jon’s boyfriend believed he had. I never wanted to be blond, but the raven-haired boy in the mirror was one who still wore Crocs, still felt butterflies, still pined after Jon’s body and his boyfriend’s broken heart; I was irrefutably no longer him, I couldn’t be.
Finally, a tingle in my scalp came, a burn, the bleach setting in, and I thought:
Good, burn him away. He is not the person I want to be.
Harrison Geosits is a peddler of creative nonfiction, and an all-around decent guy. His work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Wildness, and The North Texas Review, and is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review. He is the editorial assistant for the American Literary Review, and prefers wine from a box. You can follow him on Twitter at @HGeosits.
* * *
Love Letter to My Pansexual Non Binary Identifying Child
By Suzy Ham
Thank you for trusting me with your journey; your exploration of this thing called life. You enlighten me daily with your exquisite uniqueness.
Last night at the kitchen table we (I, the one whose emotions flow freely from her tear ducts) reminisced about your last night of fourteen; you seemingly growing older before my very eyes; me not seeing a baby girl in you any longer; you not requesting a plate of whipped cream for breakfast and me secretly wishing you would. As per usual, at the close of homework you then found your way to the couch to snuggle our pup, and before long you were calling mama to come sit for a chat and a share. Typically, those moments when you call me – approximately seventeen times per evening - are for us to collectively swoon on how adorable our pup is. Last night was different though. Last night was you. Last night was new. It was me being introduced to how you see you.
It has been approximately thirty-six hours since you came out to me and I have to admit I am still reeling. But my reel has nothing to do with your real – it has to do with grammar. Yes, grammar. I have no fear or shame associated with the ways in which you find yourself identifying; I just feel a bit ridiculous for literally having no clue that you identified as anything other than a straight Scandi-Mexican female (yeah, I made that up). I typically think I am pretty intuitive about those close to my heart—especially my children—but you threw me a curve ball that was equally as shocking as your high-five in-utero when I thought I had lost you. Of course, your brother tried to claim bragging rights that he knew you before you knew you, but I know you well enough to know that you had this nailed down somewhere inside of you long before anyone but you knew and I won’t let him steal your limelight. And speaking of limelight and boy bands, can you see here where you bamboozled me? I thought that your obsession over boys in bands was the typical teenage fan-girl-gushing-about-boys thing, but I see now that it is rooted in something much deeper than a crush. I should have known that the hundreds of dollars we spent chasing your fab five around the country could never have been as innocent as you batting your eyelashes backstage. I get it now though – that community was a safe place for you.
But I digress, because what I really want to say is thank you for trusting me with your soul. You said you knew I would not judge or discard or hate when you came out to me. Honestly, I will take an ounce of unnecessary yet valid credit for having successfully provided you with the safe home I have always hoped to. However, I would imagine there still may have been a tidbit of fear floating around inside of you as you found the words to describe yourself to me. Bravery, courage and authenticity are virtues you have never been short on, and I am so incredibly inspired by your beautiful command of self.
Your concern in coming out to me, you said, was about finding the right words to tell me. You are no stranger to the eloquently spoken and written word, so I wonder whether the pronouns felt sticky in your mouth as you shared with me your preferences. I am not sure if you see the irony in this as I do, but asking me – who silently edits in my head while listening to others speak - to refer to you in pronouns that are grammatically incorrect is torturous to me on so many levels—none of which have anything to do with your identity, but everything to do with me being a writer, editor, grammar devotee. So while I practice replacing she and her with they and them, I get tangled up in a perpetual cycle of self-editing.
I have so many questions for you. I am curious how long you have known these things about yourself and if your identity and trying to figure out who you were had anything to do with your stifled feelings and physical folding into yourself to cover a body that maybe didn’t coincide with those thoughts. I wonder if that spell of (over the top, I want to punch you in the face but not really) tantrums we somehow managed to live through was at all related to the struggles you felt trying to express yourself in ways that were symbiotic with your understanding of the world at such a young age. Those kicked into gear between four and five though; did you feel like you were different at that young age yet not know why? I try to imagine what that might feel like and I visualize angry serpents at war inside your body and mind, and I want to hold and comfort and love that child in an endless cocoon of safety.
I want you to know that my curiosity is rooted in my desire to know you as you know you and to understand you as you would like to be understood. You have introduced me to an entirely new view of self-identity and invited me on an experiential journey I could not have without your trust. I am humbled. This past year has gifted me with a front-row seat to your explosion into self, and you continually amaze me with your unfaltering sense of knowing exactly who you are. I’d love to believe that I had some hand in your strength, but you, my child, have always been evolved in a way only you could be. And although I see snippets of myself in you, I mostly just see you.
From my perspective you don’t appear to be struggling with any of this (other than using the correct non-intuitive pronouns). What I see is a confident, self-accepting young adult who does not question anything about herself? themself? oneself. But if you do have legitimate fears or struggles or pain, I want you to know that I’ve got your back and will always be your mama bear. It has never been my nature to coddle and shelter you from the world. If I could, I would protect you and keep you safe from all the messiness that life has to offer, but life just doesn’t work itself out that way. Rather, it has a way of giving us the experiences we need to grow as humans and sometimes that growth can be painful. So I have done my best to infuse you with tools to protect yourself and fight back against any situation or person that threatens to take you away from yourself. As a result, you have your own self-worth on speed dial, and I find much comfort in that knowledge.
