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Foliate Oak December 2017
The Roar of the Sea
By C.W. Bigelow
“Don’t let go!”
His screams are swallowed by the roar of the sea. Surging waves toss the sailboat around like a sapling in the wind. The storm front swept in with no warning, grabbing the sails, lifting it high above the surface. He grabs Bobby’s arm as they grapple with the gale – unshielded against the pelting rain ricocheting like buckshot off their skin - while the craft is hurled back into the surf. Smacking the down-slope of a swale, the boat flips, driving the mast into the ocean like a spike.
Bobby’s arm is slippery. The darkness is one of death – no evidence of light, just finality. He feels his son but can’t see him as they tread against the surge of the ocean along the keel before Bobby slips from his grasp.
“I’m up here.”
A shadowy image of his slight figure appears across the stern as he struggles to climb over to the starboard.
“If you don’t get him out today, it’ll be ‘til next summer. That will be two full seasons! And remind me why we bought this boat?” Ellen doesn’t look at her husband.
The sky shimmered coolly over the calm ocean as they pushed the sailboat offshore, Bobby screaming with delight, his thick sun-kissed curls contrasting with his tan wiry frame – and the biggest concern was finding enough wind to power the boat.
“I can barely see Mom,” he laughed, beaming as they slowly traversed the weak ripple of the current. Her figure on the beach steadily shrunk from view.
Ellen was right. She usually was. There was always something to prevent him from taking Bobby out, and it wasn’t as if he didn’t like sailing, especially with his son, but work, chores, something always got in the way. How many evenings in the warm dusk he commented on what a great day it would have been for a sail?
“Sailing is a perfect way to develop a relationship with your son,” Ellen reiterated. The conversation was replayed over and over. “I’m really getting sick of saying it” she stated into the magazine in front of her face.
His will to survive diminishing, losing the battle with exhaustion; he was seduced by the idea of slipping into the cold water, for the first time understanding the attraction of death. Beneath the furious waves there will be calm, quiet, where he can relax the wrenching tightness in his legs and arms. The aching numbness in his fingertips will disappear.
Then he’s struck with the image of Ellen. Her response would be fierce, even dead he knew somehow it will reach him. Ironic that this was her idea today; he isn’t putting the blame on her, as she always says he does. It was his idea for the boat. She, as usual, in her very logical, thrifty way is just trying to get pay back on the investment.
Extended across the keel, back muscles in spasm; the waves continue their onslaught on his limp legs. His mouth and nose are flooded with a steady stream of salty froth; he sputters and chokes with each gulp for air. He is swallowing the sea.
“Keep your grip,” he screams at Bobby.
What kind of father is he? All this constant internal wrangling is about him. Has it always been about him as Ellen claims?
They’d begun the day digging a drainage ditch together. That’s what Saturday’s are for. When else is it going to get done? There is no money to hire anyone else and doing it alone is dangerous, so he is faced with no choice but to enlist Bobby’s help. He probably could have been more cunning in selling him on the idea. His father never pitched any work. Just do it. Way before Nike’s time. It was part of growing up, part of his responsibilities as a son. What kind of father was he? Did he shed any tears when the old man died?
The gloom lifts and he watches helplessly as Bobby wages his own conflict against the sea, blonde curls matted tight across his forehead, thin arms stretched like rubber bands as he frantically battles to keep his grip on the boat. A glare of concentration is etched into his eyes under the flexed brow. One hand slips rendering him vulnerable as the waves hurl him into the side, forcing a grunt that is a wake- up call.
As if watching a movie he inhabits Bobby’s anguish, sneaking into his concentration to find that he too, is thinking of death, a concept so terrifying, but so vague, it presents itself as mysteriously attractive. It is the one thing Mom refuses to discuss with him. So it couldn’t be good. She never shies away from anything – no matter how brutal, except the subject of death. Whenever he asks about it she frowns. “It is something we can discuss when you are older, more mature. Young folks shouldn’t have to worry about death.”
This realization infuses him with adrenaline. What is a son, but a line of continuation? Immortality is only achieved through the survival of the seed. The history of the Cape is jam-packed with tales of countless fierce fishermen who fought valiantly only to lose to the omnipotent sea.
Hand over hand, struggling against the lashing sea that at its whim is either a killer or a provider. A few feet forward before being flung back by relentless waves, hands burning as they chafe across tiny barnacles. The salty spray continues filling his nostrils, stinging his eyes until, spewing and spent, he lunges and seizes Bobby’s hand just as he drops beneath the choppy surface. Power surges through his veins, and charged by new reserves, he watches from outside his body, as, in one motion, yanks his boy from the water and flings him over his shoulder with a massive heave, letting loose an anguished scream of victory against the thunderous ocean.
Bobby digs his nails deep into his father’s back, scurrying onto his head like a frightened cat up a tree, imagining warm sunshine, a calm breeze and the scent of his mother’s apple pies. Their cries of triumph rival each other’s.
The pain of his fingernails ripping into the already scraped skin of his bare sunburned back inspire and enable him to focus, realizing that if the pain vanishes, it is likely they have too.
Clinging to the boat with one hand and Bobby the other, he fights waves of dizziness and urges to vomit, but refuses to surrender.
Bobby becomes a toddler tightly grasping, brewing a feeling of eternity, the command of fatherhood, which he uses as the power to set him safely onto the keel. Succumbing to the overwhelming exhaustion, each muscle folds up with atrophy, he gulps a deep breath and slips into the waves, calmly sinking into the deep while peering up at the shrinking boat. The silence away from the roar of the sea is soothing, until he hears faint voices.
“Dad! Don’t give up.” He sees Bobby’s small hand piercing the water’s surface.
He kicks, suddenly deciding to fight. Each kick drives him hiring, but are exhausting until his legs cramp and turn limp and useless. He sinks again.
“Why do you suppose he was trashing like that?” It is Bobby’s voice.
“It will be just a matter of minutes.” This is an unfamiliar voice.
“Is he suffering? Ellen asks.
Is who suffering? He looks toward the surface of the ocean but he is too deep to see the surface. Darkness smothers him.
“The morphine will allow him to sink away peacefully.”
He feels hands upon his arms just before all feeling ends.
After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states, both east and west, before moving south to the Charlotte NC area. His short stories and poems have appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Potluck, Dirty Chai,The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories, Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Five2One, Yellow Chair Review, Shoe Music Press, Crack the Spine, Sick Lit Magazine, Brief Wilderness, Poydras Review and Anthology: River Tales by Zimbell House Publishing.
* * *
By Linda Brown
I wish I could tell you that Mattress Marty was the new Freddy Kruger or that Mattress Marty was this fabulous porn star I once dated, but I can’t. Mattress Marty is a 20x20 metal building with a dozen or -so mattresses displayed. The life of a good mattress is 15-20 years. I lasted six days.
My job was to sell mattresses. If I remember correctly, in an advertising class I once took, the act of selling requires a second party, a buyer. Buyers were non-existent at Mattress Marty. I would have settled for lookers, but the few lookers never took the time to become buyers; and therefore, I never became a seller. It didn’t matter. The concept of monetary exchange for products or service was not in the job description at Mattress Marty.
I never quite understood what I was to do with my time each day. It wasn’t like I had been given the responsibility of guarding valuable merchandise, but I must admit I fantasized about being robbed. Several days, I thought about calling a thief and telling him how easy the job would be. I didn’t know any thieves, so the call was never made. The two customers I had on the third day were too respectable, so I never mentioned my robbery idea to them. It would have been so easy. The vast parking lot was always empty. I was always alone. The cash register was never locked. No change was ever given, so the daily $200.00 start up money was always in the cash register. I certainly would not have called 911 to save damaged mattresses, but the excitement would have been a welcome distraction. It just wasn’t in the cards for me. No one ever robbed me. I stayed bored.
That isn’t quite true. Mattress Marty employed a helper for me, another concept that escaped me. What did I need help with? I opened- up each day with a key I had to keep on a “springy” coil bracelet around my wrist because the door lock was really broken. I just went through the motions of pretending to open- up and close. I liked to think it made the “owner gods” feel better. My helper never seemed concerned that he never helped. He would just be waiting outside the store to enter each morning after the opening ritual. I honestly don’t think he ever understood he never helped. His presence did relieve some of the boredom at Mattress Marty.
Duane was his name. Duane, the insane, was more like it. I don’t know if Duane had trouble telling time, or simply didn’t have anything else to do; but, he was always early and would never leave. Even on days I told him he could go home, he wouldn’t leave. I got tired of explaining that he would get his hours. He didn’t have to stay. His help was not needed. He just sat in his chair and played games on his phone. I didn’t dare ask what games he was playing. The thought of conversation with Duane was more disturbing than his presence. In fairness, he was a nice kid who lied. I learned quickly not to believe a thing he said. Upon our first meeting, I asked the usual getting- to- know you- questions. His outrageous answers were fascinating until I tried to organize his outlandish stories in my mind for future reference and realized none of it made a bit of sense.
Duane was insane. According to him, he caught dozens of sharks off the coast of Florida hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic, sky dived by himself in California (the lessons cost $1500), and talked all the time to his sister in Iraq (he just met her last week). He did all of this the week of his vacation that he spent in Wisconsin. I didn’t even bother to ask how this was accomplished. Duane is insane.
I am so thankful I only lasted six days. That seventh day would have been too much for me. Six days left me weak from lack of physical activity. I sat all day. Six days left me slightly disoriented. Solitary confinement will do that to you. Six days left me pale and drawn looking. The blinds didn’t open. Six days left me skittish. Silence and darkness generally have that effect. Six days with Duane made me appreciate my mad Aunt Bertha who had been locked up in Whitfield for years. One more day at Mattress Marty and Aunt Bertha would have had a roommate.
The last day I worked at Mattress Marty was a world- wind of activity. From ten am till 2:30 pm Duane took out one small can of trash. About 2:40 I was startled out of my boredom induced stupor by the opening of the door. A customer walked in, actually it was four customers. I jumped to my feet, smiled from memory, and delivered my otherwise long forgotten line, “Hello, may I help you?” I quickly deduced the four customers were two couples. The elder couple was easy to pick out. When I started my spill about the better mattresses lasting twenty years, they said it didn’t matter. They wouldn’t be around for twenty more years. I laughed with them. I hoped that was okay. It had been so long since I had interacted with my fellow human beings. Duane didn’t count. It felt so good. I remembered how to speak.
Duane never got up. He must have over exerted himself taking out the trash. I worried about how hard it was going to be on him, if I sold a mattress, and he had to help. He had never helped before. What took place next is not totally clear. I remember a petite white -haired lady jumping around from mattress to mattress lying down on each of them and calling for Earl to come lie down beside her. He couldn’t seem to keep up. Just as soon as he had his poor old body positioned beside her, she was on to the next mattress calling for him again. I don’t think the two of them ever were on the same mattress at the same time.
Adding to the energetic determination of this octogenarian was her slightly younger daughter yelling, “Not that one Mother, it looks dingy. Come try this one.” The son-in-law kept interjecting that name brands meant nothing today. It didn’t matter if it was Sealy, Beauty Rest, or Sterns & Foster; they all were made by people overseas you couldn’t trust, and the names had been switched. As soon as he said this, I imagined newly made little mattresses being switched at birth. How awful. He kept talking over his wife saying, “That Sealy she likes is probably a Simmons. You know they switch the tags.” Nobody was listening to him. I kept thinking, “What the hell is he talking about.”
About that time, the older woman who had been trying out the mattresses collapsed on one. I don’t know if it was the one she really wanted, or she simply couldn’t get back up. She called to Earl across the room trying to get off a pillow-top to not bother. She was getting this mattress. Of course, at that time the son-in-law, who pointed out that the Sealy she had decided on was probably a cheap Beauty Rest, noticed that the box springs did not match. They were the same size, but the material was different. One had a diamond design with etching. The other had a plain diamond design. I almost panicked. My one and only sale could not fall through because of mismatched box springs that no one would ever see. I found myself thinking of those horrible people over seas that were switching mattress names and forgetting to stitch the diamond designs on box springs. How could they do this to me! Was it the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Chinese? Maybe it was the Bangladesh! I never decided on which foreigner to blame. The son-in-law yelled at the top of his lungs that he had found two that matched.
About that time, Duane decided to contribute to the bedlam by jerking the mattress off the box springs. He said later that he didn’t see the little old lady lying on her recently selected mattress. According to Duane her white hair and pale skin blended into the mattress top. At least, that’s what he told the ambulance driver when the emergency medical technicians came to get the old lady who had broken her hip. Earl had to wait for the next ambulance. When Earl’s wife went flying across the room, Duane knocked Earl down as he was trying to get the mattress around a corner. Earl suffered a mild concussion. By the time I got Duane’s attention he had the mattress outside waiting to be loaded. He seemed truly dumbfounded when I told him to put the mattress back inside. He told me that was not necessary. When the ambulances got out of the way, he would load the mattress. I calmly, through clenched teeth, tried to explain to Duane that if we were lucky the customers who left in the ambulances would let us keep not just the mattress they had intended to buy; but, we would be able to keep Mattress Marty. Duane said that he didn’t want Mattress Marty. I let Duane live another day.
The eighth hour of my sixth day was painfully slow in coming. Things had calmed down since the ambulances left. Duane had given up on loading the mattress he hauled outside. I had faxed an accident report to the home office. I wasn’t about to call and try to explain what had just happened. Someone might ask questions. They wouldn’t believe what I had to say anyway. I didn’t even believe the account of what had transpired here at Mattress Marty. I finished my last day with a bang, the bang being the sound of a customer’s bones snapping and a skull cracking.
Duane seemed unaffected by the fiasco he had caused. He had resumed his position in the chair staring trance like at his phone. I was busy closing out the cash register and preparing to leave. I was almost through counting the twenties when Duane asked me a question.
“Miz Linda, he said, “do ya think Mattress Marty will buy me a new phone? I musta dropped mine when I was trying to load that mattress for that old woman.”
Without a moment’s hesitation I answered Duane, “In addition to asking for a new phone, I think you should ask for overtime, Duane. Your job is to load the mattress, not to have to bring it back in.”
Duane said nothing for a few minutes as he seemed to be thinking about what I had just suggested. “You’re right, I’m gonna ask Mattress Marty for a new phone and overtime. I’m even gonna call Mr. Earl. He forgot to tip me.”
I was at a loss for words. I could only think, Duane is insane.
Linda Ruth Harvey Brown waited until she was fifty to graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi with highest honors. Her stories are inspired by her six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and her love of laughter.
* * *
Vengeance is Born by Ashley Crisler
Ashley Crisler is a high school American Lit. teacher. She is a MAPW graduate student at Kennesaw State University. Ashley enjoys cuddling on the couch with her two cats (and sometimes her hubby) and a hot cup of coffee while watching Korean Dramas.
* * *
By Allen Forrest
In the early AM a VW bug was heading south on highway 101 in northern California when its rear passenger side tire blew. Jack, a young man in his 20s, pulled over and stopped. The second flat in less than 12 hours he thought and without time to fix the first one there was no spare. Getting out to inspect the damage he saw the tire was beyond repair, being old and worn, the blow-out made a large gash in the tread.
He said to himself, “I need some new tires. Where am I going to get them around here?”
This part of the country was nothing but redwoods and mountains on all sides. The mountains were really just big hills, but because they were so close they seemed tower over you. Just then another car rounded the bend heading in the same direction. Jack waved his arm. He was lucky, the car stopped.
“Flat?” said the driver.
“Yes and my spare is flat also. Any chance I could get a lift to the nearest service station?”
“Sure. Kelly’s is just up the road a few miles. He can fix it for you.”
Jack opened the driver’s door, pulled the hood release, then fished around in the glove box for his wallet, pulled out two twenties and put the wallet back. He carried the spare over to the man’s car, who’d opened his trunk, put it in and they drove away.
“I would guess you’re a long way from home...saw the BC plates.” said the man.
“Yes. I wanted to get away. The weather in Vancouver gets so depressing: gray, gloomy, rainy,” said Jack.
“How far are you getting away to?”
“Not sure, anywhere the sun’s shining.”
“You’ll need to head inland. We’re so close to the coast, it’ll stay pretty cloudy here this time of year.”
“Yeah, like Redding, there’ll be plenty of sun. It’s a desert climate. You could go back north, then take the highway east.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Hope you’re car will be okay. I’d hate to leave anything out here.”
“Well, you hear stories, still, I guess you won’t be gone too long.”
This bit of news gave Jack an uneasy feeling.
They arrived at Kelly’s. The driver let him off with his tire, which Jack rolled in to the station and leaned up against a wall. He walked into the office. The station attendant was hunting for something behind the counter, he looked up.
“Can I help ya?” he said.
“I need a flat fixed. What’s your repair schedule like?”
“I can fix it this morning, give me 30 minutes. I charge $10.”
“Okay. Say what’s the nearest town?”
“Well, Redway, but Garberville is larger, it would have more to offer.”
Jack nodded, looked at his watch, then began to stroll around. Garberville sounded good he thought. He’d go there for breakfast, but first things first, get the tire repaired. With only an occasional vehicle driving by, it was a very quiet Saturday morning. He looked up that those mountains, again came an uneasy feeling. Another car heading south pulled in for gas. A tall long haired man got out. He pulled down his rear license plate, opened the gas cap behind it and started refueling.
“Morning.” said Jack.
The long hair man nodded, but didn’t return the greeting.
“Say, did you pass a blue VW just up the road a few miles?” said Jack.
“I had a flat and had to leave it there. You see a man was telling me you have to careful leaving a vehicle unattended out there. Did it look okay, I mean was there anyone else around?”
The long haired man shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, then looked away and kept to his refueling. Jack could see he didn’t want to talk. He finished, put the gas cap and hose back, then went inside to pay. He came out got in his car and drove away. Jack watched him leave, he noticed the man hadn’t put his license plate back up, so you couldn’t read the number.
The man at the station fixed the flat.
“Have you got any tires my size for sale?” said Jack.
The service station attendant perked up, he said, “Well, let me check...how many do you need?”
He stood on a small ladder and leaned sideways looking along a row of tires on an overhead rack.
“These two are your size.” he said.
“How much are they?”
“$42 a piece. So $84 plus tax. I tell you what. I won’t charge you for installation.” he said.
There goes the trip money thought Jack, after breakfast I’ll be heading home, not to the land of sunshine.
“Sure. That sounds good.”
Another vehicle pulled into the station, also from the north, an elderly couple in an old Dodge pick-up truck. They looked like typical grandparents out for the mornings errands. Jack rolled his tire near the road and stood waiting for a ride, any ride.
The old couple looked over at Jack. Then the old man got out to put in gas.
“Mother, there’s a man who could use a hand,” said the old man.
“Do you think we should give him a ride?” said the old woman.
“I don’t think it would hurt.”
“We’d have to be careful.”
“Yes, we would, but I think we could chance it.”
“Well, it’s up to you, but we don’t know what he might do.”
After gassing up, they drove over to Jack, the old man leaned out his window.
“Need a ride?”
“Thanks. I’m just up the road a few miles.”
Jack put his tire in the back of their pick-up and got in. The old woman moved over on the front seat to make room as they drove away.
“Car trouble?” said the old man.
“Yeah. Second flat in a row. Used my spare yesterday so I had to get this one patched. I shouldn’t have gone on this trip with such old tires.”
“Got to be prepared, you never know.”
“You live around here?” said Jack.
“Sometimes. Me and mama move around a bit. It depends on how things are going. We’re not much for the city, prefer the country.”
They both smiled at Jack. He looked them over. They had to be in their sixties, there was a resemblance between them with their pudgy dough like features they could have been brother and sister. Around the bend, Jack’s VW came into view.
“There’s my car.”
The old man pulled over. Jack thanked them, got out, and went around to the back of the truck. There was a large faded blue tarp covering a bunch of things in the flatbed. As he lifted the tire a corner flap came up exposing something red which looked familiar. Crossing, he turned to the old man and said “Would you mind waiting a minute? I might need help getting the lug nuts off the rim.”
“I’ll just go up and turn around,” said the old man.
He drove away. Jack wondered why he didn’t wait.
After crossing over, he saw his driver side corner window was broken. The contents of the car were missing: sleeping bag, back pack with his clothes, boots, groceries and some books. Over on the passenger side someone had been trying to break that window as well. There were scratches on it, a big rock laying nearby on the ground. He checked in the glove box, amazing, his wallet was still there. Whoever robbed him must’ve been in such a hurry they didn’t bother to look.
The pick-up never returned. Jack wondered why they didn’t come back. He might have needed help.
Though the lug nuts were hard to budge, he was able to get them off by standing on the tire wrench to break them loose.
Back on the road again he gazed up at those mountains. They were kind of spooky, maybe that’s what made him feel so uneasy. Then suddenly he realized what what’d been sticking out of the tarp in their truck: his red back pack! Those sweet looking old folks were the thieves, hard to believe, but there was nothing else for it. Why did they offer to give him a lift, they could have just driven away? Did they feel bad about what they’d done and decided to help their victim? Or was it to watch him, maybe even get to know him a little, like a cat playing with a mouse before killing it or in this case before he found out his misfortune. Did it give them some sense of power? Or was it their private little joke? He could only speculate. After buying the new tires, and without breakfast, Jack turned around and returned north. He never made it to Garberville.
