Death by Avocado
By Leticia Garcia Bradford
My writing of late has been quite an underachievement, so I have come to rely on writing prompts to get my juices flowing. Firing up my writing prompt of the day I found these innocuous words: Put your favorite fruit in a life or death situation. This is how I came to write “Death by Avocado”. The avocado is not just my favorite fruit, but my favorite food, as well. “Food of the gods,” I call it. Though some may quibble that the avocado is not a fruit, but a vegetable. Last time I checked, fruits come with seeds and only one seed is necessary as in the case of the avocado or the banana. Well the banana is a close runner up to my favorite fruit, but need I digress.
Many a day I thought, “What would be the best way to free my life from my ex-husband.” I thought of warfarin, rat poison, which is used to treat blood clots and readily available. Thanks to advances in medicine now there are other drugs like Xarelto to keep you from stroking out. Other poison options would be strychnine or oleander. I had no idea how to obtain either or how to mix just the right potion to do the lethal damage. Thankfully, I didn’t have to go the poisoning route. Nor did I need to wish him a heart attack. I was relieved of my excess baggage without the risk of going to jail.
In a wind thrashing wet storm a branch from my father’s avocado tree came down because it couldn’t sustain the weight of the hundreds of fruit and the added water. My former husband, who to my chagrin still lived on the property, upon inspecting the damage to the tree was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right time as I saw it. Avocados are known to fall like coconuts. At my father’s ranch we heard many a fruit make a hard thud on the plastic corrugated roof of the patio. We were always alarmed and wished Chicken Little had given his warning, “The sky is falling!” So when my ex took a closer look at the storm damage, he was struck on the center of the crown which triggered a fall. Coming down his head struck a rock at just the right spot. Death was instantaneous. Thus, Death by Avocado. Another reason to love this fruit.
What will tomorrow’s prompt be?
Leticia Garcia Bradford performs around the SF Area Bay Area at open mics and readings. She is the founder of B Street Writers Collective in Hayward, CA. She has been published in numerous journals and most recently in Nowhere Poetry And Flash Fiction and Fly With Me which she is, also, the editor and publisher. She started her career as a poet with a poem for Tiny Tots Diaper Service newsletter and then she was engaged by Tiny Tots as a speaker about diapers.
* * *
By Dr. Jenny Butler
I have been through darker nights and more anguished days than you have ever known. I have been beaten up and let down by the worst of humanity so your hyperbolic language doesn’t scare me. Having had a loaded gun pressed against my temple means a harsh reproach from one such as you will not have me crying in a corner. Cryptic references and bamboozlement will not wash with me, in fact will wash over me, as I do not fear straight-talking truth.
The academy now is a different sea to the one you, in your formative years, sailed so plainly and easily through – it is one of barely weathered storm-wavy waters and mutinous departmental crews. And being here and now, early career and up-and-coming, I am prepared for this in a way that you could not be, still peering through a lens from a different era. As for your outmoded views on women in academe: If you think I am a delicate flower, I’ll be belladonna and if you think I am made of glass, I will shatter and cut you to pieces.
While you were sipping from a bone china teacup in your mother’s living room, I was working my fingers to the bone. While you were relaxing on your sun holiday, I was cleaning a holiday-home. The university halls are no longer the reserve of your cosseted class, your fortunate few. I can see you for what you are behind prestigious awards, behind sizeable grants, behind lecturer-above-the-bar promotions, behind ‘your’ study that the postdoctoral fellow and the doctoral student work doggedly on.
The credibility threads that intertwine to mesh the professional fabric of your life would be rent if used to carry my life’s burdens. You huff and you puff, murmur in consternation when scholars more insightful, more astute than you are acknowledged and about this your Iago-tongue flaps incessantly in cornered colleagues’ ears. Failing students might make you feel good, powerful even, but know this: you fail at being a decent human being and, ultimately, you fail at life.
Professor, you must know that people have not worn tweed coats with elbow patches since the 1970s and you must know that we know you sew them on yourself in an attempt to look distinguished. No such thing as ‘academic facts’ or the scholarly life; there are just facts and life.
The time will come when ‘people like me’ will stick their boots in the door of your ivory-towered room, force their way in. They will tear down the shelves of outmoded theories, shred to pieces the bound collections of passé pontifications, and there will be no going back. Come up with all the theories you like, all the peer reviewed publications and all the keynotes you can muster, but do not underestimate me and my kind, my dear professor.