But should you find yourself trudging knee-deep through the inevitable mire of life, and in need of an excavator to help you back to solid ground, I want you to know I am here and I am honored to share your journey with you.
Suzy Ham is a writer, editor and general creative type who has been fascinated with words and writing for as long as she can remember. Her passion for people, life and the human experience fuel her pen. She is currently working on a collection of essays and letters, and you can read more of her written meanderings here: www.eyeofablackbird.com/journal
* * *
Portrait of a Friend
By Silvia Hines
"My brain is useless,” she says, her voice barely audible over the phone. I don’t know what to say. “I really like your brain,” I murmur, finally, lamely. She laughs.
Last year, her brain achieved a very respectable standing at Will Shortz’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, competing against the best wordsmiths in the country. This year, she told me the pain she’d been enduring turned out to be metastatic lung cancer, targeting the central nervous system. She died a month later.
We were twelve when we met, in junior high in New York. We sat next to each other in science class, where her absorption in the photosynthesis diagram I’d been staring at blankly inspired me to pay more attention. Also inspiring was her fearlessness in talking back to the teachers. I’d decided to give that a try, too, though with less beneficial results.
She says she’s fading now and wants to get off the phone, but I’m moved to keep talking. “Remember when we took horseback riding lessons in Van Cortlandt Park?” I ask. We were city kids, but she’d figured out a way for us to ride horses in the Bronx. “Yes,” she says, alert again. “We had to ride the horses across that busy street while the cars lined up to wait for us to pass. Was it Jerome Avenue?”
I’d forgotten that part, but I remembered following from behind on my horse while she rode up front with the faster kids. Decades later, after we reconnected in our sixties, she still led, sprinting up and down subway station stairs, laughing and calling me “tourist” when I stopped to watch a performer in the Union Square Station underground.
I’d left New York after college, but I lived close enough to join her frequently in Manhattan. She took me to a poetry-writing workshop at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea; to a remarkably inexpensive foot massage spa in Chinatown; to a comedy improv class at a loft near Washington Square; and to a play featuring a fictional encounter between Freud and CS Lewis about the existence of God, performed at a Y on the Upper West Side. These forays into the hidden treasures of New York made me feel I was in an O Henry story.
Until now, she’d completed the Times crossword puzzle every day without fail. Through the years she’d published numerous poems in literary magazines. When I asked her how crosswords and poetry can co-exist---one so left-brained, the other, right---she thought for a moment, then responded: “In both, you have to search for the exact right word; nothing will do but the precise word.”
When I turned seventy, she wrote me a wonderfully sentimental, decidedly nonliterary birthday poem describing our early bonding, followed by a half-century out of touch. It ends:
Finally they meet once more
as if no time has passed.
The tie they forged at 12 years old
still is holding fast.
At her own seventieth birthday party, she recited, from memory, Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which she said had exactly seventy lines. Her eyes filled with tears when she reached the final, famous line: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” How could I not have noticed before the bittersweet sadness of that line?
Silvia Hines worked as a freelance writer and editor for many years. She has published medical, health, and feature articles; short stories in Redbook Magazine; and most recently, an essay in Still Crazy and short fiction in Foliate Oak. She's concentrating now on literary short stories and personal essays.
* * *
By Ann Lehwald
Every morning for the last two weeks, in that space between sleep and wakefulness, I see the image of his fist connecting with my face. I am well beyond 19-years-old, my parents both dead, but until a week ago I never told anyone that my father’s upper cut connected with my face. “It’s not your fault” I was told. Of course, I know that now, but there is that ever-small part of me that does not totally accept that as truth.
It was a frosty, December evening and I was snuggled up on the sofa reading a book. A succession of shrill rings shattered the calm. I tried to ignore my mother answering the phone in the adjoining room. It was a short conversation. My mother urgently strode into the living room, her voice tense, but purposeful. “We have to pick up you father. He’s at the police station and he’s drunk.”
I looked at my mother in astonishment. “Drunk driving? They arrested him for drunk driving! Bet he’s having a fit about that!” Annoyed that his drunkenness was tearing me away from my book, I sprang into crisis mode and jumped off the sofa, scrambling around for my coat and car keys. In a flash I was out the door, my mother following me to the car, snow crunching under our feet. I got behind the wheel; my mother never having mustered the courage to drive. The black night was illuminated by the Christmas lights festooning the city streets, but any feelings of festivity were shrouded by a sense of dread.
I was only 19 years old, but that night I felt like the parent. I glanced at my mother sitting tight-lipped in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead. She looked so small. I drove with a calm I did not feel. The silence in the car was in direct juxtaposition to the incessant chatter in my head. “Who did he hit? Hope he didn’t hurt anyone. Will he be angry that he’s had to wait so long? What am I supposed to say or do? I don’t know anyone else who has been arrested.” It never occurred to me to wonder how I felt.