Allen Forrest is a writer and graphic artist for covers and illustrations in literary publications and books. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University's Reed Magazine for 2015, and whose Bel Red landscape paintings are part of the Bellevue College Foundation's permanent art collection in Bellevue, WA. He lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
* * *
By Patrick Hackeling
In 1780 the asking price of a box of spoons was less than a box of forks. Poor people didn’t drink tea, my guess. Supply and demand. But in 2017 that same box fetched for just over a million USD. And yes, poor people today drink tea if they’re of the habit, but the correlation ends there. And while we’re on the matter I don’t believe a single member of the O’Reilly family has been known to order a tea at Mimi’s, the artisan coffee place we folks go to when McDonald’s runs out of black. No, they’re coffee-drinking people like the rest of us. Except they get theirs when it’s still beans. So who knows, maybe they are a little fancy pants!
Anyway, gossip has it—and I’ll tell it quick, see if I can’t beat this old talker bothering Mrs. Shanahan at the clerking booth--
“They don’t do stamps for bowling balls, Mr. Healy!”
Sorry about it. Mr. Healy’s a mean old widower who until his wife died was a wonderful funny man. Don’t you hate it when people pretend?
So the O’Reilly’s came into a bucket of money late last fall. It was an unusually warm year so it may have been winter. Mr. O’Reilly had just passed on and I counted fifteen people at his service. My Frank had twenty-seven but he was a “one-term mayoral candidate” as he called it on account of the four years he spent getting people’s words for it. Then Election Day comes and let me just say Mr. Healy ain’t the only one slithering out there in the cold pockets.
There were fifteen people like I said and I knew all of ’em ’cept for one. Man had a briefcase and watch he kept checking but not really reading. He took the other three O’Reilly’s including the hysterical missus into a back room while we stood around guessing if Mama O was off the wagon again. Everyone kept saying things like, “Poor dear,” which ’round daybreak turned kinda funny when all over town you got people blathering, “An ex-ca-what-now?” “An excavation, Mr. Healy!” I had to tell him twice before he’d leave me with my flowers. They’re hydrangeas mostly and ain’t supposed to grow here which I don’t buy. Just gotta be extra kind to ’em. Save ’em from the bad juju like what Mr. Healy trots with him.
“A million dollars!” was the next thing we all were saying. Most of us, impressed and feeling good for the O’Reilly’s but a lot said things like, “Won’t believe it till I see it,” and “Wait till the taxman gets ahold.”
And sure enough the taxman did pay ’em a visit but Mrs. O’Reilly—with only a little pink in her nose—got a lawyer and it wasn’t even Chad Hutchins or his boy. No, these fellas looked sharp and talked to where the only direction is down.
“Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand,” is what the last thing I ever saw about it said. In the papers, clear as day. No more talk of zilches and billions, pie-in-the-sky and pots to piss in. $999,000. In a family that since I known their granny (the children’s, not the missus’) folks would say, “Better wash up real good should y’ever take Communion again.” That mighta been why the missus turned to the bottle (or so they say; truthfully I never talked to her slurred). Would explain too why Mr. O’Reilly come to be found with a belt on and jeans down to his ankles.
But the real question I’m left wondering, and wondering too why no one cares to talk about it, is why their great-great-great buried the silver and why no one till now bothered to dig it up. Rumor has it that’s the reason for their whole curse. Nine generations of suicides I’m told, and maybe now God’s seen it fixed. Oh there’s Mrs. Shanahan waving me at the window.
“Finally!” I’m fond to tell her.
“What do you mean finally?”
“Oh hush now, Mr. Healy. It’s a beautiful day, you got your health and your bowling ball mailed. Ain’t that a million dollars?”
Patrick Hackeling is an award-winning filmmaker from New York. His films have won Best Picture at the Take Two Film Festival (2016), the Oregon Underground Film Festival (2015), JumpTheCut Film Festival (2014), and been nominated at the Garden State Film Festival (2016), Hoboken International Film Festival (2016), and more.
* * *
Just a Few Things from Walmart
By Russell Helms
Just a few things from Walmart. Just a few things from Walmart. Mr. Tedeschi taught sixth-grade science, an able man in his thirties, shy, divorced. He turned left and drew into the vast parking lot. No trouble whatsoever. Just a few things from Walmart. Cat litter, salad in a bag, coffee, frozen fish filets, and grapefruit juice.
He pulled his spotless black Nissan Versa into a space, but not near the buggy corral. He remembered what his mother would say. Well, God has given us this parking space. He had a satchel in the back seat and pushed it behind the driver’s seat. He felt for his wallet in the front pocket of his new jeans. Was he getting a cold sore? He glanced in the rearview mirror, but couldn’t tell. It was dusk and dimming. He could feel the darkness waiting to descend and hurried toward the home-goods entrance.
Mr. Tedeschi hoped the greeter would not be there, but he was. He waited for a large woman with PINK on the bottom of her sweat pants to take a buggy, and he grabbed one, testing the wheels. Buggies that pulled left or right were not good. The buggy pulled left, but someone was behind him, a couple, the man in a black leather jacket even though it was in the eighties. Mr. Tedeschi prepared himself to meet the greeter. Would he speak? What would be his response? The greeter was a young guy in a wheelchair with blue hair.
Mr. Tedeschi looked straight ahead and the greeter just spun around and stared at him. A glance registered between the two. He felt that a crossroads had been passed and bore left for the cat litter, passing the pharmacy and aisles of toothpaste and vitamins. He turned his buggy but almost hit another. He pulled back as if shot, his mouth dry, his look surprised. The woman mumbled that she was sorry. She was short, wearing a sleeveless t-shirt with a baseball bat on it. Mr. Tedeschi swallowed and backed up, perhaps too far. The cat litter in heavy forty-pound boxes was just there, within reach, and he hefted a container into his buggy. Next, he looked forward to the long walk from Pets to Groceries, but scanning ahead saw that he would pass at least three people. He’d forgotten his shades and practiced relaxing his eyes, a look of unconcern, just shopping, just like you.
The first he passed was a man was gripping his buggy like an eagle on TV. Mr. Tedeschi felt him pass, looking at the cat litter in his buggy. That was okay, right? To just be looking at one’s stuff? Minding one’s own business? That’s what his mother would have said. Just be mindful of your space. Let the others slide by. No need to get in too deep.
He fought the buggy wanting to go left and glanced inside small coolers at the heads of checkout lines. He was able to forego eye contact with two teenaged girls in flip flops, each holding what? He missed it, but it was best to stay focused on what he came to get.
First was the salad in a bag. It came packaged with cranberries and pumpkin seeds and a packet of sweet dressing. He liked sweet dressing. There was a woman there wearing a halter top and he veered right to pretend and look at the potatoes. He glanced at his shoes to make sure the laces were tied.
With his salad, he turned into the first aisle with coffee up ahead on the right. His mother had never liked coffee, and he felt guilty as he placed the bag into the buggy. A man in a motorized scooter turned the corner, and Mr. Tedeschi pulled back, a lump in his throat. One never knew the suffering of others. He made a silent promise in his heart to remember the man in prayer and turned the corner into the wide aisle that ran beside groceries.
As he passed each aisle, he glanced down each one, glad that he would not have to pass the shoppers there. Just a few things from Walmart. He wondered about his glasses. They were almost seven years old, the paint rubbing off the frame. He squinted his eyes at a sign for tomato paste, but he could read it so all must be well. He passed the beer aisle, slowing just a bit, wondering what alcohol tasted like. He paused ever so much and saw a large man wearing a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. There was a boy with him. The boy’s haircut looked homemade and the man was talking in a loud voice, as if he wished to engage those around him. Mr. Tedeschi hurried along, a slight sweat emerging on his brow.
In frozen foods, he avoided looking at the ice cream. He’d once bought a pint of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie and had eaten the entire thing while watching a crime show. He recalled the strength in his mother’s grip as she lay dying in the nursing home, panting for breath, squeezing his hand. Frozen fish fillets.
He opened the freezer door and retrieved the bag of ten filets. The price was a dollar cheaper than Publix. He recalled that he had plenty of ketchup and realized that he was almost home free. Grapefruit juice. His father had never returned from Vietnam, taking a wife there and making cream-colored children.
At the back of the store, with the yogurt and juices, Mr. Tedeschi paused to let a woman with freckles pass. He could see the outline of her breasts beneath her gingham top and swallowed, staring into an open freezer at bags of frozen chicken nuggets. His mother would knock the oxygen tube from her nose, and he would replace it. A minute later he had to do it again.
With his grapefruit juice secure in his buggy, he walked with purpose, gazing at the items he had selected. He made it the full width of the store without encountering anyone and felt that he was on a kind of vacation. A great peace enveloped him. Now, which cashier to select, and a thrill ran from his tailbone to his nose.
He didn’t like the self-checkout. Too many surprises. He pushed his buggy and glanced into each of the open registers. Too many people in that one. He paused and examined number eight. The light was on, indicating that it was open. There were no items on the conveyor belt, but there was the man in his cut-off t-shirt and the boy with bad bangs. Despite the warning bells, Mr. Tedeschi pushed his buggy into the lane, being enfolded in racks of magazines and chewing gum. There was no turning back. The man was talking, a bad sign. The boy seemed to be engaged in a private game involving his hands.
Mr. Tedeschi kept his head down and moved the items from his buggy one by one onto the black belt. The cashier seemed to be engaged with the man, and was that a manager there as well? His heart sank.
“Look, I tell ya. That card worked just fine just a few minutes ago. I bought a dollar’s worth of gas.” The man gesticulated wildly, his eyes sweeping the store.
The cashier and the manager glanced at one another.
“Look, I’m good for it. Just need a little help, that’s all. Just ring me up and I’ll be back in a jiffy. My ex owes me some money. I promise. I mean I look good for it, right?”
The twelve-pack of PBR sat on the metal counter. The boy was asking him something.
“Oh, hell, this kid is a mess. Maybe you can call Child Services. Hell, I bought him a baseball glove here last week. Don’t that count for nothing!”
Mr. Tedeschi felt weak in the knees, but what could he do? He’d made a terrible mistake. And then he made another, glancing at the man and making eye contact. The bottom dropped out.
“Hey, fella, you got Paypal? I just need some cash here. I’m good for it. If you have Paypal, we can work something out.” He was moving toward Mr. Tedeschi. The boy was back at his game, flying an imaginary airplane.
Mr. Tedeschi examined the coffee and wondered if maybe he should offer it to this man. He would pay for it and give it to him. He gripped the buggy’s metal lattice.
“What? Cat got your tongue?” said the man. His name was Cecil Whitmire. He was on parole for running his girlfriend down with his beat-up car. He’d pinned her to a garage and sat on the horn while he cursed God.
“Sir,” said the manager. “We can work this out if you just come back with some cash or maybe another card.”
“Well, damn, this fella looks like he’s loaded. Come on, man, a little help?”
Mr. Tedeschi wondered if his feet were touching the ground. He let loose one hand and raised it as if answering a troubled demon. “I, I…”
“So, do you or do you not have Paypal? That’ll solve everybody’s problem, and I can just be on my way, except I need some more gas. I live in the damn country. What do you say, fella?” He moved to within four feet of Mr. Tedeschi, sweating in the cool air, his arms laced with homemade tattoos.
“Sir,” said the manager.
The cashier was biting her fingernails.
Mr. Tedeschi cringed, clawing at his memory for a response. He remembered his mother taking back a case of pork and beans because one can tasted bad.
“Well, just fuck it then!” said Cecil. He threw up his hands. “Come on, boy.” The two swaggered away, looking back, Cecil talking to everybody he passed, asking them if they had Paypal.
Mr. Tedeschi managed to move forward, his face sallow, the blood squirming in his veins. He made a slight smile and rejoiced as his items made their way over the scanner, one at a time.
“Sorry about that,” said the cashier. She had a tooth outlined in gold.
“Oh,” said Mr. Tedeschi.
“That’s twenty dollars and fifteen cents.”
Mr. Tedeschi tried to remember what was next. He panicked, worried that he’d forgotten his wallet. He felt his back pockets. Nothing. He felt his front pocket, and it was there. He let out a small whimper. With hands shaking, he inserted his card, staring at the little machine.
Getting outside seemed like floating on a cushion of bad air. He took in the whole parking lot as if it would swallow him. Still shaking, he focused on the spot where his car was parked and walked there with great purpose. Next to his car was a ragged Ford Pinto without a license plate. The boy was in the driver’s seat. The window was rolling down.
“Hey, fella, remember me? You got Paypal don’t ya! I can see it in your eyes.”
Mr. Tedeschi’s mother had finally passed, smothered, gasping for air, her firm grip going smooth and relaxed.
Just a few things from Walmart. Just a few things from Walmart.
Russell Helms has had stories in Le Scat Noir, Bewildering Stories, Drunken Boat, and many other journals. He holds a lectureship in English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His novels Sprinkle Cheese, Famine, Fortune, and Knob are with Sij Books.
* * *
By Matthew Hoch
Mike’s Honda crushed leaves and branches as it rolled to a stop among a sea of cars. “Here we are,” he exclaimed, waving his hands in a ta-da motion.
Sarah smiled from the passenger seat. “Ooo la la,” she said, touching her cheeks in exaggerated excitement. “The infamous Under the Moon Drive-In. Feeling brave, are you?”
“You know the legend about this place?” she asked in a jocular tone.
“For lucky couples, it’ll show you your future together. Or something like that.” Mike punctuated his statement with a nonchalant shrug.
Sarah raised her eyebrows. “That’s what I hear.”
“Maybe tonight, we’ll be that lucky couple.” Looking at Sarah, Mike wished the impossible legend was real. After simply four dates, he felt a rush of hope that was long overdue. He surmised her fantasizing about a possible Thanksgiving together, though months away, meant her feelings could be akin to his. Even the inner cynic in him thought it had all the fixings of a promising future.
“Mike,” Sarah let her head fall onto the black leather seat, “I don’t need any magic movie theatre to tell me I’m excited about us, but you’re sweet. And a dork. A sweet dork.” Her lips found their way to Mike’s smiling cheek.
I really wish I knew this was going to work out, Mike silently pleaded.
Splash appeared on the massive outdoor movie screen. “See, Michael, just a legend. Since you’re curious, I’ll tell you. I like you,” Sarah said, her green eyes smiling at him. Surprisingly, Mike felt a tinge of foolish disappointment at the absence of their forecasted future.
The screen started to glow a blinding yellow that lit up the night sky. Looking around, it appeared no one else at the drive-in noticed. Cars were filled with people who looked like they were watching a movie. Mike’s breathing increased as his eyes widened. Sarah gripped his hand, exhaling gravely. The screen started to project images that would become their memories. He couldn’t respond, frozen in incredulity.
The future began to unfold. They would be having dinner in Mike’s apartment. His black dining table would hold red candles that held up tiny flames. Balsamic chicken, a dish Mike would learn to impress Sarah, would rest on white plates. Scented candles would make the room smell like jasmine. Anticipation would race through Mike’s body as he watched Sarah chew. After a sip of wine, he would say, “I don’t know why I’m so nervous, but, well, guess what? I love you.” She would stop chewing and look up at him. “You’re so amazing. I love you. I feel like I never really knew what those words meant until you.” He would stare across his circular table while the candles swayed back and forth, beating out his moment of vulnerability like a metronome.
Instantaneously, tears would fill Sarah’s eyes. “Mike, I love you so freaking much! I was so scared to tell you!” She would get up, run over to him, and jump on his lap. She would whisper, “You’re my forever,” in his ear.
He would whisper back, “You’re mine, too.”
She would spend Christmas with his family, crying tears of joy—the reds, greens, and blues of the tree lights reflected in her eyes—as she opened Mike’s present. It would be an antique watch that once again ticked to the correct time.
Mike didn’t understand what he was looking at. Sarah had yet to tell him about her grandmother’s watch and what it meant to her. He could see Sarah failing to conceal tears. Brushing them off her cheeks he said, “You’ll still have to act surprised.”
“We’re gonna fall in love!” Sarah exclaimed.
He held her close. “Of course we are.”
They would find a two bedroom apartment. “Gray? Really? It’s a bit drab, no? What about blue?” Mike would say to Sarah while they stared at the white walls of their empty apartment.
“You can paint the walls of your restaurant blue. Gray’s very in.”
Mike would find himself brushing gray onto the walls of the apartment they would call home. “You’re so trendy now,” Sarah would say, splashing a tiny amount of gray paint on him.
Mike would feign anger and playfully tackle her to the floor. They would kiss. They would roll around. “You know, this’ll be easier when our mattress comes,” Mike would joke.
“I don’t want to wait till Tuesday,” Sarah would purr, bringing his lips back down to hers.
Mike looked over at Sarah. “What’s this movie rated?”
“Oh come on, don’t lie. You think it’s hot,” she said, running her fingers back and forth on his arm.
On their second anniversary, they would exchange framed photos, giving each other the same photo: a picture they took together in Mike’s car after watching Splash. They would lovingly laugh at the duplicated presents. “This is when I knew I was going to fall in love with you,” Sarah would say.
Mike smiled and looked at Sarah blushing in his car. “Oh really?” he teased.
“That weird girl on the screen said that. I didn’t say anything.”
“Me too.” He pulled on her red t-shirt, leading her toward him for a kiss.
The mood of their movie shifted. Sarah broke their intimacy when she noticed. Mike looked at the screen with apprehensive eyes. He reached over and placed his hand in her waiting palm.
Mike would be sitting on their white couch, staring at their throw rug, trying to squelch the anger rising in his body. Sarah would be pacing the living room, her hands on her hips.
“Did you forget how to talk over the last three years?” she would ask him.
He would just shake his head.
“If you remember how to talk, why aren’t you, Mike?”
“What do you want me to say?” he would scream, surprising himself.
“I’m sorry if I wasn’t as fun as you wanted me to be at Jenny’s birthday!”
“You knew about her birthday for two weeks! You couldn’t just suck it up one night and come hang out with my friends without passive aggressively digging at me!”
“I didn’t do that.”
There would be a moment of silence. Sarah would stare at him with hatred. Mike would fidget and ring his hands together. He would hate himself for hating her. “You seem way too comfortable in a prosaic life. You used to be romantic. You used to have passion. Now, we’re just roommates! We exist!” Sarah’s eyes would flood with tears as she looked away.
The room would feel stale, empty. “You act like some small town celebrity since becoming a reporter.”
“Did I steal your thunder?” she would ask, interrupting him.
But he would continue, “Never ask about how I’m doing. All you care about is if I’m up for one of your social activities. Insult me for being boring. Apologize to your friends that I’m so dull, and promise I used to be fun. What, if you don’t mind me asking, is so romantic about that? What grand gestures are you doing?” He would stay fixated on the floor, unwilling to make eye contact with her.
“I’m unhappy. I’m unhappy, because you’ve disappeared,” she would say matter-of-factly.
“Want me to get you more Tito’s?” he would respond through clenched teeth.
Sarah would scream. She would punch the wall they painted together. “So smug, aren’t you?” She would compose herself and look at him with a defeated glare. “What are we holding on to?”
“It’s just a fight, Sar.”
“No. This is what we do now. This is us. It’s awful.” She would let out an exaggerated laugh.
“God, I used to love that laugh. It was all I could think about. I hate it now. It’s so in your face.”
“If I were you, I’d be more concerned about that aberration on my face!” Mike’s hand would graze the small mole on his left cheek she once said made her love him even more. She would let out another exaggerated laugh. “Jason loves my laugh,” she would declare.
“I bet he does.”
She would look away, like a child who had been caught stealing.
“Mike! Seriously?” She would cross her arms. She would not laugh at this. She would apologize with her eyes before storming into their room. The loud slam of the door would startle Mike. He would get up, walk into their room, grab Sarah’s grandmother’s watch, and shatter it on the floor.
“What the hell?!” Sarah would scream, grabbing a book off her nightstand and throwing it at Mike. He would not flinch when it hit his chest. Softly, he would turn around and leave Sarah with thin, dried lines of mascara painting her cheeks.
She would be alone. Sarah would pick up the book she threw during their fight as she listened to their front door open and, then, close. Outside, Mike’s footsteps would grow faint and disappear. She would place the book back on her nightstand with care. Once it was back in place, she would begin to cry.
The movie ended.
Mike and Sarah were no longer holding hands. “That took a turn,” Mike said, breaking the contemplative silence.
She nodded. “Seems like we were really happy, at least, for a little while,” Sarah recollected. “That part was nice.” Tears started to escape her eyes. “I don’t want you to hate my laugh. I don’t want to hate your mole.”
“I don’t want you to sleep with some guy named Jason. He sounds like a jerk.”
A diminutive laugh escaped Sarah’s mouth. “Yeah, he does.”
Mike wished it was nothing but a legend. It hurt knowing the future would refute their promise. Impetuously, he yearned to have ownership of the memories that flashed before him. “I don’t want this to deter us. We looked so happy. All that happiness, it has to account for something, right?”
Sarah’s eyes shifted around. “But our ending isn’t a happy one.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself look so happy, ironically.”