Dr Jenny Butler is an academic who studies religions, whose creative writing is inspired by pop culture, dreams, nightmares and personal experiences. She has had short stories published in various places including Literary Orphans Literary Magazine, Fictive Dream Magazine, Tales from the Forest Magazine, Firefly Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine.
* * *
A Pigeon's Life
By Joan Johnson
“How long do pigeons live on the average?” he asked as they walked along Tremont Street, their boots crunching dirty snow. She laughed that tinkling bell he loved, “I never thought about it,” she said, “Who cares anyway?” They walked into “Simple Simon’s Donut Shop,” took a table by the door and ordered coffee regular. He gazed at her his eyes brimming with affection and hope. “Don’t worry,” she said, gulping coffee in her asbestos-lined throat, “we can always get a divorce.” Her words were knives, but he didn’t flinch.
He was dressed in his only suit, his tie thrown over his shoulder to avoid errant sugar. He had arrived at Trinity Church with twenty minutes to spare. “Five minutes early is on time,” she had told him when he first met her for lunch, something he would remember always. The minister was stern as if he knew and disapproved of a pregnant couple. She arrived five minutes late just as he was starting to believe it had been a joke on her part that she had not consented under his relentless pressure to go through with a ceremony. She tossed her fur coat on a pew in the back row and ambled down the aisle by herself in a tweed suit and fur-lined boots. There were no flowers, no witnesses, no musicians, and no guests.
After a nine minute rite, the minister asked them to sign a booklet with “My Wedding” on the cover, but when he gave it to the bride she tucked it into her pocket without looking at it on the way out. Five years later when he found it still in the pocket, he saw she had never written their names on the dotted lines.
Here they were sitting in silence. He was thinking how nice it would have been if she had consented to a honeymoon, even a weekend in New Hampshire, but she had told him on the morning he found out about the baby, “Maybe in August we can spend a weekend in New York at the St. Regis before my practice picks up before the flu season.”
He saw she was eager to go, so he got up to pay the bill, reading the painted border on the shop ceiling: “As you travel on through life, Brother, let one thing be your goal, keep our eye upon the donut and not upon the hole.”
Boston Gardens was winter-bleak. They crossed Commonwealth Avenue and walked to their two rooms on Marlborough Street. She made much more money than he did but they lived on his small salary. What she did with her income was her business; it was a closed subject after their only discussion of finances.
She had no interest in sleeping with him now that she was pregnant, so they had separate divans against a corner of what she called the den, a room cramped with books, medical journals and papers. He couldn’t understand her new coldness knowing he was more than fit and handsome, but it was her body and the decisions were entirely hers. He avoided the subject after the first attempt to kiss her ear outside the church.
If he had some family to talk with things might have been easier for him, but his only relative, a divorced aunt in Cambridge had told him she would not be at the wedding, “You made your bed and now you have to lie in it.”
After the baby was born, his wife started coming home late every night, leaving him to care for their daughter. He quit his job and became a house husband at her request. In return, she began to pay all the expenses. It was as if the baby were a toy taken from a shop, bobbed about on her lap for a few minutes and put back on the shelf, or in her husband’s arms, and she would rush to something that called for her attention in the other room where she sat far into the night at her computer.
He could have had an affair, some torrid hot-blooded tangle with any one of the young housewives he gossiped with at the playground, the park, the store, or eventually the day care center, but he was raised a strict Catholic and believed in mortal sin and went faithfully to confession on Saturdays before Mass. Strangely, despite the absurdity of their relationship, he loved his wife.
She was, he knew, having sequential liaisons, jetting off to Jamaica on “business” or running down to Brazil for a “conference.” She took for granted his devotion to the child and he was the one who taught her to tie her shoes, brush her teeth, and count to twenty.
It was one of the times when his wife was away that everything changed. The baby, now five years old, was throwing pieces of bread at Boston Garden pigeons that cooed and bobbed, fluttered and pecked around their feet.
“That’s the mommy!” she pointed to a lavender bird at the end of her fingers, “And that one’s the daddy way over there!” She looked at her father with her beautiful smile.
“We can never tell exactly who is what,” he said, “It’s impossible to know which is which.”
"I know,” she said, “The mommy is not like the others. I can tell. She came to me first and he is going to be too late to get any crumbs.”