The police station was quiet when we arrived or maybe the sounds were just muffled like in a surreal movie. Overhead lights brightly accentuated the grimy, worn waiting area, the tile floor lined with cracks. There was a large wooden bench stretched against the wall. The reality that I was picking up my father at a police station still hadn’t totally registered. My mother approached a policeman at the front desk and tentatively gave him the name. He grinned. “Dominick! He’s a live wire. Laughing and singing. I’ll send someone to get him.” As my mother signed the paperwork, the officer apologetically whispered to me. “We wouldn’t have brought him in, but he hit another car and the other driver insisted that he be charged. He had his kid with him.” Before I could respond, my father staggered in, loudly joking and laughing. I stared at him incredulously since he was usually a nasty, belligerent drunk. He eyeballed my mother and me. “These gentlemen don’t want me to drive. Don’t know why!” He laughed and then started singing. The officer escorting my father jovially slapped him on the back and called him by his first name. Even my mother smiled and chuckled at his antics. Soberly watching this scene play out, I failed to see the humor.
The next morning, I shuffled into the kitchen still exhausted from last night’s adventure. My father was hunched over the kitchen table, bleary-eyed, hands wrapped around a mug of black coffee. Reality had smacked him in the face, and he worried aloud: “What if I lose my license? What if I lose my job?” My mother was obsequiously reassuring. I leaned against the counter as I dispassionately viewed this tableau of the morning after. With little sympathy I started to voice the feelings that had begun to thaw and spill out of my mouth. I don’t remember my words, but they struck a raw nerve. My father jumped like a snake striking, knocking over his coffee cup. I had little time to react before I felt his fist connect with my face and heard my mother yell, “Dom, stop! What are you doing?!”
I don’t remember what happened immediately afterwards. There is a gap in the story, and my memory skips to the scene where I was sitting in the emergency room holding an ice pack to my eye. The unspoken rule that one doesn’t talk to strangers about what happens in the family was so ingrained that I didn’t even consider honestly responding to the nurse’s queries, so I fabricated a story. My parents, who had been in the waiting room, drove me home in what was again an eerily silent car. Later in the day my mother told me not to say anything to my father about what had happened. “He’s had a rough day.”
No one ever commented on my black eye. No one apologized. I didn’t tell anyone about the arrest or the punch to my face. My father lost his license for six months, but no one really blamed that on driving when drunk. The guy he hit? Well, he was just some self-righteous prick who overreacted to someone who had a drink at the company party. But the story recorded in the family history book was how my father was so hilarious at the police station that even the cops were entertained.
Ann Lehwald received her MSW from the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Working as a psychotherapist for thirty-five years, Lehwald works primarily with adults who have a history of trauma. She is a member of the EMDR International Association and the National Association of Social Work. When not writing or reading Lehwald is hiking or travelling. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
* * *
By Cezarija Abartis
She separated his head from his body, that was the end of her brother.
He went and told Father about her passion for Jason. Foolish, foolish girl for talking. She and Jason would need to rush now, barely time to gather her recipes. She could remember most of her spells but had to leave her potions and ointments. Very well, she could make more when they got to their new land.
All forward life is a separation from past life, Jason said. Love is a journey, Jason said. Save me, Jason said and held out his hand. His fingertips burned hers.
Her brother snored on his pallet and rugs. He had killed her cat when she was little; she didn’t get another cat for him to kill; he had kicked her dog and laughed; she gave the dog away.
She imagined blood pouring from her brother’s neck, soaking into the quilts. He’d always laughed and talked too much. He would never tattle on her again. She gripped the handle of the sword, raised her arms high above her.
She saw before her, wavering as in rain: escape, watery journey, new palace--all dotted with red blood. She saw the choice before her. Stay in her family, or go with love. Her brother grunted in sleep. Save me, he said. She brought down the sword.
Cezarija Abartis has published a collection, Nice Girls and Other Stories (New Rivers Press) and stories in Bennington Review, FRiGG, matchbook, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. Recently she completed a crime novel. She lives and writes in Minnesota.
* * *
A Conversation in the Country
By Marcia K. Bilyk
I watched from the kitchen window as Pete pulled into our driveway in his red pickup. He put it in park and flicked a cigarette out the window. It landed smoldering on the asphalt.
“Hey, Pete," I said, walking toward the truck, "You scared me when you tossed that cigarette.”
“Ha-ha. Funny. What’s up?” He killed the engine, opened the door, and uncurled his six-foot-seven frame from behind the wheel.
“Ted’s not here, but he wants you to take a look at the barn’s foundation. The cracks are getting bigger."
“Tell your husband I’m on it.”
“Great. How’d it go in court?”
“Ah, the prosecutor had it in for me. She brought up my previous domestic. I told the judge I was mad because Jan was on me again about my drinking. I didn’t mean it when I said, ‘I could torch you and this place if I wanted.’ But the prosecutor told him about the gas can I was holding and my cigarette. Called it a terroristic threat. I’m on probation.”
“Frank’s on probation, too.”
“Troopers caught him growing marijuana.”
“Across the road from his house.”
“On state property? How the heck did they find it?”
“Their task force has a helicopter. They spotted his crop and hid a trail cam. They’ve got him on video."
“That’s a mandatory two years.”
“Yep. Twenty-five plants or less. His lawyer said there was nothing he could do. Then his wife borrowed money and hired an attorney who won some big cases against the state. Got Frank transferred to drug court in exchange for a guilty plea. He’s now a convicted felon.”
“Is he here?” Pete nodded toward my husband’s shop in the garage.
“No. He’s got drug court this morning.”