“Yeah.” A gust of air fell from her lips. “What happened with your last relationship? Did it feel like it would be forever?
Mike bit his lower lip. “Yeah, it did.”
“Where is she now?”
“I don’t know.” He rested his head on the window. Heat rippled against the glass. “All I know is when I look at you, I don’t want it to end.”
“But it looks like it will, and we’ll be surprised how much it hurts when it all goes away,” Sarah said, the memory of loss embedded in her words.
The warm summer air continued to seep into the car. Mike felt the cool breeze from the air conditioner hit his arms. He was hot and cold at the same time. Searching for his next words, Mike didn’t see her move toward him. It was as if she had teleported to his side. As he raised his head, there she was, pressed into his shoulder.
“Let’s take that picture we give to each other on our second anniversary,” she said with hesitation.
Mike smiled. “Are we idiots?”
“Absolutely.” She let her laugh fill the car.
Holding his phone out in front of him, Mike snapped the foretold picture.
Sarah rested her hands on Mike’s cheek. Her eyes traced his face.
All the fights, the loss, and the heartache he saw on the screen flashed before his eyes. When those images dissolved, all Mike saw in front of him was Sarah as she was then. The girl he met at Pine Street Bar. The girl who would become his sweetest downfall. “Should we head to your place?”
“I think we should.”
Matthew's fiction has appeared in Mulberry Fork Review, Down in the Dirt Magazine, Fiction on the Web, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Flash Fiction Press, The Bookends Review, Sick Lit Magazine, and Sobotka Literary Magazine. He has a BFA from Syracuse University and currently lives in Los Angeles.
* * *
By Art Lefkowitz
Professor Jarrod Ellery Worthington III was driving to the airport to pick up his nephew, Richard. As he drove, the professor was already regretting his decision to tutor his nephew, for two weeks this summer. Jarrod’s younger brother, George, begged him to take his son for a couple of weeks. George explained that Richard was eighteen and had been conditionally accepted to his local community college.
Professor Worthington was chairman of the Literature and English department at the expensive, small, elite Hampton College in Kansas. At six-foot one, thin, with a penchant for bow ties and suits with vests. Professor Worthington, always fastidiously dressed, sported a graying crew cut and steel rimmed glasses.
The college mainly catered to wealthy students unable to qualify for the Ivy League schools. Large oak trees and small buildings dot the campus. Bicycle paths, jogging trails, ponds and gazebos are scattered throughout the meticulously kept grounds. Two weeks earlier, Professor Worthington received a phone call from his brother, George asking a favor about his son,Richard.
“Ya see, Richard is a diamond in the rough and needs your guidance and sophistication before he steps onto a college campus,” George explained.”
Richard’s high school diploma was awarded much like a prisoner who is given time off for good behavior. The school board reasoned that while it was true he hadn’t learned anything in the past four years; it was also true he simply hadn’t made any trouble for anyone.
The professor now stood at the security gate as the passengers exited the aircraft. He scanned all the faces for his skinny little nephew. Suddenly, he became aware of a short, fat young man wearing his baseball cap sideways and food stains on his t-shirt, walking toward him. Could this be the cute, introverted, skinny nephew I met on my trip to New York seven years ago? Oh, dear, I’m afraid this is Richard.
“Heeey Duuuude,” Richard bellowed as he raised his hand with an open palm to high five his uncle. Jarrod, believing he is about to be slapped, took a quick step backwards. Richard lowered his hand which the professor shook nervously. Jarrod stared at his nephew and said, “Neither ‘hey’ nor ‘dude’ is a proper salutation. I suggest you address me as, Uncle Jarrod or Sir. Richard laughs, but doesn’t say anything.
The trip back to Hampton College was endured mostly in silence. The professor advised his nephew, “The world evaluates a person by the way he speaks and by his ability to communicate distinctly.” Richard had heard very little of the advice because he had an MP3 ear bud in one ear, a Bluetooth phone in the other, and a ‘kill-them-all game on his laptop. When they arrived at the campus, Richard asked “Hey, man, where are all the chicks?” “If you mean young poultry, they are on the farm. If you are referring to coeds, they have rejoined their families in Aspen, Paris, or wherever they may happen to be for the summer,” the professor replied. “Aw, bummer,” the whined the nephew. “If you wish to express disappointment, or dismay, perhaps you might say, ‘I am deeply dissatisfied,” the professor advises.“Dis what?” he asked with a quizzical look on his face.
The following day Professor Worthington took Richard to the library to learn if his nephew had even a passing interest in art and culture. He asked his nephew to look through a book of famous paintings. Richard flipped through the pages only showing interest in paintings depicting nudity. When they left the library, Richard was delighted to learn that games and movies could be checked out.
That evening Jarrod ponders, this child is an oaf, a Neanderthal doomed for the balance of his life to dispense french fries or perhaps to hand out salacious circulars for ‘gentlemen’s clubs’. How do I tell my brother his son has the IQ of a rock? The professor then decides ‘Silence is Golden’ is the best path to follow in this situation.
All attempts to enlighten the oaf were pointless. Professor Worthington reluctantly gave up. The next two weeks went by quickly, Richard spent his days in a dorm room listening to heavy metal bands at full volume while smoking weed and emptying the vending machines of candy bars.
Jarrod was jubilant on his return trip to the airport. After dropping off Richard at the airport, the professor would board a plane to visit his grandson Charles, at Harvard. The previous two weeks were disastrous. Imparting knowledge or culture to his nephew was futile. Professor Worthington said goodbye to Richard and thought perhaps the world would somehow benefit from him selling Gucci knock off purses from the trunk of his car.
As his plane rose in the sky, Jarrod smiled as he leaned back in his seat recalling the chess games he played with his Grandson who was captain of the debate team at Harvard. The professor eagerly looked forward to his arrival in Cambridge where his twenty-one year old Grandson, Charles would be there to pick him up at the airport. He graduated this year manga cum laude from Harvard with a degree in political science and a minor in fine arts and literature.
As the professor exited the aircraft, his joy turned to disappointment when he spotted Charles waving frantically and calling out, “Heeey Duuuude.”
Art Lefkowitz is a first time author.
* * *
Dictator in Carne
By Willem Myra
The wife is a people-watcher, a non-place connoisseur. Lately she'd go to Termini once a week and stand in the middle of the train station, arms crossed over her chest, eyes scanning the crowds. I asked her why. I know some people like to get surrounded by the masses because that puts their lives in perspective, allowing them to better cope with everyday problems. Others, more on the creative side, prefer to make up backstories for everybody they meet, to invent a name, a past, a career, a future death cause for every unknown face they encounter. Me, I engage in a little game I like to call soul swapping. I picture others in my shoes--how would that muscley gentleman react were he to experience one of my boss's tantrums--or me in other people's lives--would I be able to deal with that many children, with thinning hair, with living in a country that wants me to leave or worst to die.
"None of the above," the wife answered.
"Then what do you do," I asked, standing there, like a nail planted in the middle of a river?
"I listen to myself," she said. "To my selves," she added. "It's still difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that I'm not one but a multitude. A few months back I read about these experiments on split brains. Some epileptic patients have had the neurons connecting their hemispheres cut off for medical purposes. What doctors found out is that no longer connected, the hemispheres started acting like two different persons. As though each with its own, distinctive consciousness. Asked a question regarding something the patient had done, each hemisphere motivated the action in an unrelated way--the left hemisphere did this through talking, because that's where the linguistic area resides; the right hemisphere through writing. How terrifying is that? If I gave you two completely different reasons as to why I went driving today, and if both were true for me, or for the me's that make up who I am. And the split brain is not the only experiment that sent me on an introspecting journey. For example, did you know that you have a second brain? It's located in your guts and, among its various tasks, it supervises the digestion and it influences your mood, too. It's a fully operative brain, with way more neurons than a rat's. This is the cause of much of your stress-induced reactions. Those butterflies in your stomach? That's where they originate. Doesn't that give you goose bumps? Viruses, bacteria, ovaries. Who knows how many consciousness reside in my body whose existence I completely ignore. Who am I really? The sum of all these entities, or just the one who got lucky enough to dominate them? I'm an anthropomorphic collection of bubbles--they each want to float a different direction but I'm forcing them to stay here, to do my bidding, which causes them to burst in soapy drops and me to go hunt for more. I'm a poetic tyrant with power of life and death over my parts. Which reminds me. I once read about a philosopher who thought suicide was a natural impulse. I was a sophomore in high school, so it must've been someone from Ancient Greece. Empedocles or Leucippus. Or, or, or maybe Democritus. Yeah, Democritus makes sense. He divided--this philosopher whose name I can't quite put my finger on--reality into two categories: organic and inorganic. He stated that everything is inorganic at first and organic in a second time, that there is a process through which matter gains consciousness. That's how life appeared on Earth. I'm oversimplifying it, but basically given enough time a rock could change its composition by ways of weather agents and become part of a living being. Maybe it was Freud who said it. Anyway, suicide, to him, whoever he was, is nothing more than a vibration, an atomic whisper prompting now-living matter to go back to the previous phase in which it was still and unaware of itself. That's because with self-awareness comes pain. The organic matter deep down on a cellular level remembers when it used not to suffer and wants to go back to that state. This desire clashes with the entire organism's need to survive, eat, and procreate, generating mental problems such as depression. I might have butchered a little the whole concept, but to me it sounds reasonable. Modern science refuses the idea of cells having a will, but I believe otherwise. Granted, my words carry no weight, I'm no expert, I'm only speaking based on what I personally experience. Yet it would make sense that cells were in their own way self-aware. It'd explain cancer. Where most of the cells forming an organism feel the need to reverse to a non-being state, some of them get influenced by the organism's will to live, and try to obtain immortality. And they do. They split and split and split until they're everywhere, causing, involuntarily, for the organism to get ill and for the suicidal cells to get a step closer to their goal. It's scary. A part of you wants to die. A part of you wants to live forever. And you have the ability to satisfy both, yet either path comes with a tremendous cost. I frequently ask myself if I'm somehow a dictator. If I'm enslaving all these consciousnesses inferior in size to mine, or to the one I identify myself with, making them do what they don't want to. If my arm wants to be gravel again, who am I to oppose it? And if my colon longs for immortality, should I fight it off with chemo or let it fulfill its desire even if that means the end of me? And would it really be the end of me, or would I also live forever as my DNA gets passed around inside millions of cancerous cells? That's what I do in Termini every Sunday. I ponder about self and life in general. I try to understand if I truly exist. If there's any real difference between life and death. Sometimes I scan the crowds in search for someone else as equally aware and terrified of this whole situation. I search for people wandering aimlessly, looking for a way to cope with the conflicts and contradictions making up their many selves. For people whose tissues and organs and minds all scream different things. Though, to be honest, I'm not always strong enough to watch multitudes struggle. Sometimes Termini is not the right place for me to mentally be. In those days, I go elsewhere, to some long-forgotten train station. Like Zagarolo. I sometimes go to Zagarolo. It's refreshing being there. It's got something to it, that place. Standing in the middle of the second platform, music pumping in my ears, staring away from the one or two souls awaiting there for a raison d'être. Staring at the emptiness and the endlessness of the railroad. The nobodiness of it. The blotted out parts of the city and the sky framing the background. Makes me feel one. Atom-sized. Unimportant. Driver of my own existence and dictator of none. Yeah, I like it there. I like Zagarolo. In this day and age of ubiquitous uncertainty, Zagarolo puts me back together and tells me I don't have to make my mind about anything right now, that I do have the time to close my eyes and just enjoy the cicadas sing their melody of confusion."
As my wife concluded her confession, I didn't know how to respond. I was flabbergasted. Ever since, whenever she goes out, I rummage the house in search of further proof that she's become a pothead.
WM is a Rome-based author. His work has appeared in Geometry, Litro, The Airgonaut, formercactus, and elsewhere.
* * *
Cherry Cheese Knish
By Rochelle Shapiro
There’s this older woman who walks the boardwalk, no matter the season or temperature, wearing a long, black Borgana coat buttoned to the collar. Her face is barely lined, but there’s a dark, amoeba-like sunspot on her left cheek where she used to pencil in a beauty mark. Her eyes are the blue of the crayon children choose to color a lake. Her cheekbones are high, her nose straight. “Fineness of features,” they used to call it. But you can’t see her face very often. She mostly looks down at her weather-beaten shoes, as if someone might snatch them off her feet.
The woman always stops at the knish concession.
“Cherry cheese,” she says in a voice raspy from cigarettes. She offers the counter guy whatever she has in her pocket—a crumpled pack of M&M’s, a linty tissue, but sometimes she gives him a twenty, so it all evens out, and she always gets the salty, sweet, greasy knish that she’s so eager for. Each time she burns her lips, her tongue, and winces.
The hardy winter walkers say that they’ve seen her stop at the boarded-up knish stand and ask for a cherry cheese knish. She will wait and wait there. Some, speaking among themselves, worry that she’s hungry, but no one stops to tell her about the local soup kitchen. There are so many people sleeping on boardwalk benches, on the beach, curled up on the porches of abandoned bungalows, or slumping around in ill-fitting, mismatched clothes, gesticulating wildly as if they have some gripe with the air. Passersby have trained themselves to keep going. Soon the wind blows thoughts of the indigent and addled right out of their heads.
There’s something admirable about the woman’s persistence. If not for the onset of mental illness, her drive might have led her to the rain forests of the Amazon to bring back a plant that would heal all human ills instead of to the boardwalk, once in a blizzard, to buy a cherry cheese knish.
* * *
This woman is Violet’s mother. Violet is persistent too. Each morning, just before she opens her eyes, she is a child again, and her mother is as she once was—sitting at her vanity table in a full white slip, the bodice and straps trimmed with lace. Violet stands so close to her that both of their reflections are in the round mirror circled with light bulbs on its frame. With a big, white puff, her mother puts on the powder specially blended to match her pink, cream, and peach complexion. She dabs on rouge. Once again Violet stretches her lips as her mother does to put on her red lipstick. Violet studies the way her mother curls her lashes, applies mascara with a tiny brush, and pencils on that beauty mark. With prickles of excitement running through her, Violet waits as her mother spritzes her neck and wrists with Evening in Paris. Then, smiling, sprays a bit on her. Roses, vanilla, apricot, musk.
When Violet was eight-and-a half, her mother became pregnant, could barely hold down food, and often stayed in bed. Violet began to hate the baby who was already taking her mother from her. The day that her mother forced herself to go for a walk on the boardwalk, the high heels she insisted on wearing getting caught between the wooden slats every few steps, she first smelled cherry cheese knishes, and her appetite came rushing back like high tide. Each day she had to have one. Fall, when the concession stand closed, Violet’s father began making them for her. He was a tall man, and his back curved as he stood over the kitchen counter, mixing the farmer cheese, egg, cream cheese, and sugar. He let Violet stir in the canned cherries. Her breath quickened watching the pink swirls.
As her mother ate the knish, she would break some off and feed it to her.
“You’re my birdling,” her mother would say, making kissing noises.
Violet’s brother was born with ginger hair in a dark-haired family.
“It’s all those cherry cheese knishes,” her father said, laughing.
Her parents named her brother Russell. Violet loved giving him bottles of formula, his snorty sounds, the way he’d pat her cheek with his dimpled hand, and the suction pop when she took the bottle out of his mouth to burp him. When her mother walked her to school, Violet proudly pushed the big, shiny, black-chassis Silver Cross carriage with the canopy that cost nearly as much as their used Ford.
One day it was Violet’s father who came to pick her up from school. The way his face trembled made her too scared to ask where her mother was. Holding her hand tightly, he said, choking back tears, “The angels took Russell from us.”
“Call the police!” Violet shouted.
Violet wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral, and her mother refused to go.
It took weeks for Violet to piece together what happened from listening in on her father’s whispered phone conversations.
The last time her mother had gotten home from walking her to school, the baby was strangely stiff, heavy. It took a few moments to realize he wasn’t breathing. He had to be pried from her mother’s arms by the ambulance attendants.
After Russell’s death, the only family activity her mother engaged in was making Violet’s father drive them every Sunday to the small grave where her mother knelt, shrieking and tearing at her clothes. She no longer spoke to Violet, her husband, or anyone else. Her life was in that coffin.
At first other mothers brought over casseroles and volunteered to walk Violet to school. But after a couple of years, when Violet’s mother still stayed indoors, her keening heard through an open window, it was as if her mother had been transformed into the witch in the gingerbread house who ate children. The neighborhood parents wouldn’t let their children go to Violet’s house.
A few parents, to be kind, insisted their children invite Violet to birthday parties. But why would she want to go? Kids twirled their index fingers at their temples when she neared them or coo-cooed like a clock.
* * *
There isn’t a waking moment that Violet doesn’t wish that she could banish her mother from her life, but she forces herself to take off a day a week from work, put her two children, Allegra, eight, and Noah, six, on the bus, and drive forty-five miles, crossing a long drawbridge to get to her mother’s apartment, which is ten blocks from the beach. The building is rundown. All the furniture was stolen from the lobby, even the big wall mirror.
Violet brings her mother prepared food, takes her to the dentist, the psychiatrist. She carries her mother’s laundry back to her house and returns with it clean and folded the following week. She hires aides but they never stay more than a few days.
A woman from the West Indies says, “Your mother is too unmannersable,” before she walks out, slamming the door.
A nursing home is what Violet dreams of for her mother. Even the sound of it is like the soughing of the sea. Nurs-ing ho-me. Psych wards take patients in for a week or two, give them drugs or shock treatments, and cast them out to roam and defecate in doorways, sometimes squatting at curbs, eating from garbage cans. A home, please God.
Violet fills out applications but there is red tape, waiting lists.
“If you slip me cash,” one nursing home owner says in a gruff tone, “I can put your mother’s name high on the list.”
She’s so desperate that she wants to give him the $4,500 in cash he’s asking for, but Nick, her husband says,
“Never give in to a crook.”
Nick is her North Star. She was sure that if a building collapsed on her, he would hear her faintest cry, dig with his bare hands, and never give up until he had unearthed her. In fact, he already had…
* * *
When Violet met Nick in college, even after they had been dating six months, she still insisted on meeting him at diners or at a movie or museum. She lived in dread of him ever having to meet her mother. At thirteen she’d felt boys’ eyes on her, like heat that ran through her new breasts. But their parents would warn them, “Like mother, like daughter.” The New Year’s Eve Violet was sixteen, a boy stood her up an hour before their date.
“He heard about your mother,” his sister told Violet at school. She didn’t want to risk losing Nick.
“Look, what’s with all this secrecy?” Nick had said. “We’re not having an affair. You can’t keep me from your family forever. I want to marry you.”
She knew her heart should have been fluttering. Instead it sank to her stomach. Finally she decided to have Nick come over when her father wasn’t home. She had told him about Russell’s death, the effect on her mother, but if he was going to marry her, he had to experience the nightmare with open eyes.
Before Nick arrived, Violet’s mother sat down at her vanity table for the first time in over a decade, combed her dark hair, and applied lipstick. She didn’t choose one of the black dresses she wore on Sundays to Russell’s grave. Instead she put on a salmon-colored, button-down dress hemmed just over the knee that she hadn’t worn in ages. She even clasped her pearls around her neck.
Violet, seeing the effort her mother was making on her behalf, thought, She does love me.
When Nick came in, her mother drew herself up and jutted out her chin. “What are you doing here?” she’d demanded. “My daughter is nine. How dare you try to court her!”
Violet had been nine when her brother had died.
Those words were the last her mother spoke to Nick, but never once did he say anything unkind about her. If her mother needed money, he would always agree to help out without a huff. Although Nick had wanted a big wedding, he’d spared Violet having to explain to guests why her mother wasn’t there by marrying her in City Hall with only his parents and two brothers attending. And he never intimated that Violet could end up like her, even when she felt herself going crazy from worrying about her mother.
* * *
Violet’s mother is found, wandering and lost, by the police, who phone Violet. Violet is called at noon, at midnight, at 3 a.m. She’s called after the fire department comes when her mother tries to cook a raw chicken by putting it right on a lit burner, no pot.
Violet can no longer confine her visits to a half-day once a week. From those nearly daily runs to rescue her mother, she is too tired to put her children on the school bus. She forgets to pack their lunches and misses school plays and loses her job as a botanist at the Botanical Gardens because she is out so many days that even the stalwart rhododendrons wilt. Nick grows sick of Violet yawning in his face, of her not having the energy to go on a date with him or even have a short cuddle after he puts the kids to bed. He begins to tap his foot, harder, harder.
Each day what is happening to her mother burns in Violet’s heart like dry ice. She is frozen and burning as if she is on the boardwalk in a blizzard. But what can she do? She imagines the lightness that will come to her when her mother dies, like a whoosh.
Wrestling with herself one day, she looks at her children sitting cross-legged on the couch in the den, their dark, curly heads touching as they watch Dora the Explorer on the iPad. What if one of them died? Violet asks herself. Would I turn away from the other, and Nick? She suddenly runs to them, grabbing both children, holding them against her.
“Hey,” they say, wriggling out of her grasp.
* * *
Her mother begins phoning, crying, “I have no shoes.”