“If you want it to be mommy, that’s who it is, “he said, tossing her into the air where their eyes met. She was looking at him seriously. He sat her on his shoulders for a brief moment and then as her hands clasped his chin, he said earnestly, “What would I do without you?”
In her white snowsuit she looked every bit a tiny astronaut.
Joan Eyles Johnson has been published since her college years at San Jose State University where she earned a BA and MA in English. Poetry and short stories in Ambit, Reed, Mediterranean Review and other literary journals and popular magazines; 38 or her plays have been performed off-Broadway and on NPR as well as in San Jose and Los Angeles. She owns and operates a writer's retreat high in the alpine village of Crestline in the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California where she presents "Summit Seminars" monthly for six writers at a time.
* * *
By Nicholas Lovett
The oyster knife wrapped in the damp and dirtied towel in front of him looked like a pen knife sticking out of a pearly hued dildo. The kitchen of Breacher's Oyster House bustled and moved in sync, but with each cook attending to his own task. The head chef, a stocky Irish kid from Ipswich, called out the orders from behind a stack of plates.
“Wellfleets, two dozen to go. Ten minutes.” The chef read from the tickets in front of him as they came out of the printer.
Chef hardly learned his real name in the interview a few days ago, and only addressed him as “Wellfleets.” Wellfleets were this week's variety of oyster, ordered from faraway places like Aquidneck Island or the Bay of Fundy.
Two dozen were a bitch. With each order, he had to walk into the cooler. The oysters couldn't be stacked or stored at his station or they would crack and be spoiled. The inside of the walk-in was a cool burst under his baseball hat and apron.
The first day, he snuck one into the bathroom. He sipped the oyster liquor, a greasy saline taste, and chewed on the rubbery body until he spit the masticated gills and stomach into the toilet. His lips tingled with sand and salt from the shell. It was amazing to him that customers paid three dollars each for something inedible.
The chef headed back to the cooler to grab some sharp or blunt object or missing ingredient. “Wellfleets, how long on my Wellfleets?”
“ETA five minutes.” He brushed past him and the flimsy material of their coats rubbed together.
“Stuff's piling up, we need them oysters,” he said. Too much happened in a kitchen for a chef to fixate on any one task, so he ignored the directive.
There were no other duties that could be completed while shucking oysters. Shucking oysters took him away from his station as the tickets rolled in. He grabbed two Styrofoam to-go boxes and filled them with crushed ice, cocktail sauce, and lemon quarters. The cocktail sauce stuck in the middle arranged the oysters like synchronized swimmers in crushed ice.
When he shucked the oysters, often he would think of slave work like picking cotton. The oysters were like cotton boll with their sharp edges, and the labor done to harvest the oysters made him feel cheap, as if his time added up to no more than a cheek sized medallion of meat. How was there no oyster gin? Eli Whitney thought enough of the slaves to invent a machine to dull and assuage their labors hundreds of years ago while he poked himself with the edge of the oyster knife and scraped his knuckles on shell. Order after order. Shift after shift.
And at once he reached into the spare mackerel bucket filled with Wellfleets and got cracking. Though “cracking” wasn't the word. The oysters were too fragile and valuable to squeeze open like Christmas walnuts. His towel hand gripped the oysters, his fingers protected from the knife with two folds of cheap fabric.
Oysters looked like hard little rocks, but others looked like seashells. The Wellfleets curved on their narrowed edge like a hawk's nose with a seam down the middle wide enough to fit a knife. He leaned on the chewed up cutting board with the oyster underneath his palm. If the shell moved, the knife would squirt out into the flesh between his thumb and forefinger.
“Wellfleets! How close are we on the Wellfleets?”
The tip of the knife pushed into the oyster shell that was hard and uniform and broke into the meat and oyster liquor. If he pushed too far he would damage the meat. But he needed enough to open the shell. He put his hand on top of the shell and twisted the knife like a key in a sticky lock; his body did an uneasy dance until the flimsy top popped off in one piece that he threw in the trash.
He held the oyster up to his face at eye level. The shell felt cold and pimply on his bare hands. The point of the knife traced around the meat and shell until he found the abductor muscle. An oyster was a like a mushroom top, the abductor underneath was inedible and needed to be separated from the meat. But that was the presentation side and he took painstaking attentions to turning the underbelly.
The gray meat glistened against the shell like soot in an ashtray compared to an otherwise perfect display of ice, lemon, and container of cocktail sauce. He brought the two dozen up to the window and rung the bell with a stiff index finger.