“County courthouse. He has to report every Thursday. Plus, he’s required to attend three 12-step meetings a week, go to individual and group counseling, and submit to random drug tests.”
“Me, too. A condition of my suspended sentence.”
“You betcha. Hunterdon County probation office.”
“That's a forty-five-mile drive.”
“A long way to go to pee in a cup.”
“Frank’s number came up twice last week. He’s lucky he works for Ted. Who else would give him time every week for court, plus whenever he gets called for a drug test?”
“I thank God every day I’m self-employed.”
“You should have heard me yesterday at the grocery. I spotted a guy wearing a DEA shirt. Told him about Frank’s felony conviction. Asked him why the DEA isn't going after the heroin dealers around here? They’re the real problem. The minister in town's fifteen-year-old daughter just died of an overdose.”
“Did you tell him you’re a minister?”
“I doubt that would have made a difference. He ignored my comment about the heroin. Told me the mandatory two years isn’t the DEA’s problem. The state legislature makes the laws.”
“You got guys like that bozo down the road? He made a ton of money dealing coke. Must have sucked in too much Agent Orange in Nam. He’s freakin’ mental. One day he’s your best friend, the next day he goes off on you.”
“I know. He tried to pick a fight with Frank a while back. Came storming up our driveway, yelling at Frank for driving too fast past his house. Called him poor white trash. Thank God Frank didn’t take the bait. He's in enough trouble already.”
“I’ll say. Gotta go. Tell Ted I’ll be back to check out the barn.”
“OK,” I said. “And Pete? Watch where you toss your cigarettes."
Marcia K. Bilyk is a retired UMC pastor, who lives in rural New Jersey with her husband and three dogs. Her work has appeared in Brevity blog, Compose Journal, Tiferet Journal, Five:2:One, Drunk Monkeys, Gravel, and elsewhere.
* * *
By C.S. Branam
My mother died a little over a week before we left. Lindsay had asked if I wanted to cancel the trip--spend more time with Dad. But the trip was already booked and the funeral was done and she was gone and there was little I could do for Dad or Kate or Michael at this point.
“You think we’ll be able to see it today?” Lindsay asked, looking over the shoulder of her neon green Marmot jacket.
“I don’t know. Be nice to see it at some point.”
Denali, that is. Lindsay’s aunt Rebecca, our unofficial guide, had hyped up Mount Denali, so that Lindsay had asked if every passing mountain since Anchorage was the famed peak.
Up to this point, it had evaded us. We had hiked to a ski chalet three days prior. An hour of marching through fireweeds and devil’s club led us to a narrow river and a ramshackle platform which served as ferry across by means of a rope leading to the opposite bank. The chalet had a piece of plywood across the door to keep out the dangers of the forest. Three jagged lines in parallel showed something had come, but couldn’t get in.
From the picture window, we should have been able to see the mountain looming over the lake below, but fog had made the mountains and sky melt into the same shade of gray. On our way out, I saw a moose jaw bleached white by the sun and the wide, deep paw print of the creature that left its mark at the chalet.
At Denali National Park, we endured a long and bumpy bus ride past where that Into the Wild kid died. When we got to the top, though, snow obscured the park’s namesake in a flurry of white like a busted T.V.
Lindsay handed me a water bottle from her backpack. “How are you feeling today?”
I hadn’t told her about the nighttime panic attack in the chalet outhouse. I’d bitten the edge of my hand to stifle a scream.
“You get any updates from your siblings?” she asked.
“Dad’s been quiet, but okay. They’re talking to each other about a retirement home.”
I should have been there, but what could I do for any of them? There was nothing to say. It is what it is, I told myself.They’d been texting me asking how I was feeling, too. I hadn’t responded. I could always blame it on bad reception.
Rebecca stopped ahead and leaned on her hiking stick. She stuck her tongue out in mock exhaustion. Lindsay laughed. I smiled politely.
“Just over this last hill. I promise!” Rebecca called back.
Lindsay gave a thumbs up.
“You know I love you?” she said to me.
“You know you can talk to me? About anything?”
We hiked in silence the rest of the incline. At the top, the ground plateaued. We stepped through a field of black, leafless trees standing silent and ominous. We’d learned on our way to Talkeetna that these were called ghost trees by the locals. During an earthquake, the ground dropped from under them, and saltwater got to the roots. The trees were dead, but they stood all the same like memorials of something.
We walked out into a clearing and into the sunshine. Rebecca had stopped and held her walking stick under her chin. Ahead, just a shade darker than the sky above--a royal blue to the heaven’s cerulean--was Denali. It was capped with white, unblemished snow. Even from miles away, it was possible to make out distant crags. It lifted and fell like lines on an EKG--green hills in the front and pale rocks beyond. It took up every bit of my periphery. In the field below, in a dried river bed, a moose grazed with her calf.
Lindsay’s hand rubbed circles between my shoulder blades. I bit the inside of my bottom lip and began to cry.
C.S. Branam is from Bloomington, Indiana, where he and his wife, Anna, own and operate a personal training business. He routinely publishes freelance articles on strength training and the sport of weightlifting. He studied creative writing at Antioch University Midwest.