Violet, breaking her promise to stay away, buys her mother a pair of sneakers and drives across the drawbridge to bring them to her. When she gets there, she lets herself in with the key because her mother never answers the doorbell. Her mother isn’t there but her rooms are filled with shoes and cockroaches. Roaches in the refrigerator, the tub. Inside her chest of drawers, roaches skittering over beribboned bags of sachet that have lost their lilac scent. They skitter inside and over the pairs of shoes—the high heels, the stack heels, the flats, the clear plastic sandal heels from the fifties, and Violet’s father’s Florsheim pair with the circular design of perforated holes toward the pointed toes. Some shoes had fallen next to their mate that was still standing. A sea of shoes seething with roaches.
* * *
The Home is nothing like the one Violet imagined. The air reeks of piss and Lysol and the chattering of the mad. The mother lies in her railed bed, limbs withered to sticks, eyes sealed, mouth opening and closing like a fish. Violet visits so the staff will know that her mother has someone watching out for her. She brings her mother a cherry cheese knish that she holds to her mother’s nose, hoping that she will somehow waken for a bite.
* * *
It is spring when Violet gets the call that she’s prayed to Adonoi, Jesus, Buddha, and Allah for. Her mother has drawn her final breath. Violet waits for relief to wash through her, the lightness that would come. She waits, waits.
“Mommy,” she sobs. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.”
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Her essays have been published in The New York Times (Lives) and Newsweek. Her poetry and short stories have been published in The Iowa Review, MacGuffin, Permafrost, et. al. She teaches writing at UCLA Extension. You can find her online here.
* * *
By Caroline Swicegood
The call came at three a.m., as so many calls with bad news do; as her phone vibrated and trilled on the nightstand, Sabine sat up, disoriented and trying to recall what city, what country, what continent she was on. She still hadn’t quite figured it out when she answered and heard her cousin’s panicked voice on the other end.
“I’m so sorry, Sab, I’m so sorry,” Layla said. “I know it’s early in Italy” – ah, okay, that is it, that’s where I am, Sabine thought—“but I woke up and Boncuk was gone, and I can’t find him anywhere, I’ve looked all over the streets here… does he ever go away and come back? Please tell me it’s okay,” Layla pleaded.
Sabine felt her chest tighten. Boncuk was the sweet, almost-grown kitten she’d picked up off the streets of Istanbul, after he’d spent an afternoon twirling around her ankles at a café and then followed her home and stayed patiently outside all weekend; she’d named him after the evil eye beads in Turkey, because he brought her so much peace. As her family had been flung about the globe, he was the one thing that had remained constant in her life over the past two years.
“Where did he go?” Sabine asked, struggling to fully wake.
“It was really hot last night so I opened the window to get a breeze,” Layla said. “I thought it would be no big deal, we’re so far up. But he must have gone out to the balcony and then gotten down somehow from there.” Sabine was quiet as she tried to process it. “I’m really sorry, I never would have done it if I’d known he could get out.”
“It’s okay,” Sabine said, even though it wasn’t, really.
“I’ll keep looking for him,” Layla promised. “I’ll make posters with his picture and put them around. We’ll find him. Oh, Sabine, I’m so sorry, I feel awful.”
Sabine absent-mindedly packed up her things and checked out of the hotel, not noticing when she dropped her passport near the reception desk. A pregnant woman bent down to pick it up for her, groaning a bit when she straightened up. “Here you go,” the woman said in an American accent, holding it out. Her eyes flicked briefly to the words Syrian Arab Republic on the front but she didn’t say anything. Sabine thanked her and took it back.
The flight back to Beirut, where the few things Sabine owned were being held and where she had left Boncuk with her cousin, seemed so much longer than the Beirut-Venice flight had been. Travel had lost its glamour quickly over the past few years. What do you do when your whole life is uprooted, and everyone you know scatters, landing inside borders far and wide? This trip to Venice was her last one to see a dear friend before the wheels of her new life really set into motion: she would go back to Beirut for maybe two months, then on to Montreal, Canada, where her passport would be taken away and she’d get a new one; her parents would be joining her within the year. In her wake would be a long string of small, barely-furnished apartments in three countries and stacks of legal paperwork. Bouncing around like that felt as if someone had erased her mid-twenties, with only Boncuk to ground her.
Sabine and Layla searched countless alleyways and knocked on neighbors’ doors. They put up posters and called from the front door of the apartment building. They left out food, which was eaten by street cats with Boncuk nowhere to be seen. Sabine sold everything she owned except her clothes and a few select books, which she fit into three big suitcases. She flew to Montreal. She was given another small, barely-furnished apartment, and a job translating for other incoming refugees. It got colder. It snowed. Her parents arrived in February and rented an apartment just down the street from hers, and her brother and his wife arrived in April. The French was different than the French they’d spoken in Aleppo but it sufficed. Sabine made a point not to watch the news most days.
In May, she received joyous news: Boncuk had been spotted by a neighbor, meowing furiously outside the apartment one day. Layla ushered him back in, took him to the vet, got all the required vaccinations and paperwork, and posted the story on social media--Refugee separated from beloved cat, who can help? The post got over 40,000 likes, 3,000 comments, and 6,000 shares. A doctor who was flying from Beirut to London took Boncuk with her, and then a smiling university student took Boncuk from London to Montreal. They were met at the Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau International Airport by Sabine, her family, several of her coworkers, and a local reporter and news cameras who were delighted to film such an interesting, heartfelt human interest story. Sabine took Boncuk out of the carrier and he immediately snuggled his gray face against her.
The journalist allowed her a few minutes of hugging Boncuk and sniffling back tears before approaching her. He asked her a bit about her journey—where she came from, where she’s been, how long she had been in Canada—and how she and Boncuk had been reunited, and then asked her if she had anything to say about Syria. “I think we are all just praying for it to be over,” she said, “so that we can go home one day.”
The next night she gathered with her family at her parents’ apartment to watch the local news after dinner. Boncuk walked back and forth across Sabine’s lap, flicking his tail in her face before settling down and kneading her legs. She scratched his back and he flopped over, stretching out.
The news started with a recap of some national sports games, talk of an upcoming music festival, a brief overview of international politics, and then launched into a segment where the reporter Sabine had talked to at the airport walked the streets of Montreal and asked random people whether or not they thought Canada’s refugee program was good for the country or not. The responses were split about in half. “I think it’s shameful,” one man said, “when we should be spending the money here, at home, on Canadians.” Sabine’s mother got up and went to another room. “Their values aren’t consistent with our values,” another woman said, holding a toddler on her hip. “Seeing women all covered up like that, how does that fit into our culture? What kind of message is that sending to our children?” Sabine’s hand almost unconsciously reached up to smooth over her own non-covered head. Then a re-run of Jeopardy started.
“Uh, Sab?” her brother asked. “I thought you were going to be on tonight?”
“That’s what they told me,” she said.
She watched the news at home the next few days on mute, and when it still didn’t run, she called the station. The person answering the phone insisted she couldn’t speak to the reporter and that all editorial choices were confidential, but her message must have gone through, because the reporter called her back. “Yeah, I’m real sorry about that,” he said. “I felt bad. It’s just, my boss didn’t think it was a good fit.”
“Can I ask why?” Sabine said politely.
“Well… he didn’t like what you said at the end,” he said. “About wanting to go back to Syria. He said it sounded ungrateful and he thought it might alarm people.”
So you chose to run a piece about whether or not I should even be in the country instead? Sabine thought, but she didn’t say it.
“And you didn’t really look like what a refugee should look like,” he continued. “It’s nothing personal, my boss is kind of an old-fashioned guy and I think he already had an idea in his mind about the segment, and it just didn’t work out. Hey, we wish you all the luck with your cat, though.”
She video chatted with Layla later, putting Boncuk in front of the camera and making him wave and dance around until he got tired of it all and squirmed out of her grasp. Layla laughed. “I can’t believe it actually worked,” she said. “That post went viral within a day. I guess it helps that he’s so cute.”
“The cutest,” Sabine agreed. “Maybe we should hand out cat ears and whiskers at refugee camps and see if it helps.”
“Oh God, don’t say that,” Layla said. “That’s awful.”
Sabine giggled, knowing it wasn’t funny but not being able to help herself. “They wouldn’t put me on the news here because they said I didn’t look like a refugee. Maybe I should put on a burqa, and one for Boncuk too, and do the interview again.” She laughed louder, feeling tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.
Layla started laughing. “How long do you think he’d tolerate that before shredding it to pieces?”
“Whiskers and ears at refugee camps, and cats in burqas,” Sabine gasped. “Pretty soon the world won’t know who is a cat and who is a refugee and they’ll be forced to let us all in.”
“The cat-refugees are going to take over the world!” Layla said, howling.
“Oh no,” Sabine said, holding her sides. “That sounds ungrateful and alarming. Think of the message that will send our children!” They laughed until they were laughing just for the sake of laughing, squawking to each other until they felt light-headed and their eyes stung and their cheeks hurt, slowly winding down until the delirium wore off. But days later, sitting on the couch with a small cup of sweet mint tea and Boncuk curled against her legs, Sabine couldn’t stop her mind from drifting back to that conversation. She imagined of all the children she used to know in Aleppo wearing warm gray suits and cat ears, lounging in the sunlight in a forest somewhere, batting at play mice or frolicking in catnip; it was a fantasy that in most times would be utterly ridiculous, but right then, right in that moment, it was so much more comforting than reality.
Caroline Swicegood is an American writer and teacher living in Istanbul, Turkey. Her fiction has appeared in over a dozen literary magazines, including Fiction Southeast and Upstreet. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Literary Bohemian and Compose Journal.
* * *
By Kelsey Winter
“Do you want to talk about what just happened.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have-”
“Stop right there!” I put my hand up, his words come to an abrupt stop. “Don’t go soft on me now!”
“I’m not! I’m just trying to think logically here for a second.”
“Logically?” I grab his hand and give it a squeeze. “Matthew, there are seven billion people on this planet. Plus, people die every day, so us killing her won’t make that big of a difference, logically speaking.”
“Seven Billion. Now stop talking about this and order your food.”
Matthew and I come to this diner every Wednesday after school. We enjoy the idea of ordering milkshakes and cheese sticks until our stomachs are bloated from the mix of chocolate and marinara sauce. The diner is usually empty, and that makes it more appealing because we have become the Wednesday regulars.
Our usual waitress, Annie, has the same routine every Wednesday. She comes to or table pours Matt a cup of dull tasting coffee. Says, “The usual?” Then we nod. And finally, Annie talks our ears off about how we need to stay in school and work hard or we will end up just like her in “this little old dump.” After a while she brings us our food and gives Matt a weird creepy wink and flirtatious smile.
She’s not wrong, this place is a dump, and the food tastes like it could have potentially been scavenged out of the dumpster in the ally. I’m sure back in the olden days, this place was the prime hot spot for teens like Matt and me. You can tell underneath the dirt stained floors that they were once polished enough to see one’s reflection. And I bet the music used to be totally cool and hip, but it’s also no longer 1956.
Matthew and I used to come on Friday nights, that way we could stay out as late as we wanted without having the milkshake induced hangover the next day at school. But that was before the new kid in school, Henry Wulf got a job here and worked Wednesday nights as the bus boy.
Henry was the typical all-American boy. He has hazel eyes and a boyish cute smile that sends my stomach into a fit of knots. His hair is sandy blonde, but Matt always argues that he has brown hair. We go into very deep debates about the color of his Hair on the nights he is in the back doing the dishes.
I fell for Henry the moment I saw him walk into the school with his shirt hanging a little too loose and a baseball cap that kept his eyes hidden. Matthew fell for him in math class, he said that he asked for his notes and their hands brushed briefly and that was it, Matt was smitten.
So, Wednesdays have turned into the night of gawking at Henry Wulf. We acknowledge that we both are in love with the same boy, but we figured it won’t matter which one he chooses. He’s either into girls or guys and we can’t change his mind for him, so no hard feelings.
Annie comes up with the coffee pot. “Hey, Kiddos! You having the usual tonight?”
“You know it!” I smile. My eyes shift behind her to see if Henry has clocked in yet. No sign of him.
“Alright, I’ll have those out in a minute.” She smiles, and walks back towards the kitchen. Matt drinks his coffee slowly, making sure to keep eye contact with me.
“Are you absolutely positive he was going to ask Mary to homecoming?” Matt says, his coffee cup is hovering next to his lips.
“Why does it matter?” I say a little louder than I meant to. I look around to makes sure no one is listening and lower my voice so only he can hear me. “Mary is dead now. We killed her, remember?” His face goes pale, so I smile lightly. “I am positive he was going to. I overheard her saying they had been messaging a lot, and if he didn’t ask her then she was going to ask him.”
“But maybe we took it a little too far. I mean just because he was going to ask her doesn’t mean she should get to die.”
“Too far? Matt this is homecoming. This one social event will either make or break the rest of our high school career.” I see Henry walk in. His smile brightens when he sees Annie. “Showing up with Henry would change everything. This is our chance now that we took care of Mary.”
Mary was an exceptionally ordinary girl, with exceptionally average features. Her brunette hair had a layer of frizz, her eyes were the same color brown as every other sophomore girl on the campus. And her voice was shy in class but spirited during basketball games. But despite her conforming appearance she caught the desired attention of Henry Wulf. The attention that Matthew and I spent all of freshman year trying to gain.
Mary didn’t even know what was happening until the knife was lodged in her back and she was tumbling into the ice-cold river. At that point, I guess you could say it was a little too late for her to protest.
“So now what do we just wait for him to hopefully ask one of us?” Matthew said interrupting my thoughts.
“No, we get his attention.” I wave my hand at Henry and his eyes lock with mine. He smiles and heads over to our table. “Play it cool.” I whisper to Matthew.
“Yeah, like we didn’t just a murder a girl he was potentially going to ask out.”
I roll my eyes at his comment, and smile when henry steps in front of our table. “Hey guys, how are you?”
“We are really good!” I give him a big smile. “Are you going to homecoming next weekend?”
“No, I’m actually going to be out of town that weekend.” He smiles and then looks back at the kitchen. “I got to get back to work, but have fun next weekend guys!” He smiles even bigger and heads back to the kitchen.
Matt looks at me his eyes are wider than I have ever seen them.
Kelsey Winter is a student at the University of Oregon, majoring in Public Relations, with a Creative Writing minor. She has attended the 2017 New York Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College. She has also been published in The League for Innovation 2017.
* * *
He lay like a clown with all that make up.
By Jesse Back
His cheeks were covered in pink and blue
his whole face white with powder.
Dressed in a grey suit
lying still in his last bed.
He knew what was behind the curtain now
he knew more than the rest of us.
We were the only two there
me and my mother.
It wasn’t a wake or a funeral,
we couldn’t be there for those
it was a private showing.
My mother cried over this man,
this beast that treated her so unkindly.
The director handed her tissues
I waved him off.
He spoke with a practiced reverence
as all funeral home directors do.
We sat for ten minutes:
I thought of nothing
I barely knew the man
that was half of me.
I knew the same blood
that coursed through him
coursed through me.
I waited for her to finish
she wiped away her last tear for him
said ‘OK’ and we got up and left.
The last phone call from him
he said he was quitting drinking,
going to church,
going to be a better man and that
he would see us more.
He wasn’t talking to me though
he was talking to himself through me.
Six months later
I hadn’t heard from him.
He married a barfly.
A year after that he had a heart attack driving a cement truck
and crashed into a house,
the barfly got everything.
Jesse Back was raised on a small five acre farm in southeastern Ohio and has been writing ever since he realized he could make up whatever he felt like. Most recently he’s had two poems appear in Mudfish 19, another in Phree Write, and has had several others published in Cactus Heart, Offcourse, Twisted Vine, and Marco Polo Arts Mag.
* * *
He Was My First
By Deanne Charlton
He was my first male teacher,
deep into a gruff middle age, ruling
sixth graders with velvet and iron.
He said he’d ask if he could teach
us again in seventh. I saw Nietzsche
and Neville Shute squatting on his desk.
It was New Orleans in ’62:
to prepare us for an autumnal assault
from Castroland, many sea miles away,
he tossed the script and said, “When you hear
the buzzing alarm, get under your desks
to die. The double gong says go to the gym
to die. The ‘school’s out’ bell means
you have time to walk home
to die.” I spent part of my birthday
in a dictated crouch.
He didn’t come back after
Thanksgiving break. I imagined tattlers’
parents in full-blown outrage
blistering the principal’s ear
through the big black telephone
on her desk. The rest of the year
felt like a missing tooth. Because of
a war without detonations,
he was the first man to promise me
what he could not deliver and,
in the way of many firsts, not the last.
Deanne Charlton is a published and award-winning poet and author, unashamedly eats good literature with a serving spoon, and lives with a view of the Great Smoky Mountains as inspiration for her own work.
* * *
Down the Pacific Coast
By Susan Dale
Waves breaking in chaotic throbs
Heaving wild of winds
Wild of sea-steeds
stomping down the path of Jonah
trailing white manes of foam
These racing hoofs
with overt physicality
churning waters to granite
and ripping seaweed from a watery song
bruise the waters with a melody of evermore
to ever after
Salt and sand
Crustaceans and corals
Sink to the ocean floor
going down___ while remembering
the look of clouds, the feel of winds
Flukes cutting through waters
and floats mapping a fluid poem
of sails and spinnakers
above a deep of dark
Brine and brackish
Twisting seaweed hands____ intertwined
to shift and part the waters.
of oceans with outstretched arms
embracing the earth
in a consolation for everything lost
The sea horses Socrates rode to Troy
to capture Homer’s mermaids,
drowning in the surly surf
of star-shelled nights
Tern of sky
Bulwark of swells
stacking high to watery wall
rolling over everything in its path
trouncing the shores
Sent forth by the word … a fluid song of sea and sky
soothed by the sirens’ song___
into long rolling lines
breaking around piers
holding lumps of slippery gray,
What command given when
the wild and whirling winds
divined an essence of life
that tossed stars into a moon-driven night
and summoned seagulls to voice
screeches above slippery rocks
dipping into cubby holes
hiding nesting crabs and a long-armed squid
Over and around, sea songs of winds and surf
spawning and birth
What screams in wind-tossed waters
But pleas of sea sirens
Neptune carrying them off
In paw-prints of the moon
up a rocky coast
across water tossed stones
and boulders bare
Deep of tides
gathering to bathe jeweled anemones
and one pink starfish
Oysters in one nest, crabs in another
Neighbors waiting for a command
in voice heard only by ocean ears
Barnacles clinging to rocks of moss and wet
and troops of turtles carried out to sea.
Susan Dale’s poems and fiction are on WestWard Quarterly, Mad Swirl, Penman Review, The Voices Project, and Jerry Jazz Musician. In 2007, she won the grand prize for poetry from Oneswan. She has two published chapbooks on the internet: Spaces Among Spaces by Language and Culture, and one online now, Bending the Spaces of Time by Barometric Pressure.
* * *
Ashes to Ashes
By David Dixon
The truth is this.
Silent we stand before the open grave
and see no rebirth, no return to mother
For even she, I imagine, could
only offer us back to blackened skies
sparks from the one flame
struck now like wet matches
on the fringe of darkness
Like the once upon a time
I watched you flutter away
formless as a whisper
then stared to find the night unlit
But just as those captive
to the failure of fire
who consider solely the surrender of stars
there are others
who remain witness to a breath
and call me to the Tending
in the fragile dominion
so that I
in my turning
may find you fully
cooled enough to carry
burnt enough to bear
David Dixon is a physician, poet, and musician who lives and practices in the foothills of North Carolina. His poetry has appeared in America Magazine, LIGHT Journal, Edify Fiction, The Examined Life, and Rock & Sling.
* * *
It Just Might Kill Her
By Chloma Ibeh
“What she don’t know won’t kill her”
But honey let me tell you something, she knows.
She tastes the sting of betrayal on your lips,
and smells the odor of lies that roll off your tongue
she sees the deceit in your eyes,
and feels the distaste in your touch
She reads between the vague replies and the cold kisses.
She knows and it just might kill her.
“What she don’t know won’t kill her”
You are a dumb fella if you really think she don’t know.
She has noticed the change in your walk-
the brand-new confidence the other woman must give you-
the secret phone calls, the whispering, the tiptoeing.
She knows you changed your cologne,
and you no longer ask her what she thinks about the color of your tie.
She knows and it just might kill her.
“What she don’t know won’t kill her.”
You love the adrenaline rush the other woman gives you,
the secrets give you this high that reminds you of your youth,
your reckless life you feel she stole from you by making you fall in love.
You still love her very much but you feel like you are missing out on something,
something that the other woman gives you.
I call bullshit on your dumb excuses!
She knows and it just might kill her.
Chloma Ibeh is a college student studying psychology and business. She enjoys writing, reading, and traveling. She owns a blog where she writes a lot of poetry and enjoys discussing her personal struggles as a young adult.
* * *
Three Poems by C.M. Lanning
Summoned to the Ozarks
The hills and trees of the Ozarks go on for many acres.
Arkansas’ portion is the best. Oklahoma and Missouri are fakers.
We’ve built dozens of two-lane windy mountain roads.
