Snarfblog looked at his watch. The piffleduff was late. Again.
He tapped his foot and after a moment of brief consideration decidedly marched to the ticket booth – a boarded shack with lemon-yellow paint slathered in globs and baked in the hot, noonday sun.
He was going to have a word with the manager.
Peeved, he rapped his knuckles on the dusty window and waited for a jolly old fellow to emerge from a milieu of inscrutable shadow.
“Keen ah hep ya?”
Snarfblog huffed and pointed to his watch, then the docking station.
The fat man smiled, an oblivious gesture of insouciance or stupidity – Snarfblog couldn’t discern which.
“Late!” Snarfblog snapped. “The Piffleduff should have boarded fifteen minutes ago!”
Other Lam Blats milled about, checking their flots and badoozles as they patiently awaited the piffleduff. Could no one comprehend the concept of time? Did no one but Snarfblog have places to do and things to be?
He glowered at the map above the stupefied bloat in the window. You Are Here, it read. A large red arrow pointed to a speck on the map. The city of Reason was 200 blibberty-clacks to the north, and the tiny hamlet of Common Sense was 130 BCs to the south.
“Well,” Snarfblog snorted. “Now I understand what it means to be north of Common Sense and south of Reason.”
Preston writes science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, and humor. He works as an electrical engineer and is currently under NASA contract to design power control logic for a commercial crew vehicle, slated to fly in 2017.
* * *
The Indiscretion By Jean Blasier
She saw him first. He and the woman with him were late arriving. They were seated directly across the table. On the man’s right was a woman about seventy, talking endlessly even before he sat down, and on his left, now seated with him, a bored young woman twenty something.
After a while she saw his eyes glaze over as the woman on his right continued to talk. He picked up his fork, took a bite of salad, and looked around. Then he saw Gina across the table looking at him. His face softened, a smile around his lips.
Gina did not look away. She smiled back. Neither one of them wanted to be there that evening, but now perhaps they had something to savor.
The salads were removed; the main course served. Gina took a bite, still watching him. He also took a bite without taking his eyes off her.
The young woman on his left took one look at the plate in front of her, got up and excused herself.
Gina continued to stare. He was the most handsome man she’d ever seen, dark hair combed straight back, a few lines beginning to form around his eyes, sexy, mischievous, alluring.
The man on Gina’s right asked her to pass the rolls.
The look from across the table said, “This could be exciting, even dangerous. But that’s what we both want, right?”
Another bite. Gina actually dropped the bite off her fork as she brought it to her mouth. The man across the table shook with quiet laughter. Gina should have been embarrassed but she wasn’t. She smiled. She’d made him laugh.
The man took a bite with his eyes on Gina. He chewed, smiled, continued to listen to the woman on his right without ever moving his eyes away from Gina.
This went on for five more minutes before the woman who had arrived with him returned. Before sitting down, the young woman saw her date grinning at someone across the table and Gina returning the smile. The young woman glared at Gina, tugged on the man’s arm and nodded toward the door.
The man got up, excused himself to the woman on his right, who never stopped talking, and followed the woman tugging on him. He glanced at Gina when the woman’s back was turned. He took a card out of his breast pocket and placed it on an empty server’s table.
All Gina had to do was get up, head for the ladies room, pass the server’s table, pick up the card and put it in her bag. Then call. She would hear his voice for the first time. They would arrange to get together.
It was enough for the rest of that evening to think about. She left later with her husband who commented as they walked straight to the entrance to leave, “That was a boring evening, eh?”
Jean is a published author of 10 middle grades books and a playwright.
* * *
The Chairman of the Neighborhood Watch Committee By Tommy Dean
Ten years left on their mortgage and she wants to sell the damn thing and move to a nicer neighborhood. He points out the statistics: the cost to sell, the cost to buy a new place, the chances of a crime like this committed anywhere. Even in the face of these points she leaves the house at night, waiting until he returns from work, making him stand over her as she fits boxes into the back of the SUV.
"Why should I stand here and watch this," he asks.
"I can’t be out here alone," she says. "I need protection."
Four months ago, someone had broken into their home while they were away at work. They were greeted by the crunch of broken glass against the soles of their shoes and a gaping hole in the frame of their front door. A man or men had rooted through their valuables, the jewelry he was supposed to take to the safety deposit box, the TV they thought too large and heavy to ever leave their house once it was in placed on the wall, the computer they had bought to do their taxes, and a bra his wife swears was hanging over the dining room chair to dry would come back. It’s this last item that’s he’s sure led to her hysterics.
Now that his wife's gone he has taken to breaking into people’s homes. He waits for the members of the housing addition to drive off to work and then he goes from house to house, checking each one off his list. He documents the durability of the door, the deadbolt, and the chances of getting caught standing on a front or back porch in the sun-sizzling daylight. He has standards too. Three swift kicks from his steel-toed boots. If the door survives or the lock holds against his assault, then he smiles, nods, and puts a smiley face next to the address.
He doesn’t steal anything; he never enters the house. It’s a duty, one he’s undertaken as the chairman of the Neighborhood Watch Committee. It’s a job he takes seriously. He often preaches from the scarred, fold-up tables placed at the front of the scuffed linoleum floor of the Kiwanis building about the need for perseverance in the face of danger. He talks about sledge locks and alarm systems; he recommends the installation of cameras and the use of timed lights.
A scattering of people show up, most of them sucking on the straws of Big Gulps, waiting to launch into their most recent conspiracy theories. The latest conversation has centered on the rash of broken doors. These people, the men red faced and hollering, the women sitting with their hands in their laps, their voices no louder than a whisper, make conjectures, threaten to leave the neighborhood, wonder what it will cost to make sure they’re safe? How can they protect themselves from the menace that breaks in, but leaves everything untouched, as if the theft of privacy is bad enough?
He nods in the face of their anger, checks his list against the name of the complainant, checks his desire to admonish or praise, and waits for their voice to drop away. They don’t understand. He’s providing them a service, a way of truly knowing whether their home would survive the kind of assault done by criminals and sadists. He wants to spare them the guilt and anguish of losing their wife, not to death, but to fear.
A couple more houses remain on his list. Then he’ll tell the neighborhood, tell them he is the reason they returned some random night to find their doors caved in, possessions still intact. It was of necessity, he’ll tell them. We’re all safer now.
During the day, Tommy Dean works as a middle school English teacher. A chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV is forthcoming from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Apollo’s Lyre, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Blue Lake Review, and 5X5.
* * *
Commitment Issues By Christine Marie Dixon
She is excruciatingly beautiful.
It is the kind of beauty that can cut you with its tenderness. It burns you and buries you and resurrects you to love you all over again. Passion is evident in her eyes, but it is not obscene. Her lust is delicate. Enviable. It is obvious, her beauty-relentless and unavoidable.
When they first meet, she has dark hair that trails down her back in red-tinted strands. He imagines that her hair smells delicious, edible even. Girls like that always use some sort of fruit-scented shampoo. Strawberry, he guesses. Possibly peach. One night, he has a dream where he ties her wrists above her head using her hair and he teases her slowly, rapturously, driving her half-mad with lust.
He knows he could fall in love with a girl like that. He wants to. He doesn’t care how many deadly sins he commits by wanting her. When she walks out of the room and the tips of her hair brush back and forth over her waist he pictures his hands there instead, pulling her into him, aligning their hips, her hands running up his arms and squeezing his biceps.
He wants to cradle her, coddle her, ravish her, night after night after breathtaking night. He wants to build her a diamond-studded castle with floors carpeted with braided gold. He wants to weave her a dress out of rose petals. He wants to make love to her infinitely and indefinitely, gently and slowly and smoothly and violently…
But he cannot speak to her. He is crippled by apprehension, by the terror of imminent heartbreak. She is critically vibrant, desperately necessary. The crush of rejection would be fatal and he cannot risk it.
And her? She wants him too. She knows he is watching her-she always knows when men are watching her. There is something divinely, serenely inquisitive in his eyes, a simmering intelligence mixed with abject longing and devotion.
She pities him and envies him. She wonders how his lips taste. She wants to have mercy on him and speak to him but she cannot do this, cannot concede to her heart.
Because she knows, instinctively, that for him, she would break her heart over and over again in a circle of shattered devotion. She would follow him anywhere, do anything he asked.
For him, she would be a fool.
For him, she would slowly let friendships fade, ignore her mother’s phone calls, find a respectable, well-paying job in an office with no windows, wear sensible shoes, keep her hair perfectly trimmed and her nails perfectly manicured.
For him, she would cook dinner every night, make pancakes from scratch, mend the holes in his clothes, raise his children to be productive members of society, pretend to like his parents.
Oh it will be nice, at first. He will open doors for her while telling her how much he admires her independence. He will kiss her on the third date and they will take things slowly. They will discover a mutual love for black and white films and Belgian chocolate and they will drink red wine in a park on a picnic blanket.
Their first fight will be meaningless, tentative. They will make up quickly and promise never to fight again and to always be honest with each other. After a few months they will move in together and he will remember to put down the lid of the toilet seat and she will keep the refrigerator stocked with beer-Guinness, never Budweiser-and they will make love nearly every night and giggle under the covers when the tenants in the next apartment pound on the wall and tell them to shut up.
But then he will lose his job or her father will die or his brother will move in with them (temporarily, he says) and he will stop kissing her goodbye in the morning. One afternoon she will come home early from work and the pregnancy test will be positive and he will propose and they will plan a wedding and by the time they realize it was a false positive and there is no baby they’ll tell each other that of course they still want to get married and they will smile down the aisle.
The little quirks he has will start to grate, slowly wearing down any remaining semblance of affection she has for him. One day, she will wake up and have thirty-seven grey hairs and an ache in her lower back and she will realize youth has gone and she never did anything memorable.
One of them will have an affair with someone younger. It will probably be him. She will be too busy making sure Girl Scout cookies get sold and science projects win at least third place. He will wear a suit and a tie while she wears baggy circles under her eyes and dried oatmeal in her hair.
At some point, she will rediscover some long-lost passion and throw herself into it. Maybe it’s painting, or singing or horseback riding. She will be vibrant again. He will rediscover the woman he fell in love with and for two, three, four years it will be blissful again but good things don’t last, they never last, and she will discover a lump in her breast or he will have a heart attack and by then they’ll be old enough and sick enough that they will no longer know if they are together for love or if their relationship is merely a desperate attempt at survival because after all, two is better than one and neither one wants to die alone.
They will become weary comrades, trudging through the rest of their lives in a stagnant march of mutual exhaustion. They will have traded youth and beauty for a contract of codependent complacency. They will be satisfied in the way mediocrity brings contentment.
She is young but she knows that love is ephemeral. Her heart is too precious to break and this is the inevitable consequence of love and so she will not capitulate, will not allow herself to be tempted by this boy because even if soul mates exist and he is hers, he will one day break her.
Christine-Marie Liwag Dixon is a musician and writer from Detroit.
* * *
Ode to Poets in a Dive Bar On a Saturday Night By Roy Dorman
Dickinson and Frost are sitting together in a corner booth, each with a beer in front of them, talking about whatever poets talk about when they’re out on the town. Emily’s dressed to the nines; she looks ready for anything. Robert, in contrast, is in jeans and a ragged tweed poet’s sport coat with suede patches on the elbows. A Sinatra tune’s on the jukebox; Frank’s singing that if he can make it in New York, he can probably make it anywhere.
Charles Bukowski passes their booth on his way to the Men’s Room. He drops an exaggerated wink at Emily and she very demurely winks right back at him. Robert snickers at this exchange around a mouthful of beer and gives Bukowski a jaunty salute that ends in a “go away” wave. Bukowski tells them not to go anywhere; he’ll be right back.
When he returns, Emily and Robert are laughing uproariously over something that Emily has just said. Bukowski sits down next to Emily on her side of the booth with his own glass and a fresh pitcher of beer. In an aside to the two, he mumbles that waxing poetic is thirsty work. Emily continues her story about the carryings-on of two robins that have been having morning sex lately on the lawn below the blossoming cherry tree outside her kitchen window.
When she’s finished, Bukowski launches into a colorful narration of how he had first won and then lost a bundle at the track that afternoon. While Bukowski’s lamenting his bad luck, Robert’s watching the snowflakes sparkle in the glow of the lone street light outside the bar and is wondering where he will sleep tonight. He looks for some clue from Emily, and as if she has read his mind, she looks into his eyes, still listening to Bukowski, and has her lips form a quick air kiss to him.
For the next couple of hours, the three of them talk nostalgically about other Saturday nights they’ve spent in other bars in other cities with other poets. Much later, when the bartender gives the last call, the three get up to leave and stumble arm and arm out into the early morning blizzard.
Roy Dorman is retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Benefits Office and has been a voracious reader for 60 years. In retirement, Roy is now a voracious writer and has had poetry and flash fiction published recently in a number of online magazines.
* * *
The Pivot By Rachel Hochhauser
Nigel and I went to meet his friends for drinks. Summer was nearly over, and as we walked toward the restaurant through the setting light, the air was ripe with the smell of the season’s trash.
We’d only been dating a few months, and I had not yet met these friends. An Argentinean man and his live-in girlfriend. They’d been together for nine years, Nigel had explained, though they were unmarried.
He and I had been dating for a few months. During this time, I’d grown enthralled by the world of couples. By the dinners — so many dinners — that opened a new realm of people to me. Not just Nigel’s friends and colleagues and cousins, but people from my own life, people that had emerged from bland friendships or vague associations, scurrying through the city, eager to make reservations.
I enjoyed these get-togethers greatly. I liked to deflect questions to Nigel to hear how he would answer. The perfected cadence of How We Met. The reassuring punch lines. The reassurance of repitition. I learned about us this way — and I learned about Nigel.
As we walked, time felt invaluable and unending: summer taking its leave, the seminal promise of fall. I only wanted more of it, and more of him, to know all that I could. I looked forward to the evening, to presenting ourselves over the cocktails, and to the precious and revelatory bits of information that these conversations could unearth.
When we turned the corner, the other couple was already waiting for us out front.
“You,” the Argentine said, taking my hand and kissing each of my cheeks, quick and practiced, “Nice to meet you.”
He was tanned — the sort who might wear white pants. His wisp of a girlfriend introduced herself, and the four of us — an Argentine, a Brit, a wisp, and myself — went inside to find a table.
I liked Nigel, or initially liked him, because of his Englishness. Which is not to say I like the English so much as it is that I liked, previously, one particular Englishman. People are attracted to familiarity. We carry forward the bits and pieces of the people who have touched us. So, it was the Englishness that first piqued my interest, and later Nigel took care of the rest — in the end the two men were nothing alike. Nigel delivered upon expectations. “All of England,” he once told me, through his angled teeth, “has a drinking problem.”
The four of us ordered our drinks. We talked over one another, eager to show our friendliness. We discussed employment, past and planned vacations, restaurants that had recently opened. We made our way into How We’d Met, and Nigel said his usual piece about spotting me across a room. A blue dress and a spilled drink. A first date and an unreturned phonecall. It went back to that room, he said. That dress.
The Argentine nodded in my direction. “You are very, very beautiful.” I glanced quickly at his girlfriend to see if she would resent the compliment, but she was distracted, finishing her drink. The verys made it less believable.
“Thank you,” Nigel said, putting a hand over my knee and pressing. I had opened my mouth to say the same.
“Why is it,” I asked him, “that you get to say thank you when he says that to me?”
The Argentine laughed. “It is a compliment to both of you.”
Nigel’s hand stayed on my knee. I was annoyed, but part of me enjoyed being pinned. The appreciation. I’d wear the blue dress again at one of our anniversaries, as a surprise.
“No, but really,” the Argentine continued. He said that often, the but really’s and the come on guys had peppered our conversation, making everything both more serious and less meaningful than it should have been. “Much prettier than the others.”
He stopped, then corrected himself: “the past girls.”
I looked over at Nigel, without meaning to. I understood then that what was undiscovered could become sinister, that I could fret and worry about what I did not know, and that things withheld or yet disclosed might be riddled with potential hurt.
The Argentine’s girlfriend set her drink on the table, leaving a pale round of cucumber at the bottom of the glass. I admired her discipline. I never left my garnishes. I liked to nibble the orange slice to the pith, to gnaw the olive off the toothpick until there was only wood in my mouth, to plough through the best bits of something until there was little left to cherish.
Rachel Hochhauser is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her stories have appeared in journals such as Per Contra, Clapboard House, and Connu. The recipient of the Pillsbury Foundation Creative Writing Award and an alumna of NYU, Rachel also has a Masters in Professional Writing from University of Southern California.