* * *
By Laurence Davies
People should get busy buying cans. Sally Tarasco knows the arguments as well as the serious guys who make them up, those upper-level, bow-tied men who set the rates and oh so delicately balance the nation’s books. People will also need pouches of frozen vegetables (peas, carrots, corn, chopped kale and okra, Sally supposes), sackfuls of each kind of pulse and, while on everbody’s mind during the current heatwave, bottles (non-returnable) of water, largest size available. Then, to tease palates jaded with too much flaky tuna-fish and greasy corned-beef hash, savvy folk will want a cornucopia of mustard (Dijon, or ball-park if preferred), relish, pickles, and tomato sauce. Providing against boredom comes second only to providing against technical corrections to the Dow. Sally likes this part and, if she’d had any credit whatsoever, would throw in chili paste and mango chutney.
Informed opinion, also in bow-ties, teaches that the stores will bring a threefold blessing: food, warmth both in stacking and unstacking, and a chance to be kind to those less fortunate. Such kindness would diminish a person’s material, but not spiritual, supplies, although some economic theologians would contest the latter half of the statement, for the whole idea is to abolish charity as previously known. If everyone has cans, no one will have to beg.
Sally has a radio of her own, an old blender still good for soups of broccoli stalks and spuds, photos of her kid brother presently somewhere foreign with the army, three and a half dining chairs, a pension plan so rational it became a stripped asset, and a jangling lower spine that circumscribes her chances in the market. Yes, and a knowledge of the arguments.
The cans will educate. Printed in every color from navy blue to burnt siena, from verdant green to international blaze orange, furnished for those who have eyes to see with an interesting selection of facts about the contents, the labels can not fail to promote moral and aesthetic learning. (Verdant green makes an eloquent color for bow-ties; Sally learned that right away.) The smartest savers -- hoarders, that ugly word, is absolutely out of line -- the savviest, most farsighted savers can also learn some economics: the food-chain, commodity stability, winners and losers, the importance of investing warily.
Last but not least comes the housing benefit. Rinsed (in anticipation of those sultry summer days) and flattened, sharp edges trimmed, empty cans make dandy shingles, a real talking point among the neighbors, while cans still chock-a-block with goodies, especially the 32 ounce size, will rear a decent wall. Just wedge in some caulking -- a few strips of moss perhaps -- and a tidy but ingenious house awaits.
Sally Tarasco wonders how her dining chairs would fit and where would be an outlet for the radio and blender. She feels a little, just a little, sorry for the economic doctors, doomed, as she hopes, to be spurned and disappointed, their prescriptions torn up, their remedies poured down the nearest drain. Still brooding on that pension, she believes that folks will twist the doctoral vision inside out. Instead of buying food, they’ll pilfer it; instead of building retirement houses with the sacks and cans, they’ll turn them into barricades; instead of sheltering beneath the unseen hand, they’ll bite it till it bleeds.
Let’s not forget the frozen veggies, Sally thinks. She will start her savings plan with some of those. Icy cold or ripened till they rot, they’ll throw just beautifully.
Welsh by birth, Laurence Davies now lives in Scotland. He wrote this story while living in New England and exasperated by pundits on talk radio. Some of his microfictions have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Natural Bridge, Contrary, Café Irreal, and others have been podcast by Bound Off.
* * *
By Jeff Dupuis
Dad stood on the landing, backlit by the setting sun, his shadow stretching down the stairs. He was a big man and looked like a grizzly bear standing at the top of the stairs, waiting. He'd already changed out of his uniform and stood with the backs of his hands against the hips of his jeans, a glove on one hand and a ball in the other.
He knew that I knew he'd been standing there for the length of a few tense breaths. The sound of the TV failing to mask the creaking of the floor. Mom was safe, on the far side of the basement, turning it into an apartment. She’d wait until Dad and I went outside before coming upstairs and starting on dinner.
There was a show on The Learning Channel that I’d been waiting to see, about two scientists, a father and son, who had noticed a ring of a rare mineral called Iridium, common in asteroids, deposited along the strata of earth known as the K-T Boundary, a scar in geological time separating the age of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals. Mom said I could stay in tonight and watch it, that I didn’t have to go outside, but when the time came I was silent. Dad wouldn’t understand. Catch wasn't a game, it was practice and a ritual, the transfer of skills necessary for a boy to become a man.
The longer Dad had to wait the longer these games of catch would go on, so I kept my glove under the couch so all I had to do is run up the stairs and put my high tops on. If I took too long or didn’t show the right attitude, these lessons would stretch into the night, the sun sinking down behind the neighbor’s house and Dad and I tossing the ball back and forth in the cone of light from the streetlamp.
When Dad saw me come out of the rec room he backed out the screen door so that he could wait on the green, manicured lawn that he was so proud of. Gone was the scent of his aftershave. The day's toll was visible in his eyes. Tension kept his shoulders up half-an-inch higher than was normal. He had faced the worst the city streets had for him and made it home safely another day.
I didn't play sports and Dad didn't care to hear about dinosaurs and comic books. He worked long shifts and played softball with the guys from the station. When he had the glove on, he was the coach, cold and technical, full of pointers and clichés. It seemed like he chose the front lawn instead of the backyard so that the neighbors on their front porches could watch my weak or wild throws. Mr. Duffy across the street especially enjoyed providing color commentary with a bottle of beer in his hand on these late summer evenings.
Dad crouched down and opened his glove. I looked through the screen door, watching for Mom's figure in the kitchen doorway. At the dinner table we would have the post-catch debrief to break the usual silence.