How many guys opened up oysters and thought of the flesh separating from the shell like skin off a scalp? He thought as he wiped sand and oyster particulate from his cutting board. When the point of the knife found its cavity like recess in bone? Clean edge breathed though the flesh like razor blades against skin. Quietly. How much of that was just like this?
Nicholas Lovett is an emerging fiction writer from South Florida. He dropped out of school (for the second time) to pursue a career in Blues music before he realized he liked Richard Ford, Flannery O’Connor, and Oscar Hijuelos as much as Little Walter and Muddy Waters. In his free time outside of dental sales, he likes to watch hockey and spend time with his fiance and their Australian Shepherd.
* * *
St. Cynthia of South Brooklyn
By Katherine Macfarlane
“My grandmother was born here. My whole family lived here. I’m going to die here. I’ll never leave,” Cynthia told me the day we met. She was showing the second floor apartment in her three-story Carroll Gardens brownstone. The apartment was clean and big and I wanted it badly.
She led me up the red staircase, past the white statue on the alcove.
“St. Francis,” I said.
“Oh, you Catholic?” she asked, one eyebrow lifted. The only other thing she knew about me was that I was a lawyer, and she wasn’t impressed.
“I am. Catholic. So’s my fiancé.”
“Good,” she said. “It’s a nice apartment. So I rent to nice people.”
“I have a good feeling about her,” is what Cynthia told our broker after she agreed to rent to me.
In the 1970s, Cynthia bought out her cousins and became the brownstone’s sole owner.
“I love having youse yuppies to rent to,” she tells me.
“This place,” Cynthia says, sweeping her arm in the direction of Court Street and then back toward Smith, “was different.”
“Everyone wanted out.”
I am no longer nodding, afraid of where this is headed.
“Not me. Now I’ve got the likes of you to rent to! Hah!”
She tosses her head back, delighting in her business savvy.
“They’re going to take me out of here in a body bag,” she says.
I was excited about the neighborhood. I lived in Italy as a little girl. But I’ve been disappointed. There’s a Sal’s Pizza on the corner, but there are hardly any Italians left in Carroll Gardens.
Well, there are a few. Cynthia’s husband Vincenzo was born in Sicily. He has white hair on the sides of his head, but none on top. He wears billowy silk shirts neatly tucked into his jeans. I’ve caught sight of him strolling in the rain down Smith Street, wrapped in a well-cut trench coat, cigarette in hand, headed off to a card game.
Vincenzo speaks to me in Italian. We chat about his vegetable garden and he asks me about my father, who still lives in Rome.
Cynthia and Vincenzo have one child, Francesco. Until a few months ago, Francesco, who is in his late thirties, lived in the apartment below us, and worked the docks at the nearby pier. Vincenzo’s friends have all moved out of their parents’ neighborhood, and the “South Brooklyn” of their youth is no more.
Expensive strollers occupy the sidewalks. Every third child is named Sam, and when Sam runs over your foot with his or her scooter, the look on Sam’s parents’ face lets me know that this is all my fault. The Sams roam freely, crumbling cheerios into bar stool cushions.
“My baby’s gone,” Cynthia told me when Francesco moved to Staten Island.
According to Francesco’s friends, whose conversations about the old neighborhood I follow closely on Facebook, South Brooklyn has been overrun by “yups,” which I think refers to the kind of people who eat plates of $14 carrots instead of the penne alla vodka served at family-run restaurants like Red Rose.
“Wish it was the one above youse that was leaving,” Cynthia said when I told her we were moving out. Like most run-ins with Cynthia, this one happened before 9 a.m. We meet when she’s walking her dog Nina and I’m on my way to the gym or to work.
“You’re not going to work dressed like that, right? Aren’t you a lawyer?” she asks.
Usually I hear Cynthia before I see her.
“Nina. NINA. Nina get back here!” Cynthia shouts.
Nina messes with Cynthia. She’s slow when it’s time to move on, and quick to run away when Cynthia wants her close by. With Vincenzo, Nina’s more obedient.
“Principessa!” cries Vincenzo, and Nina runs to him.
When Nina has ignored Cynthia for the upteenth time, Cynthia’s tone changes.
“Nina, you bitch,” Cynthia yells. “Nina. Get back here Nina. You bitch.”
“You won’t believe it,” Cynthia said to me one day, twinkle in her eye.
“I was yelling at that damn dog. She was dragging her ass getting back from across the street.”