They’re traversed by everyone, from bikers to truckers carrying loads.
In the spring it’s pure bliss to drive with the windows down.
In summer, hikers climb the Ozarks to hear cicadas all around.
Fall eventually comes with thousands of leaves turning brown and red.
All the tucked away towns throw festivals and come together to break bread.
When winter visits the hills and covers the roads in ice,
you’re better off inside, sitting by a fire all toasty and nice.
Campers come to the Ozarks, lie on blankets, and watch starry skies.
Floaters seek the Buffalo; it’s crystal waters can hypnotize.
In these hills coyotes and red wolves yip into the night.
If you hear them from your cabin, be still. There’s no need for fright.
From Eureka to Jasper and everything in between,
the Ozarks are our treasure and deserve to be seen.
The Man in Black
Dashing madly through the streets at the speed of fear,
the woman looks back, her chaser draws near.
She feels the exhaustion building, numbing her legs.
“You must carry me further. Do not stop,” she begs.
Her chest is now aching, lungs out of breath,
and yet if she stops, she knows it means death.
The man in black slides silently here and there.
“You’ll tire eventually. Run all you want. I don’t care.”
Her black heels click on the sidewalk, a lonely sound.
Long red hair flies up, as she frantically looks around.
Two tears fall down her carefully contoured face
as the woman realizes she can’t win this race.
Still a tiny hope flickers that she might escape.
Pink painted nails pull out a phone, her red lips agape.
She stops under a dim light post that quickly goes out.
Her black leather handbag drops amid a startled shout.
Shaking fingers hurriedly dial 9-1-1,
but police can’t help. He caught up. She’s done.
The shadow descends instantly, a perfect trap sprung.
She feels an iron grip upon her and is upwardly strung.
With that, the man in black has his 12th victim.
He seems unstoppable, with no one to restrict him.
His home, the city, an inescapable maze.
God help the next woman to fall in his gaze.
The Sleep Craver's Club
When sleep eludes us, the body grows weak,
summons unseen wounds, our strength springs a leak.
The signs aren't always obvious to those around.
Fatigue is somehow shameful, so we don't make a sound.
So alone we'll travel and try to find a cure.
And what is it? Potion, elixir, no one knows for sure.
Perhaps Night has grown jealous, love given to Day.
The moon has grown lonely, wants company, so awake I'll stay.
But no mortal can be with both Day and Night,
a goal some have tried, success still out of sight.
So what are people to do caught in this cruel game?
Our bodies can't endure forever, that much we proclaim.
Perhaps we insomniacs should open some kind of club.
2 a.m. TV watchers, day drinkers, all are welcome to our pub.
We'll suffer alone together the only way we know how,
with strong drink and music, super greasy chow.
The Sleep Craver's Club is open until this war ends,
when Night and Day release us and join as friends.
But since none know when that'll happen,
pour us another glass, a toast to the captain.
He leads us to dreams we wish to once more obtain
and refreshed days where we no longer feel the drain.
C. M. Lanning is a 27-year-old journalist in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He's had work published in the literary magazine, Nebo, and is currently working to land a book deal for his new southern fantasy novel.
* * *
Ars Gratia Artis
By Eric Obame
Mice and Men
My appointment canceled before my flight
I drive back home under a dark sky, I’d prepared my pitch all week
Plans are like boats, most float, some sink
Open the door, and I hear moans, screams of joy, I know your voice, you’re not alone
Someone is exorcising your demons, and it’s not me
Tiptoe upstairs like a thief, push the bedroom door
Olive skin, shoulder length black hair—your naked back is to me, bent over like a jockey
And you’re on top of him, like you’re riding a horse, he’s kissing you like we’re divorced
Sorry to ruin your fun, it’s my fault, should have called to tell you I was returning
Plans are like boats, most float, some sink
I should rage, but I stay calm
Why today, how long has this been going on?
I turn around, go back downstairs, need to get out, get some air
I walk a while, can’t get behind the wheel, mind is a storm, night is ruined
Don’t want to make it worse with an accident
I imagine your pitch
Tonight I don’t want to play a game, I won’t shy away, I don’t want to be discreet
Don’t delay, work on me, my body needs your expertise, a fix of ecstasy
My tank is empty, fill me over capacity
You say my name, I hear your steps, wanted to be alone, plans are like boats
I turn around, and you look at me with those sad puppy eyes
Am I supposed to be sorry?
Please drift away, let me calm down, whatever you have to say can be said tomorrow
Just seeing you now, I’m sinking, I want to float
I walk off, she lets me go
Block after block, drivers, joggers, and dog walkers, reminder life goes on
I imagine his response
In hours, the sun will shine light on who we are
For now let the night hide all but the brightness of our desire
Under its cover, we’ll lie unknown, undercover, no one has to know
Like forbidden lovers, alone, no one has to see, our ecstasy will be a fond memory
Lost in a sea of thoughts, a secret tale of lust
A history shared by none but us, a story to keep in trust
Tonight I’m free, passion is the name of my book, and I’m open to none but you
Read me this night, from beginning to climactic end
When you see me tomorrow, if ever again, this book will be a mystery
Where did we go wrong, I took a wrong turn?
You could have told me we were lost
Have you been running wild this whole time, or was this a one-night ride?
That stallion was giving you something I’m not, or is he the truth and I’m the lie?
So many questions I want to ask, answers I don’t want to know
Wanted you to stay with me until my journey ends
Wanted us to make miniature versions of us
Feed them, water them, nurture them, and watch them grow like plants
Spend our twilight years watching them bloom, but I guess that’s boring
The best laid plans of mice and men
I say plans are like boats, most float, some sink
I was in love with an addict, and I watched her wither away
Watched the flesh on her body thin, her light brown hair fall
I saw it, did nothing, I was drowning with her
It was fun, the hit, the high like an orgasm all over
Lost my job, my friends, my family, my house, but I had her
Struck by bass beneath rainbow lights
My body moves like an ocean when a hurricane assaults the waves
My mind floats like mist within the wind
Rises like steam, falls like rain, then I go up again
Although heaven awaits my shining soul, I taste peace and ecstasy
High I’m alive
My world moves like the moon around the globe
In vertigo, I lose control, I gain control
Lights out, I fall like the star that becomes a hole
To a strange place I go, a traveler lost in space
Although heaven awaits my shining soul I taste peace and ecstasy
High I’m alive?
Beep, beep, wake up on a hospital bed
Brown and beige walls, IV line, heart monitor, curtains, bright lights, alone
I was in love, she watched me go thin, bald, broke
She was my heroine
And I was what to her, everything but what she needed?
Had to quit—change—live
She wouldn’t listen, had to let her go
The nurses at the rehab center keep checking on me, keep opening my door
I’m trying to sleep, not helping
I feel it, like the moon to a werewolf, need it like blood to a vampire
I hear it, like a voice inside my mind, on and on, calling me out
Shouldn’t have searched, but I found her sick, her fair skin blistered
Death released her finally
I couldn’t save her, I tell myself
Locked the bedroom door
Tied the rope to the ceiling fan
Noose around my neck, kick the chair
Heart pumping, but blood can’t leave my head
This is the only way out
Quitting before anyone else takes a shot
Swinging, feet kicking—didn’t expect it to hurt
I try, but I can’t untie the rope
I inhale, but air can’t reach my lungs
I feel dizzy
Soon I’ll be gone
Fourteen, so much I haven’t done
But I’m taking control
They thought I was gay, and maybe I was
It doesn’t matter anymore
Can’t hear anything but my pounding heart
Is my mouth open?
Can’t feel my tongue
I think this is it
I wanted to go
Nothing is ever better tomorrow
Room is blurry
There’s no more pain, and I can’t move my body
My eyes close, but I embrace the shadow
I might as well have been stranded on an island
When I voiced my troubles
It’s so quiet
It was day, now it’s black
Eric Obame was born in Africa. He and his family came to the U.S in 1983. In the June of '02, he received his M.A at Towson University in Maryland. He started writing poems and screenplays in college, and his novels two years ago.
* * *
Three Poems by Jacob Paul Patchen
She wasn’t the hurricane,
or the loose and unfastened.
She wasn’t the screaming wind
or the coming, ravenous waters.
She wasn’t the squall.
She was the battered palm tree
For fuck’s sake gentle souls,
calm your dying hearts;
let it be.
your troubled thoughts
We are here to be,
I was like a comet
approaching the sun;
I was shedding silver
pieces of myself just
to get your
But you were oblivious.
Penny picker when
Lincoln is showing.
You’re a wisher.
And I, a dreamer,
with my head
the clouds. Even
sunny days can’t
shine bright enough
to make me sparkle.
I need the night sky;
full of wonder
And you need
in place by
So, you’ve stopped
Jacob Paul Patchen was born and raised outside of Byesville, Ohio, where he spent his youth tormenting babysitters and hiding in trees. Patchen earns his inspiration through experience, where he writes abundantly about love, war, sex, family, and drinking. Jacob is a poet, a blogger, an author, and combat veteran.
* * *
A Triptych of Poetry
By Simon Perchik
To clear your lips –a simple wipe
though once spread out
your sleeve fills with shoreline
follows on its own, washed
with enormous wings
shaken off the stale crumbs
half sand, half seabirds
half before each meal
–you don’t use spoons
they won’t resist enough
would empty the way this bowl
is still looking for what will pour
easily through your heart
letting it drip and for hours
one arm circles the other
closer and closer, the one
that will stay with you forever
–always the wide, lower and lower
reaching in –your mouth
no longer clears the rim
broken open by its cry
to jump! and you bleed
again from your arms letting go
their dead breeze, dead sky, dead mouth.
It’s a risk, these clouds
gathered in the open, grow huge
take on the shape they need
though once inside this jar
escape is impossible
–you collect a cloud whose mist
no one studies anymore, comes
from a time rain was not yet the rain
pressing against your forehead
and your mouth too has aged
coming from nowhere to open
as some mountainside
believed by all the experts
too high for predators
or a dirt that devours
even its place to hide in flowers
yet you will date the jar
for their scent and later on.
And both arms more and more
spread-eagle, clasping the dirt
tearing it side to side –another sore
cut out the way a shrug
is divided piece by piece
carted away in songs about love
that no longer depend on lips
reaching across as mist
not yet sunlight or useless
–you dig two holes, one
for bells, the other no longer bleeds
is already moving the sky closer
letting it lean forward
emptying the Earth, kept open
and listening for kisses.
Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by box of chalk, 2017. For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities,” please visit his website.
* * *
By Timothy Pilgrim
I promise — we’ll hold hands
dawn to dusk, dream one dream,
sleep intertwined. Cuddle
each night, spot the same star,
wish the same wish. I'll give
endless gifts, kiss the deepest kiss.
We'll eat the same food, split
every dish. Share one job,
co-sign loans, carpool to work,
embrace all the way home.
It’ll be perfect love. Or, come close.
Pretty much one dream,
nearly the same wish. A few gifts,
quite a deep kiss. More or less,
every dish. At least one loan.
Part of the way home. Romance
filled with bliss — almost.
In the beginning, quite a bit.
Timothy Pilgrim, a Pacific Northwest poet living in Bellingham, Washington, is the author of Mapping Water (Flying Trout Press, 2016) and has several hundred acceptances from journals like Seattle Review, Toasted Cheese, Third Wednesday, and Windsor Review.
* * *
Three Poems by Sherry Poff
The Last Swim of Summer
Pushing off from pool's edge,
I knife the still water,
part shimmering ribbons
of lingering light.
Below the chilly surface,
all is silk and softness.
Overhead, thin clouds
languish in a pale sky,
helpless to contain
September's fleeting heat.
The hillside is already
deep in shadow.
beside dingy orange barrels
and heaps of progress,
above rubble, above waste
of the forsaken roadside,
along blanched fences
leaning into weeds,
in the sorrow
of late summer--
weak light dying
in the tired sky--
above slime and debris
sodden with overmuch rain,
Visiting My Mother's Grave
Among the branches,
detached from earth,
the universe is a house
of verdant possibility--
a shocking young man,
a summer wedding,
and, one October morning,
a child of like passions
who would sit in this tree,
high above the ground
in the world's slow turning
She too was a climber.
Sherry Poff is a prize-winning writer living in Ooltewah, Tennessee. She is a member of the board and critique group leader for the Chattanooga Writer's Guild.
* * *
An Evening in September
By Ann Christine Tabaka
Evening reaches across and blankets the land.
Tall stalks kissed pink by the glow of the setting sun.
Row after row of fence posts stand at attention.
A lone crow perched atop a rail surveys the expanse.
In the field a one-eyed scarecrow stares back menacingly.
Darkness falls earlier as the hours of daylight abate.
Soon harvest time will arrive with its thunderous
mechanical beasts looming over the landscape,
belching black smoke and churning up clouds of dust,
as they reap the golden crops.
As the harvesters cleave the shafts they will leave
the refuse in their wake like so many fallen soldiers.
The crow looks over the bounty of ripe grain,
aware that it will soon be time for him to go.
Flying to a place of safety far from the noisy
metal monsters that now sit on the horizon in wait.
The scarecrow smiles knowing he has done his job well.
Ann Christine Tabaka lives in Delaware. She is a published poet and artist. Credits: The Paragon Journal, The Literary Hatchet, The Stray Branch, Trigger Fish Critical Review, The Metaworker, Raven Cage Ezine, RavensPerch, Anapest Journal, Mused, Apricity Magazine, Longshot Island, The Write Launch, The Stray Branch, Advaitam Speaks Literary Journal, Ann Arbor Review, and BSU’s Celestial Musings Anthology.
* * *
Two Poems by Kyle Vandeventer
Almost an Elegy
My father and his brothers
stand around him,
the blue sheet folded
neatly at his waist
to show stomach
sunken in, heart beating quick
like an over-worked engine.
They dose him
with another vial of morphine.
My father touches
the face of his father.
One brother runs a finger
down the raised white seam
over his heart.
This is for all of the years of love
the old man hardly ever touched on.
For a moment, again,
they are boys. In the morning,
he will sit them down,
make men of them.
The pauses between breaths
so long that we hold our own,
within our bodies.
It becomes an exercise
to keep us calm and ready
when the exhale never comes.
It looks just like falling asleep.
She puts her mouth to his
for one final kiss, his last words
trembling on her lips.
We stand there silent, waiting
for her to speak.
Kyle Vandeventer resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has been published in 3288 Review and Rockvale Review.
* * *
By Troy Varvel
Compare my stuttering then to this:
my grandfather opening and shutting
cabinets most nights after one a.m.,
looking for anything to make dreams
of crowded veins and thought circulations
cycle into quiet pumps like our lake’s tide.
I tucked his daily silence behind my ear--
the only fluent sound for me,
like seeing a star long after its life. He would
talk about the moonlight funneling
through the water’s heart and the quiet fish.
He pondered which fish were stars—like him.
Too late now for speech therapy,
my other words skip on my tongue.
I look through the ripples to see
my grandfather in the leather chair
burning bright beneath chemical drips
that search for white blood cells.
Too late now for me to ask him
to stop taunting a star’s life, to accept
illumination past his time. Still I can’t say
s and t and other alveolar sounds
to tell him about the time left under
stalled constellations of salted night skies.
Troy Varvel is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Cape Rock: Poetry, Driftwood Press, Edify Fiction, Gravel, and THAT Literary Review.
* * *
A Memorable Mission
By Jesse Berkstresser
Many years ago, my best friend, in an attempt to broaden my interests beyond playing video games and taking naps, introduced me to a card game titled Space Hulk: Death Angel, a cooperative strategy game about a group of Space Marines1 battling for survival against an unending swarm of alien creatures known as Tyranids2. It’s the complex kind of game where a world is created by the rulebook and fueled by imagination. A game that contains an eclectic cast of characters, each with their special set of skills and their own unique personalities. A game where thrown dice and shuffled cards simulate a randomized, and sometimes harsh, reality for these characters. It’s a ton of fun, but it can also be brutally difficult to win. The game manual actually estimates “44% chance of mission success with 86% squad casualties,” and while that might be dramatic hyperbole, it’s often not far from the truth. Sometimes, the enemy swarms without notice. Sometimes, the dice just don’t roll the way you need them to. Sometimes, you meticulously plan every move, setting up contingencies and safety precautions, and it all fails. But sometimes…even certain defeat can be overcome, and legends can be created.
One such legend was born last summer, on a typical Sunday afternoon in New Jersey. My best friend and I had retired to his house after morning church was over. As both of us had gotten older and gained more responsibilities, it had become much harder to find time to hang out and play games together. He lives in a seaside Borough called Tuckerton, his house nestled in a long row of similar houses on a small hill. When I’m at home in New Jersey, it takes more than a half hour to get to his house. When I’m at college, it takes about twelve hours. Despite the obstacles, we compare schedules and make the necessary arrangements, and every now and then we still find time to get together. On that particular day, my best friend and I sat in the dining room, around a smooth, brown table that takes up most of the room. The far half of the elongated table was covered in a variety of items—some white ceramic plates with flowery trim on the edges, some clear drinking glasses with “Coca-cola” written on the side, and some other board games like Munchkin and Boss Monster—that had been relocated to that side in order for us to set up
1 You know, marines…but in space.
2 Just your typical hive-mind aliens, don’t worry about it.
the game. I sat on the left side of the setup, by a bookshelf with an assortment of pictures and knick-knacks covering the shelves, and my best friend sat to the right, by the glass cupboard filled with more of the aforementioned dinnerware. The game sat between us, the set up fairly simple. A vertical line of cards represented each of the Space Marines and their positions, horizontal lines of cards branching off of them represented the swarms of Tyranids, and at the top of the whole thing were the various draw/discard piles. We had just finished a round in which we had been gloriously successful, vanquishing the enemy without losing a single Marine.
As my best friend and I were sitting at the table, discussing our exceptional victory, the front door opened, and in walked his younger brother, whom I shall hereafter refer to as Mekboy3.
“Hey, guys,” Mekboy said as he approached our table, “Playing Space Hulk again, I see.”
“Yeah,” my best friend responded enthusiastically, “You should have seen it. We just aced the last round. We didn’t even lose a single guy!”
“Very nice,” Mekboy replied, clearly impressed.
“We’re about to start another round,” I said to Mekboy, “You want in?”
“Sure, I’ll play,” He answered as he took a seat at the end of the table, and we began to shuffle all the cards for the next game.
As the round started, all seemed well, but it quickly turned sour. Enemies spawned in all the worst places and times, seemingly guaranteed kills would fall through, and, worst of all, we started to lose soldiers. We lost four or five over the course of the first three areas, and in this game, every marine lost makes every subsequent turn exponentially more brutal. We pushed
3 Why Mekboy? Cause that’s what I call him, that’s why. What’s a Mekboy? Well, if you must know, in the Warhammer 40k Universe, a Mekboy is a rank among the forces of the Space Orcs, similar to a captain. What’s a Space Orc? Stop asking stupid questions, I’m moving on.
forward, doing the best we could with the men we had left, but as we neared the final area, we all knew that we needed to do something drastic to survive the incoming onslaught.
“We are so screwed,” Mekboy said dejectedly.
“Maybe not,” my best friend replied, “If I use my Reorganize ability, I can move these two swarms together.” He pointed at the two largest swarms of Tyranids. “If I put them on Lorenzo, he might be able to survive. Remember, his Counter Attack allows him to survive an infinite number of enemies.”
“In theory,” I add, not very confident in my odds. And they were my odds, because Lorenzo was part of my team, so I had to be the one to roll the dice. It was a standard six-sided die, blood red with 0-5 imprinted in white on the different sides. 1-3 also had skulls emblazoned next to them, and these were the sides I was aiming for during the defensive turn. Counter Attack, an ability unique to Lorenzo, allows him, on the roll of a skull, to kill one enemy from the swarm, followed by the swarm immediately attacking again. If I get another skull, I kill another alien. If I hit a 0 at any point, or hit a 4 or 5 while the swarm is still five or above, Lorenzo is dead. After executing Reorganize, the swarm stood at about fifteen. Three of them were Raveners4, a special species of Tyranid that, should I to survive, would each induce the swarm to attack again. As if I didn’t have enough to deal with. On the plus side, I did have some support tokens, which I could spend to re-roll if I got a bad number, but I only had two, so they would only get me so far. In the end, I didn’t know what the odds were that I would succeed, but I knew that we had failed better odds before.
I pick up the die, roll it around in my right hand, and cast it onto the table. I roll a skull.
“Yes!,” my best friend exclaimed, “Good start, good start!” He tends to cheer me on like this in the games we play5.
4 The instigators of the alien hive-mind. They like promoting violence and general meanness.
5 Unless we’re on opposing teams…or sometimes if we’re on the same team and I’m just tearing the team down, brick by brick, with my gross incompetence.
I roll again, this time just letting the die roll off the tips of my fingers. Another skull.
“Awesome!” Mekboy said.