"Show me your curve ball."
I'd forgotten the pointers he'd given me. The day before I'd lied about practicing against the back of the shed with the square that Dad drew with chalk to simulate a strike zone. When he didn’t come home at his usual time I went outside and played in the ravine behind our house.
Turning the ball up toward my face, I checked my grip.
"We don't have all night," he said.
My middle finger had to be inside the seam, I remembered that part, but that was it. The ball didn't look or feel right in my hand.
"Come on, Ben," he said.
I tried again, throwing the ball in a straight line, a throw more accurate than I could ever make on purpose, a throw I was proud of.
"No, no, no," he said, shaking his head.
"This is stupid," I said.
"Stupid?" he said.
Dad rose from his crouch and came closer. He stopped about six feet from me and looked in the living room. For a second he looked lost, vulnerable, like he was looking for some kind of reassurance through the bay window. Then he settled his eyes on me. His face was red, but still. His jaw muscles flexed.
"You want the other boys to pick you last? To laugh in your face and say you throw like a girl?"
I didn't break eye contact.
"I don’t care! They're stupid too! Baseball is stupid!"
Tears welled up and started to blur my vision, but I still didn't look away. He nodded, chewing his lips and wrinkling his nose. Dad looked down at his shoes, weighing the ball in his hand. His arm wound all the way behind his body. I caught a glimpse of the ball in his hand, for less than a second, before he released it at full speed. Then it was nothing but a white blur flying in my direction. I flinched bringing my glove up to my face.
The ball hit the ground near my feet with enough force to blemish Dad's perfect lawn, parting the buzz cut-blades of grass and slamming into the soil. It rolled between my high tops after making a small crater.
"I think a lot of things are stupid too," he said, ripping the glove off his hand as though it was burning his skin.
I watched him go back inside the house. I waited for the screen door to drift shut. The ball was still at my feet. If the ball had made a crater, I couldn’t see it. The grass already began to rise to its usual place, but still, it marked the end of one age and the rise of another.
Jeff Dupuis writes fiction, poetry and satire. He is madly in love with baseball and still daydreams that he can become a world-class athlete from the comfort of his basement. His work has been published in magazines and journals such as Valve, Spadina Literary Review and University of Toronto Magazine. His first novel, Roanoke Ridge, is available now.
* * *
By Caleb Echterling
According to Wilbur, all his employees were ignorant jerk-offs with the touch of Midas, except everything turned to crap instead of gold. After the latest colossal screw-up, Walter felt the company needed a collective facepalm, in the form of an individual palm to each employee’s face.
Walter took it upon himself to distribute the facepalms, under the theory that if he wanted something done right, he had to do it himself.
“Hey boss, quit smacking us,” they wailed. “Pretty sure that violates our rights, even if this is at-will employment.”
“Don’t make me come over there and smack you into next week,” Wilbur said.
Back in his office, Wilbur cracked open a best-seller from the latest hotshot management guru, What To Do When Your Employees Are Ignorant Jerk-Offs With the Touch of Midas, Except Everything Turns to Crap Instead of Gold. It mostly didn’t apply to his situation, but one chapter punched him in the gut.
That’s it, he thought, I need to use direct communication to establish exactly what I expect of my employees.
Monday morning, Wilbur wore a strap-on foam nose painted brown. “A circus at work? Great idea, Browno the Clown.” Wanna-be acrobats dangled out the window from the world’s largest beer bong. The lions, tigers, and elephants from accounts receivable jumped through hoops and balanced balls on their noses.
Everyone except Wilbur called in sick on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Wilbur arrived at work with a sprig of mistletoe mounted from his lower back. He gave his rear-end a jaunty swish to indicate where the festive kisses should be planted.
A grand huzzah arose from his minions. “A Christmas party in August! Great idea, boss.” Desk drawers flew open. Expired eggnog and Colonel Connecticut’s ‘Three C’s for the Price of Two’ Connecticut Bourbon Whisky flowed like a mighty stream. The reindeer from loading and shipping got so ripped, they all had red noses. The lampshades and knickers outlet store across the street was raided for holiday headgear.
Wilbur was the only one who did not call in sick on Thursday.
Wilbur got to work an hour early on Friday, a wheelbarrow full of two-by-fours in tow. When his employees arrived, there was a kissing booth installed in the break room with Wilbur’s tushie centered in the frame. In a deviation from the standard kissing booth business model, pecks on the cheek were free of charge, but tongue would set you back a buck.
“A carnival in the office? Great idea, boss.” Cotton candy machines were pulled from closets. Daredevils jumped into teacups and careened off the walls. Farm animals put aside the daily humdrum of working in the human resources department to form a petting zoo. A donkey ambled over to the kissing booth and licked at the cookie crumbs wedged into the crease of Wilbur’s slacks.
Wilbur’s shit went missing, as the saying goes. “You people are idiots! How can I make this any clearer? I want everyone to kiss my ass.”
“You mean Steve here?” An employee scratched the donkey behind his ears. “I kissed him at the Christmas party on Wednesday, and let me tell you … Bleegh, all teeth and no tongue. I won’t be making that mistake again.”
Caleb Echterling's work has appeared a few places, including Drunk Monkeys, X-R-A-Y Literary Journal, and Bartleby Snopes. He tweets funny microfiction using the inventive handle @CalebEchterling. You can find more of his work at www.calebechterling.com.