“‘Nina, you bitch,’ I says, like I always do. Then I heard a woman’s voice. Out of nowhere.”
Cynthia pauses. Her timing is impeccable. She makes sure I’m paying attention before she
gets to the punchline.
“‘Do I know you?’ I hear the woman say. The woman across the street. ‘Do I know you?’”
“Turns out the woman’s name was Nina. Just like this one.”
“How was I to know?”
Katherine Macfarlane teaches Constitutional Law, Civil Rights Litigation and Civil Procedure at the University of Idaho College of Law. She studied Latin American Lit and Women’s Studies at Northwestern University and received her J.D. from Loyola Law School. Her essays have appeared in Hairpin, the Intima, BUST, the Ms. Blog, the Observer, the Huffington Post, The Mighty, and Northwestern Magazine. Her blog "Bones Drugs and Pharmacies" was featured on the Creaky Joints website. Katherine was born in Toronto, Canada, grew up in Rome, Italy and Kalamazoo, MI, and now lives in Moscow, ID. Follow her @KatAMacfarlane.
* * *
By Jacqueline Masumian
Our Father I’m glad you’re there, cause my own, my real one, disappeared a long time ago, who art in heaven why you have to be so far away, way up there?, hallowed be thy name always makes me think of Halloween, heh-heh. Thy kingdom come oh, I’d like to see that. I picture it like a tall castle on a hill, nothing fancy, just square and strong. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven I will get me up there somehow. Give us this day our daily bread yes, Lord, I could use a good meal, it’s been a while, and forgive us our trespasses I’ve done a few, no killing or drugs, just swiping stuff and yelling at the people who mess with me and try to pull me out of here, as we forgive those who trespass against us, they don’t mean no harm, only trying to help me, but getting under my skin is all, and Mama, I wish she would have let me stay in that extra room of hers, but she said I was bringing in too much trash, so I’ll content myself with this spot under the bridge, a might better than that shelter which is nasty, and lead us not into temptation pretty much why I stay to myself most the time, but deliver us from evil just keep that devil away from me is all I ask. For thine is the kingdom, and the power you got all that power, seems finding me a warm place where I could lay out all my things shouldn’t be too hard, and the glory “morning glories round my head,” that song my mama sang to me so many long, long years ago, for ever and ever but don’t keep me here too much longer, Lord. Don’t know how long I can hold out through these days and nights so bitter cold. Amen Amen, Brother. Amen, Sister. Glory Hallelu.
Jacqueline Masumian is the author of Nobody Home: A Memoir. She grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and has enjoyed careers as actress, performing arts manager, and landscape designer. Her stories have appeared in Mused Literary Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Indiana Voice Journal.
* * *
By Andrew Miller
Karl Anderson spotted the gray-white chimney as he started down the hill, then the rectangle of dirty ashes and smoking timbers where the house had stood, and finally, patches of burnt-to-stubble grasses, naked sumacs. Behind the chimney stood two apple trees, red fruit blackened, once-green leaves curled and twisted. He edged the Studebaker pickup off the gravel road and stopped by a charred wooden table and four chairs.
The twins stuck their heads out the window. “What happened?”
Karl peered through the windshield. “Johnson’s place burnt last night.”
Karl drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“Mrs. Johnson and their two-year-old boy.”
One of the boys pointed to a tall figure stooped over the ashes, canvas bag in one hand, hoe in the other. Part of his shirt had burned away revealing a blackened undershirt. His forehead, cheeks, and lower arms were smudged with soot.
“That Mr. Johnson?”
Karl nodded, shoved the door open. “You boys stay put.”
“Oh, Jesus,” said Karl as he trudged through knee-high goldenrod and white clover toward the foundation. A curtain of burnt wood and leather hung in the air, stung his nostrils. “Hey Bo,” he called, “what’re you doing?”
Bo Johnson scraped the hoe along a smoking timber, then dropped to his knees, reached into the ashes.
Karl stopped next to a pile of broken plates. “What’s going on?”
Bo snagged a crushed bucket, glanced at it, then tossed it over his shoulder. He snatched up the hoe, jabbed at the remains of a wooden dresser. The twins jumped out of the truck, ran toward the men. They picked up sticks and started punching the ashes.
Karl yanked a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and wiped his forehead. “Bo, it’s me, Karl—Karl Anderson.”