* * *
My Little Sister, Madeline By C.E. Hyun
My little sister, Madeline, was born when I was fifteen and Bea was fourteen, and I remember our dad picking us up from school and driving us to the hospital. At the hospital, we found Madeline in my mom’s arms, asleep. She was three hours old, born while I took a math test in Miss Farr’s class and Bea bounced basketballs in gym. Our practical mother wouldn’t let us stay long. (We had homework and life goes on, even on the day your baby sister is born.) Bea and I wanted to see Madeline open her eyes, or at least see what she looked like without her regulation hospital hat, and so I gently tugged the hat off her head.
Her head was huge. I tried to put the hat back on her head, but her skin was all soft from being born and her entire forehead folded like warm bread. It was the most bizarre but endearing sight.
Fast forward five years. No longer is Madeline content to lie back in her rocker and gurgle. She walks and talks. Her temper tantrums are something to behold. She had a habit of wrinkling her forehead when she was mad so that she looked like she was about to sprout horns. I loved to tease her about it, just to see her roar with rage. One time she actually charged, head lowered to butt me like a triceratops.
There was something simultaneously predatory and damsel-in-distress about my little sister. She used to be afraid of the water, and we had to coax her into the pool with much cajoling and scolding. Then she would cling to us as though she wasn’t the one wearing arm floaties. Then the summer that she was seven, Madeline found her inner mermaid. We went to the pool every day (amazing to see a seven-year-old do the butterfly). After the requisite laps, we would play tag. Of course ninety-nine percent of the time, Madeline got to be It.
It used to be that I would swim away a bit, wait for her to splash close, and then step out of her way. Not anymore. I would resurface to breathe and there Madeline would be, zooming toward me with her giant goggles and a big smile on her face. Terrifying to be on the receiving end of such an attack, not to mention how much pleasure my little sister derived from capturing me.
Madeline was now nine, living with our parents in Orange County, California. Our parents were going to Korea for a funeral and Mad had school, so I’d arranged to come home for the week to take care of her.
The first thing Madeline said after our parents left and it was just the two of us was: “You can’t boss me around, just because Uhm-ma and Ah-bba aren’t here. You have to listen to me too.” It was her greatest grievance, that she was the little one. Madeline was very concerned with equity and the rights of little sisters.
“Don’t even start. I always listen to you. Now where’s my hug?” The last time I had seen Madeline was over Christmas break. I lived only an hour away, but had been too bogged down by school in the last month to come home. I opened my arms, but Madeline ran away from me as though I had the plague. “Hey, we need to talk about our plans for the week,” I called after her. “What do you want to do for dinner?”
Madeline came running back. “Can we eat out?”
“Sure, but wait. Wait! Hug!” I said, turning in a circle as she ran around me. “Why are you so anti-hug?”
“I don’t want to hug.”
“You know awesome little sisters give hugs. And they always obey their awesome big sisters.” Before Madeline could retort, I said, “Let’s get dinner, but first you need to go upstairs and change.”
Madeline started to leave, then turned back. “Help me choose an outfit.”
Ten minutes and two outfits later, we were on our way to dinner. At the restaurant, Madeline told me she was doing a project on ocean pollution at school that was due next week. She was going to decorate her presentation board with otters, whales, and seals. That reminded me:
“So are you still planning a career as a zookeeper?” I asked. The last time I saw her, that was what Madeline told me she wanted to be. She was furious when I teased her that as a zookeeper, she would mostly be working as a glorified janitor.
Madeline raised her chin. “No, I’m going to be a marine biologist.”
“Is that right? Well, that’ll make Ah-bba happy.” Our dad was a scientist.
“I’m going to pet sea otters,” Madeline said happily. “Their fur is so soft. Did you know that they have the thickest fur of any animal? I read it in Zoobooks. They have no blubber. That’s why they have so much hair.”
On Friday, I drove to Alice Canyon Elementary to pick up Madeline. Standing under a tree, I watched her bounce out of school with her best friend, Indu Chowdhury, a cute but glum girl who I think will write a lot of dark and suicidal poetry in her teens, and then afterwards grow up to be an angry intellectual. (The girl was nine and already all cynical about Harry Potter.)
I heard someone behind me and turned to see Indu’s mom. She recognized me and we chatted as we waited for Madeline and Indu to saunter over. She said she noticed how creative Madeline was and that she liked how Madeline and Indu balanced each other.
“I’m glad they’re such good friends,” she said.
“They’re both good girls,” I agreed. The type other parents liked arranging play dates with because they were polite and did as they were told, would play nicely with extra siblings, and were unlikely to have any kind of corrupting influence because their parents monitored their activities and kept them carefully sheltered.
Still, I thought how Madeline and her friends all looked so happy and harmonious from a distance, when I also knew about the competitive meanness, the third-grade cliques and alliances, the scary things they said about each other on their social networking sites, if they had access to them. How having your own phone, designer clothes and accessories—things you questioned whether a nine-year-old really ought to have—could improve your social status in the eyes of your fellow third-graders. I thought this as Madeline and Indu approached us with happy smiles, how Madeline had told me she thought Indu was sometimes a braggart and manipulative, and I wondered what grievances Indu had against Madeline.
After dinner, I found Madeline in her room playing with her Littlest Pet Shops. “Let’s go for a walk,” I said.
“I don’t want to.”
“Come on, we can get Yogurtland. And on the way there we can play Harry Potter Twenty Questions.”
Madeline considered. “Fine.”
I know, I know, bribery is wrong, but it’s effective. By the time we walked to Yogurtland and started back, it was getting dark. Still, there was enough light that Mad wanted to stop and play in the dried up creek bed that lined the trail close to our house.
It warmed me, watching her. I didn’t even know what there really was to do down there, but she seemed to be having a good time. I did feel a strange pang watching her. She was an only child in a lot of ways, so I was impressed at her ability to play alone. At the same time, she was a girl who adored play dates and was continually jealous of her friends who had younger siblings. I wanted this little sister—who read Harry Potter and loved to explore creek beds—to stay with me forever and not be the SoCal girl I already saw hints of her becoming.
It was then I noticed that it had gotten abruptly windy and there was no one else around. Along the part of the trail we were on, the path was lined with eucalyptus trees. They loomed tall and dark above us, almost intimidating as their long leaves swayed. I heard a weird squawking and the air seemed to crackle.
I was suddenly taken back to the opening scene in A Wrinkle in Time, when fourteen-year-old Meg Murry comes downstairs one dark and stormy night and is visited by the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit. Was something similar happening to us? I half-expected a magical air balloon or a wizard’s moving castle to come sailing down through the trees to meet us. The sense of foreboding grew.
“Mad,” I called. “Let’s go home.”
“Wait! Five more minutes.”
“Mad, get up here right now!” Paranoia made my voice sound a lot nastier than it needed to be.
She came scrambling up the creek bed, glaring at me and ready to start pouting, but I cut her off. “Mad, when I tell you to do something, you need to listen to me right away. Do not argue. Now let’s go home.” I grabbed her hand.
Madeline pulled away. “I’m going to tell Uhm-ma that you were mean to me.”
“You can tell her whatever you want. Now come on.” I reached for her hand, ready to pick her up and carry her if she resisted. There was that weird squawking noise again. Some kind of ominous bird? How did it get dark so soon, and why was there no one else around? How could Madeline be so oblivious to the danger in the air?
Madeline was staring up and pointing, and I felt something wet hit against my hair. I touched my hand to where the wetness had hit; it was not water.
“It pooped on you!”
I turned and saw what looked like a green parrot fly back up into the eucalyptus trees. Was that the weird squawking? Suddenly, there were more of them. Lots of squawking, and Madeline and I watched a group of parrots fly around in a circle before they went back up into the trees.
“Wow, are those… do you think they escaped or do parrots live in Southern California?” I asked.
“I thought you knew everything about animals.”
“I didn’t grow up here. We had different animals on the East Coast, remember? We had deer and once turkeys in our backyard. You cried because you thought we were going to capture the turkeys and eat them.” I looked back up into the eucalyptus trees. The parrots kept squawking, but we didn’t see any more of them. I held out my hand. “Come on, let’s head back. It’s getting late.”
After washing up, I went to check on Madeline. She stood in front of the mirror, carefully combing her hair. She was wearing a pale purple nightgown with sheer princess sleeves. She looked like a little flower.
To ruin this pretty picture, Madeline turned toward me and perched a black velvet headband with a ridiculous pink bow on her head. I called it her Dolores Umbridge headband.
“You still wear that?” I asked.
“Yes. This headband is awesome.” She flounced past me.
I followed her to her room where I helped her clean up her toys. She’d scattered them all over her bed and floor, and she had tons of tiny beads and accessories.
“When are you leaving to L.A.?” she asked.
“When Uhm-ma and Ah-bba come back, next Thursday.”
“How come Bea didn’t come too?”
“She has a job. And New York is really far. L.A. is only an hour away.”
Madeline put the last box of toys away. “You always leave me behind.”
It was the way she said it that took me back. Not plaintive, not petulant, but like an unchangeable statement of fact. “What are you talking about? Everything I do revolves around you, and you know it.”
“I can never do the things you and Bea do.”
“You’re nine, silly girl. And besides, you have so many cool things. Like all those Littlest Pet Shops? You have what, over forty of them? I had two. And you have such an attitude and totally get away with it. Do you know how strict Uhm-ma was when we were your age? She would not laugh if we talked back.” I went over to her bookshelf. “What do you want me to read you?”
Madeline perked up, somersaulting over the bed to join me. “Junie B. Jones,” she said, referring to a popular children’s series about a crazy little girl who was always up to crazy, weird things and notable for inventing her own variation of the English language.
“Why can’t we read something wholesome and morally uplifting like Little House on the Prairie?”
“Little House is for goody-goodies.”
“Oh sorry. Forgot. You’re a baddie-baddie.”
“No. I’m a cutie-cutie.” Madeline grabbed the Junie B. Jones book she wanted and jumped onto her bed. When I sat down next to her, she handed me the book and took one of my hands. “Rub my forehead.”
“I can’t hold the book open and turn the pages at the same time I’m rubbing your head.”
“Try.” Madeline lay back and closed her eyes, hands folded over her stomach.
So I read and I rubbed. After two chapters, I tucked Madeline in and turned off the light. “Good night, little one. Don’t wake me up tomorrow until after nine.”
Madeline smirked. “Not if I get hungry. You have to feed me.”
“If you wait until after nine, I’ll make you something better than cereal.” I kissed her forehead. “Sweet dreams.”
I turned on her mushroom nightlight and went downstairs. Later our mom called to check in and see how Mad and I were doing. I told her that I was planning on taking Madeline to the beach on Sunday and that I would make sure her science project was ready for next week.
“Is she being good?” my mom asked.
“For the most part.”
“What about you?”
“I’m always good.”
When I went back upstairs, I went to Madeline’s room and watched her in her gigantic, full-size bed. She was burrowed under the covers like a sand crab, hugging a pillow and with her ridiculous Dolores Umbridge headband still in her hair.
When we lived back East, she used to run and laugh under the sprinkler in her Winnie-the-Pooh bikini. One winter, we built a snowman in the backyard, then took a picture of Madeline hugging it in her bright red snowsuit. I remembered back when she slept in her crib, we shared a bedroom wall and I could hear her talk and coo to herself in the morning, how it was the most warming sound to wake up to. How back during my undergraduate, she sent me letters on giant lined paper as she first learned how to write, later cards with elaborate drawings and comics. How she liked our dad to cut mangos in half, slice the fruit inside, and then flip the skin inside-out so that the fruit stuck up in little cubes she could pluck off with a fork. How her first word was the Korean word for strawberry.
I never wanted her to suffer. I wanted her to be pretty and popular, smart but not too smart when it came to perceiving sadness and suffering in others. I didn’t want her to be weighted down by anxiety. I liked her plucky little heroines: Ramona Quimby, Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, Chihiro in Spirited Away, Coraline, even Junie B. Jones. I thought about how you were selfish over who you love, and how for me, that person was my little sister, Madeline.
C.E. Hyun lives in Orange County, California. Her fiction has appeared in failbetter, Lightning Cake, The Good Men Project, decomP, and elsewhere.
* * *
5 By David Klugman
Eight year old Lenore creeps over to Daddy at the party, grabs his hand in search of something solid; she is shy and somewhat scared. Says Daddy, “Boy you’re really clingy today – cling cling cling. Come on, get with it Len, go play, get out of here.” The interaction is characterized by contempt, and I watch young Lenore slink away in shame (the target of contempt is always shamed).
Later, Daddy, who is Jimmy to me, and not much more than that (an acquaintance, maybe friend as in the way some social norms define it), comes up to me with a buzz on, talks a little nothing and I say, I take the risk (I mean what else am I going to do with my time?), I say, “Listen, Jimmy, not for nothing, but if you are open to it I would like to say something to you.” “Sure, Sure,” he booms, “whatever, David, good old David, you’re inside.” And so I say, “The way you fobbed your daughter off when she was ‘clinging’ as you described it, can create a real wound if you’re not careful.” He asks me what I mean and I say, “Well, her need made you uncomfortable, right – I mean that much was clear. And I am not nor do I wish to be your analyst, but nevertheless that’s probably because your own needs make you nervous, and when you see those needs in her it’s like your cover’s blown.”
So far so good, he’s with me, but I feel it coming, and I should know better by now that when I suggest how maybe searching for a way to normalize and validate her need might bring a little healing to them both - “You schooling me on how to raise my kid, Dave?!” Jimmy quips. “No, just an observation, for what it’s worth. And a suggestion.” “No, no, you’re schooling me you sanctimonious bastard, and I ought to crack you for it.” “No, don’t crack me for it, Jimmy – that’d be no good for no one.”
From there we make it better, somehow, redirect the flow of conversation; add a person, add a drink. But still, out of the corner of my eye I notice how Lenore is being really gentle with my daughter, who is younger and who is therefore no threat to her at all; in fact is someone she can help, and find security in helping someone else find their way through it all together. It touches me that this is how we learn; by virtue of being failed in such excoriating ways we persevere until we find a means through which to help another exactly the way in which we have been ourselves failed.
David Klugman is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Program (1983) and has been a practicing psychoanalyst for the past 25 years. He works in Nyack, NY, where he also lives with his wife and daughter.
* * *
The Carpet Cleaner By Jan Ramming
Her miniature schnauzer plopped down at Rosemary’s feet, and she scooted him away. Damn Brutus was always messing on the rug. As if he read her mind, the dog growled and backed up further. Stanley had told her not to get a dog, but she couldn’t help herself. She needed the companionship. Stanley had little time for her, with his long work hours and short attention span. She loved him as best she could, though she knew, even after 25 years of marriage, that he wasn’t the love of her life.
Brown and yellow spots dotted the white carpeting in her living room. Rosemary had tried to clean them herself; but they would return, darker and smellier. Stanley hadn’t wanted to pay for a carpet cleaner either, the cheap ass. She called them anyway. A hot flash raged, and as Rosemary fanned her hormonal flames with last month’s Better Homes and Gardens, the doorbell rang.
“Good morning, ma’am,” said the first young man. “I’m Gary.” He reached out to shake her clammy hand, as the other young man stepped forward. “And I’m Mike. We’re here to clean your carpet.”
Their good manners impressed her. “Come in, come in,” she said, feeling lighter. “Over there in the living room.” She barely looked at their faces, pointing them down a long hallway, noting their work boots and pleated pants, their fresh t-shirts that said “Perfect Clean” on the back.
Brutus yapped and cowered under an antique side table as they entered the room. Mike flipped through some paperwork on his clipboard. “I see here that you ordered a regular cleaning, ma’am, is that correct?”
She turned around to face him, straightening her blouse. “It’s Rosemary,” she said, looking at him--and stopped—taking him in. His shaggy blonde hair hung over his faded-denim eyes. He had that nose that turned up just a bit at the end, and his mouth was in that perpetual grin she knew so well. His voice was deep, deeper than his small frame should allow. My God, he was a spitting image of--
“Bruno,” she whispered, dropping her magazine.
“Bruno.” She said it louder this time, as her head rushed with images from the past: their first apartment, their young naked bodies writhing under crisp cotton sheets, the little sapphire and diamond-chip ring he had given her one Christmas, flashing on her finger. She hadn’t seen him in thirty years, and it was impossible that he could be here now, so preserved. With one hand over her mouth to hide her smile, she looked at him, looked away. She wanted to giggle.
“Uh, ma’am---Rosemary--it looks like you may have some pet stains here that we should specially treat with a sanitizer and deodorizer. It’s going to cost you extra though.” He whipped out a calculator and punched some buttons. “Yep, $120 extra, but you’ll be glad you did it. We’ll get rid of those stains for good.”
She didn’t hear him. She was remembering the pain she felt when he left, how her broken heart ached for months after. She could feel another hot flash coming on. She narrowed her eyes, clenched her fists.
He scratched his head. “Well, maybe I can take off ten percent, but I would have to call my manager.” He took out his cell phone.
She stepped toward him, folded her arms, and raised her chin. “So, you came back to gloat?”