Two down, but still not even close to safe. As I rolled again, landing another skull, I imagined Sergeant Lorenzo, deep in the bowels of the abandoned Space Hulk. He stood tall in his crimson power-armor, brandishing a large grey Storm Bolter6 in his left hand, and in his right, a golden chain-sword7. Surrounded by savage creatures and with his allies too far away to support in any major way, he stood alone. But he was the leader of this squad, these men were his responsibility, and he refused to let them down. As the swarm attacked again, leaping toward Lorenzo in a wave of grey claws, sharp yellow teeth, and rough purple hide, the marine braced himself, put all his strength into swinging his power-sword, muscle and machine working in tandem, and counter-attacked. His sword connected, chain against hide, and caused the entire swarm to recoil. The Tyranid that had led the charge now lay in two pieces on the steel floor below, its green, acidic blood eating away at the metal. The large amount of that blood that had accumulated on the marine’s sword had begun to take its toll. With a piercing screech, the chain caught in the mechanism, and the sword became useless. Lorenzo disconnected the power line and threw the sword to the ground. The swarm attacked again.
I rolled the die again, a little too hard this time. It rolled off the other end of the table.
“If it’s good, we keep it,” I said as I peered under the table to try and see what number had landed on top.
“We’re not doing that,” my best friend stated as he bent down to grab the die. His innate sense of justice and fairness can be annoying at times, but it’s also one of the things I admire most about him. “Just roll it again.”
6 A double-barrel gun that shoots really fast.
7 Like a chain-saw, but more sword shaped. This one should have been obvious.
He hands me the die. I roll another skull. Cheers erupt again.
Lorenzo unleashed a volley of 100 caliber bolts8 into the swarm. Each bolt tore a hole in its target, causing its blood to spew from the exit wound. Most of the Tyranids slunk back to heal their wounds. One did not. It now lay next to its bifurcated brother, a large hole where its eye socket used to be. The swarm attacked again.
I rolled a 4. Would have been fatal, but my best friend just removed one of Lorenzo’s Support tokens, allowing me to roll again. He’s always been supportive9 like that.
Lorenzo leveled his Bolter at the swarm, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened except a dull click. The gun had jammed. But just before the swarm charged him, a round of suppressive fire stopped them in their tracks. It was Brother Deino, the other member of Lorenzo’s Assault Team10.
“Brother Lorenzo!” Deino’s shout could be heard through his crimson, full-face, battle helmet. “I’m coming to assist!”
“Stay in formation, Brother Deino,” Lorenzo replied, throwing his gun to the side. “I will deal with these,” As leader, Lorenzo wore no helmet. The scars on his face were a testament to the risks of doing so, but it was important that his men be able to see his face during battle. To see his undying resolve. The swarm continued their attack.
I rolled again. A skull. Then another. Then another. Each one brought a wave of cheers and high-fives from my best friend and Mekboy. But I remained quiet and tense. There was much left to do. Hopefully, my luck11 wouldn’t run out.
8 It’s a bullet, only bigger and more…explosive.
9 Like if we’re at a potluck and I accidentally take something I don’t like, which is most things, he’s always willing to eat it for me. It’s hard to find a friend like that.
10 Like the buddy system, but with more weapons.
11 Actually, when it comes to games, I tend to have great luck. My best friend on the other hand has horrible luck. Like in this video game called Terraria, he once spent about three hours trying to find some ice bow or something. It wasn’t even that rare. Meanwhile, I find super rare all the items all the time. I got a triple Bananarang from the first clown I killed in that game…you know what, none of that is important, I should probably move on.
“You were so close!” Mekboy exclaimed.
“Yeah,” my best friend agreed, “Anything other than a zero and you would have been fine.” He removed Lorenzo’s card from the lineup. “But hey, if that swarm had attacked anyone else, we would have lost at least four guys.”
“I know,” I replied, “but I was still kinda hoping he would survive.”
Brother Deino watched as Lorenzo was torn up and dragged into the darkness by the three Tyranids. “Lorenzo!” He yelled, sprinting towards the carnage, but he was too late to help. They were all gone, and there was no way to follow.
Then, through the com, Brother Gideon, the second in command, said, “Brother-Sergeant Lorenzo has fallen. I will be assuming command. Everyone tighten formation and move forward.”
“…Permission to guard the flank,” Deino requested. He knew better than to question Gideon, but he still wanted to hang back.”
“Permission granted,” Gideon replied, “I know losing Lorenzo is hard, but he gave us a chance to survive, and he would expect us to make good use of that chance.”
We were continued playing the game, advancing through rooms, defeating more Tyranids, but still thinking about the incredible spectacle we had just witnessed. Then, as if by fate, I drew the most coveted card in the entire game.
Rescue Space Marine.
This card allows the players to resurrect one soldier, as long as his Assault Teammate was still alive. We still had Deino, so the choice was obvious.
As the marines finished killing a small swarm of Tyranids and began passing the pile of debris they had been perched on, Deino saw, out of the corner of his eye, the glint of crimson armor, buried in the rubble. “Hold the line!” He yelled, rushing toward the pile and throwing aside boulders and bodies, till he found what he had hoped he would find. “It’s Brother Lorenzo! He’s alive! Praise the Emperor12!” The rest of the marines formed a circle of defense around them both as Lorenzo opened his eyes. “How do you feel, Brother?” Deino asked.
“I could use a little attention from our resident Apothecary13,” Lorenzo replied, a little hoarse, but not as much as you’d expect from someone presumed dead. “But I don’t think they’re going to have to turn me into a Dreadnaught14 quite yet.” As Deino administered treatment to some of his wounds and then helped him to his feet, Lorenzo considered the irony of the fact that the more successful missions, the ones that go off without any problems, were often forgettable, perhaps even boring. But this mission, filled with so much sacrifice, was one of a kind. No member of this squad would soon forget such a mission.
And neither would my best friend and I15.
12 They worship him or whatever.
13 A Space Marine combat medic. Again, should have been obvious.
14 Mobile life-support the size and sturdiness of a tank that can punch things really hard.
15 And Mekboy, I guess.
Jesse Berkstresser is a 23 year old from a small town in New Jersey. He is currently attending Cedarville University, in Ohio, and is a part of the Creative Writing Minor.
* * *
A Secret Hiding Place
By Ute Carson
On his 7th birthday my grandson burst into tears. The excitement had been too much, a party at school where he was the center of attention and then the next day a birthday celebration at home. Still crying, he reached for pen and paper, began to draw a soaring Spiderman, and was soon rapt in concentration, calming himself through his art work. Watching his change of mood, I drifted back seventy years to when I turned seven and had to regain my equilibrium.
I had entered first grade midway through the official school year, having been discharged following several months quarantined in a children’s hospital, gravely ill with multiple infectious diseases. It was postwar Germany in the winter of 1946, and I had never been away from my family. That separation would haunt me for decades. I either avoided relationships or clung to them fiercely even after they had vanished from my life.
During the year I convalesced, chaos was rampant in Germany. We lacked firewood and coal and the food shortage was severe. After the midday meal my mother rested with my one year-old sister while I began my chores. Wild berries needed to be picked, elderberries for soup had to be plucked from bushes, nettles gathered for a salad with carrots pulled from sandy soil to spice up the green mix. Sugar beets were also in demand so I rushed to overcrowded fields to compete with other scavengers in search of a stray beet here and there. Every household boiled sweet turnips to make molasses. Excursions with my father to the black market in town were routine. There we would barter for eggs or milk in exchange for a family valuable. Coal train spotting was a part of our daily lives. All neighboring families participated. When we children heard the hoot and steam- belching of a freight train, someone ran to fetch adults. As soon the train halted at the crossing signal, men and women jumped aboard the open wagons and tossed down as much coal as possible before the locomotive let out a long sigh and the train chugged on. We children busily picked up priceless lumps, stuffing them into burlap bags to be dragged home.
When I finished my tasks, I was free to roam until suppertime. My parents sternly warned me never to be tardy. I did not need to be reminded because I looked forward to evenings when my mother read and sang to me at bedtime, which was so comforting and reassuring.
We lived like that for two years in a dilapidated out-building located on a large estate where acquaintances from before the war had taken us in. In my spare time I had hours to myself. I made no friends after my companion Eric died in the hospital. His bed had been next to mine and I missed him with all my heart. I wanted no other friend.
But I did take care of a white rabbit with a black nose. I named him Snowflake and saved him several times from the knife. I carried him with me in a wicker basket with a lid, once even to school where I was forbidden to bring him again. One day, after subsisting on fruits and vegetables and watery soup for a long time, my father ignored my pleading and my rabbit ended up on the dinner table. But my father could not eat. We all sat in silence and immobile, with tears streaming down our cheeks. Finally, no longer able to resist the allure of meat, we relented and our forks angled for the delicious chunks.
In my spare time, I also tended an animal cemetery which I had created in a nearby wood shortly after my release from the hospital. Mainly birds, some field mice, lots of lizards, and an assortment of spiders and flies slumbered under small mounds of soil. I decorated the graves with crosses made from sticks and piled flowers on top of the tiny hills. Nobody knew about this resting place, and though my mother had secretly followed me there on occasion, she never mentioned it.
Once while picking blackberries I came upon a hideout. A thick row of hedges separated two large meadows with a pond for ducks, geese and waterlilies in between. It had started to sprinkle when I spotted a small entrance beneath a thorny thicket. It looked as if an animal had used it as its burrow. I crawled inside where it was dry, a curl-up space with enough room for me to sit comfortably. I fell in love with that womblike place at once. A few days later I dragged a tattered blanket there which I wrapped around myself when it was cold. I escaped to my newly acquired den whenever possible and brought my teddy bear, Börle, and other valuable items with me. In a Care package from America were a coloring book with crayons and a fishing cap from Florida. A sweater my mother had knitted from leftover yarn stayed with me rain or shine. It could be rolled up and used as a soft cushion for my head.
As time stretched before me I was alone but never bored. I watched when the rain spattered down, unable to penetrate the thick cover of the hedge which I had fortified with branches and scraps of cloth taken from my mother’s sewing basket. I loved the raindrops. They reminded me of my mother’s pearls which she had worn in the air raid shelter. Large spiders helped me beautify my cave. Their fine webs resembled strands of my beloved grandmother’s silvery hair. She had accompanied us on our flight from our home in Silesia to western Germany as the Russian army advanced. She was now stranded with distant relatives, miles from where we had found shelter. I knew that I would have taken her to my magical dwelling if she had visited.
I often daydreamed. Clouds were my inspiration. I saw shapes of bearded grandfather-like faces on misty days, and on bright ones my eyes followed fleets of sleek sailboats or herds of running deer. I imagined myself sitting atop a big billowy cloud, drifting away. Bird song put me in a trance-like state, and I learned to imitate birds’ twitters and warbles. Every time a hare hopped across the grass in front of my crawlspace I believed it would befriend me if I held out one of my precious carrots. I giggled when the animal stopped for a second and then dashed away. Börle, my beloved companion, was an attentive listener. I told him countless stories. I spoke about the kind nurse in the hospital who, on the day my friend Eric died, carried me to a broad windowsill to watch the snow descending in fluffy cotton wisps. I talked to my furry bear about my parents and my baby sister. I painted a wonderful future when we would all live in a castle furnished with long tables sagging under the weight of apples and loaves of bread and even ice cream that I had glimpsed in my coloring book, and where not a single rat would scurry across our beds at night.
Through the slats in my hedge I could tell when the afternoon sun moved on and it was time to go home. I was never late because my mother had been ailing since the birth of my sister and the constant worry about food stressed her out. I did not want to upset her or my father who, although university educated, now baled hay and helped with farm chores. After work he always slumped into the only upholstered chair in the room looking haggard and gray.
One day I fell asleep in my cozy enclosure. It was already dark when I awoke with a start. With Börle under one arm I ran as fast as I could and when I burst through the door I noticed a deep furrow between my mother’s eyebrows. I knew instantly that she had been worried but she only hugged me tight. There was little privacy in our cramped domicile and that night I could overhear my father whisper, “Just let her be.”
We moved two years later to a nice apartment in town where I skipped a grade to be with my age mates. I formed a deep friendship with a plump, brown-eyed girl in my class. In the third grade my very first essay about Snowflake was published in a nature magazine. The following spring I made a trip back to the cemetery which by then was overgrown with dense weeds and ferns. All traces of the animal graves were lost. And I searched in vain for the hedge around my magical sanctum. It had been cut down, no longer a habitat for birds, mice or a recuperating little girl. Only the pond still shimmered with bluish lilies as dragonflies danced over its sleepy surface.
As an adult I have often written about the war and the scars it left. But not until I observed my young grandson regain his composure by applying himself to his drawing did I think back to how I had once found repose in using my imagination to contend with early life experiences.
A writer from youth, German-born Ute Carson has published two novels, a novella, three collections of poetry and numerous essays and short stories. She resides in Austin, Texas, with her husband. They have three daughters, six grandchildren, a horse and a number of cats. Visit her website here.
* * *
By Lori Horvitz
“Don’t you get tired of going from one relationship to the next?” a friend asked. “You must be exhausted!”
I am. I’m also ashamed. Why haven’t I been able to find a long-term partner by now? After all, I’m the common denominator.
Like many, I have a notion that if I find a healthy relationship, I’ll be more content, less anxious and sleep better. But not everyone agrees. According to the set-point theory of happiness, a concept popularized by two psychologists in 2005, our level of subjective wellbeing is determined primarily by heredity and upbringing, and as a result, remains somewhat constant. It may change for a short time, in response to, say, marriage, or a death in the family, but then returns to its baseline level. Love won’t make us happier in the long term, set-point theory states. But I don’t accept that pessimistic view of the world, and thus, I continue my search.
For the past ten years, I haven’t been able to maintain a romance for more than nine or ten months. I’ve gone into each full of optimism and hope, full of excitement that I finally met my person, the person who will hold my hand and help me breathe more easily through the bumpy and not so bumpy road ahead. Yet soon enough, the situation becomes unworkable—perhaps our emotional baggage as a team becomes too heavy, or our projections of each other wear off and the reality of who we are doesn’t match with the fantasy we had. Or maybe my standards are too high. Or the timing was off. Or I’m too neurotic and anxious. I live in a small town and maybe I just haven’t had the best of luck. I’m not pointing fingers and saying all my exes were nuts. Some are good friends. All I’m saying is we didn’t make a good match.
Last week I asked my therapist what she thought my problem was.
“Give yourself a pat on the back,” she said, the mildew smell of her basement office overpowering my senses.
“You know when it’s not working, and you get out soon.”
I nodded. Other couples hang in there, they keep trying, and eight or ten or fourteen years go by and they’re still trying, or not trying but resigned to the situation. After all, there are children to contend with and bills to pay and houses to sell and move in and out of. Or there’s a shared lease in New York or San Francisco and the chances of finding an affordable place for one are slim. Or the idea of going on Match.com or OKCupid or Tinder is too repulsive, more repulsive than living with, but not communicating with, a long-term partner, as if they were two cats who tired of hissing at each other and now quietly reside in separate sides of the house.
My single friends are also searching, some more proactively than others, to find their emergency contact. But are we really hard-wired to find a mate, similar to my border collie/corgi’s instinct to herd sheep (or just nip the back of my heel when I’m walking in the “wrong” direction)? While visiting a friend’s farm, my dog whipped her stout body and short legs towards three grazing donkeys, as if her life depended on it, and herded them in circles until I intercepted, grateful one of the donkeys didn’t kick her in the head.
Perhaps it’s all about societal pressure to find and keep a partner, and if we’re single we feel like misfits, losers, unlovable. Yet according to evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss, humans are innately inclined toward non-monogamy. One theory suggests the brain is wired to seek out as many partners as possible. But other animals are known to bond for life. Red foxes form a monogamous pair, share their parental and hunting duties, and remain a couple until death.
If only I were a red fox.
When I meet a potential partner, I ask about her last long-term relationship. More times than not, she tells me she should have gotten out earlier, that the relationship was great for the first six months or two years but downhill for the next eight or ten. Often, to expedite the situation, one part of the couple has an affair. I ask, “Did you feel like you were under house arrest?” That’s when I get a confused look. But soon enough, she laughs and says, “Yup. Self-imposed house arrest. I was so miserable I had to do something. I’m so much happier now.”
I asked a friend, a two-time divorcé, what percentage of couples he thought weren’t content with their situations. “Seventy percent,” he said. At first I thought the number sounded high. But when I thought about the fifty percent divorce rate, and how some of the other fifty percent are miserable but don’t get divorced—the number seemed more than reasonable. Another friend told me she didn’t think she’d ever get married but said she’s much happier now that she’s married and has a child. Before she met her husband, she wasn’t particularly interested in dating. She’d go for years without looking. And then someone would set her up on a date. She recalled going out to dinner with a boring rich doctor and ordering ninety-five dollars worth of sushi.
Perhaps relationships are my drug, and I get highs from the build-up, the array of colors I see when the adrenalin kicks in, when the impending first kiss is on the horizon, when it’s scary and exciting, like getting off the train in a foreign country and exploring a new history and language and landscape. But oftentimes, there’s the moment a partner does something off-putting, when I tell myself, wait a second! I didn’t know that was part of the bargain! When she’s disrespectful to a waiter, or doesn’t get my humor, or lashes out at me for being too open, or screams at an old lady driving too slow in front of her, and if I say her behavior is not okay, she tells me I’m too sensitive.
My last relationship lasted three weekends. A successful filmmaker, she meditated, donated money to charity, adopted two rescue dachshunds, went to therapy and jogged on a daily basis. Tall and lean with a Jodi Foster face and a pixie hairstyle, she walked with a bounce and had an impish smile. Yet the first weekend together she insisted I wasn’t attracted to her; I chalked it up to her insecurity—I needed to give her time. The second weekend she accused me of sleeping with my friend of five years; I chalked it up to her last two exes cheating on her. The third weekend she accused me of still being in love with an ex but also asked me to marry her. My anxiety level shot up. My happiness set-point level plunged. I couldn’t sleep. I called it quits.
Some say I need to be content alone before I find happiness with a partner. I agree. A lot of things make me happy and the list doesn’t need to include a romantic relationship. I don’t expect anyone to save me from myself, and I’ve spent many months and years alone, and even more time feeling alone when I’d been in a miserable relationship. Maybe this is why I’m able to get out quicker.
A friend said, “Maybe if you give it a rest, love might find you.” That friend hasn’t had a relationship in years.
I’m not getting any younger and, like looking for a job, I believe you have to put yourself out there. No one’s going to call and say, Congratulations, we want to offer you the job, if you don’t first apply for it. Then again, a friend’s home security system accidentally went off and a state trooper—a George Clooney look-a-like, knocked on her door. My friend had considered herself a lesbian until that point, yet they’ve been dating ever since.
My eighty-eight year old father spent two months alone, between my mother’s death and the next woman, who is also eighty-eight. He’s been with her for twenty-nine years, and I see how having a partner has made his life easier. He has someone to watch movies with, to go out to eat with, to go on vacation with. Last time I spoke with him, I asked how they were doing.
“We’re both creeping around,” he said. “We’re holding each other up.”
When I asked what made him happy, he said, “Getting a good night’s sleep.”
My father’s spine is curled like a jagged comma. “My back is brittle. It’s falling to pieces,” he said. He needs a walker to get around. His wife is hard-of-hearing and rarely uses hearing aids, understandably since my father tends to ramble on about his latest obsession. My father and his wife continue to creep around in their two-bedroom apartment, the television blaring, a grandfather clock chiming every fifteen minutes. “We’re fading out,” my father said.
At least they’re fading out together.
As a single person, it’s anxiety-making to be my own social director, to make sure I don’t spend too much time alone. When I do, I get sad. There’s nothing wrong with being sad. I just don’t want to stay sad for too long.
And so I imagine finding a partner who I could travel with, someone with whom to share creativity and joy, someone who could offer a bowl a chicken soup if I’m all sneezy and tired. Maybe I’m just looking for someone to creep around with.
I look at the set-point theory of happiness as if it were the average miles-per-gallon a car gets. Hybrids aside, most automobiles get better mileage on the highway than stop-and-start driving in the city. And, as far as relationships go, I’ve been a city girl, stopping and starting way too much, and if I were a car, I’d probably be pretty dinged up. But I’m keeping the faith that one day I’ll pull onto the highway and stay a while, perhaps put the car into cruise control, and my happiness set-point will rise, and I’d put the pedal to the metal and play Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and get my motor running.
Maybe the set-point only spikes when getting on the highway ramp, yet the hope is that a healthy union will bring the original set point up a few notches and remain there.
Relationships have been a source of joy but also pummeled me to the point where I could barely recognize myself. One woman didn’t have to do anything. Just her presence brought out a profound sadness in me. Perhaps she reminded me of my emotionally detached mother, my mother who was lost in a world of hoarding, humming and shopping. Although this ex didn’t hoard or shop excessively, she tended to focus on whatever was in front of her. When apart, I slipped off her radar. She’d forget about plans we made; she’d forget to call. When I confronted her about only focusing on what was in her line of vision, she said, “That’s what makes me a good surgeon.”
Now that I think of it, maybe I’m happier being single. Or being single and holding onto the illusion that love is out there and might make me happier.
In the meantime, studies show that practicing kindness may increase one’s happiness set-point. Another way to raise the set-point is to have a project to go back to, to be in the flow—whether as a painter dabbing a brush stroke onto a canvas, or a nomad searching for love.