Bo struggled to his feet, gripping the bag with both hands. “Hey, Mr. Anderson.”
Dabs of foam clung to the corners of Bo’s mouth, his pupils were the size of olives, burn marks crisscrossed his hands, ears, scalp, and forehead, the hair on the back of his head was singed.
Karl laid a hand on Bo’s shoulder. “Did anybody look at them burns?”
Bo reached into the canvas bag. “Potatoes,” he said, “getting me these potatoes.” Two inky lumps sat in his palm.
“Jesus,” said Karl, “Jesus Christ almighty.” He kicked at a clump of scorched grass. “You don’t hafta do that. I’ll get fellas from the mill to come by. They’ll go through the ashes for you. Christ almighty.”
Bo dropped to his knees, peered into the bag. “Most a these are no good—they’re burnt real bad.” He tossed three into the clover.
One of the twins shouted, “I got one, Mr. Johnson.” He brushed off the ashes and held it overhead.
Bo leaned back on his heels. “You’ve a good eye, boy.”
Karl squatted down, facing Bo. “Myrtle’s got a couple a chickens in the oven. Come up to the house. Have dinner with us.”
The boys started to laugh. Each held a potato at his crotch, pretending to pee on the ashes.
“Mine’s longer’n yours.”
“Yeah, but mine’s bigger around.”
Karl jumped up, jerked off his hat, whacked it against his thigh. “Paul—Jonathon—Stop that!”
Karl helped Bo to his feet. “You been here all morning? Thought you was staying with your sister.”
Bo pointed toward the ridge. “She lives right up there. Her and Jeffery.”
The men walked to the truck. Karl beckoned the twins. “Get in back—were going.”
Karl opened the door, helped Bo onto the front seat. “Let’s have the potatoes.” He dropped them in back, climbed into the cab, started the engine. “We’ll get you to the house. Look at them burns. Call Doc Svenson.” He wiped the corners of Bo’s mouth with his handkerchief.
One of the boys thrust a potato through the window. “Look, Mr. Johnson, this one’s hardly burnt.”
Bo touched the crusty skin with two fingers and a thumb. “That there’s a Russet Burbank. It’s a keeper.”
Andrew Miller has spent most of his career working in research on environmental issues and teaching in a small University in Georgia. He retired several years ago and now has time to consult on environmental issues and pursue his interest in creative writing. His previous publications have all been nonfiction, dealing with aquatic ecology and environmental issues.
* * *
By the River
By Clara Miller
To the one who sits by the river,
If you’re reading this now, know that this letter is meant for you. Set aside your doubts. This wasn’t placed here by accident, or addressed to someone else and you’re reading this by mistake. I know you sit here on this rock every morning before you leave to go about your day. I know because I used to sit here too.
Three days ago you were several steps ahead of me, eyes to the ground like you could see through the cement of the sidewalk to the center of the earth. My feet crunched on the snow behind you as we both moved down the sleeping street, but you never turned or stirred from whatever you were so focused on. I admit that I didn’t take much notice of you either, not until you went past the end of the cul-de-sac, the hidden fire hydrant, and into the realm of bare trees, following the stamped-down snow trail I’ve maintained throughout the season.
I didn’t follow immediately, allowing you to put distance between us before stepping onto the path as well. I felt like I was intruding, though I knew I had as much right to walk through the trees and down to the river as you. While I don’t see everyone who comes to this place, I know I share it. I often find discarded items, blankets, sweatshirts, bottles, and once a paperback book that was so waterlogged I couldn’t determine its title. This happens all the time in summer, when I also keep an eye out for bears and other animals. But it’s winter and most people are snuggled in their warm beds, especially at this early hour, and the bears rest in their dens. If it weren’t for me, I don’t think the river would have received a lingering visitor until after the first thaw. But now there is also you.
The first time I saw you sit on the rock by the river, I wanted to venture out from the trees’ depths and sit beside you, to ask what was on your mind. You shut the world out when you walked, but once you arrived, your eyes raised up. Did you ever touch a discarded item and wonder at its history? Do you bring a tumult of thoughts with you to leave here like the river’s debris? I wanted to know how you viewed this place, but you had erected a silent space I knew I couldn’t break — my presence might lower your eyes. So I breathed in the air sharp of pine, ice, and buried earth, and decided that I would leave and return for myself the next day.