“Pardon?” He cocked his head and took a step back. “How about twenty percent off, since you’re a returning customer—do we have a deal?” He pressed a button on his phone.
“Sure. Rub it in. See if I care--”
He gave her the shhhh sign and held his phone to his ear. She knocked it out of his hand.
“What the hell, lady?” He took another step back, eyeing her. “No need to go off on me—I don’t set the prices, OK, Rosemary?” He picked up his phone. “Let me go out to my truck and call to my manager.”
“You,” she seethed. “How could you just leave me like that?
He held up his hands in surrender. “I’ll be right back in, Rosemary, I promise,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“No, you never came back,” she said, her voice cracking. “We were supposed to get married, remember? I was going to go pick out a dress and you were going to talk to my dad?” She sounded young again, the pain felt fresh.
“Seriously, lady, what the----?” He took another step back.
“You said you loved me, you said we would always be together, remember?” She wiped away a tear.
“Look, obviously you have me confused with someone else, OK, Rosemary. It couldn’t have been me, OK?” He cupped his hand beside his mouth. “Just between us, I don’t even like women.”
“I knew it!” she screamed. “Why didn’t you tell me? It was John, wasn’t it? You always liked John.”
“Who is this John guy? And you knew I was gay? Hey, that’s stereotyping, Rosemary. Just because I like a clean carpet doesn’t mean---“
“You’re gay?” Gary punched him in the shoulder. “Don’t you think your cleaning partner deserves to know about that, or do we have a don’t-ask/don’-tell policy at Perfect Clean now?”
“Does it matter?” he yelled at both of them. He stomped his foot. “My sexual orientation has nothing to do with my carpet cleaning ability!”
Rosemary stepped aside and blew her hose. Sniffed indignantly. “You should have told me.”
Mike threw up his hands. “Well I didn’t think it was necessary, Rosemary.”
“Fine then.” She dabbed at her face with the back of her hand, reached for his clipboard. “Where do I sign?
“Right here.” He jammed his finger on a line at the bottom of the page. She signed and handed it back.
“Thank you,” he said, recovering.
“You’re welcome.” She scooped up Brutus and turned to leave.
She stopped but didn’t turn around. “Yes?”
She nodded. It would have to be enough.
Jan Ramming of Geneva, Illinois was a freelance journalist until she decided to write her own stories. Her fiction has appeared in Bohemia Journal, Gravel Magazine, and Pithead Chapel. "The Carpet Cleaner" was a finalist in the 2014 To Hull and Back Humorous Story Contest.
* * *
The Alabama Heat By Nicole Roder
Lot of folks can’t stand the Alabama heat. Specially up here, away from the water, it can get up to ninety-eight, ninety-nine. I been here long enough, I seen it get up on past a hundred one summer. But the heat never bothered me. I set out on the porch with my sweet tea an my fan, watching the lightning bugs, smelling the fresh grass and the barbecue. Always somebody out barbecuing, an ain’t nobody in this world know how to barbecue better than the folks on Teeva Street in Oak Hill, Alabama.
Oh, I know they say some things bout the barbecue down in Carolina, or up there in Missouri, but they just must a never met Big Ed or Thandie-Fry. Too bad you ain’t met them neither. Big Ed live up on one end a the block, Thandie-Fry live on the other. They both done dug some pits bigger’n half they yards, which ain’t much, but it’s something. Don’t even have to go outside to smell that smoky meat coming from both ends. An folks come from all over to get a plate, set on the porch, shoot the pooch. Yes, the good Lord done blessed this place.
I like the night-time specially, when the crickets get to chirping, an I can just watch the ice-cubes melt on down to water in my tea. It was a night just such as this, hot and quiet, the first time I thought I was gone die.
“Rayline! Get me a coke!” Odie Ray never did like to come outside with all the regular folks on the block, so he just set in front a his big ole monster window-box fan watching the television, and then he bark at me when he want something.
I was fixing to get up anyway, so I didn’t mind. “What flavor?”
“What you say?”
I opened the door. “I said what flavor, you dumb-ass blind donkey!” When I got out a my chair, I sucked some hot air down in my lungs. This wasn’t no ordinary heat. It was dry and heavy, burned my throat. That’s when I started listening, case He wanted to tell me something.
“Get me that lemony-lime! An you know blind mean you can’t see!” Odie Ray voice ain’t sound nothing like Jesus.
I pulled a coke out the ice box and set it on his little card table for him.
“Damn, Rayline, you blocking the tee vee!”
“You lucky I don’t make you sleep on the porch. You ever hear a ‘thank you’?” I had a lot more to say, but something done grabbed my insides and squeezed.
“You gone move, or what?”
“Damn O-Ray. Hold on a minute.” I put my hands on my knees and sucked in a pound a air.
“What’s wrong with you?” Odie Ray said. “You know your big butt ain’t transparent.”
“Shut up fool! Something ain’t right. Oh sweet Jesus.” I breathed hard and got down on the floor. Then I screamed louder than a pig sucking a thorn bush through the butt.
“Damn, baby. Look like you hurting.”
I could a cursed that man to his grave, but I ain’t had the breath to say it.
The door slammed open and Beazer came huffing in with the baby on her hip. “What happened? Who that screamin?” Then she must a seen me crumpled on the floor with my arms hugging my stomach. “Ray Ray! What you doin'? You sick?”
Odie Ray said, “She just started screaming and fell on the floor.”
“I need a doctor,” I said. Took a couple breaths.
“You sure this ain’t just your lady-time?” Odie Ray said.
“Lord O-Ray. I ain’t had my menstrual in fifteen years. You got to carry me to the hospital.”
“My story’s on, Rayline. Just wait a hour.”
Beazer put the baby down on the carpet. “Come on, girl, get up in this chair.” She put her arms round my shoulders. Beazer was my cousin I growed up with. Me an Odie Ray moved next door to her an her husband, Big Ed, when we got married. Momma wanted us all to live near each other, but Mary Lou moved on down to Florida soon as she was old enough to get out a here, an Danny had to go away so much, we never would a seen him even if he ain’t moved so far.
“I can’t!” That was bout all I could get out fore I done lost my breath again.
“You don’t want no doctors messin' with you,” Beazer said. “Just rest a little, you be fine.”
I gave them both the hate eyes. “Y’all want me to die?” I got in a couple a good breaths, rested my eyes on Beazer little baby, Rochelle. She wasn’t nothing more than a bitty little thing, skinny little legs growing out long from her pink dress. But boy could she move. She crawled on over to me, tried to climb up my shoulder an grab my nose. Even feeling like I did, that made me smile. I gave her sweet cheek a squeeze an she laughed. Shook her little body like that’s the funniest thing she seen all day, and tumbled backward onto the floor, giggling while her momma an my husband tried to figure if they should save my life or watch television.
They both shook they heads, an Beazer sent a look to Odie Ray, like they was communicating something I ain’t supposed to know about. He looked back at her, an his eyes did this jiggle, only for a second. Then she said, “I’m a go get Big Ed to put her in the car, but you gots to carry her to the hospital.”
“Why you ain’t comin'?” Odie Ray said.
“I got the baby. I need to see if Eddie, Junior can set with her. I’m a meet you up there, but you gots to be there anyways, case she needs a next a kin to sign something. You know she can’t be responsible.”
Next a kin? Beazer must a thought I was gone die, or go unconscionable or something. If the Lord was gone take me, I was gone be ready, but please Lord, don’t let it be my time.
Odie Ray carried me to the little emergency over on Baker street. They didn’t have no big hospital in Oak Hill. The ER only should a took bout five minutes, but the way O-Ray drive, seemed like a hour.
“Damn O-Ray! Can’t you go no faster?”
“I thought you can’t talk?”
“I got some breath back!” Damn. Had to stop again. I pulled my legs up an rolled on toward the door, squeezed my eyes shut. Jesus give me mercy!
Odie Ray said “Now you quiet. Matter a fact, maybe we don’t need no doctors. I like you better this way.”
Seventeen years, and that man still ain’t got a lick a sense. But he reached over an gave my hand a squeeze. His way a telling me I was gone be OK, he was gone take care a everything.
The white security guard tried to tell Odie Ray we need to sign in and go wait, but I screamed so loud he jumped back, an I fell down right on his boots, just a wailing an crying.
The white man said “Shit. Get that girl a wheel chair.”
Somebody picked me up and set me down in the chair, then we wheeled on back to the white nurse. She took my blood pressure an asked a bunch a questions. I was thinking I’m gone die right here in this chair, waiting on this white lady to finish up all her questions.
“And how much do you weigh, honey?” the white lady said.
I let out a breath. “One ninety-eight.”
Odie Ray laughed. “You know you ain’t seen one-derland in thirty years, Rayline.” Then to the white lady, “She weigh round about two twenty, two twenty-five.”
I just shook my head because I couldn’t talk no more.
She pressed on my stomach, an I screamed some more.
“She might have appendicitis,” the white lady said. “We need to get her back.”
Odie Ray touched the white lady arm, told her I could just be making this up for attention, an he apologize if it turn out to be nothing. White lady looked at me and nodded with that “feeling sorry for you” smile everybody like to use on me. She said appendicitis is serious, an we better check it out.
They got me in one a them hospital gowns that tie up in the back, told me to take all my clothes off, but I kept on my bloomers. Don’t nobody need to see my black butt hanging out a the robe. I wasn’t in too much pain to keep my modesty.
They took me over an got me on one a them wheel beds, an then here came Beazer an Big Ed fore they could close the curtain. “Girl, you look terrible!” Beazer said. “What the doctor think?”
“We don’t know nothing yet,” Odie Ray said. “All we seen is a couple white nurses.”
I grabbed Odie Ray collar and screamed in his face, “Get somebody in here! I’m gone die!” I laid down and held my stomach till somebody came an wheeled me over to the x-ray. Then they made me wait in the wheel bed while they processed. Drew my blood and hooked me up to a IV.
I laid down an the pain sorta slowed. I could still feel it some, but I didn’t think I was gone die imminently. Maybe I had a hour or two. Good thing too, because them white folks wasn’t in no hurry to look at my x-ray pictures. They was too much light to sleep, but I had Beazer there anyways, an I ain’t never been rude to a guest before.
“Where Big Ed go?” I said to Beazer.
“Oh he down in the cafeteria,” Beazer said. “He don’t like hospitals.”
“Me neither. Wish he could take me with him.” That machine they had me hooked up to kept beeping. I ain’t noticed the sound till right then.
“You gonna be fine, girl.” Beazer rubbed my leg. “They’d a come back in here by now, they though you was in real trouble.”
“I hope you right.”
“You can believe that,” Beazer said. “Ain’t I always took care a you?” She did. Ever since Momma passed, she an Odie Ray always did.
Finally, a nurse came back in. This time it was a little black girl, couldn’t a been more than twenty years old. “Ms. Rayline? Mrs. Pritchet?”
“Rayline is just fine, child,” I said.
“Ms. Rayline, let’s get you in your wheel chair. I need to show you something in these pictures.”
Me an Beazer looked at each other, an I could see what I’s feeling on her face. We was both shook. “Where the doctor? What they think is wrong with me?”
Odie Ray even looked a little freaky. He stood up. “Wait now a minute. You think you found something?” He put his hands on my shoulders an squeezed, but he ain’t take his eyes off a that nurse.
“Just come on out here, Ms. Rayline. I’ll show you what I mean,” the nurse said.
I got in that chair right quick, an Odie Ray wheeled me out. She put my x-ray pictures up on some kind a light board, and there I was, my insides lit up on the screen.
The nurse said, “Well, Ms. Rayline, it looks like you’re constipated.”
I shook my head. “Ma’am?”
She pointed to the picture of my insides. “You see all this gray in here? That’s poop. You just need to go is all.”
Odie Ray busted out laughing. He cried so hard, he had to set down on a bench. Well I could tell you right then, I wasn’t never gone hear this end. Even Beazer had to clamp her mouth shut so’s she didn’t snicker at me.
Big Ed came back up from the cafeteria. “What’s going on? They find something?”
Odie Ray said “Rayline’s full a shit!” That was it. He an Beazer both fell down hollering.
When we got home, Beazer said to Odie Ray, “You want me to give her the medicine, fore you gots to put her down?”
“Naw, she said she was gone take it.”
“You ain’t think she gonna lose it in the bed, do you?”
“Naw, that ain’t happened in least two years.”
“Well, maybe get some towels down, just in cases.”
They must a thought I’s too slow to hear what they saying, but my ears ain’t broke.
Writer Nicole Roder lives in Bowie, Maryland with her husband, Matt, their children, Emma, Sophia, and Raymond. And Lucy–their fiercely terrifying, 20-pound Boston Terrier who protects their home from some ubiquitous danger only she can see.
* * *
Chaos Clause By Sarah Szabo
“Pronounced cloh,” said Sean Clos, grasping the hand of his new employer in a sloppy show of greeting, wishing his grip were more firm, his palm less moist. “Like the wine,” he added.
He could sense Neal Clash squinting, perplexed, behind his sunglasses. “What?”
“Just a—term. French.” Clos tried a smile; bit his lip.
Clash grunted, unaffected, and ran his right hand briskly up and down the fabric of his trousers. “Well. Welcome. Good to meet you! Great to meet you.”
They walked up to the dark glass doors of the Platt County Aquiline Savings and Loan, Clos trailing behind respectfully, though he did skip ahead slightly on the modest stairsteps in an effort to get the door for the senior manager, not realizing until he had made a fool of himself that the doors were, of course, still locked. Clash did him the courtesy of not commenting, which quickly became its own form of mild torture when they entered the cold cloister of the workplace lobby, silent save for the urgent squeaking of Clos’ leather shoes. They were wet from a slick coating of the front lawn’s morning dew, and they cried like something dying with every step toward Clash’s office on the far side of the glistening, black tile floor. A tense pause while Clash worked with his keyring; Clos made an effort to stop biting his lip.
The lights came on at the motion of the opening door. “Have a seat, Clos,” Clash said, gesturing towards a large pink armchair on one side of his desk as he set down his briefcase on top of the other. “I understand Ms. Evans was unable to set you up with your office here over the weekend.”
“That’s right, sir, no, she wasn’t.” Clos, whose instructions to this point, he was positive, had yet to move beyond you start Monday, had never met Ms. Evans. He shivered with a nervous chill.
“Well, that doesn’t bother me,” Clash granted, in a tone that suggested the mix-up was Clos’ fault—not that he should be worried about it. “It gives us more time to get to know each other in person. We corresponded—am I right? Over email? A couple of times?”
No… Clos knew, but he still said, “I believe so.” Clash, now seated, had yet to remove his sunglasses.
There was a long, penetrating silence, during which Clos settled into his seat. The armchair sank deeper than expected, and gave Clos the impression of being swallowed. Clash smiled widely, showing small, bright, perfectly identical teeth.
“We should go over your contract.”
Clos’ armpits exploded with sweat. “My contract? Ah… I was under the impression that, ah, all of my contract issues had been sorted out. I mean, not that there were any issues, but, ah, but. I was under the impression that there was no ambiguity to this. Done deal. Ink dry on the… dotted line.” Clos felt a grim certainty that he had lost his job within minutes. A personal worst. He licked his lips meekly. “Was there some issue?”
Clash was shuffling through papers inside a thick manila folder, searching for something specific, on the cusp of finding it. “No, no, none at all. I just like to personally review parts of the contract with new hires,” he said. “For clarity.”
When he found the documents he was looking for, he peeled off two copies—one for himself, one for Clos. He also removed his sunglasses, revealing gray eyes. Clos’ mind associated with weapons at the look of them. Gunmetal gray.
The document was easily recognizable as a copy of Clos’ contract, all quite standard. None of its eleven double-sided pages, to Clos’ knowledge, stood out as pertaining specifically to him.
“Did you read it?” Clash asked, paging through his copy. “Did you examine it closely?”
For once, Clos felt a flash of confidence. “Absolutely, sir. Very closely. Every page.”
“Good—let’s turn to page 14.” He ran his finger down the lines. “Dadadadada… there. Article Seventeen, Conditions and Terms of Client Responsibility, Clause IX.”
Clos skimmed, caught himself up, and felt a twang of recognition. “Oh yes—this one. I did have some—”
“Read it to me.” When Clos looked up, Clash was standing behind his desk chair, arms folded over the back of it. Staring down at him. Expectant.
“Oh,” Clos began. “OK.” He cleared his throat.
“In the event of CHAOS, resultant of or precipitatory to natural disasters, war, government usurpations, financial collapse, pandemic disease or general panic, the contents of this contract are to be considered by the contractee to be NULL and VOID, and all procedures therein are to be considered provisional and expendable, for the sake of COMPANY survival. All other forms of “chaos” are to be left up to the interpretation of the shift manager or, if management should be somehow incapacitated, the judgment of the individual contractee. If the shift manager is unavailable in the event of global collapse or national financial ruin, the contractee shall not attempt to contact assistance, internal or external, and should instead resort immediately to doing WHATEVER THEY CAN, with SURVIVAL as the utmost goal.”