My dog has taught me a lot about happiness, about living in the moment. When I clip on her leash and tell her we’re going to the lake, she cries and runs around and jumps and smiles and sticks her head out the car window and licks the air. At the lake she wags her tail and makes eye contact with every passerby. Given her large border collie head, long and stout body, and squat legs, her unusual proportions cause people to say, “She looks like a comic strip character! As if her head was grafted onto the wrong body!” Others call her Yoda because of her big ears. I call her my ambassador of love; when she smiles, whoever looks at her smiles back, and that makes me smile too. Even if someone looks miserable and is walking off steam, they too crack a smile.
And then there are the squirrels. My dog instinctively chases them, knowing full well she’ll never catch one. How could she think she would after fourteen years of trying? And if she did, would she know what to do?
Lori Horvitz' essays have appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including The Chattahoochee Review, South Dakota Review, Southeast Review, Epiphany and Hotel Amerika. Her book of memoir-essays, The Girls of Usually (Truman State UP), was published in 2015. She is a Professor of English at UNC Asheville.
* * *
By Robert Krantz
There’s a hatchet on the wall over my writing desk. It’s next to the framed diploma from the University of Akron and some second and third-place certificates from the local writing contest I participate in every year.
The hatchet was made by the Helko company in Germany. It’s a Pathfinder model and a real beauty—the open-faced head is drop forged from high-grade German carbon steel. Drop forging is when a blacksmith pounds steel on an anvil while holding it in a pair of tongs. This is Renaissance-period craftsmanship. Master blacksmiths hand their skills down to apprentices year after year. It’s been going on that way at Helko since the 1800’s.
The light-brown handle is made from exported American hickory that’s shaped and handcrafted in Switzerland. Each handle is unique. Two axes made the same day, at roughly the same time, in the same location, look and feel different. The balance is exquisite.
I contacted the Helko company directly a few years back but none of the smiths spoke English. There are, of course, distributors here in the States, but I was hoping to talk directly with the guys forging the steel. A salesman from a local supply company told me that the axe heads are forged to 53-56 Rockwell hardness. He didn’t have any other information.
The paradox of the unified craftsmanship and beauty, opposed to the splitting function of the hatchet, is profound. Firearms can be like that too, but I don’t do guns.
One time, I stuck a Post-It note on the wall next to the Helko that read, “This is not an axe.” Jennifer laughed out loud. We had a brief discussion about Art after that. She argued that it was just a hatchet, not a piece of art. I countered with some of the finer points of the handle, the blade edge, and the process it takes to make such a hatchet . . . she wasn’t buying any of it.
The Helko smiths have spent hundreds of years perfecting the hardening and tempering of their axe heads. As far as the handles go, American hickory is known for its coarse texture and straight grains—the perfect canvas for staining. The sapwood is mostly white with shades of brown, while the heartwood is pale and reddish brown. These 100-120 foot hickory trees are sustainably sourced and hand selected in batches—who am I to say this perfectly balanced object, a unified expression of earth, sky, fire and metal is not art?
There are two stories about the hatchet. Oftentimes, one of them rises into shape from the nebulous region of memory—sometimes just before I doze off for a nap. It speaks in whispers. I rarely think of the second event.
The first hatchet story has changed quite a bit over the decades, as the teller has changed. The second has never been told or mentioned in all these years. One starts out with a small family of five going camping in New York’s Allegheny State Park in the autumn of 1978; and two boys— 8 and 10—who find themselves on a hiking trail with their father’s new hatchet.
The older boy, red haired and freckled, was assigned by their father the task of carrying the hatchet. He did so cautiously. The younger boy, the one with moppy hair and a dark summer tan, argued that he could handle the tool as well as the older and tried to convince him to let him do so— without luck. The younger boy kicked at dirt as they continued down the path.
Their father said that they were to use the hatchet to cut away at dead trees on the forest floor to collect kindling for that night’s fire. Being mischievous, the older boy thought of a scheme that would lead to adventure and trouble for the younger boy. He crafted his plan carefully and began by asking his brother if he really wanted to carry the hatchet just for a couple minutes.
Of course he did!
“You’re pretty good at holding that hatchet,” said the older boy. “But I bet you can’t swing it that good.”
The younger boy went to the side of the path and found a fallen tree.
“Watch this,” he said as he chopped at it several times.
“Wow, that’s pretty good. But I bet you could never chop down a tree.”
The younger boy’s chest heaved and he smiled. “Show me the tree.”
The older brother pointed to a 20-30 foot tall pine tree. It couldn’t have been more than a foot in diameter.
There is a Sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park that’s over a thousand years old. It’s not the tallest living tree, but scientists estimate with all the branches, the trunk, and roots, it’s the largest tree in the world in terms of biomass. It’s named The President and has an estimated 1 billion leaves. There are, too, old films that show a pair of flanneled lumberjacks alternating axe strikes into the trunk of massive redwoods with trunk diameters that reached 30 feet, you’d swear it would take these two men a week to cut down just one tree.
One of these old promotional films is celebrating man’s mastery over the natural world and the abundance of natural resources available. There are new films out now that discuss the wholesale decimation of these forests that took place, stating that 90% of the trees have been eradicated by man—gone forever.
Several years ago, David Milarch, a nurseryman from Michigan, had a near death experience. He’s since made it his life’s mission to save these giant trees, working with geneticists in the hopes of cloning them—trees like The President—to repopulate the species. He’s guided by angels, says that they are aware of the state of the environment and of the jeopardy the earth is in.
The width and height of the pine tree the boys were looking at varied through the years, from telling to telling. One time it was a forty-footer on a high hill. Another time, it was a sickly, Charlie Brown Christmas tree near a trickling stream. Oftentimes it depended on the teller.
What the boys were looking at back in 1978 was a Pitch Pine (pinus rigida). They’re common to Western New York, have a relatively thin trunk and distinct bunched needles.
The younger boy’s hands sweated and the hatchet cut deeper and deeper, throwing chips wildly into the air.
Whether it took 10 minutes or an hour is hard to say, but eventually the tree fell accompanied by a victorious cry of timber. The younger boy wiped the sweat from his forehead. The older boy, shocked at his brother’s success, and still plotting, felt proud. He also laughed to himself, thinking of the next step in his plan.
Long-term memory is a shapeshifter. Was I really the boy who chopped down that tree or was it the other way around? Did the older boy cut down the tree and blame me outright? I call my brother in Arkansas to talk about it, to talk about things in general, but he doesn’t remember. He wants to talk about his career, how we will go about caring for our aging parents. He thinks I think too much.
Still, there is a hatchet on my wall. There it is—this is not an axe.
When the boys arrive back in camp, their mother is bottle-feeding the baby and their father is sitting in a lawn chair having a beer.
“Where’s the kindling?” asks the father.
“He chopped down a pine tree,” blurts out older brother as he pointed a finger at the boy.
“Shit!” cries younger brother. The father clarified the situation—the ramifications of which the boys didn’t understand.
That chopping down trees in a New York State park was illegal was not known to them before they left on their journey. Father conferred with mother and both the boys were grounded to the tent for the rest of the day. First, however, they’d have to show their father where the tree was and help him move it off the trail.
In one telling of this story, the father then brings the boys to the ranger station and has them admit their infraction. In another, the three of them tug the tree off the path and hide it in the nearby underbrush. A third version says that a ranger actually witnessed the crime and that it was he who brought the kids back to camp. One time told, it’s a story of a great boyhood triumph. Another time, it’s woven as a tale of brotherly betrayal.
There’s another family story about the Helko Pathfinder hatchet, a second story that’s more alarming than the first.
There was a tin hamper in one of our bedrooms. It was a red, white and blue, decorated with the American flag and a triumvirate of marching revolutionaries—a drummer, a flag bearer and a man playing a fife. The hamper was purchased around 1976 as the country’s bicentennial generated an uptick of patriotic items on the shelves of Twin Fair and Two Guys.
The hamper was situated at the end of the bed and we often took turns dumping out the clothes it contained onto the floor and climbing into it. A small boy could nestle himself in the oval-shaped hamper sideways and have another kid rock him to and fro in a wobbly way that was fun. We didn’t have video games then, so now it’s much like looking back on those old photos of kids running down the street keeping a large wagon wheel moving with a stick.
Us boys were up playing in the bedroom, jumping on the bed, rolling each other over in the hamper—all kinds of rambunctious type play that today would probably be diagnosed as hyperactivity or AD/HD, or tagged with some current trendy psychological nomenclature. Back then we just called it being boys.
At one point, my older brother got himself in the hamper and began rocking back and forth. His head protruded above the metal casing’s rim and he tipped too far. The hamper, and boy within, teetered in slow motion towards the bed frame. He must have known he had gone past a point of no return because he opened his mouth to scream. That’s when his face smashed into the bed frame—teeth first.
In a moment, there was blood, crying, and parents running up the stairs into the bedroom. In the blur of the action, through the blood and chaos, I could only discern one thing—my brother’s missing tooth.
Hearing the loud crash, my parents ran into the room. My father held my brother as my mother applied a towel to his face. They quickly moved him from room to car and my mother drove him to the local hospital while my father stayed behind to watch me. I was interested in the contrast of play, noise and emergency changing into total silence. It fascinated me how fast one thing could become another, in just one instant. Our home was like that a lot.
My brother hadn’t actually lost his front tooth. The fall into the bed frame jammed one of his central incisors back up into his gum line.
The injury itself would cost a fortune in dental and orthodontic care for the rest of my brother’s childhood and much of his adult life. Eventually, in his 40’s, he finally had the tooth removed and now wears a fake replacement—you really can’t tell the difference between the two front teeth. Sometimes, when he takes the artificial tooth out, he looks like Larry Playfair or George Shultz, one of those old 70’s hockey enforcer types. I’m sure that “hockey look” eventually helped my brother make peace with his wound. Now and again, he’ll take the falsey out for a picture just for fun.
The next day there was a new rule at 401 Stanley Street: No Playing in the Hamper! It was a good rule, one we could get behind because we understood the ramifications of not obeying. Plus, Dad had his own way of enforcing rules, especially ones that could affect our well-being.
Sometimes wounds heal so well, scars become so familiar, that emergencies become lost to distant memory. The trauma of the great Hamper-Tooth Smash of ‘76 soon vanished and the hamper restrictions softened.
We eventually took to bouncing around that bedroom once more. Now the third brother was 4- years-old. Once again, we jumped on the bed, wrestled with each other and tossed the youngest brother into a wall of pillows.
Someone convinced the youngest brother to get into the hamper so we could rock him back and forth. In a strange coincidental repeating of traumatic events, the youngster and the hamper crashed into the end of the wooden bed frame, just as it had for the oldest brother several years earlier. This time instead of a tooth, the youngest brother’s skull split open.
There was another trip to the hospital and stitches.
While my mother was at the hospital with my brothers, my father calmly came into the room and picked up the hamper. His face appeared different than I had ever seen it. He put the hamper under his arm and walked down the stairs. I instinctively knew to not follow. But, I could hear his footsteps as he went down the second flight and out the side door.
I heard the door slam shut and then quiet for a few moments. He must have gone to the shed out back.
I stood in silence, straining to hear what was happening.
A couple of minutes passed and I heard a loud metallic, slicing noise from the backyard. It sounded like chopping wood. The noise repeated. I ran to the bathroom window and looked out to our backyard to see my father hatcheting the hamper into shreds.
The next day was garbage day and I recall the mutilated hamper out at the curb and feeling strangely proud and terrified of my father at the same time.
It’s Saturday and the cold November sky is low and heavy, threatening the season’s first snowfall. The leaves have passed from October’s bursting oranges, yellows and reds, lapsed into a drab brown and faint yellow canvas familiar this time of year. There’s a slight draft in the room that tells of winter. I finish my coffee and smoke a cigarette, then go to the closet for my Carhartt jacket and black wool hat. I lace up my boots and step into the den to remove the hatchet from the wall. In my world of laptops, Post-It Notes and smartphones, the wood handle feels good in my hands— true. I exit the side door and walk back to the woodshed where I grab some logs and toss them next to the old oak stump. I begin swinging the hatchet and my forearm feels warm and strong. It’s good to move like this, to feel alive Somewhere close-by, there is a fire burning, I smell the sooty leaves, though I see no smoke. I begin swinging the hatchet and my forearm feels warm and strong. I continue splitting the wood for a half hour.
When I stop to take a break, I glance back at the house and hear the side door slam. Jennifer steps out, looks my way and waves. She turns down the driveway and walks away. I cup my hands to my face and breathe warm into them. Soon I’ll bring the firewood into the house and hang the Helko Werks Pathfinder hatchet back in its place above my desk, next to the second and third place awards from the local writing contest.
Robert Krantz graduated from the University of Akron, Ohio, with a BA in English. His individual works have appeared in Gargoyle, Wilderness House Literary Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review and others. Bitterzoet Press recently published two chapbooks of Robert’s work (Plus 4 and Hansel). He makes his living as an industrial sales engineer in the Midwest.
* * *
By Adrienne Krater
I don’t think I can be honest here. I flew 2,981 miles to stand on a beach in Ketchikan, Alaska. I stood next to empty vodka bottles and wet cigars with dripping sandals and hands full of Aurelian lilies. I watched as my best friend married the unemployed, alcoholic man that I know will unravel her. And I smiled.
I stood just outside the airports sliding doors, waving my boarding pass in his face. It said I was going to Sitka, when I needed to be in Anchorage. He said it was called the milk run. He laughed at me, and his day old wife grinned with pity. He told me the local fisherman used it, because it stopped in Sitka, Juneau, and then Anchorage in one flight. To me it was sitting on too many tarmacs with sticky armrests and 9x12.5 inch views of toy towns and airport terminals. I had an hour until my flight, and he asked if I wanted to shoot his .308. I shrugged, I enjoyed shooting guns, and the island we were on had the airport, and some game lands out back. The three of us hopped back into his truck and drove down past the airport, and onto the game lands. The road’s potholes knocked my teeth together and I clung to their Red Heeler, Cedar, my hands buried into his fur. Mist hung in the air, and it burned into steam on the hood of his truck as the engine cooled. I stood, in black leggings covered in fur and Heeler snot, legs shoulder width apart, and his .308 braced against my shoulder. He worried the kickback would knock me onto my back. Carrie rubbed Cedar’s ear and shrugged. I pressed the ear buds deeper into my ears. I found a rotting tree near the base of a mountain about seventy yards away. I leaned into the gun and flexed my index finger. Mostly I remember how my ears ached when I took the buds out.
My face felt warm as the cabin pressurized and the stewardesses made their ways down the aisles glancing down at our legs for fastened seatbelts and upright trays. I couldn’t breath, and I began to itch with anxiety in my throat. Tears spilled down my face, startling me, and the old gentlemen next to me. I thought about the money, $500 stuffed into the folds of my wallet, the check for $200 dollars, already deposited into my bank account, and I thought about how I smiled. As the gay man next to me kicked off his shoes and whispered to his boyfriend on the phone, I turned on Nessun Dorma by Luciano Pavarotti, and closed my swollen eyes. Later that night, on the tarmac in Juneau, I burst open about my friend’s beautiful ceremony to a stranger. We both picked at honey wafers on our napkins, and I gushed that the flowers had been simply breathtaking. The flowers had been resting in an inch of water, packed into plastic buckets on a grocery store table, next to baskets of potato chips and packs of 12ft polyester rope.
Adrienne Krater is a published writer and undergraduate student in the International Studies program at Cedarville University. She works as a university and wedding photographer, and plans on pursuing an MFA after graduation. She is from Altoona, Pennsylvania.
* * *
By Virginia Boudreau
Here the Atlantic, weary of battering, finally surrendered: coughed up a clump of dwellings fixed like barnacles to boulder on the very edge. I follow cracked pavement through the marsh. On either side, black ducks float, honking in the darkened reeds. Stray rocks, flung over the breakwater by the latest storm, skitter and spin out.
The nimbus ceiling, pillowed violet, seems low enough to touch. I want only to breathe in before it dissolves away. I want to know salt again, allow it to bloom transparent roses on my skin, shimmer through my fingers and melt, stinging on my tongue. This is the static unwavering truth that has followed me everywhere.
The road ahead curves off into dusk with all its umber shadow. I am drawn to the mellow glows of porch lights, the single white steeple, and finally, the green clapboard house I left years ago. The hardy daffodils my grandmother planted still bloom golden clutches in the ditch and in the long grass brushing a crumbling step.
I pause, find myself peering through stained glass panes in the front door. I picture the way ruby sequins danced on the faded oilcloth when light gleamed through at just the right angle. Inside, I know narrow stairs will twist to cozy rooms with their iron beds, saggy mattresses, and bright patchwork quilts. Every window brims with the sea-filled vistas that drove me away, and now back. The distance, all those nameless places in between, fade to nothing more than a context for today.
Laughter lingers in thin echoes, the simmer of pots, forced hyacinths sprouting misty blossoms on the sill. A single shaft of sun falls through a sudden fissure in the cloud bank. I insert my key in the rusted lock and turn.
Virginia Boudreau is a recently retired teacher living in Nova Scotia, Canada, where she can often be found at the beach. Her work has appeared in numerous international literary journals and anthologies, both in-print and on-line.
* * *
Liebe Grosse Mietze Katze
By Ute Carson
For my grandchildren
When I was a child I was crazy about animals. I made no distinction between the live ones and my furry toys. I took my dolls’ clothes off to adorn my animals. Animals were my playmates, to be driven around in my doll carriage. Later on they slumbered in my backpack at school. Creatures great and small from the animal world were also the best listeners to the stories I wove from early age on.
My grandmother believed that animals attacked only when they were hungry, threatened or when they smelled fear. She was fond of telling the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, and why he was not devoured because he was secure in his beliefs and remained calm in the face of great danger.
It was a warm May Sunday morning when I was four years old that my grandmother treated me to my first visit to the Breslau Zoo. There was birdsong in the air and monkeys scampering from tree branch to tree branch. I wore a sky-blue chiffon dress with a white bow in my braided blond hair. My mood was as chipper as my outfit. My grandmother hummed, as she was in the habit of doing when she was happy. I slipped my hand from hers and skipped along the pebbled paths, eager to meet as many animals as possible.
On a secluded sloping meadow with lush brush and a few stony cliffs, I spotted a large lion. I noticed his wild mane, tattered fur and his closed eyelids marked by dark brown lashes. He was stretched out along a chain-link fence, resting his heavy head on his tawny paws. In 1944 there were few barriers between the wild beasts and their visitors. I didn’t need to cross a ditch or climb a fence. I easily reached through a gap in the fence and gently touched the lion’s right ear which was flopped across his cheek. The ear felt so soft, like velvet. I cooed to him “Du liebe, grosse Mietze Katze.” My grandmother stood behind me and watched. Only when a woman passing by screamed “Child, get your hand out of there” did my grandmother gently pull me back. The commotion must have roused the lion. He shook his head as if to swat away a fly and yawned. “May I touch him again, “I whispered. “Another time,” my grandmother answered as we ambled on in buoyant spirits. “We have many more of your friends to greet.”
A writer from youth, German-born Ute Carson has published two novels, a novella, three collections of poetry and numerous essays and short stories. She resides in Austin, Texas with her husband. They have three daughters, six grandchildren, a horse, and a number of cats.
* * *
Lawrence E. Cox
There is a coffee shop housed in an old red brick building at the end of Nowhere Street somewhere in Portland or San Francisco or New York.
Loitering is allowed.
Inside, the dirty wooden floors are scarred from heavy oak tables and chairs and from cigarettes a World War ago. The walls, a tapestry of posters of dead legends.
The espresso has a heady redolence and flows like cough syrup on its way down. The scones are day old pastry from the corner bakery.
If you listen, you might hear an echo of keys from an old Underwood patting in rhythmic pattern - paper voices rising in rebellion for causes long forgotten.
If you observe, you might see the café ghosts staring in their mugs looking for direction, for inspiration, for someone, or maybe they are searching for better images of themselves.
It always rains at the end of Nowhere Street. Sometimes it is good to get out of the rain and allow an old haunt to stir up a meaning to life while everyone enjoys a good cup of coffee.
Lawrence E. Cox has had short stories and poetry published in Arcturus, Valley Daily News (Seattle area), Frontier Tales, Blink Ink and Funny Five Hundred. He currently lives in Central Oregon.
* * *
By Glen Donaldson
With a mind like his, Frank Dakota could only sleep when exhausted. This unfortunately was not one of those nights. After taking two sets of pills, one for sleep and one for blood pressure, he lay wide-eyed awake in bed, clenching and unclenching his fists and jaw, his lips moving soundlessly in the dark.
He had been grievously wronged at his workplace earlier that day and now his entire musculoskeletal system was crying out for justice. It would not allow him to sleep until balance had been restored.
Frank switched on the light and after a brief search began thumbing through the black loose leaf binder he kept in his nightstand drawer. He thought of it as his ‘medicine file’ for the times he needed to dish out some in order that he find a way back to balance, righting the perceived wrong. This alphabetized pick-me-up had never failed to leave him feeling less aggrieved in the past. Much as Frank hated to admit it, he’d come to rely on the folder’s magical restorative powers and the instant relief they provided. His black leather file was every bit the aluminum-foil-wrapped blister pack of happy pills he’d created it to be.