* * *
The Magic Garden
By John Hanson
I remember the garden in strokes and flashes rather than as a steady, revered image. It wasn’t very orderly but wasn’t quite dishevelled either, seeming to me, when I was two feet shorter than I now am, to be gleaming in every corner with fascination, fascination and even magic, though magic was not something I’d thought about a great deal, it being, rather than a storybook concept, a visceral and breathless current that gave my body a certain levity and something else I still don’t have words for, turning my perception to an angle that acted as a secret key to a secret gaze, allowing me to enter this fecund world, enter and join with it, if only for some hours.
Shamrock, emerald, seaweed, and any other shade of green you care to imagine surrounded me, which is to say, I was closed off from the world outside the garden by great leafy curtains, and even though I suppose, if I’d wished, I could have looked back at a shed and a house and up at a sky, the thought to do so never occurred and thus my overwhelming visual memory of the garden is of a shifting ocean of green gradients. There were of course other colours, though these were more particular, attached to different parts of it. There were Mackaya Bellas of delicate mauve-white petals, clusters of tiny orange gladioli, and many blue irises that had been planted without pattern and were liable to spring up anywhere.
Wet bark and plums coloured like port are also inseparable from my recollections. The juice of the plums used to smear my face like weak blood, and they tasted something like heaven and starlight stuffed in thin skin. Tree sap would irritate me, then I would wipe my hands on the wet grass (it was always wet, in my mind) and I would forget about it. There were tin sculptures of raccoons, otters, dogs and drakes, skeletal but friendly creatures with snouts and bills sticking out from the untrimmed foliage. Windchimes hung from a mammoth oak’s drooping branches, which canopied the garden and made it into a cavernous thing.
The flurry of leaves so entwined with these memories probably comes from the chasing games I used to play with my brother. Though we were aggressive kids who weren’t fond of each other, we never fought in the garden. Instead we tripped over and scraped our hands and knees quite a bit. There was a birdcage forever absent of birds, and a few nests. Once, an injured baby owl fell from the oak tree, into wet mud, around Easter time, and an older Hungarian man, I think a second or third uncle by marriage, knelt by it, cradled it, and tried to nurse it back to health, eventually surrendering it to the care of my grandmother, who cared for everything in that garden and tried to do the same with the young owl but in the end failed and who I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to say anything more about except that if I learnt one aspect of love from the garden then I learnt another aspect from her, but that’s a different story entirely.
John Hanson's work is in Bop Dead City, The Eunoia Review, The Literateur and some other places. He lives somewhere in Eastern Europe.
* * *
By Rich H. Kenney, Jr.
“Look at this sorry picture,” Millicent said, the day the holiday pictures came in the mail shortly before New Year’ Day, 1962. “My God, Melvin, there you are with that hapless look on your face: lost, lifeless, and little to live for.”
It was a photograph of Melvin standing in their living room between the Christmas tree and his treasured chair, a flea market find that Millicent found detestable. The first and only time she sat on it, nesting ladybugs inside the upholstery invaded her favorite housecoat in a big way. For months, she picked “the damn bugs” from its pockets and undercollar. Melvin, in an attempt to minimize the traumatic situation, pointed out that, at least, they hadn’t scaled the wall behind the chair leading to her prized and prominently-hung family plate.
It didn’t work. To her, he was just “lost” and “lifeless” with “little to live for.”
Melvin, though, didn’t see it that way. He loved his life and his wife. She was his angel, just like the treetop angel in the picture he had carved for her. Those were better days–when they were a team–when Millicent created their angel’s flowing gown. For the three years that they had been married, he felt he had been a responsible provider. He never took sick time at the factory and his weekly paycheck more than paid for their needs. It saddened him to hear her speak so critically.
“And you wonder why I wouldn’t stand next to you,” Millicent said in a cutting tone. “Our Christmas angel has more going for it than you do. Get a life, for cripes sake!”
Melvin decided to take matters into his own hands. He loaded tree, chair, and plate into the trunk of his trusty Bel Air and set off on what would become a life-changing odyssey.
In January, Millicent received an unusual picture postcard. There was the tree with all its trimmings, the chair in its godawful fabric design, the wall plate in its chintzy glimmer, and… Melvin.
The picture was a bizarre rendition of the one taken in their living room with the backdrop, this time, their hometown bank. While sitting in his chair, positioned crookedly on a mound of wood chips and leaning awkwardly toward the Christmas tree, Melvin gripped a smooth stick to which was attached Millicent’s plate. It looked like a big, butterscotch lollipop.
Millicent breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the plate. She seemed more concerned for the decoration than Melvin. The plate, after all, was an heirloom. Melvin was mediocrity.
Before discarding the postcard, Millicent noticed something in Melvin’s other hand. It was a check. The postcard’s caption read: “Got a Loan.”
The next day, another picture postcard arrived. This one, akin to the bank photo, was taken at his factory’s entrance. Melvin was holding a piece of paper. The caption read: “Got a Leave.”
The unusual postcards persisted. In February, there was one postmarked from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Melvin lounged in his chair while a ground hog ate lettuce from her plate. Millicent frowned. The tree had lost a few bulbs and branches but their angel was intact. The caption read: “Got a New Friend.”