A droplet of Clos’ perspiration fell from his brow, punctuating the paragraph’s end. He felt dehydrated.
“A drink, Clos?”
Clos said yes reflexively, thinking yes to water, yes to coffee, not anticipating that Clash’s next move would be to withdraw from his desk a blue-boxed bottle of unopened, clearly expensive scotch whisky—and two glasses. Clos stammered, smiled, took the drink. He swallowed as much of Clash’s heavy pour as he could manage. It was among the most delicious things that Clos had ever tasted. He wanted, more than anything, to vomit it right back up.
“Wonderful, isn’t it?” probed Clash, before clarifying, “The clause, I mean. What do you think of it?”
Clos cracked the joints in his toes, very audibly. His stomach rumbled. His face, he needed to believe, was still reasonably well-composed. “Well, it could mean a number of things,” he whispered. “I suppose it’s very much an... I know it when I see it kind of situation.”
“Like pornography. Expand on that.”
“The chaos,” Clos said. “I will know it… when... I see it.”
“Right. Right!” Clash slapped the top of his desk and stretched his entire body over it to refill Clos’ glass, despite Clos’ efforts to refuse. “That’s absolutely right. It’s like a car crash, Clos—or a bomb going off. Have you ever heard a bomb go off?”
Clos shook his head. His eyes darted warily around the windowless office. “Not in person.”
“But you’d know damn well there was one… if you heard one. Why, it’d be—” Clash smiled, raised the glass to his nose, inhaled. “—chaos.”
“I do think it's an interesting clause to have. Very pragmatic.”
“Well, it is there for a reason. Do you recall the Great Depression, Clos?”
“Yes. Vividly.” Clos noticed that an immense pain had been steadily emanating from his left hand, and realized he was squeezing the armrest with all the strength of his grip; the skin of his knuckles was cracking. Finger-by-finger, he forced himself to stop.
“Consider this, Clos—the implied promise of financial security. This is why people bank with us—it is why they bank with you.” Clash rounded his desk, stopped behind the pink armchair, and set his hands, gently, on the top of Clos’ head. “If disaster strikes,” he continued, “our clients sleep better, believing that their money avoided the blast radius. You see, Clos, they think that we're their friends.”
It was a question in disguise, left hanging.
“Oh no,” said Clos. He had become very uncomfortable in the armchair, very uncomfortable in his own sweat-soaked clothes. He was shifting his weight left, right, back, and forth, cracking every knuckle. “Oh no.”
Clash nodded appreciatively, squeezed Clos’ head, and stepped to Clos’ left. He retrieved his glass from the desktop, took a delicate sip. Savored it.
“This job is about so much more than banking, Clos,” he mused. “Banking is what props the walls up, but what keeps the bastards out? Pattern recognition. Open eyes. A dutiful understanding of the migratory patterns of sea monsters. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“Do you enjoy the works of Ayn Rand?”
“Yes,” Clos said immediately. He took a drink and coughed over it. Choked.
Clash knelt to the floor, set his drink down between his feet, and started to untie his shoes. “I hate Ayn Rand,” he muttered, toward the floor.
Clash abandoned his shoes, left his drink on the ground, and stepped back toward his side of the desk while Clos watched, silently attempting to loosen his tie. He caught his thumbnail inside the knot and bent it halfway back, after which he also failed to effectively suppress a brief, meek, fretful squeal. Two words flashed in his mind, like a lightbulb flickering--Suffocate. And CHAOS.
Clash sat down and stared at Clos. Clos aimed his eyes everywhere else. Each uniform leaf of a potted plastic palm tree. Every golden capital on Neal Clash’s beveled black glass nameplate. The single peridot embedded in the bottom of his drinking glass. An entire minute elapsed.
Clos opened his eyes with a start and kicked violently, fooled for a split-second into thinking he was falling from a great height.
Clos blinked, and felt his back teeth sever a small part of his inner cheek meat with a sudden, wet crunch.
“That’s OK, Clos. It’s why we’re talking. Here.”
Clash moved some papers on his desk aside and replaced them with a rectangular smooth steel lockbox, which he had evidently been resting on his lap. It was a modest container, very discount-office-supply, and was slim enough to fit comfortably in Clos’ hands—but still he trembled. Anything could be inside of it, he felt. A ransom note. A snake. A human hand.
Clash spoke ominously. “Open it.”
Clos undid the lockbox clasp, and quickly raised the lid. Inside of it was a derringer gun, small and curious, with an engraved chocolate grip. It laid in a bed of velvet, contoured to size.
“They call it the Snake Slayer,” said Clash, his eyes widening as his tongue stretched out the name. Clos swallowed, tasting blood.
Clash cleared his throat, and leaned forward with his head bowed low in a casually conspiratory way. “Clos, you know this is all contingency plan,” he said. “I’ve reviewed your record closely; you’re an intelligent man, on paper. But suppose it actually happens, Clos. Global financial collapse. General devastation. A meteor strikes Washington. Half of the country shatters into outer orbit. You’re here at work—it all happens so fast. One of your clients crawls in through the double doors on his hands and knees. Covered in blood. Missing a limb. He catches your attention with a gesture you can’t read—a cross between a reach for help and an accusatory finger. He hasn’t said a word to you yet, but you can see the story in his eyes--help me. And it’s just going to be you and him, Clos. He’s in your office, and everyone else is in it just as deep as you are. There’s no time to find help, nor anybody you can turn to for it. It’s just you and him in the office, Clos. He’s bleeding. He’s dying. Clos, I want you to be honest with me.”
“Yes sir, I’ve never been more terrified.”
“Clos, I want you to be honest with me. Let’s say it’s just you and him in the office—and he’s bleeding. He’s dying. Tell me, Clos. What are you going to do?”
Clos traced his fingers down the smooth surface of the short gunbarrel, thinking about his last visit to the doctor, when his resting heart rate had been measured at a PR-breaking 205. The terrified look on the nurse’s pale face. The sirens. The chaos. And then he abruptly clenched his fist. “I’ll kill him,” he growled, the words unbidden. “I’ll shoot him. With this gun, in his face. I’ll blow him away.”
Clash raised an eyebrow, reached over, and tapped his finger twice atop the weapon’s firing pin. “With this?”
Clos stared hard and deeply into Clash’s face, his body tensed enough to make his vision vibrate, and he felt himself go crosseyed. “Yes,” he said, feeling bold. “Right between the eyes.”
Clash grunted, leaned back, wagged a finger before a sour expression. “Not with this gun,” he said. “No—this one’s for you, Clos. This is your safety net.” Clash mimed a gun shape with his hand, jabbed his finger underneath his chin, and dropped his thumb, mouthing “pow”.
Clos fixed the derringer with a lengthy stare, as though this new information would cause it to spontaneously change its appearance. It shimmered slightly.
Clash continued casually, idly spinning an egg-shaped paperweight on his desktop which Clos was only just now noticing to be, very definitely, a live grenade. “No. For your own purposes, I recommend a Springfield XDm 9 millimeter. Nineteen rounds in the magazine, you know. The trigger pull is so light, a four-year-old could fire it. Perfect for panicked moments—and soft hands. No, only two shots in the derringer, Clos. There’s ah, a gift certificate underneath—25% off your first purchase at a local outlet.”
Clos checked beneath the velvet, found a cutout paper coupon which matched Clash’s description. “And a soda,” he read, approvingly.
With a squint of his eyes and a curl of his lip, Clos’ expression betrayed a somewhat quizzical sentiment. Realizing this, he winced. Clash passed him a shimmering white handkerchief. “Your eye is bleeding.”
Composing himself, Clos dabbed at the corners of his eyeballs; the cloth came back streaked with slashes of red in visceral shades. “Interesting.”
Clash balled up the handkerchief, tossed it in the garbage, and interlocked his fingers. Smiled warmly. "No worries, Clos—you’re going to be just fine. Have a great first day. Welcome to Aquiline Savings and Loan."
Sarah Szabo is a child of America. An ardent student of liquor, Greek history, and celebrity gossip, she lives and works from the back of an extended cab 2000 maroon Dodge Dakota in NE Oklahoma.
* * *
Hole in the Wall By Ann Tinkham
The beeping forklift backed up to Celeste’s two-story French Tudor house where a hole would soon be carved out of the storybook facade by the demolition team. She had instructed them to make the hole neat and tidy, but after hearing her body dimensions, the foreman had said, “We can do neat and tidy, but we can’t do small.”
“That’s a given,” she had said, a snort of derision masking her shame.
Celeste glimpsed quaking leaves and shifting clouds from her vantage point. She marked time from her sagging mattress by gazing at the framed portrait of life—bare branches and steely sky, verdant buds reaching for radiance, giant raindrops frolicking on foliage, raking light and golden leaves, and, if she was lucky, a crescent moon.
She detected rumbling motors and workmen’s harried voices as the demolition and forklift crews situated themselves. She pictured the industrial equipment the way she imagined everything in a world unfolding without her. The sexing, birthing, toiling, thieving, lusting, frolicking world outside.
Freedom, she thought. At last.
As the workmen punched through her wall, panic seized her breath. The wall—as imprisoning as it was—had shielded her from the torching glare of humanity and its hasty assumptions. Remnants of the world outside had come to her—Diet Cokes, casseroles, pastries, medicine, thrillers, romances, and musicals. That had been a comfortable existence. Now strangers were about to emerge through the hole with the question etched on their faces. Celeste loathed the question. But if she didn’t address it, people would fill in the blanks and cast scornful glances upon her.
Scorn was the one thing she couldn’t bear.
Celeste wanted to say, “It could happen to you, too.” She knew that was what people, especially women, feared. “It starts with just one box of glazed donuts, and then a multiplier effect takes hold.”
Her anxiety wasn’t so much anticipating the impending stares from the demolition crew; it was serving up a reason that would wipe their expressions clean. She thought she at least owed them a rationale. Or did she?
As they drilled, pounded, and penetrated, the breeze supplanted the stale air of her bedroom, a cacophony of odors: fermenting socks and musty underarms, vanilla and cinnamon clove potpourri, pot and patchouli, cigarettes and beer, coffee and chocolate.
She breathed in freshness.
Through the thick crumbling plaster, greenery and blooms emerged, the exuberant lilac tree’s bursts of fragrance and the neighbor’s cherry, lemon, grape lollipop garden—imported tulips—that she had bragged about during her weekly delivery of tuna noodle casseroles. Eight cheesy-fishy pies per week. Enough to feed a football team.
If it hadn’t been for the casserole delivery, there wouldn’t now be a gaping hole in the side of her house. During one of the drop-offs, her neighbor brought her six-year-old granddaughter, who stared unabashedly, but without the question heavy on her tongue. It was an altogether different one. “Will you fly my dragon kite with me? Don’t worry. It’s not the scary kind. It’s pretty pink and purple.” Her grandmother apologized with a comment, “Kids will be kids,” and flailing hand gestures, whisking the girl out of the room to preempt other inappropriate remarks.
Celeste hadn’t realized the extent to which she had been imprisoned by the question until another one was posed, a question not tinged with contempt, a question boundless, a question with wings. She pictured herself as the dragon, aloft with the breeze, climbing to dizzying heights. She soared, kissing the clouds, hugging the edge of treetops. As the currents beckoned her, she would glide and swirl, dive and twirl. When a strong draft tugged the dragon from the girl’s hands, she was released.
Once Celeste had tasted the sweetness of flight, she made the call.
Inspecting parts of the yard she hadn’t seen in years, she spotted her white lattice fence with climbing nasturtium wildly out of control, evidence that the gardener was collecting his weekly remittance while neglecting his duties. He assumed she would never know the difference from where she lay.
A bright yellow forklift carriage with a helmeted rider jerked through the hole like a dynamic component on a theatrical set. Perfectly timed, the reinforcement team exploded through her bedroom door. A crew of eight men with hazmat suits and preparedness stances surrounded her.
As though she were a bomb ready to detonate.
A string of explanations suited to her audience raced through her mind and teetered on the tip of her tongue. She sensed the shape of each one dancing in her mouth, none ready for prime time.
“Ready, set, deploy!” shouted the crew commander.
The crew slid and then yanked the tarp under her body, their gasps and grunts assaulted her, each one an unarticulated insult torpedoing through her core.
She realized this was the first time she had been touched in years. Had it not been so rough, it would have made her weep.
The tarp maneuvering process gave her more time to craft an answer to the question. The glandular rationale went over well. The public had heard such roving microphone confessions on Oprah and Jerry Springer. There was always the childhood trauma angle that elicited a cascade of pity and sympathy. Genetics were another viable route, but wrinkles of doubt formed and lingered in response.
Her preferred approach was one that resolved the line of questioning.
But the thing everyone was thinking—that was what they wanted to hear.
The forklift driver positioned the forks underneath the tarp as the eight men heave-hoed. This was her last chance to answer the question. She could either breathe compassion into their steely work crew demeanors or feed their gluttonous curiosity. Celeste inhaled sharply and half-whispered, “There’s a hole that I can’t patch alone.”
“Yes. We’re aware of that, ma’am,” said the forklift rider. Then into his headset, he announced, “Casualty secured. Lower.”
Ann Tinkham is an anti-social butterfly, pop-culturalist, virtual philosopher, ecstatic dancer, political and java junkie, and Kauai-lover. Her fiction has appeared in the Adirondack Review, Word Riot, Toasted Cheese, and others. She writes about pop culture and politics at Poplitix.
* * *
Securing the Castle By Bill Watkins
The coals still gave off warmth although it had been two hours since his father put the last log on the fire. Garland’s eyelids were heavy, but he fought to stay awake. Summoning his strength, Garland rose from the rocking chair and crossed the den to the front door. The heart-of-pine floors were cool against his bare feet. Garland pulled his bathrobe tighter around him and checked the lock. As he expected, his father had locked the door prior to retiring.
Satisfied of the security of the main entrance, Garland walked to the back of the house and into the kitchen. The room was noticeably chillier than the great room. Garland felt just a touch of warmth as he passed the stove. Supper had been over several hours ago and the stove’s fire would not be rekindled until his mother arose the next morning. Garland peered at the back door and saw that it was latched. “Just need to check the windows—just in case,” Garland mumbled. His eyes remained heavy and he longed for sleep.
Garland tiptoed through the remaining common rooms and pushed up on each window to ensure it was locked. The windows creaked as he placed his palms on the frames and pushed. The draft from several of the windows was stronger than he expected, but all the windows were shut tight and locked.
Ensconced back in the rocker, Garland surveyed the icicles hung on the fur tree. There were about two dozen red and gold balls attached to the branches. Boxes wrapped in colored paper surrounded the tree stand. Garland wanted to see the number of presents augmented, and he realized that his plans could thwart that wish.
But this house would be his one day and needed to be secure. A man, Garland once heard some adult say, needs to sacrifice present gains for long-term security. Although the farmhouse bore no resemblance to the castles Garland had seen in his picture books, his five-year old mind understood the similarities. A basic function of a castle, Garland told himself, was to restrict entry and therefore protect the occupants and contents within the walls. Of course, his father was the primary defender of the castle, but Garland saw himself as a crown prince of sorts. And, as an only child, he had no obvious contenders for the throne.
Reaching down, Garland picked up the wooden sword his uncle Vernon Abbot had cut from a scrap piece of lumber. The weapon was about 16 inches long with a guard affixed three inches from the base. Garland wished that he had a real sword or even a dagger, but convinced himself that the wooden weapon would suffice.
In the dark, an intruder would not be able to immediately discern the weapon’s material. Besides, the wood was a strong substance. He had played with the sword for at least six months and had yet to break it. The hickory switches he mother used on him at times could cause significant damage; Garland figured that the sword could do even more.
But if he was asleep, neither a steel nor wooden sword would make a difference. He had to remain alert. Glancing at the clock, Garland saw that it was ten minutes till eleven. It was three hours passed his bedtime. Garland had been surprised that his parents did not dissuade or forbid him from staying up so late. Instead, his father had respected the desire to protect the home place.
Garland felt himself jerk and realized that he had nodded off for a second. As he blinked his eyes, Garland heard a stirring to his right. Readying his sword, Garland pivoted to face the tree and the porcine figure removing items from his bag.
“Well, my friend, do what you’ve waited to do. I thought I could get by you, but your instincts are obviously heightened. I applaud you for your diligence. Before you act, could you at least explain to me my crime?”
Frozen in his tracks, Garland examined the intruder. He was heavier than Garland had expected. Glancing back towards the fireplace, Garland questioned his mode of entry. The intruder’s clothes showed no signs of soot, and his girth was such as to make the chimney seem tiny. Had he missed a window or a door latch? No, Garland knew he had been thorough in his sweep of the house.