He picked a name and number from the folder, and then dialed. His finger hovered for a delicious moment (for him) above the final digit, not out of hesitation but in a gesture designed to fully savor the moment. He reminded himself he had the thread as well as the needle and now all there was left to do was bring them both together. Like he’d done so many times before.
Somewhere at 42 Ponderosa Place the phone rang. Suzie Fitsworthy shuffled sleep-stupid to the telephone wondering not just “Who has died in the night?” but also “Who thinks of silly old Suzie?” Picking up the phone, she aimed her voice squarely into the mouthpiece.
The woman didn’t sound flustered to Frank. A good sign, though he couldn’t be completely certain from a monosyllable. Maybe she worked nights. “Miss Fitsworthy? This is I -Tracks Research Company calling with a brief survey questionnaire. I hope I didn’t disturb you?”
It was one-thirty in the morning.
“All righty. Now repeat after me. #1 – Red Leather yellow leather.”
“Red leather yellow leather.”
“#2 – “I slit a sheet, a sheet I slit.”
“I slit a sheet, a sheet I slit.”
“#3 – “Willy’s really, really weary.”
“Willy’s really, really weary.”
“Excellent! Now listen hard, Suzie Fitsworthy. Here’s your question. Which of these three sentences - #1, #2, or #3 – would you have the most difficulty saying if I were to come over to 42 Ponderosa Place right now with a straight razor and cut off your upper lip?”
Utter silence. Not even the sound of breathing. Often they forgot to breath. Frank, grinning in the dark, repositioned the phone to his ear and mouth in readiness for the delayed shock and horror which by his own estimate was already several seconds overdue.
“Suzie darling, would you like me to repeat the choices?”
“This isn’t a memory test, dear heart.”
“All righty, let’s try a different one. #1 – What Suzie says of Sally says more of Suzie than Sally.”
“I guess number three.”
“The one about Willy.”
The grin felt suddenly plastered across Frank’s face, his right hand contracting to a claw and the cords in his neck turning egg plant purple.
“Are you deaf woman?” he shouted. “Are you feeble-minded? You – you – I’m going to kill you, you half wit sow! Death by fire will seem like a month in the country by the time I –“
“Gotta go now. Bye.”
Frank Dakota, who in infancy had neither smiled nor cried, had never had a reaction as cool as this; one that was able so effortlessly and instantly to deflate his well-practiced ghastly routine.
It took him the better part of an hour to calm down, part of which he devoted to upending his mattress and attacking his pillow with an icepick. By the end of the rage, with his breathing almost returned to normal, Frank knew just what to do. Reaching for his trusty permanent black marker, he drew an almost perfectly straight line through Suzie’s number in his folder, obscuring it irreversibly.
As he sat on the end of his bed, Frank tried consoling himself with logic. Surrounded by scattered foam and feathers lying on the floor at his feet, he was forced to admit what was by now painfully obvious even to him: an update of his records was long overdue.
Glen's writing style has been described as "an intriguing combination of Tolkien, Donaldson and Abercrombie." This is astonishing to him on precisely two counts. Glen blogs at SCENIC WRITER'S SHACK.
* * *
By Candace Hartsuyker
When she is around, I look at my wrists, at other people’s feet, afraid that we are not real. Hair shiny as a knife blade, she is crackling energy in a room that is too small. Her presence is electric: two bed sheets stuck together, sparking with static. She glows and swoops rapidly from person to person, opening her arms and kissing cheeks with an urgency that makes me scared. She creeps behind tables and chairs and finds me. Gives a hug that smells of wildflowers. A long silky lock touches my cheek and envelops me. Everyone in the room seems to pale before her, turn to blurry shadows. Skin blue tinged, I wonder if we have all turned into ghosts, then realize I am watching her, not me. Flames lick her body and stretch toward the walls. There is so much more she would like to give. But she is burning and she is drowning and she wants to disappear. She dies when I am seven years old, my cousin who has always been a surprise.
Inspired by Margaret Atwood and Kelly Link, Candace Hartsuyker seeks to uncover hidden truths. She loves 1940s screwball comedies, YA lit, all things theater and film noir. She is a first-year fiction student in McNeese State University’s MFA Program.
* * *
By Sara Massery
Lightning is an angry woman. Lightning thinks the thunder should pay more attention to her. Thunder is always talking over her, after all, completely obliterating her flashes with a rumbling, long forgotten language. Lightning lashes out at anything except for her beloved–the sky, the earth, the people on the earth.
Does lightning feel pain when she strikes the ground?
Lightning causes fires, mayhem, power outages, fear. The earth chants, “I forgive you. I forgive you.” Earth opens her arms to the powerhouse of a girl. Earth makes sure the impact only hurts for a second; everything to do with love must hurt for a second. Lightning isn’t sure what to make of this, because she is chaotic, and she is blind, and she is electric in her anger. And all the while, the thunder rumbles on, an endless sea of noise that won’t go away. It is a ringing in her ears that is slowly driving her mad.
And when the lightning has worn out her anger?
Lightning hesitates to return to the sky. She hesitates to return to the thunder’s domain, even if he is quiet now. Even if he is quiet for a while. She knows this to be true: their storm will rage again, and again, and again.
Sara Massery is a melodramatic, sometimes-insightful twenty-something adult just beginning her foray into the world of flash fiction. By day, she runs an online company. By night, she drinks words in place of water and uses the ensuing headaches as inspiration for writing.
* * *
By Colin Raunig
I never saw myself as a tree before, but such re-imagination is required in the theater. At least, that’s what the director of the local production of “Our Town” told me during auditions. In the Navy, I was an airplane mechanic. That’s all I was. I fixed a plane with a tool and then went home to my apartment to fix my own tool.
Four years and then I was out. I moved back home. One day, I saw the flyer for the casting call and I figured, what the hell. Never had the chance to act before.
I auditioned to be George, who marries Emily, and then to be Emily’s father. I even auditioned to be Emily. And George’s mother. I can do feminine in a pinch, if by “in a pinch” I mean all the times in the military I was called “bitch.”
It’s an unconventional war.
No main character for me, though. Not even a supporting one. Instead, I got cast as a tree. No costume, I was just told to stand upstage and hold up my arms in the shape of a Y. I asked if there weren’t any parts available? He smiled and said there was no shame in being a tree, that there was no tree like me.
On the first night, by the end of the play, my arms were numb with pain. At the after party, they hung limply by my side, and I just stood there as the director and the entire cast grabbed a hold of my hands and shook them, congratulating me on my performance. By the next night’s performance, the pain in my arms had subsided enough for me to get through my required duties, and I stood before the curtain opened with arms raised, at the ready.
“Thank you for your service,” the director whispered into my ear moments before the curtain rose.
The first and second night went on schedule: Emily and George get married despite their own reservations— everyone is either sad or dead at the end of the play—and by curtain call my arms were useless to everyday tasks like masturbation.
On the third night, my arms were shaking from the outset. By the middle of the second act, they lost all motor function. Just as Emily and George were declaring their love for each other, my arms fell to my sides. The crowd gasped at my deficiency. Emily and George stopped talking and turned around to see me just standing there and definitely not acting like a tree.
“Tree,” Emily hissed. “Be a tree, you tree.”
“My name is Steve,” I said.
“Play your part,” George said, frowning and putting an arm around Emily. They both strained a smile at each other and then turned towards the crowd.
I heard a “Pssst!” and turned to see the director offstage with his hands above his head like, See? It’s this easy. I ignored him. I shuffled towards Emily and George like a penguin, my arms swinging uselessly by my sides. I heard the director yell at me from off stage.
“Fuck you, Tree!” he said.
Emily and George tried to focus on the play, but the murmur of the crowd kept growing.
“I love you!” Emily said to George, on script, both of them glancing at me as I now stood directly between them. “But not as much as I love my country!” she said, putting her arms around me. George put his arms around me as well. “Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for…Tree! It’s such a treat to have you here,” she said, laughing nervously. She began to clap slowly in a way that seemed sarcastic. “For his service to this country before deciding to serve the stage.”
The crowd roared and rose to a standing ovation. I stared dumbly out at them.
“Is this what you wanted?” Emily asked, hissing out of the side of her mouth.
“Yeah, Tree, is this what you wanted?” George asked, from the other side of me, smiling as well.
I stood there awkwardly.
“I don’t have anything to do,” I said.
“You could bow,” Emily said.
“Yeah, you could bow,” George said.
“Stop copying me, George!” she said.
“Sorry,” George said.
Emily and George grabbed each of my hands and lifted them in the air. The crowd’s applause lingered past the point of comfort. The pain in my shoulders returned, shooting, blinding. It was unbearable. The crowd wanted something from me and I realized I should say something.
“I--” I started, then stopped.
The crowd laughed.
“A guy walks into a bar,” I said. I then turned around to look at Emily and George. I wasn’t aware of where I was standing. Before I could say the punchline: Ouch!, I was falling backwards off the stage. The crowd gasped. I held out my arms. For either Emily or George I reached. I wondered if either of them would reach back. I wondered if anyone would catch me.
Colin Raunig graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2007 and was a Naval Officer for eight years. He is currently a MFA student of fiction at Colorado State University.
* * *
By Stephen Rowe
Halfway through my life, I'm in the middle of a dark wood in twilight. Something compelled me to leave my big fancy house and hike down the trail that links the HOA to the nature preserve. I've left the trail and made my way down a steep embankment. I'm next to large tree overlooking the tangled valley of the creek. I hear an odd sort of cricket. It's my phone ringing in my pocket. My wife has just left the city. She's checking in with me. Where are you? I say: I'm sitting in the woods. Why are you in the woods? I came here to escape the President. Her laugh tinkles from forty miles away. She says: It's awful. I say: I really think we're in hell. Or at least purgatory. After I hang up I think: maybe heaven and hell are all wrapped up in one place. We don't go anywhere, because we're already there. We're all just where we are, in the middle of a wood in twilight. The voices of the crickets might be angels calling us home.
Stephen lives happily-ever-after with his family in Happy Valley, Oregon.
* * *
Immortality by Proxy
By Ray Scanlon
Decades ago, so desperately did I desire to be immortal, I would fantasize about joining the undead. Endowed with the supernatural powers of the best-selling fictional vampire of that generation, plus his limitless time, I flattered myself that I'd be able to come to terms with perpetual sunlessness and the tacky serial murders by exsanguination. It's just as well that the temptation to opt for that lifestyle hasn't presented itself; I'm no longer so sure I could handle it.
I've had plenty of time to protest my mortality. When at age six I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes doctors said that I could expect to live to forty, and had technology remained static they would indeed have been right. But even at such a tender age, with a child's concept of forty being old as dirt, that did not satisfy me. Now that I've racked up a few more years and, one hopes, a glimmer of wisdom, I've ceased to pine for immortality. Reserving the right to whinge a little, I willingly submit to a truce with the constraints of a finite lifespan. I flaunt my new Medicare card and take perverse delight in achieving minor infirmities of age not automatically attributable to diabetes—arthritis, bursitis, frailties of my manly apparatus. Living this long is a gift, and I'm not being ironic.
Death has surrounded us this year, perhaps no more than it usually does, but it has seemed more noticeable and closer to home. In our family two uncles have died. Three dogs have died. Friends have died. People in the public eye have died; some have announced that they will soon die. A litany of loss, leaving voids large and small, some surprisingly personal. None of us is getting any younger, and time will refuse to reverse even if we ask nicely.
My own death is closer than my birth, by a lot, and my raw youth's invulnerability well tattered. Recognizing vulnerability leads me, if not to sick self-centered obsession, to a prickly awareness that I will die. Of course I am afraid. I fear pain and helplessness and loss of the marvelous certainty that my life is a gift, so I mock and joke and write. For all my bloviating about death, my closest experience is only second-hand, and I'm in no hurry to make it first-hand. It's all facile circle-of-life rodomontade; I'm whistling past the graveyard.
But circle of life is what we have. While our collective grandchildren live, the inevitability of our own destruction stings less. Cultivating, satisfying, and—especially—emulating their curiosity is the sovereign anodyne. Acts of curiosity defy death, neutralizing suspicions that our presence here is futile, part of a bitter cosmic joke. Cheryl reads Fireman Small to Tommy. As his neurons emerge from toddler chaos I hear them snapping into ordered symmetry, followed by the enthralled three-year-old's peremptory “Again!” that Cheryl can't even begin to resist. Jord changes clothes for his after-school job, and he patiently suffers my attempt to show him how to tie a four-in-hand knot, my muscle memory fleeing as soon as I try to do it step by step. I am privy to a touching moment of grace: Deb teaching LuLu how to knit. Time does not reverse, even for instants like these, but I feel it slow down while the memories crystallize.
Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Find him on Twitter and on the web.
* * *
By C.N. Smallwood
There was a woman and she was always that. A woman. Not a little girl or child, a little lady, but a woman. Her every move brought meaning to the word as an ideal image that one wishes to meet. This woman was magical. Every inch of her masked in softness. Her bones however were made from the strongest of gemstones though by her fleshy exterior they remained unseen. Every breath that left circled through her lungs made of cosmos so that she exhaled only stardust for another world to blossom. She saw with eyes the color of sapphire though they were not. Sapphire could not grasp their uniqueness. They were souls, each a piece from those that gave her life and like souls and eyes both do they sought out it all. The woman made of gems, stars, and souls chose a path to follow like all do. However, it was the path she made for herself laying each brick with purpose as she moved along, flowing across them with grace. A path not only for her, but what her soul wanted for everything. While laying each brick she surrounded herself with that she held dearest – life. A home for the lost and in need always moved along with her. A home that breathed life into the world with a great spring in the back for lives to expand and children to grow. The spring surrounded by trees and forest were her wild oats were closely laid. She built a shelter for the creatures with four legs who had for centuries carried others. She filled the home with the true mortal companions and loved them all giving them the best life. The most wistful thing however was her yard. Full of the finest flowers and trees. It was drawn like a wonderland where ideas and imagination grow and souls to do what hers had always done – seek. Her soul was the largest of them all. A sun illuminated by her gemstone bones and it led her never astray.
The soul led her to bring light to others, to seek and draw out the unknown. To spread grace as an angel would. It showed her to an enchanting salt of the earth young man for whom laid the bricks beside her. The sweetest man whom she loved for all those remaining mortal years for the promise of an eternity of more. With him she had three children. Two boys and a girl all she raised well in a world that was flawed, but that she never saw as flawed. With them a piece of her soul went expanding into greater things and sights such a wandering soul would love. It came that she had five grandchildren whom she loved with all her heart and walked although her special bricked path. Each one inherited something for her. Beauty, grace, strength, a soul of enormous size. She lost one son, but did not falter in love or hope. The years came by and the woman made of magic aged with the earth she held so dear. Her great grandchildren, images of her. The oldest like her never faltered and sought beauty in everything. The middle two dreamed big to make the world better. To create happiness for those that needed others. The youngest still children, but already blossoming with goodness and ideas. Ways to be sweet. Kindness to always share. It came to pass that such an open-minded woman couldn’t lay the bricks anymore. Her mind ready to be somewhere higher. It felt to be in Heaven while her body of gemstones and stars stayed behind. Though only her body was here, it was loved and cherished, but pieces still remained. Finally, like every breath she took, her body turned to stardust.
But it never left. It lit the bricked path with the children still placing bricks down along the way. They followed the path of the woman who became a goddess. Who gave them courage and hope. Who built them up strong and always with love.
That is the story of the mortal woman and immortal goddess named Mary. A story told by the second oldest of her grandchildren who like her great grandmother is laying bricks down with words. Writing as she did. Being as she was and always will be. With eyes like hers made of the two souls that made her and always for them both - seeking.
C. N. Smallwood born and raised in Macon, Georgia, grew up with a pure passion for stories which originally manifested in dramatic escapades with toys and tales written into her school notebooks. Years of festering creativity led to the goal of being a published author with a dream of creating a series of novels. She has worked as an advocate for abandoned animals and human equality. At the current age of twenty, she is a junior at Middle Georgia State University in her hometown.
* * *
By Rekha Valliappan
“The brain had its own food on which it battened, and the imagination, made grotesque
by terror, twisted and distorted as a living thing by pain, danced like some foul puppet on
a stand and grinned through moving masks.” ― Oscar Wilde
"Do you remember that sad pike who danced and danced? The one with that glass-
looking thing in his right eye?"
"All fish eyes are glassy. Of course I do. Who can forget?"
"You do? Thought I was hallucinating..."
"Wonder what happened to him?"
"Mackeral?...I thought you said pike..."
"I did...although what I must have meant was tyke...you know..."
"It was the fish...binge eating..."
"...can happen to anyone..."
A daredevil wretched soul he died as he lived, trapped in two halves of a whole, torn
asunder, by his two contradictory selves, forged as one. Conjoined twins was the rumor.
Unverified of course.
One half of him, the right half, spontaneously danced, in threshing fish fest, trapping
him in nonstop crazy movement. The other half, a difficult issue, remained permanently
immobile, trained into paralysis, guided by just his one intact eye, the good eye. In
the place of the missing other was a ball of glass, round as a codd bottle marble, in a
glittering shade of deep ocean cobalt blue. The spectacle produced outrageous levity, the diaphanous kind. Many a normal person wondered, scratching their jaws in awe.
While rumors put it down to the huge amounts of tilapia his mother consumed, fried,
broiled, grilled, basted, baked, masala-stewed and raw, during pregnancy, although stir
fried in soya sauce was her favorite, most mockingly decided the rotations accrued from
hip gyrations aka Elvis the King, all the rage at that time. All manner of harrowing
stories whizzed by. Each may have embellished the real truth. No one really knew. Time had so obscured the narrative that even he was not certain any more, for why one half of him incessantly danced, and the other half of him refused to move. Besides, he was a skeptical wrecking-ball since birth, immune to compelling tales.
As for the roving glassy eyes, which were a remarkable feature of the entire dramatic
peculiarity, one rotated in whorls, like large lollipop discs of sparkling luminosity,
moving effortlessly through ducts of oozing seepage, the other, the intact one, insanely
bulged like an energy filled isotope, through the fixed and pervasive glaze. Two bony
sockets, visible as epoxy, afraid to come forward, yet filled to the hilt, restlessly locked in
a macabre danse -- his comatose look both fascinating and terrifying to the uninitiated. It
earned him many a curious stare, although all agreed that both eyes were worth the
observation, bequeathed as they were with the unusual gift of penetrating sight -- the stark beauty of spaces only he could see.
Mac used to laugh his discomfiture away, recalling one of his official versions of the
misadventure, the one he favored the most - the result of an intimidating encounter with
an oncoming steam engine of the great plains. Coal-fired. Or was it a herd of bison? His
eyes would hoof and jive, dancing in merriment at the recall - the glass and the blue, as
if with any further rotation it was likely to come clean out, whisked away to spin into orbit with Saturn's rotating suns in the grey ether.
It had occurred one summer, when he was on a hike up some hilly terrain to look for
puma and mountain lions. Only, there were no scraggy mountains where Mad Mac
resided. Also, there were no bison left on the plains either. So said his listeners. This
would agitate him no end. What other approaches did he have? What solutions could
there be? Poor excessive Mac! And he would equivocate, eyeballing his tormentors,
in dancing glints of shimmering light bands. Truth has a way of calling the bluff.
"Fiends!" he would declare from his unrestrained half, the maddening self-contradictory
Machiavelli in him exhausted but bursting with unrepentance as he pummeled them
down with his expressive half. The terrible visions that smote him at difficult moments
such as this were wild, mocking his tormentors, and although he swore, imploded, and
anxiously struggled to quell his dancing excesses, how would they save his soul? His
mystifying eyes got in the way, interfering with his demeanor and bearing, so to speak.
This was the reason why, what other could there be, he went through life with an
elevated head, in reality to keep the intense blue eye from slipping or swimming free. A
head so high he went quite insane. Who knows? So fond had he grown of his one glass
orb that in time, as the story goes, it condensed into a soft marble of ocean blue, aqueous,
wobbling jelly, still plagued with the agony of manic dance. And from the cortex there
percolated a vitreous trickle, enjoined with the other.
Poor Mac. It was as if he knew his overweening end was drawing near. That was when
for appeasement he instantly pulled out the other. Yes, the intact one. Right out of its
socket it was joked. Came out flawlessly like hot pastrami simmering in broth ribbed
with greasy cheese. His final defiant izumidai act to let his life's spectral spark in flood
"Wake up --"
...did I fall asleep?"
"You were out at sea...gurgling drool with your mouth open..."
"...with ocean waters..."
"...fishy tale...what happened to him...?"
"...let's have us some tilapia then..."
"...more fish? ewwww..."
Rekha Valliappan's short fiction and essays have featured in print and online journals and anthologies including Eastern Iowa Review, Across The Margin, Intellectual Refuge, Indiana Voice Journal, Friday Flash Fiction, Third Flatiron's 'Kurt Vonnegut Tribute' (on Amazon), The Ekphrastic Review, and Scarlet Leaf Review among others. In 2016, she won the Boston Accent Lit Short Story Award.
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