In May, one showed up from Redwood National Park. With masking tape now covering several splits in his chair, the wear and tear of his journey, Melvin rested contentedly next to a skyscraping redwood with both angel and plate fastened to the tall tree’s trunk. Although there was no sign of the Christmas tree, there were signs of confidence and a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. The caption read: “Got a New Tree.”
Each month, postcards popped up: the Alamo, Mount Rushmore, the UFO Museum in Roswell… Melvin was alive- Millicent, aroused.
Then, in early December, Millicent received a package. When she opened it, she found her beloved plate. Taped to it was a note that read: “Got a New Life - Got a New ____.” She knew the rhyming word…
Tears of regret splashed her plate and housecoat. A moist ladybug crawled onto her arm. Millicent closed her eyes and flipped the note, knowing that the picture she was about to see, someone new, would destroy her.
Slowly, she opened them… to a blank page.
Bewildered, Millicent examined it again, oblivious to the racket outside. When she finally looked up and through the window, there was Melvin, perched in his newly upholstered chair, proudly waving their angel.
Out the door, she flew.
Rich H. Kenney, Jr. is an associate professor of social work at Chadron State College in Nebraska. Recent works include poetry in Plainsongs, fiction in Flash Fiction Magazine, and essays in Streetlight Magazine.
* * *
Twilight of the Alpha Males
By Paul Lamb
They like me because I give them what they think they want. The other shops in town won’t, but I will, so they support me. They’re all suckers.
My hands are tiny. That’s handy – ha! – for my job. Nobody knows more about mufflers and exhaust than me, but I know my way around an engine compartment too. Can make it sound like I know what I’m talking about to the right folks anyway. And if I can’t, I can usually blame someone else for whatever’s wrong.
And now this latest thing: Rolling Coal. All the young guys gotta have it on their pickups. Three or four a week, lining up with their money because I’m the only mechanic in town that will do it for them. Simple really. Just mess with the particulate filter and load more diesel into the engine than it can burn cleanly. Or install a smoke switch to do the same thing. The result? Thick black clouds of sooty, poisonous smoke spewing from their tailpipes on demand.
That’s the point, really. A big middle finger to the environmentalists. Show them libruls what for. Prius repellant, the boys call it. And they can do it too. Throw the switch, step on the pedal, and wrap a car beside them in a thick, toxic cloud of black exhaust. Or find some target on the road, pull in front of it, then fart their subtle politics. Can’t see. Can’t drive. Can’t breathe. While the boys hoot and holler and take off down the road. Their freedom ain’t gonna be messed with.
I suppose it is a kind of political statement, as much as these boys comprehend politics anyway. But it’s stupid. Stinks. Wastes fuel. Makes a mess. Pisses off a bunch of people. Just being contrary is their only point because they don’t know anything better. Finding their tribe and not feeling so alone. Feeling like the big dogs for once. Pollution porn is what it is. Motorway masturbation. Vice signaling. And I can give it to them. I monkey with their trucks a little and laugh at them as they go, counting all the money they throw at me.
The law will catch up, and soon I expect. No doubt something illegal about it already. But the boys will go on about rampant environmentalism and gubment restraint on their freedom and losing our honored way of life and all the usual phrases that they substitute for thought.
I don’t care. If this kind of butt hurt keeps bringing in customers, I’ll take coin from the gullible while I’m able. Still, what can you think about folks who so eagerly poison the air they must breathe? They’re fouling their own nest. I don’t even want to think what their underwear must look like.
Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his Ozark cabin whenever he gets the chance. His stories have appeared in Aethlon, Magnolia Review (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Halfway Down the Stairs, Bull & Cross, Little Patuxent Review, and others. He rarely strays far from his laptop.
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Abstract Artwork by Alan Garfoot
Alan Garfoot comes from a small steel town in the industrial northeast of England called Scunthorpe; where he posters his poetry and abstract artwork around the town as street art on phone boxes, electricity boxes and abandoned buildings. He is also a student Social Scientist, Philosopher & Psychologist who's wish is to one day return to full time University study to further investigate and comprehend the subjects he loves for as long as he can afford it.
Photography by KJ Hannah Greenberg
KJ Hannah Greenberg captures the world in words and images. Her latest photography portfolio is 20/20: KJ Hannah Greenberg Eye on Israel. Her most recent poetry collection is Mothers Ought to Utter Only Niceties (Unbound CONTENT, 2017). Her most recent fiction collection is the omnibus, Concatenation (Bards & Sages Publishing, 2018).
Photography by Edward Lee
Edward Lee's poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll. He is currently working on two photography collections: 'Lying Down With The Dead' and 'There Is A Beauty In Broken Things'. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Lewis Milne, Orson Carroll, Blinded Architect, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.
Photography by Anne Marie Warner
Anne Marie Warner is a Chicago Carpenter's daughter perched in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 2018 her photograph Broke Open Tree was exhibited in Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two others were published in Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment. She holds a B.A. in Journalism & English from Taylor University.
Collages by Bill Wolak
Bill Wolak has just published his fifteenth book of poetry entitled The Nakedness Defense with Ekstasis Editions. His collages have appeared recently in Naked in New Hope 2018, The 2019 Seattle Erotic Art Festival, the 2019 Dirty Show in Detroit, and The 2018 Montreal Erotic Art Festival.