“How’d you get in here?” Garland asked.
“My friend, have you grown up so fast that you no longer believe in magic?”
“There’s no such thing as magic,” Garland responded.
“Well, then explain my presence. Feel free to walk the house and check all the entry points. You’ll find everything buttoned up.”
“Let me see your hands,” Garland barked in an effort to retain control of the situation.
“I don’t go around armed, son. I came here to give, not to take. If you so desire, I’ll leave. And this will be the last time that I visit this home.”
“Wait,” Garland pled. “Did you bring me anything?”
“I did. But I can take them with me as I go.”
The intruder began to reach into his bag. The sudden movement startled Garland and he lunged at the intruder with his sword. Imagining the blade penetrating its target, Garland fell backwards and smacked his head against one of the chair’s runners. Garland started to get up, but felt tears well up in his eyes.
He suddenly felt a strong grip as he was pulled from the floor. Garland squirmed to get away and let out a shriek. As his eyes opened, he saw his mother standing with a cup of coffee. She was framed in the doorway to the kitchen. He then whiffed the familiar smell of Barbasol and realized that he was in his father’s arms.
“It’s ok, baby,” his father assured him. “You just fell asleep in that old rocker and tumbled out of it. I should have taken you to your bedroom when we got up, but you were resting so nice we didn’t want to wake you. That must have been some dream you were having.”
Garland clung to his father and peered toward the tree. Under it he saw a toy castle with a wooden drawbridge. Several figures that appeared to be knights peeked out from behind the castle walls. Garland knew that the set had not been under the tree last night.
“Come my prince, let’s get some breakfast. You’ll have all day to play with that castle.”
Bill Watkins' short stories have appeared in Forge Journal and The Moon Magazine. In the non-fiction realm, Bill has three books: Reclaiming the American Revolution (Palgrave 2004), Judicial Monarchs (McFarland 2012), and Patent Trolls (Independent Institute 2014). Bill's articles have appeared in various publications including USA Today, The Washington Times, and Forbes.
* * *
Closing Time By Kevin Wells
Gavin stood behind the service desk, grimacing at a crumpled shape sitting near the far wall of the dim art gallery. “I’m not staying late again for him to sit there,” he said with haste. “The guy’s done this to me all week. Just sits on that bench, a staring mope. It’s an opaque canvas, man—three tubes of black acrylic smeared around with a brush. What’s so interesting?”
Darrell continued to sit quietly beside Gavin at the service desk as he had done the whole evening. His legs pressed into each other, and his upper body leaned slightly forward—a habit he was developing in his approaching middle age. Darrell looked up from a sheet of paper he was trimming and considered the silent man sitting at the far end of the gallery. “His daughter died,” he said. “He prays for her soul.”
Gavin turned his grimace to his coworker. “Have you been talking to him? Don’t do that. It’ll encourage him to keep coming.”
“I like that he comes,” Darrell said.
“You shouldn’t. Him sitting there brooding all night—it’s bad for business.”
Darrell snorted. “What business? No one else cares about the exhibit.”
“I wouldn’t either! Not with some weepy guy in the way. Let him cry at home—this is an art gallery, not a chapel.”
“It’s a chapel to him,” Darrell said.
The cleaning lady passed in front of the two attendants. She moved along a wall with earbuds in her ears, staring at the floor-duster she pushed. She reached the far wall, turned, and crossed in front of the silent man without either seeming to notice the other.
“Look,” Gavin said. “He’s even getting in Dorothy’s way. Why doesn’t he just leave? Nothing’s going to jump out of that bleak canvas that already hasn’t.”
Darrell shifted in his chair before he spoke. “I think that’s his worry, Gavin—the part about not escaping the bleakness.”
“Oh, shut up. You sound like a tour guide.”
“Just give him a few more minutes,” Darrell said, and returned to his paper trimming.
Gavin flicked his wrist and inspected the watch clasped around his pulse with a gold band. “He’s got three minutes. I’m leaving at eight o’clock.” Gavin tapped his foot, checked email, mixed up files. “Why aren’t you one anyway?” he then asked. “A tour guide, I mean. You’ve certainly been here long enough.”
Darrell smiled without looking up. “Then I wouldn’t have the pleasure of spending my evenings with you, Gavin.”
“Don’t be a smartass. It’s nearly eight—are you telling him we’re closed, or am I?”
Darrell shook his head. “I haven’t finished making the wristbands for tomorrow.”
“You’re never finished making the wristbands for tomorrow. Or the calendar for next month. Or—” Gavin grabbed a pile of decorative papers on the desk “—designing information cards for exhibits that don’t exist!”
“Hey,” Darrell replied, a little upset. “Don’t crinkle those. They’re templates for future shows.”
Gavin rolled his eyes and plopped the pile down. “Templates—right. Templates to exhibits that don’t exist for visitors that won’t come. Got it.” He spun around, leaned his butt on the desk, and rapidly tapped the screen of his phone.
“You have a date tonight,” Darrell guessed. “That’s why you’re anxious.”
“Try it sometime. You might learn to use a clock. Something else maybe, too.”
Darrell sighed. “I don’t know if that’s in the cards for me.”
“Oh, knock off that fate bullshit. You don’t get dates because you don’t change your clothes.” Gavin shoved the phone into his pocket and faced Darrell. “You’ve worked here years longer than me and you’re making less money. Absolutely no initiative. You know why that pretty thing is going to slip her slit over my dick tonight?—It’s because I know how to tell her what time it is. Observe.” He pointed to his golden watch. “It’s eight-fucking-o’clock, sweetheart. Shut down the computers. We’re closed.” Gavin turned and stalked to the end of the gallery, the heels of his dress shoes cracking against the floor.
Darrell shuddered. He logged off and tidied the desk, avoiding the sight of the silent man shuffling out of the gallery with Gavin one step behind him. When the two attendants stepped through the back exit moments later, Darrell lingered to lock the door.
“Try eating out tonight,” Gavin shouted at him as he bounced into his car. “Just try it.” His car door slammed and the engine ignited in the same instant before he sped down the street.
Darrell shook his head and meandered toward the bus stop. He felt stung by the comment about his clothes. Gavin had never before said anything like that to him. As Darrell walked, he worried about tomorrow. It would be Thursday; he wore his blue shirt on Thursdays. But would Gavin dislike that? He looked up at the sky as if the answer was pinned there, and saw dark clouds gathering over the city. Darrell smiled. Tomorrow would be cold, he told himself. He could wear his nice cotton jacket over the blue shirt.
Kevin Alan Wells is a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Dallas where he is researching the rhetoric of fiction.
* * *
Life With Webster By Deborah Whelan
Webster plays her music at full volume in the morning. I don’t care for it. I like to wake gently, stretch through my yoga routine, drink lots of water, and ease into my day. However, I try not to judge. My tastes are not hers and that’s the truth. However, other tenants complain; the walls in this apartment building are as thin as onionskin, and I can hear the griping and cusses just as loudly as I hear Webster’s Bee Gees.
At least no one calls her ‘that damned crazy cat lady’ anymore.
There’s a posted rule in this apartment building: ONLY ONE SMALL PET ALLOWED. Webster argued that the seven mewling cats that prowled and stretched and napped in her basement apartment windows weren’t technically hers – she collected them off the street, saving the poor wretches from death by starvation or Chinese food ingredient. She is kind, I’ll give her that. Mr. Freeman, the landlord, felt that way, too, I think, because he assured her that he had already found homes for some of them, and the others would be brought to the best animal shelter in the city.
Mr. Freeman waited at the entrance to Webster’s apartment, his nostrils flaring at the rather pungent aroma, while Webster struggled to choose one puss. She patted and snuggled and kissed until he cleared his throat and jangled his keys for the millionth time.
‘I’ll keep her - this lovely tuxedo with the electric blue eyes,’ she finally told him. She certainly chose the prettiest of the litter of fleabags that infested her apartment. It was easy to see that this young feline was descended from better genes than the others.
Besides ‘crazy cat lady’, I’ve heard people call her ‘spastic’, ‘odd’, and ‘just weird’. Wait a minute. That’s what I call her - but just in my head. You see, I’ve been a witness to Webster’s rescue tactics and those people don’t know the half of it.
The first time I glimpsed Webster, I’d ventured out for my usual evening promenade around the neighborhood. Across the street, in thin moonlight that seeped through shredded clouds, a lumpy woman crouched near the last brownstone on Wyatt Boulevard. A beach towel imprinted with an orange palm tree on a lime-green background hung from the shoulders of her jean jacket. As a headband, she sported a black and white striped tie that dangled to her waist.
‘Here, puss-puss-puss,’ she whispered. She dipped her fingers into the Wal-Mart bag that hung from her belt, and knelt at the opening to the alley that ran down the side of Wyatt. From across the street, my keen nose detected the sharp edges of canned tuna.
‘It’s okay, puss. No one can hurt you now. I’m here to take you home.’ Her voice was as soft as pillows. ‘Don’t be scared. I am Webster the cat goddess.’
My nocturnal strolls were usually entertaining, but this was most certainly a first. I pressed my lips together to stifle the mirth that bubbled up in my throat. This odd person believed she was a superhero!
Webster reached out and scritch-scratched the nape of the scrawny creature that slunk toward the proffered food. He was ugly, obviously homeless and hungry – he slobbered at the morsels dripping from her fingers. Within minutes, he was gently wrapped in the garish towel and whisked away.
I was intrigued. Was she really rescuing street trash? Was she giving this pitiful tom a home or using him for some twisted need?
I followed her. I know what you’re thinking: Why? Don’t you have a life? Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. I am something of a princess if you want to know. But as the saying goes: Curiosity killed the cat. Satisfaction brought her back….
I trailed along at a safe distance although I’m sure she would not have noticed me: she crooned and hummed to that dirty waif as if he was her own child. She walked down Wyatt and turned down a short lane that ended at a cinderblock apartment building. She unlocked a red door at the bottom of a row of steps and went inside, still muttering, whether to herself or her new acquaintance, I had no idea.
A moment later, the front window glowed through a haze of heavy lace curtains. I pressed my nose against a corner where the curtain had folded back to form a tiny peephole and peeked inside. On the commodious window ledge, a rather portly ginger cat stuck his rump in the air and stretched while two mottled grey tabbies slept through it all. Webster reached up and patted them both, then fluffed a pillow for her guest as she busied herself with six little bowls of Kibble.
She had a family of six?
A rush of jealousy flooded my chest, with pangs of loneliness just behind it. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why would such a beautiful, protected and cherished darling be envious or alone? You’re right, of course. I have everything I could possibly want. I even have a chauffeur who drives me to my weekly appointments at the spa to visit my masseuse, or to have my hair and nails done. In fact, I would imagine the hood ornament on my limo cost more than the apartment where Webster and her brood of orphans live.
The naked truth is that I spend scads of time on my own. I have no siblings. Cuddles are rare. I feel rather invisible.
Within minutes, I made up my mind. I backtracked to the mud puddle that I had earlier fastidiously avoided. I wriggled my neck through my royal blue velvet collar and discarded it, then jumped in the mire, cringing and holding my breath as I rolled in it, only retching once or twice. The muck caked my hair, matting it tightly to my very slim frame. I knew I looked wretched. I tried not to imagine what horrors might be clinging to my skin.
I ran back to the red door. The night was suddenly icy and I felt I would die from exposure. My plaintive mewling and urgent scratching was hardly an act.
The door opened just a splinter, and two suspicious beady eyes peeped out. ‘Who’s it? Who’s there?’
I meowed again, staring up at Webster with what I hoped was the beseeching eyes of the homeless and hungry.
Two gentle hands reached out and scooped me from the cold and into a tiny warm space where a disarray of cupboards, appliances, a table and chairs coexisted with a small couch and huge pillows. I thought of the many rooms in my house, and the choice of windows that I could bask in to my heart’s desire. I’ve always had a touch of claustrophobia and now I felt my lungs constrict in the cramped space. I struggled to jump down from her arms and escape. There was time; the door was still slightly ajar.
She held me firmly. ‘Aren’t you a skittish little thing!’ she murmured in my ear. She snuggled me to her chest and scratched me under my chin, in spite of my filthy state. Gradually, the walls stretched away from me. I cuddled into the crook of her arm.
She bathed me in the kitchen sink while the other cats crowded around. Normally, I am a bit of a prude with this sort of intimacy but I sucked it up. If I wanted to stay here for a few days, I had to walk the walk.
‘No fleas that I can see,’ she announced as she combed through my hair and dried me with the green and orange towel.
Just like that, I became a part of her family. It was like being at camp, or what I imagine camp to be - sleeping all together in the same room, sharing stories and playing games with my roomies. I’m quite a tale weaver but in this circumstance, I merely told them the truth and they accepted it as fantasy. Why would a beauty like me run away from a life of plenty and leisure to live on the streets, or with someone who obviously was kind but quite poor?
After several days, though, the novelty wore off. Webster rarely let us out to stretch our legs, fearing that we would be lost to her. She always kept the curtains drawn so that no one could see her ménage. I missed drowsing in warm rays and to tell the truth, I needed alone time. I decided I would go back to my old home whenever I could get out. That way I could have the best of both worlds, to which I felt absolutely entitled.
Plan A was very disappointing. Slinking back on the estate early one morning, I discovered that I had been replaced with a cocker spaniel, who was both unchained and unfriendly. He nipped the end of my tail as I ran for the gate, and sat growling with his paws against the iron railings.
Thus I hatched Plan B. Every day, as soon as Webster went to work, I pried open the curtains so my roommates could be observed in all their lolling glory. Then I chased and nipped at them until the hissing and yowling were at a fever pitch. When I managed to go out, I would leave meaningful deposits on the front entrance of the apartment building. Meanwhile, I purred and licked and cuddled Webster at every possible opportunity.
It worked, of course. Mr. Freeman had no choice but to acknowledge the complaints. There was some apprehension on my part, knowing that just maybe Webster would prefer one of the other cats to me, but the modicum of risk only made winning sweeter.
So they’re gone, the other six pusses. Now it’s just Webster and me. Oreo’s my name. That was my name in my first life, and curiously, that’s what Webster named me. It may be because of my lovely black and white tuxedo coat.
I prefer to think it’s because I’m one smart cookie.
Deborah lives in Heart's Delight, Newfoundland, Canada and has been published in many of the Cuffer Anthologies, a provincial publication of short stories. Room Magazine, Blotter and several other publications have accepted and published her short fiction.
* * *
Out the Window By Brian Lee Klueter
We call them lightning bugs in Ohio, the same way we say pop instead of soda. Calling them fireflies brings only reference to the immortal Joss Whedon show, or the squinty-eye confusion our buckeye faces so often display.
In late June, early July, the corn is still growing for harvest, getting taller and taller, day by day. The road between Defiance and Bowling Green is bordered by cornfields for the entire length of the 45 minute journey, stopped only by a few small country towns along the way. The air smells of sweet dirt, driving with the windows down. When I look outside, the corn is just below my eye level, creating a unified sea of stalks.
When lightning bugs glow, they do so in pulses, never keeping a constant strain of light. It’s fun to catch them and put them in jars, but it’s even better to grab one out of the air, gently, with the palm of one’s hand, letting them walk up your fingers to the highest point, taking flight with the natural grace of the insect kingdom. They are the only bugs I can stand to be around.
When driving at 60 miles per hour, I always go five over the speed limit, the impact of one of these bugs on a clear windshield is an event in itself, exploding on impact, but leaving its glowing remains behind for a few extra seconds, eventually fading out. Like their souls are catching up to them.
There are a couple days during this time at dusk, when the lightning bugs are at their peak. They’re everywhere, outside every house, surrounding every barn. I look outside my car window, and I can see hundreds of thousands of them, maybe millions flying just above the corn. All of them pulsing in their own way, yet visually binding with the rest. A sight of that many insects together is rarely beautiful, but the moment is there, a glowing sea of life.
Dozens of them die as my car races down the road, the glowing mess getting larger and larger, and combined with the sea, create an experience so full of life and death that the human conscience cannot help but appreciate the vast complexities of merely existing in a universe we will never understand.
Brian Lee Klueter is a senior creative writing major at Bowling Green State University, and is the creative nonfiction editor at Prairie Margins, BGSU's undergraduate literary magazine. He has previously been published in The Blue Route, and Enormous Rooms.
* * *
Being a Younger Brother By Adam Pittman
You always took pride in being the older brother, even more so after dad died, and I remember how you thought the duties of the father were yours to inherit; in truth I never learned how to change the oil, I never listened to you preach the benefits of a Briggs-Stratton motor, I don’t remember what you said after I sold the Camaro.
I do remember when I sat in the leather driver’s seat of mom’s Chevy in the parking lot of some McDonalds at 2 AM, sipping a small coffee and eating fries, watching the shadow of an American flag haunt the wall of some bank like the words “come pick us up” haunted my sleep-deprived mind, while I waited to pick up you and your young wife and her drunken friends as you walked back from some bar, I thought I was helping you find God.
And I remember later in the plaque yellow light of those parking lot streetlamps, when I shook your hand across the center console as I dropped you off at that hotel in town where you were staying, I didn’t invite you home, because you already knew where home was.
Adam is a college sophomore studying English at Cedarville University in Ohio. When he is not in class, you can find him on a basketball court, watching basketball, or just spending time with friends.
* * *
Route 44 and Vulture Love By Ray Scanlon
Stuck in traffic, Cheryl asks, “What's the longest word you can make from Silverado?” So I'm on it, and we toss words back and forth. She's a nerd, which will be no surprise if you subscribe to the birds-of-a-feather theory. As a nerd, I am not in the least disturbed by such questions—they delight me and remind me that I'm a lucky man. Yet even after twenty-five years she is still capable of astonishing me. This summer we were visiting Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Catskills, off Route 44 in Kerhonkson, New York. In the back seat, my grandchildren and niece, glued to their hand-held devices, learn from Siri that this Route 44 is the Route 44 that passes through our home town in Massachusetts, and we are at its western terminus, 237 miles from its origin near the Atlantic. I am gobsmacked when Cheryl informs me that we are now in honor-bound need of one day driving it from end to end.
Because I've never breathed a word of it to anybody. Because it's just so outré. Because if I were to keep a bucket list, it would include doing exactly that—as part of driving the length of every numbered route in Massachusetts. I could try to justify it on the grounds that seeking out new places and exploring are quintessentially human activities, but the fact that I could not do otherwise than to drive them in numerical order puts the full-scale project irretrievably beyond the pale. But now that the cat's out of the bag, I'm thinking we could start with a single route, a minor highway where speed can take a back seat to curiosity. It would be good to get closer to the ground, so to speak, and let journey trump destination. Maybe we will do Route 44.
Route 44 will never be the eastern incarnation of the legendary Route 66—there is going to be no stream of quixotic westering Kerouac wannabes heading from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Kerhonkson. Nevertheless it has its shunpiking charm. Over the years we've already traveled many of its miles, though not in a single day, which I'm sure strict bucket list rules would require. The rolling bucolic stretch west of Hartford, in particular, is lovely, an attractive alternative to nightmarish I-84.
There is, however, no romance to Route 44 near our town, set in ordinary flat southeastern Massachusetts, unless you count the maniacal red-headed hitchhiker ghost reputed to ply his trade along its edges. Heading east toward the ocean, it passes the long-shuttered dog track, where, to dodge family engagements, I once spent a Thanksgiving evening betting on the greyhounds, but that was before I became a responsible bourgeois adult. There's an oxygen distributor and a propane dealer. An asphalt contractor. Bars. Miniature mom and pop used car lots. They're prosaic businesses, not consumerist yuppie boutiques. A sort of marginal greyness pervades, free of any irrational exuberance. If these enterprises are prospering, they are not flaunting their success. This is a utilitarian highway, fitting, I think, for Yankeedom.
Cheryl and I are tempted to believe it's more than coincidence that this road bisecting our town begins a stone's throw from the Atlantic beaches in Marshfield, Massachusetts and ends a stone's throw away from a Victorian resort in the Catskills—two of our most favorite places on earth. It's only seductive nonsense, a lying artifact of our pattern-seeking brains, but sometimes it's best to ignore that.
Twenty or so years ago Disney World introduced me to vultures, for which I thank them. Aside from a poorly-suppressed recurring nightmare starring Space Mountain, that's all I remember of the whole painstakingly orchestrated Disney experience—probably not the take-away impression its perpetrators had designed for. As far as I'm concerned, Disney World is yet another major reason to avoid setting foot in Florida. You are welcome to call me a communist, but vultures were the place's only redeeming feature.
Every morning Cheryl and I would see dozens of vultures perched outside our hotel catching the early sun, hunchbacked, shoulders shrugged, exactly as every cartoonist caricatures them. We got up close to them on the ground when we toured one of Disney World's swamp-based attractions. They are ugly, spastic and menacing on foot, and they stink. Love came only at second sight, after I got past those pesky cosmetic issues. All I needed to do was see them on the wing, and they had my heart. A soaring vulture is in its element, a creature of consummate grace; off the ground and defying gravity, it is no longer ugly.
Even having fallen in love with the essence of the bird, it's still hard to get by the unremitting diet of putrid carrion. However, I believe that our revulsion is an artificial social construct, and I wear my ribbon to promote carrion awareness. I keep meat in my refrigerator for weeks that other people would discard after a day or two, and I cement my solidarity with my vulturine brethren by ostentatiously ignoring all food-package expiration dates.
Cheryl's former employer, a corporate behemoth whose logo was known as the “Death Star,” had sent her organization on that trip to Disney World as a reward for achieving their sales quota. But in a stroke of divine justice they swiftly atoned for it, and then some, by sending her office on a team-building junket to a Victorian resort in the Catskills. This mountain house and its grounds appear to be under the aegis of a Ring of Power. It presides in homely golden majesty over a lake, at the end of a two-mile driveway through the woods and up the mountain, discreetly marked by signs: “Slowly and quietly, please.” Its two hundred fifty-nine rooms brook no televisions. And best of all, it turns out to be prime territory for both turkey vultures and black vultures, who've been expanding their range north.
Cheryl and I have returned there on our own many times over the past couple of decades. This is the fourth summer that we bring with us to the mountain house our grandchildren and niece, now teens well able to appreciate the place. We don't hide the fact that we hope it will become an enduring family tradition, though of course it's foolish to try to micromanage the destinies of young lives. We all hike to one of my favorite places on Earth, a Shawangunk ridge top a few hundred feet above the Rondout Valley looking out toward the Catskills, amusing ourselves with lame jokes about how the vultures are waiting for us to drop dead of a climb-induced heart attack or to dash ourselves to pieces over the edge of the cliff. The birds do not disappoint. They are always there, patrolling the ridge line.
It is such a simple thing, but I take unseemly pleasure in being able to watch vultures from above. I gaze over the valley. I can see for miles. A vulture soars, racing before the stiff northwest breeze and in front of me comes about in a leisurely-executed yet precise U-turn; I can barely perceive the motion of his wingtips and tail. For two heartbeats he is dead still in the air, until he leans in and shoots up, just off the vertical. They never, ever, disappoint.
If I'd spent any effort at all I'd have understood long ago the true basis of my affinity for vultures. During our time at the resort my niece diligently recorded several gigabytes of digital stills and video, giving vultures their due. The single relaxed wing-stroke she captured on video shocked me, so little did I expect it. They are even lazier than I am, paragons of ergonomic economy, preternaturally sparing in their energy expenditure. My rule has always been that it's ridiculous to profess to have just one favorite wine or book or bird, but I'll make an exception for the vulture.
Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Has grandchildren. Extraordinarily lucky. Recovering assembly language programmer. Not averse to litotes. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Follow Ray on Twitter
* * *
The P.E. Exam By Susanna Solomon
“What are you doing?” the white-haired man asked. His wife, sitting beside him, clicked her purse open and hunted inside.
As for me, four books were spread out on a table along with binders, a cheat sheet, and a notebook. We were at a Red Lion in Sacramento, the night before my P.E. exam.
“Studying, why?” I asked. More than ten years ago, in a miserable marriage, I had seen engineering as a ticket out and went back to school. Fourteen years older than all the other students in my first algebra class, I had had to ignore our age difference if I was going to focus. Now I was forty-one, working in a decent job, divorced, and starting my career late. I had had to work in four places before they stopped asking me if I could type.
“Studying for what?” He leaned forward.
“My P.E. exam,” I said proudly.
“P.E. as in physical education? They have exams for that?”
“Uh, no. Professional Engineer,” I answered, not feeling like moving. My papers were everywhere.
“For you?” he sneered. His wife, dressed in a blue suit with a white scarf, clicked her purse shut.
“Yes, yes, of course for me,” I answered. “I’m an engineer.”
It had taken me two years to get employment verification records and another two to persuade professional electrical engineers to write the five references the exam required. My bosses at the time had refused on both counts. I was in a new job and things looked bright. All I needed was my P.E..
“What do you want to be an engineer for? Women don’t become engineers.”
“But I am,” I said. “I need to study here.”
The man’s wife lifted her eyebrows. “Harold.”
“In my day,” he went on, “we didn’t have any ‘girl’ engineers. You’re taking a job away from a man.”
“Sir,” I said, my hands poised over my 350 page study handbook. “I need to review my notes.” I’d heard the same crap for years from my mother-in-law and I still hated her for it. The stats were the same as when I’d started, ten percent of all engineers were women. Ten years later, it hadn’t budged.
“Don’t waste your time, you’ll never pass,” he said, sitting back on the overstuffed chair and looking satisfied. His wife looked upon him with a frown.
It was late October. I’d spent the last six months studying – on top of a full time job and being a single mom. I’d started at four hours a week studying and was now up to twenty. I’d taken a course at U.C. Berkeley, I’d had a study group, I’d worked on problems every moment I could, even while camping. For seven years I’d studied engineering, graduating with highest honors. But his words still affected me. The eight hour exam had a 22% pass rate.
“Go on home, don’t even bother.”
“Harold, leave the poor girl alone,” Harold’s wife nudged her husband and they left.
He was right. I had no right to even try. I was a dunderhead, I knew nothing – all the formulas I’m crammed into my head the last few months fell out with a rush. My notes looked like worms. I couldn’t retain a thing.
Shaken, I walked over to a pay phone and called my best friend. “Am I doing the right thing?” I asked, hesitating. “Forget what he said, you’ll do fine.”
Feeling encouraged, I packed all my notes and headed upstairs to relax. A show about Marian Anderson was on. As she sang ‘Ave Maria’ in front of the Lincoln Memorial for 75,000 people, I wept. She was outside because the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall. If she could do it, so could I.
The next morning I, along with 400 other hopefuls, lined up at Cal Expo in a driving rain with our books and drivers licenses out, waiting for admission. The exam was the hardest test I had taken in my life. Thrice in the morning I didn’t think I’d pass, and in the middle of the afternoon I almost gave up. Seven years of science and math, an eight hour prep exam, the EIT, the endless requesting for references, the studying and Harold’s voice kept me in my seat. I walked out, ready to write a check for the next try.
Four months later I received a call from Bob, a friend who had taken the exam with me, and who had told me at lunch that it was easy. He was at exam headquarters in Sacramento. I listened, sitting forward, preparing to congratulate him. He paused. “I wasn’t on the list,” he said, and was quiet a moment, “but you were.”
I had passed.
Susanna Solomon, an author and engineer, has, for the last fifteen years, owned and operated her own electrical engineering consulting business. She is also the author of the short story collection, Point Reyes Sheriff's Calls, published by HD Media Press in December 2013.
* * *
Dad's Table By Lawrence Weill
Dad sat at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette. It wasn’t dinner time; he just sat there in order to smoke. The ashtray was overflowing with crumpled butts and ashes were sprayed around the table from his haphazard flipping. I sat there with him, talking about his days in the war, his trips into Paris or into small villages to trade rations for cheese, eggs, wine, whatever the people had. Because he had chocolate, he said, he could eat like a king. And there were the misadventures of his compatriots, and the befriending of the little French boy they called Smoky because at the age of eight, he was already begging for cigarettes. The stories were often even told in the same order. A bead of sweat ran under my shirt. Dad was evidently comfortable, sitting back in his chair, his mind’s eye focused on a jeep he and his buddy had “borrowed” to drive to Berlin, although the Americans were still very much in France. Like the other tales, I had heard that one any number of times, but I let him tell it again, in case there was some new detail that might emerge, although there usually wasn’t, and just to let him talk. It was as if he had memorized the words of his story sometimes. Other times, it seemed to frustrate him. I wanted to hear the stories, but there was no telling how it might end up. It was a gamble. Several flies had come in through the gaps in the wood-frame screen door, which hung anniegogglin’, as Dad said, the hook pretty much keeping the door from falling off completely. The flies took turns buzzing us. Dad pushed up his glasses.
“Harry and I put a new alternator on the jeep outside the officers’ club and headed for Berlin. We wanted to have a word or two with Adolph.” He chuckled as he shook his head. “That was how they tried to keep people from stealing their jeep, by taking the alternator in with them, but all you had to do was bring your own, so that’s what we did. Course, if we’d been caught we would’ve been in trouble, but it was kind of a musical chairs arrangement anyway. The only reason we had the alternator was because someone had taken our jeep when we had gone into Reims for supplies. Still, it was an officer’s jeep, and we were just sergeants, so we would’ve been in trouble. But only if we got caught.” He gave me the same wink he always gave me at that point in the story. I would have been disappointed if he had not done it, I realized. He sat back in the kitchen chair, his arms crossed, the smoke from the Winston in his right hand drifting back from his left shoulder, encasing him like a fog. He paused, looking through the screen door at the mimosa tree in the back yard and I wondered if he had lost his train of thought. The house smelled of stale smoke and apples kept too long in the basket by the sink. The dishes were clean in the drying rack, but cobwebs hung in every corner.
“Is that when you drove across the field and when you got to the other side, you saw the signs in German saying it was a minefield?” I prodded.
“No, no, that was another time when we got a hare-brained idea to go to Paris to find some girls. And we figured after we found some girls, we might just go on over to Nancy, where my father was born, look up some cousins or something and say hello. Hell, Harry didn’t care. He’d go anywhere.” Dad took another drag on his cigarette. “We had no idea what we were getting into. We knew we wanted out of Camp Lucky Strike, though. That we did know.” He blew the smoke out with his words and took another draw and closed his eyes to the sting of the smoke. His arms were thin now, not the sinewy limbs he had used to set up communications over sixty years before, and now they were mottled with liver spots. His hair, once red and wavy, was wispy, white. He retold his stories, as if they needed to be said one last time. “We drove across the field just as happy as we could be, swapping lies about the women we’d been with and all, and then we get to the other side, and here’s this big sign in German saying ‘Achtung Minen!’ We just sat there, not knowing what to do. If we went back, we’d’ve probably been blown to bits, but we had no idea where we were or how to get home. That was crazy.” Dad waved with his cigarette. “Another time, when we were near Compainville, I think it was, I decided to go fishing. I was always looking for something to do and I was sick of the rations and I decided I would go over to the farm next door where they had this big pond and catch some fish. The farmer came out waving at me, yelling, ‘Poisson! Poisson!’ so I gathered up my tackle and went home. I sure didn’t want any poison.” Dad grinned. “I had no idea he was telling me it was okay to fish.” White stubble was still on his chin. He didn’t shave on Sunday. He had on his knit slacks and a short-sleeve button down, also knit, that we had bought him so he wouldn’t have to iron any more, since he had nearly burned down the house a few weeks before after leaving the iron on.
“Did you ever get over to Nancy, where our folks are from?” Again, I knew the answer, but wanted to keep him talking. A fly brushed my sweaty temple and I waved it away.
“No, no. Closest I got was Verdun, but by the time I saw it, it was nothing but rubble, hardly a building left standing. Still, the folks were glad to see us, real glad.” He leaned forward and flicked the ashes in the general direction of the ashtray, without concern whether he hit his target. He didn’t. “Harry and I did go to Paris later, though. After that first time we tried.” I had interrupted the pattern and he brought it back. “It was the prettiest place I ever saw. It had just been liberated and folks were all out in the streets, but nobody had any money, so they were eager to, shall we say, trade?” Dad smiled to one side, a wry twist to his face, the same wry twist he used at this point in the story each time. “Girls would come up to us and say, ‘Voulez-vous?’ and we’d say, ‘Let’s see what you got,’ and they’d yank up their dresses and show us everything.” Dad’s eyes grew practiced wide. “We’d say, ‘Nah,’ and walk on down the street.” I imagined him, trying to be suave in Paris, this raw young football star from a small Midwestern town who had never even ridden a train before the war broke out.
“So, you never took them up on it?” My tone was purposefully suspicious.
“Well, now, I didn’t say that.” Dad raised his eyebrows and his thick glasses slipped down his nose and he pushed them back up. He clucked his tongue. “One thing is they told us to stay away from the Bois de Boulogne, said it was dangerous, so, what d’you think Harry and I did?”
“Went to the Bois de Boulogne?” I knew my cue.
“Damn straight. We weren’t afraid of a bunch of Frenchies.” He made his usual pause. “Scaredest I’ve been in my whole life.” He raised his face to look seriously through his glasses at me. “We went into this little bar and there were the roughest bunch of fellows you ever saw in there, and they would’ve cut our throats for nothing, just for walking in the place. We went up to the bar, tried to act all brave, but my knees were knocking. We each ordered a beer and stood there back-to-back and drank them down as fast as we could. We sauntered out like we owned the place then ran like hell.”
“We ran down the street and ducked down an alleyway and pretty soon this group of guys from the bar come running past us, so we let them go and ran back up, and ran all the way back up to the arch. I really thought we were done for.” A fly landed on the table and I watched it rubbing its legs together. “But we had some good times in Paris, some real good times.” Dad let the mysterious tone say what he would not say to me overtly.
“So, you won an all-expenses paid trip to Europe, huh? Courtesy of Uncle Sam.” My eye wandered to the dusty shelves. “The way I see it, you may owe the government some money for all the fringe benefits.”
“I paid my share, don’t you worry about that.” He shooed the fly away from the table. “And you know, it wasn’t all fun and games over there. There were these guys called Germans over there who were trying to kill us. Not that you would know anything about that kind of danger.” He dismissed me with his hand. I also knew this part, the part where he wasn’t real sure I measured up, what with my college education and my refusal to volunteer during the war in Viet Nam. “There were plenty of tough times, kiddo, damned scary times, times when we might’ve been killed. I remember coming to this one old farmhouse near Soissons and finding the place completely dark, but warm, warm enough for people to be there. It didn’t feel right. We had to be careful of the Werewolves, you know. It wasn’t a place for the squeamish.” He gave me that look that said he meant me. I refused to bite.
“So, what did you do? Blow up the house? Kill everyone in the place?” I knew it would tick him off, but I also hoped that would take him off the tack he had started.
“Blow up the house?” Dad sat back, his eyes widened. “Now, why would I want to do that? If it was okay, it’d be a great place to set up the radio. Glad I didn’t, too.” He waved at a fly that buzzed in front of him. “Now, I was scared, make no mistake. I was shaking I was so scared.” He pulled the cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, shook the pack and gripped the open end so the smokes that jumped up were held there. He placed the pack to his lips and used his mouth to pull out a single cigarette, then lit it with the battered Zippo that lay next to the ashtray. “Harry was with me, of course, and he went around back in case someone ran out the back door. I went up the front steps and kicked in the door. I could hear someone breathing, and I almost started shooting, but then I heard the little boy start crying.” Dad shook his head. “I almost shot that boy, and his momma too, for that matter, if I hadn’t taken a moment, and that moment was hard, damned hard, because in that moment, I could’ve been killed.” He pointed at me with his cigarette. “And you would never have come into this world.” I wasn’t sure if he meant that would have been a bad thing or a good thing. “You kids don’t have a clue.”
“Yeah, I know. We’ve had it easy.” I sat back in my chair. The heat in the room was stifling. The flies circled around the room in a faint buzz.
“Damn straight, you’ve had it easy. You don’t know how easy you’ve had it.” His head was almost hidden by the cloud of cigarette smoke around him.
I stood up now from the table. I had hoped the conversation would not end up here. I walked over to his round-front fridge he had had forever and pulled it open and leaned in to see what was there. “You got anything in here to eat? I’m hungry.” The refrigerator was full of margarine tubs and cottage cheese cartons reused for leftovers. I wasn’t tempted to open any of them. There was no telling how long they had been in there. He no longer cooked much, but I could still imagine his wonderful spaghetti and meat sauce.
“Ha!” Dad turned in his chair to give me a look. “You haven’t been hungry a day in your life!” He pointed at me with his cigarette. “You kids have had everything given to you. You don’t know what it means to be hungry. During the depression, we found out what hard times really meant.” I straightened and closed the refrigerator and resisted the urge to make up some excuse and simply leave. Dad didn’t intend to be mean, I knew; he just sort of fell into it at times. I went back to the table and sat down.
“Can I smoke one of those?” I pointed. Dad raised his eyebrows again. He knew I didn’t smoke.
"Sure, kiddo.” He handed me the pack and watched me with a bemused smirk on his face. I took one out and lit it up. I had never been much of a smoker and had been told back in school that I didn’t look at all natural holding a cigarette, so I tried hard to look like I knew what I was doing. I leaned back in the chair and the smoke drifted into my eyes and I had to blink away the stinging. Dad gave a chuckle. “A little strong for you?” He raised one eyebrow, then shook his head slowly. “Glad you didn’t ever start on these.” He held up his nearly spent cigarette. “You kids are smarter’n we were.” He dragged a last draw and snuffed out the butt. “But you’re not braver.” I felt a vague headache starting somewhere in the back of my head. A fly landed on the table next to his hand. He kept his eyes glued on me, then snatched the fly off the table with a flick of his hand. He stood up quickly, marched over to the sink, and slammed the fly down the drain, running water to complete the flush. He washed his hands, then came over to the table and sat down, rather smugly I thought. “And I’m not dead yet.” He looked at the barely smoked cigarette I had crushed into the ashtray when he had gotten up and frowned. “They’re not free, you know.” “Yeah, I know. I’ll buy you a pack when we go out for lunch.”
“You want to go out? I’ve got plenty of food here. No need to spend all that money when I’ve got lots of stuff here.” I considered a lunch of Spam and creamed corn in a hot kitchen filled with cigarette smoke and flies and decided against it.
“No, I’d like to take you out for lunch, Dad. Where do you want to go?”
"I hate for you to spend money when we’ve got food.”
“I insist.” I leaned up in the chair. A fly buzzed past my head and I snatched it out of the air without looking. The fly buzzed in my hand. Dad’s eyes widened and he watched me as I marched over to the sink and slammed the fly down, flushed it, and washed my hands in impersonation of his movements. It was a lucky grab, but I wasn't about to let it pass.
Dad gave me a grin. “I like Ponderosa,” he offered.
“Works for me.” I reached into my pocket for my keys.
Dad stood, shook his head, and gave me a strong pat on the back as we headed for the door.
Lawrence Weill is an author and artist in western Kentucky. His debut novel Incarnate came out in March 2013 and a non-fiction book, Out in Front, was published in 2009. His work has appeared in a wide range of local, regional, and national journals. He also is a visual artist working in graphite, oils, metal and wood.
Prior to his life as a writer and visual artist, Lawrence worked in academia,
as a professor of philosophy and ethics for some twenty-five years, then as an academic dean and later as a college president. He holds degrees in mathematics, humanities, and higher education.
* * *
Poems by Les Bares
I promised myself to bring her to this pink cove
on the Pacific, although I had not yet met her.
Traveling back in time we make this trip
where nothing has changed. Señora Diaz
rents her cabana for half price because
again I hesitate. The equatorial sun
burns as easily as when I was younger.
Yet the water this time of year is cold.
The deserted winter beach is all ours, except
for the town pig lazily rutting in the sand
and the niños who want to practice their English.
In this remake of my memory one day leads
to another Pilsner Callao. The tavern fish fry
is as good as before and from the patio
I stare out at the ocean counting waves
as I did long ago and wonder why
I ever left this rose-colored fishing village
that does not change the post cards of itself--
the songwriter’s lonely dock of the bay,
the painter’s white wrecked fishing boat,
los perros barking at the trailing moonlit wake
of their masters setting sail for the open sea.
In the baths remembering
The universe is crowded with silence tonight.
Phosphorescent gridlock crawls along
the Way between the sierras. Steam vapors
fuzz the diamond facets polished deaf
and dumb spilled on the black of outer space.
Alone I float on my back gawking.
Alone in the warm pool of sulfur water,
transient nebular night distant and songless.
Lavish mint surrounds the baths, its perfumed
leaves tightly shuttered, counting the hours
along with the passive maiden moon repressed
hiding behind the ridge. Alone I cry
for her love and my heart sinks, despite
the tepid bubbling healing waters.
Les Bares lives in Richmond, Virginia and is married to the poet and essayist Roselyn Elliott. His poems have or will appear in Stand Magazine, The Cream City Review, Slipstream, Temenos, The Prose-Poem Project, San Pedro River Review, and other literary journals.
* * *
Poetry by Jeff Burt
Do not let me die on a Tuesday,
the day of no significance.
There is a beauty the day after,
the grade-schooler who eats
her cup of pears out on the steps
while spring branches splurge on blossoms
and robins flash like hidden cards up sleeves,
and there is a beauty the day after
the day after when the first slim lupine
blooms and a boy bends to look at it
and hums as if the flower had a tune
and he could carry it, home,
or the day after the day after the day,
when Phil plays Amazing Grace
on his harmonica and old men weep.
I am not so attached to his earth
that I cannot go when it’s my turn,
but that next Saturday do not let me die
for I need a day off from all this dying
I’ve worked for years to do.
All true believing begins in May
when roses flourish and blossoms spike
like profits climbing to the corner of the chart.
Plums bud, tomatoes churn out
little tabs of butter-colored blooms
and wet-feathered robins cry for worms.
Days warm and conversation heats up.
Strangers greet with pulled-up faces
that all through April were downcast
and fixed as if plastered or masked.
Children’s jackets drag.
Cleats click on pavement and cement.
Faith soars. Couples wed,
promising until death a constancy
their brains cannot comprehend.
Death comes, adjournment understood,
the lilies scattered in the sanctuary
the same lilies growing in the ground
on the route to the reception.
Baptisms in rivers and lakes occur,
pent up Pentecostals drowning
and reviving their brethren,
Baptists dipping and clapping
and the world promising more.
August Dog Days
Two buzz-cut boys traipsing,
tracking down the diviner hunched
with dowsing stick, a witching rod,
his eyes dry cracked cups with dark
flared saucers curled beneath them,
we found the stallion Cold Rolled Steel
that galloped hard tail teased out
until darkness devoured him like a drop
and we were left to ravage the tin of the earth
for the scent of his iron shoes
and the molten fragrance of mane;
and watched as darkness swept the valley
from the third-story perch, a yellow lamp
behind us and a fan blowing cool air
into the staggering wall of heat behind us;
and down in the brown-brown hills
and cedars the stocky black bull
standing stone-still in a torrential rain
so thick and cold it seemed
to gel on his back, the place
where steam rose, he in no need
of lightning, for he was thunder.
Jeff Burt has work in The Cortland Review, Treehouse, Thrice Fiction, and Typehouse. He won the 2011 SuRaa short fiction award.
* * *
Postures By Barbara Westwood Diehl
She was a woman of excellent posture,
black sheathed and belt cinched at the waist,
a helmet of pure white, perfectly parted hair,
and the most earnest, concerned black eyes
behind round, designer eyeglass frames
I have ever seen. You could almost believe
anything beautiful she told you was beautiful.
A painting by a local artist, award winning, actually,
the light on a seeded slice of cantaloupe
showing exactly the right slant of sun and shade.
Oh, and how delicious the jams and how
long lasting the small soaps and how soft
and how subtle the colors of cashmere scarves
she handled with such assurance, such rightful
possession, you knew you couldn’t
possibly afford to purchase even one of them.
Though you did accept her offering of a beverage
and maple bacon walnuts in a paper cup,
munched while sniffing cellophaned cinnamon candles
and riffling through a rack of silver bangles
until she drew your attention with a flicked wrist
to the most clever, even functional, oyster shuckers
and away from windows to the too still street
of hollowed and shuttered buildings
in Princess Anne—and what a lovely name for a place
with a shop filled with jams and paintings of the shore--
and the slumped corpses of bustling commerce,
some memorialized by historic plaques, blackened
against the patina of time, others as much a mystery
as the names on graves across the street, rubbed
unreadable, and men in shapeless coats as dark as mine
and skin the color and texture of Manokin River silt,
hunched in silent threes at Junior’s Stop N Shop,
greeting passersby with nods and exhaled smoke,
their own small clouds to add to all the clouds above,
their words in oyster shells snapped shut and tucked
in black coats of secret pockets, dark and deep as mine,
where, if not watchful, a woman of good posture
might not find a scented soap or shucker.
Barbara Westwood Diehl is founding editor of the Baltimore Review. Her fiction and poetry have been published in journals including MacGuffin, Confrontation, Potomac Review (Best of the 50), Measure, Little Patuxent Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Gargoyle, Superstition Review, Word Riot, Bartleby Snopes, Penduline Press, NANO Fiction, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
* * *
History's Soft Toys
By Olivia Inwood
Tower-like structure –
Cubes raining down
A torment – a ghost rattling off
Consequent truths –
To children holding –
Soft-toys with half-torn heads
And eyes gapping out –
Scattering the remnants
Of tattered childhoods
All over the floor –
The clocks breaking under –
The pressure of linear history
Always wanting to go on
But the past still seething
Still sinking its teeth into us.
Olivia Inwood is an Australian-Lithuanian, born in regional Australia. She is currently studying English and Visual Arts at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Her writing has previously been published in two editions of the Poetry Quarterly (US) and Written Portraits: An Anthology of Short Stories (Australia).
* * *
This Is One of Those Moods By Madelaine Caritas Longman
where a shirt hung over a kitchen chair
catches light in its stains
and you want to remember this
the way a camera can't
sound thins across balconies
wind hardens into wood
in the space between meanings
after you're left with not much
but not nothing
Madelaine Caritas Longman was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan and now lives in Calgary, Alberta. Her work has appeared in The Battered Suitcase and Nōd Magazine and she has performed at venues such as the Calgary Spoken Word Festival.
* * *
Resignation By Bradley K Meyer
Does the ice-cream man
hear that song in his dreams?
Hear it when the engine is off,
when the lights are out,
& covers are up?
of the same 15 second sample-
that’s 240 times an hour for
Maybe he enjoys it though,
& to really appreciate it,
he even bought it on vinyl.
as soon as he’s home
he throws it on,
pours some wine,
& plays it another
times until the grooves
are worn down enough to
need to buy it again.
No, no, no, this ice-cream man’s
already bought a backup-
so, back on the table, spinning.
& he’s not stupid for it-
for, it’s far simpler
to learn to love the same
notes than it is to hate them
hundreds of times a day &
easier still to grin
in good humor when doing
some simple & trifling thing.
Bradley K Meyer writes from Dayton, Ohio. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rougarou, Indefinite Space, Apeiron Review, Black Heart Magazine, The Literary Bohemian & others. He is the author of a chapbook, Hotel Room (Vostok East Press, 2013). He edits Pouch Magazine.
* * *
Poems by Jennifer Singleton
My evergreens are sassy outside
in their bold, glassy green clothes.
They put to shame the rest of the courtyard.
The others have to work so hard.
I work hard and my self is not so sassy.
I don’t swagger.
Maybe I swagger in my full-skirt dress while
I walk downtown with you.
If plants could swagger, the big evergreen pine
He reaches, the handsome devil, almost to
He grins down at me, as I smoke my cigarettes
hoping my dogs don’t get cancer.
I’ve seen a lizard zig-zag vroom
from its leaf to leaf
And a toad take shelter underneath its
And I watch all this sitting on my sofa
The Stone Age Struck One Early Friday Morning/Building Reminisces
For Jennifer Michael Hecht
If the pyramids of Giza took so long to be built
stone by stone
Then I turned and took it away stone by stone. Was I the only one who said
Hey wait! It’s not me.
I do not carve my face into stone and yet, I do, with each
The clutter is underneath the bed. It is not I, my stone I built.
I looked out my window.
To see the half-naked slaves building the pyramids of Giza. Then it was just me looking
out of the window.
I look out the window and I see leaves, not stone masons. In the dark they
cannot see. But I can.
The tornado weather lantern held high and the reflection
of yellow, yellow, beyond the stone.
I grew grayer. Drab. Until I didn’t recognize myself in the
Cleopatra and the Tutankhamen.
The vases filled with organs and it was not I, not mine. I am full of life. They were so impressed
they carved me in and out of stone.
I forgot what it was to bake bread, to bread stone ground corn. Primitive. I forgot to break
Stone, to break pyramids.
I forgot in our bedroom to break with hammers, swelter with nails and carving tools.
He said, “You are as still as stone.”
It is you, who knowing the dead, fearing it from the first hammer blow, know it is stone.
Who else would come to bed with a tool?
We were known to each other and knew not the break of a tomorrow.
We forgot to respect the shifting of time.
The door creaks with
the wind. Making clouded prophetic
journeys from the cold, night dream.
Haunted houses -
wait, that’s over. It’s November.
I look over my living room
from the outside. It is
perfect and warm.
The dog perches on the sofa.
He must be comfortable
but ever on the lookout for
spies. It is Russia here.
Good night. Cold and mighty.
Vast. The window glows
yellow. The leaves blow
against my door. Escaping
inside. I sweep and sweep
They keep on coming.
Lenin is dead. The Old Order
is no longer. It is not so
with me. I hear the door.
I see the dog. In the
morning the Old Order
is not so impressed with me.
The sun shines, the door still
creaks. But I hear the rooster.
Jennifer Singleton is a University of North Texas graduate with degrees in Early Childhood and Elementary Education. She also has a Master's Degree in Library Science. She has two poems upcoming in The Red River Review. She lives with two dogs in Corsicana, Texas, is a school librarian, and in her free time, she reads and writes poetry.
* * *
And at the River’s Edge I Stand By James Stoner
Lately, I stand at the river’s edge.
The swollen moon steals whatever light it can find
From this red rose that grows grey like the landscape.
The vast night hangs lower than the treetops.
Nearby, the hidden low-pitched croaking of the frogs.
The fluid rippling of the stream.
From a distance there came an eerie echoing pair wails,
Golden drops that swell on its surface from two loons--
Drunken things who dive under into the murky gloom.
My soul, a stringed instrument, sang to itself,
Invisibly touched by the loons’ call,
A secret vibrating, vivid river song.
James earned a Masters in Liberal Studies and a Masters in Creative Writing. He is a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee. He was a featured poet in the The Pacific Review and has had published other poems in Cultural Logic, The Awakenings Review, Education Studies, and in the poetry anthology Silent Voices.
* * *
Fit Inside The Puzzle and Dune Status By Diane Webster
Fit Inside the Puzzle
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned”
as I sit across from my therapist.
Forgive you for what?
For doing anything, everything wrong.
Put a jigsaw puzzle box on the table
even though the picture fits perfectly,
did I do it right?
Start with the border?
Do the sky first?
Or the stone in the middle?
The red boat?
Did I do it right
even though the picture
fits together before me?
One grain of sand
flies with the many
over wind-contoured sand dunes
like a traveling dune in air
until weight loads down lift,
and one grain of sand lands
atop a dune now one grain
too heavy it slides
and fills in a little more valley
aspiring to dune status.
Diane Webster enjoys the challenge of picturing images into words to fit her poems. If she can envision her poem, she can write what she sees and her readers can visualize her ideas. Her work has appeared in The Hurricane Review, Eunoia Review, Illya's Honey, and other literary magazines.
* * *
Fairy Poems By Laura Madeline Wiseman
I want to tell them I didn’t understand humans. Our sister-in-law kept her home a magazine—bright walls, tiled kitchen, plush carpet, not a speck of dust, items chosen to match décor, theme, holiday. Give Thanks stamped on paper like prayer flags, but Midwestern middleclass. Doorknobs festive with belled ribbons, end tables arranged with carved snowmen, hand-painted sleds, stuffed animals holding signs--Santa stops here. All the social media words on gratitude, darlings, achievement, there’s her girls as snow fairies, ice skating fairies, sunny poolside fairies, never dark fairies, weird sisters, spiders. I hate that she died. I hate that beyond the knack of home-keeping, she had a knack for making anyone feel small—trendy clothes, new cars, best schools for her girls—for saying the backhanded compliment, You look good, as if there was a moment in the past when you had not looked good or you’d surprised her with your look of goodness when clearly you goodness is a lie. We never bought name brand cereal, drove Fords, wore the trending. Football games didn’t rule the TV we didn’t have. We ate carrots from twenty-five pound bags. I loved her girls. I searched Walmart bins for fairy briefs, combed dollar stores for fairy coloring books, hunted the used bookstore, buying up every fairy title. I looked good because I was good, even in our neighborhood of Oxy squatters, our grocery purchases of discount bags of bruised apples and wilted greens. I tried with your grief you wore like anger—locked shoulders, pinched mouth, the way you turned on every good thing between us. I was good. I tried, even if I stepped from your reaching hands.
Fairy Toy Hoarder
I never wanted to open the fairy boxes, to move bags from car to house, to carry shipping box from front door to the kitchen table, to remove presents from xmas tree, to get out round-tipped scissors or philips screwdrivers for assembly and instructions in too many languages, print too small to read. I liked everything in its original packaging, to hold the bright boxes and trace the plastic, catching the overhead light’s glint. I liked their dustless existence, twisty ties at waist, advice--Collect them all! from a tag or the warning, choking hazard. I liked that if I never used a knife, they stayed new, a gift never ready for a shelf’s display. You said I should sell them, create a dealer’s account online, work a table at a collector’s fair, unfold a lawn chair and sit the drive all Saturday, girding against my neighbors small talk of weather, husker football, the price of food, small reciprocity of questions returned as they dig through my unopened fairy boxes, my fairy tees with the tags still on, my fairy books in perfect jackets, spines never cracked. You can crack them open and read them, you said, toeing a pile. Please don’t, I said. You swung to face me, but I refused to face back, refused the fight gauntlet thrown, refused to let you touch me, refused your gaze by locking the bathroom door, the bedroom door, the office door. I went downstairs to fold the sheets. When you came down, fussing by the electric box where all the computer cords go, I went upstairs to wash dishes by hand. When you came up to fuss at the kitchen where the utility bills collect, I went out to the garage to sort recycling. I didn’t want to get into it then. I don’t want to now—why I don’t call, don’t text, don’t answer email. I hoard unopened fairy toys. I like the fairies getting ready to nap in trees, the ones ready to fly, the rubbery of promise, the hope of packages, Bring home magic.
I was told Beware, not be aware, but I just wanted to be. America, before I met you, how rich the world. Gas cost less than a dollar, two liters of pop, fifty cents on sale, CD rates more than interest. I never liked my neighbors, the way they made me feel dirty. I like frugal shopping, buying food at discount stores, cutting the toothpaste open when there are no more squeezes left, to whirl my bristles inside for a week. They eye me like a buyer to be assessed. She crosses her arms like I’m an easy target to make a sale. He stops talking when the sale is clearly made. I want to be more than consumer, more than how much I can be made to spend. I want to stand among them as equals, all of our pockets empty, no need to fill. America, as a girl I stole. I pocketed charm bracelets from the mall with my friend. She shared the seaweed she pocketed from the Asian store. At her apartment, her father was quiet, her mom quieter, the decorations loud, different than our own—turning lights, velvet, glass. She liked my mom better, always asked to come over. She stood in our apartment with her head bowed, waiting to be told to peel carrots, fold the rags, sweep our concrete slab of porch. I should’ve bowed my head, waiting. I was never a good daughter. I wanted to go garage sale shopping with pennies, to search the hedge apples for fairies, to roll down the apartment hill shrieking. America, I’ve been unkind in my humankind-ness. I laughed at the mean woman in Taos who didn’t like my sparkly tights. I laughed at those who heckled me in school, those who heaved me into the air as they shook the shoulders of my secondhand coat, zipper fairy charm dangling. I’m addressing you. I crushed on my Spanish teacher, the big-eyed, dark-haired woman with svelte curves in bright outfights. I only had her for one year. After I’d moved on to Spanish II, she hung herself in her garage, like her son had done the year before. America, when will there be enough food? When will we stop deciding to die? America, all the blocks are empty. All the men are filling feeders, all the women dusting. There has to be something we can do. Are we each America all alone? I have some food, pockets full of plastic charm. I’m just trying to be. Can you be okay with that, America?
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). With artist Sally Deskins, her collaborative book is Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). Her most recent book is the collaborative collection of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. She holds a doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has received an Academy of American Poets Award, a Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award, and the Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. Currently, she teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
* * *
Pickling, A Love Story By Jennifer Fliss
It wasn’t as if they weren’t both vegetables. Cucumber and Pickle lived next door to each other their entire lives. They played together when they were young; little gherkins oblivious to the inequality of the world around them. But when Pickle came home one day and announced to his parents he needn’t look any further; the right partner for him was just next door, they were appalled.
“They are different.”
“They aren’t as refined,” this last comment from Grandma Dill, who rarely spoke except to tsk-tsk or espouse superstitions.
“But we’ve been friends forever,” Pickle implored.
“No bread and butter,” his father said with vinegar on his tongue and that was the end of that.
Not a few hundred feet away, at Cucumber’s house, it was much of the same:
“Really. . . too salty . . . Want to spend the rest of your life in a jar?”
And so it was, Pickle and Cucumber weren’t allowed to truly be together. Their skin, though both green; too many shades apart. When they read Romeo and Juliet in class, the two were finally able to put a name on what they were experiencing; Forbidden Love. They met clandestinely under the bleachers and in shadowy corners of stairways.
“This will not do!” cried the principal upon finding them sharing a sandwich in the cafeteria.
“Why?” Pickle asked.
“You are too different,” he smirked. The bell rang, signaling their separation. They both received revised schedules. They no longer were in the same English class. They read Shakespeare alone. Bells rang. Classes started. Bells rang. Classes ended. They never shared more than a passing glance in the hallways.
Under this burden, they waited out their high school years; one day more painful than the last.
After they graduated, on a cool autumn day, a harvest day, a day Grandma Dill would have called auspicious, had she been there, the two met at a small chapel in the woods. An ultimatum had been given. A choice had been made. A sour response by Cucumber's mother. The two chose each other and did what they could to appease Pickle's family. It was the only family they would have, save for each other. Forbidden love didn't mean it had to be forbidden forever.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Pickle asked.
“I will do whatever it takes,” Cucumber said and he reached for Pickle’s hand and took a tentative step towards the briny pool.
Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin and California schooled, Seattle based writer. She holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and a certificate in Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. Her writing can be found online and in print with publications and websites such as Brain
Child, Stratus, Blotterature,The Bell Town Messenger, Daily Mom, Behind the Book, BookerMarks, and The Well Read Fish.
* * *
One Night at the Fun Fair By Tim Frank
He had to just get through that night. He was tripping, at the fun fair, and on a first date. His hands had swelled to the size of anvils and his date, whose name still evaded him, well, her eyes were like goldfish in plastic bags of water – shimmering and bulging.
They were at the shooting range and Tony was having problems not shooting the proprietor in his saggy belly that was squeezed into a faded Grateful Dead t-shirt. The owner grabbed the gun away from Tony and aimed it at him; his dragon tattoos jumped and roared, fire gushing from their mouths. Tony’s date threw herself in the way and got a chipped tooth to add to her lopsided grin and hair shaped like a giant ant (which Tony thought about punching to death).
They moved on.
Tony’s date wanted to go on the helter skelter ride. It towered above them and laughed, as swarms of kids swooped down in sacks and he was scared because the tower was talking to him in Russian.
‘Alright,’ Tony said, ‘but I warn you if things turn ugly I’m going to take you and your ant head down.’
Tony’s date didn’t care. She was easy and Tony knew, even in his disturbed state, that he could cop a feel any time he wanted. Except he didn’t want to. He just wanted to get through the night without the rain turning into fire or the candy floss wrapping around him.
Down he went, following his date on the helter skelter ride, her hips a little too wide to fit through the slide, forcing kids to pile up behind them like a sequence of connect four. And then on to the dodgems where he nearly vomited on a pensioner by the side of the platform. Next was the ghost ride where everything became REAL and luminous and not nearly as scary as you’d think but still truly awful as shrieks echoed through the velvet lined walls and Tony got the tremendous urge to write secret messages on his hands that only those who had read his blog would understand.
And then things took a turn for the worse.
‘You don’t remember my name,’ his date said tearfully, chewing on an old piece of gum and clutching two bags of goldfish that looked like her face now.
‘Listen ant-head,’ Tony began, ‘I don’t remember my name at the moment. The thing is that I’m on a helluva lot of LSD and things are getting pretty subliminal my end of things, if you know what I mean.’
‘So you like me?’ she said hopefully.
‘I don’t really know sugarpuff. I mean do you like me?’
‘Sorta,’ she sniffled, ‘well, you’re a bit odd and that, but otherwise you’re one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever been out with.’
‘To tell the truth,’ Tony said, ‘I just want to escape this world, this shitty town too. That’s why
I’m tripping and why I brought you here, somewhere...different. You understand right?’
Tony’s date smiled. And with that Tony grabbed her breast. She shrieked, dropped the fish and sent them splashing to the turf.
‘My god! Your eyes!’ Tony said, falling to the floor. He grappled with the struggling fish, finally snatching them up into each of his hands, and then he tried to squeeze them into her eye sockets.
Tony’s date batted him away and the fish turned to mush in his hands. She ran deep into the funfair as children pointed and laughed and stall owners shook their heads as if they’d seen it all before.
‘Call me!’ yelled Tony, patting himself down, feeling sober and peaceful all of a sudden, ready to go shooting for some more fish and maybe grab some candy floss.
It began to rain.
Tim Frank is an up and coming writer, specialising in the comic and the surreal. He has been published in magazines such as Bourbon Penn, Bartleby Snopes and Haggard and Halloo.
* * *
Clothing Makes the Man By Mark Smith
It was the buckle of a shoe, placed just so in the sunlight, that caught his eye from the alley. He stopped and peered into the garage. Pants, shirt, and shoes lay neatly folded not six feet away.
From behind some moving boxes, fingers twisting her yellow dress, the girl studied him. He looked younger and taller than when she’d first seen him from her window — and even more like her father.
The man glanced around. Then from down the hill a church bell rang out, stirring in him a childhood memory of an Easter Sunday in happier times. He stepped to the clothing and shoes, tucked them under his arm and was gone.
When the footsteps faded, the girl stood and walked to the sunny spot of garage floor where her father’s clothing and shoes had lain.
A small, hopeful smile. She knew that, when the man found what she’d placed in the front pants pocket, she would be seeing him again.
Mark J. Smith is a writer and photographer living in Long Beach, CA with his wife and young daughter.He is currently between cats.
* * *
by Esther Smoller
I found a dead bird on the welcome mat this morning. I didn’t mind; it could have been a baby, with a note attached. “Please be kind and name him Elliott.”
We’ve never talked about having children. We’ve always avoided it. Your sperm count is low. I can tell just by looking and knowing you. So you wouldn’t want to be the one who “couldn’t”. It would be your fault and you know I’d never let you forget it.
But to tell the truth----we are doing that, aren’t we? ----I’ve never wanted children. You have to be able to give and I don’t give; I take. It’s so much more fun. If you finally do leave me, then I’d have a child. It would be so much better than dancing alone.
You’re not surprised by this confession. You've known it all along. How could you not? It is staring you in the face. But you don’t like to face what stares at you. You turn away. Even when we went to the lake, we turned to face the mountain.
Esther Smoller was a psychotherapist for 35 years. Changed careers to photojournalism. Published photos throughout the world. Now, she wants to write without photos.
* * *
Tell It Again By Jennifer Worrell
Nan's voice, rough with cigarettes and age, sawed away at yet another anecdote about her latest trip to Tuscany and the city's stunning mountain vistas. Susan fidgeted, wringing her hands under the table: a nervous habit that came about when the desire to wring someone's neck, even for the simple sake of silence, would arise. Ray caught Susan's eyes from across the table. He made the shape of a gun with his hand, thumb trigger drawn and tense, and held it up to his right temple. Susan stifled a giggle; he made these dinners with his aunt less unbearable. He crossed his eyes, dangled his tongue out the corner of his mouth, and thrust down his thumb in a feigned shooting; there was an unexpected bang and he slumped at an odd angle over the edge of the table, his right hand dropping rigidly onto his placemat. His temple and index finger were smoking, both singed black as coal. There was no blood or even a wound; it was as though the bullet was forged from sheer desperation. Susan crouched at her husband's side as the other diners stared in confused disbelief and questions swirled like angry bees: how did this happen? was that a gunshot? is he dead? Susan had no answers. When she raised her head, Nan's looming, petulant face was inches from her own, and Susan realized she was left with her alone. Susan reached for Ray's hand and, staring into the depths of the black residue on his finger, squeezed so tightly she could feel the bones crack.
Jennifer lives in Chicago and works as the Assistant to the Dean of Libraries at IIT. She is obsessed with medicine and pie, which occasionally are the same thing.
* * *
Half Moon Rising by Richard Ong
RICHARD ONG's painted artwork, stories, poetry and photos have appeared in several issues of bewilderingstories.com, yesterdaysmagazette.com and The Blotter Magazine. One of these stories has been republished in print as part of an anthology titled, “Toys Remembered.” (compiled and edited by Madonna Dries Christensen). He was also an executive producer of a promotional movie short, “A.R.C. Angel: Kalina,” nominated for Best Guerilla Film Short at the 2013 Action on Film Festival at Monrovia, California.Richard Ong's painted artwork, stories, poetry and photos have appeared in several issues of bewilderingstories.com, yesterdays magazette and The Blotter Magazine. One of these stories has been republished in print as part of an anthology titled, “Toys Remembered.” (compiled and edited by Madonna Dries Christensen). He was also an executive producer of a promotional movie short, “A.R.C. Angel: Kalina,” nominated for Best Guerilla Film Short at the 2013 Action on Film Festival at Monrovia, California.
Working with Glass by Mark J. Smith
Mark J. Smith is a writer and photographer living in Long Beach, CA with his wife and young daughter.
All in by Louis Staeble
Louis Staeble lives in Bowling Green, Ohio. His photographs have appeared in Agave, Digital Papercut, Driftwood, Four Ties Literary Review, Gravel, Iron Gall, Microfiction Monday, On The Rusk” Paper Tape Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Up The Staircase Quarterly and Your Impossible Voice.