But you came again in the morning, and I was even farther behind you on the street this time, so when you entered the woods, I didn’t pause at the path’s entrance. You sat on the rock, and I thought about going out and sitting right beside, not asking you a thing but instead, to join you in watching the river as it continually flowed despite winter chilling the edges. We would listen to the silence devoid of birds, punctuated by our rhythmic breathes. Only the river would speak.
But I’ve changed my mind. That second day you stood up suddenly, walked to the river’s edge, and put pressure on the ice buildup. The crack that interrupted the river made me start, and I almost rushed forward when I saw you slip on the bank. You could have fallen in, and almost did, but you instinctively righted yourself. I watched your eyes follow the broken ice as it was swept away by the swift current, dipping under the surface at points only to reemerge further down, sometimes breaking into smaller bits against the rocks, until it rounded a bend and disappeared from view. You didn’t seem moved at all that it could have been you.
But I was.
I write to you now to ask, do you know that this river’s path is always changing? This rock you’re sitting on will one day slide into the rushing water, and who is to say where it will rest. I do not know what troubles you, but I hope it shall erode away like the river bank.
Until that day, can I sit with you?
Clara Miller is a lifelong Alaskan, a fiction writer, poet, and dreamer whose day job also includes writing but of the non-fiction kind. She likes to experiment with sound, imagery, and form in her poetry and short fictional works, as well as play with POV. She worked on Tidal Echoes, Southeast Alaska's Literary and Arts Journal where she previously published for the 2015 edition. After graduating from the University of Alaska Southeast, she worked for the Juneau Empire, Alaska's capital city newspaper. She is now a staff writer for the Capital City Weekly which covers arts and culture in Southeast Alaska.
* * *
By Toti O'Brien
The day after the election she kneeled in her backyard. With gardener gloves on her hands, she started cutting a chunk of wood she needed for a school project. The hatchet was a piece of Japanese hardware, by far the sharpest blade she possessed. Heavy, thick, long-handled. She hammered at the log with all of her strength, the entire weight of her body loading her gesture. Still the tool was inadequate, the wood too hard, or both. Maybe she was weaker than usual.
Impassively, she kept at her task. More than half hour went by. Sweat rolled down her cheeks. While exhausted, she got some satisfaction out of her disproportionate effort. Some of the frustration the election had brought loosened up, due to her strenuous exercise. The sun set in the meanwhile, then a loud voice startled her.
“What are you trying to do?” Her neighbor’s head peered over the fence. She smiled, blabbered some explanation, mixed with justification for the protracted noise. Nothing worrisome: it was daytime, and the neighbor was often noisy in his turn. Still she apologized, humoring her poor lumberjack skills.
“I thought a very stubborn woodpecker was around,” he said in a jocular mood. “You need a chainsaw,” he added. He liked giving her tips. She didn’t dislike receiving them, whatever they were worth.
They got along well, though maintaining amiability during the campaign had been taxing. He had slowly turned towards the most conservative candidate. His remarks had grown frequent and nasty. Racist rants. Tirades against immigrants, like her. Since the candidate opposed to the one he chose was a woman, he had refurbished his inventory of misogynist commonplaces. Never in her face, but through the open windows she had absorbed his fervorous preaching to family and friends, reaching notes of exasperation as the voting neared.
But they got along well.
Now he must be in a good mood, since his candidate won yesterday, with his violent agenda instigating bigotry, hatred for minorities, liberal distribution of weapons in civilians’ hands. He has voted for these things, her neighbor, has he? She knows enough of his life to understand why.
“It’s the hatchet,” she says. “It is razor sharp, but not big enough. This is going to take forever, and I need three more. Do you have an ax?”
“I think so.”
“Well, be ware then! If I wear myself out, you’ll get my visit. You will have to help out. Will you?”
His smile becomes uncertain. “Oh my,” he says, “Ok.” Sure,” he says.
She will go. She needs those cuts done. Tomorrow.
In bed, later, she imagines herself stepping into his backyard, log in hand. She will not deck herself for the occasion, of course. In her flimsy housedress she will wander in. He will lock the front gate behind her. It will be the two of them, out of sight, enclosed by the tall fence.
She will kneel on concrete, holding the log at both ends. Stabilizing it. She will stare at the log, making sure he will hit exactly the mark she has traced. Head bent, all the weight of her body will help steadying her grip.
Her hair (she hasn’t thought of tying it—too late now) will fall over, leaving her neck exposed. Above her, he will hold the giant ax, fit to sever the log in one single blow. He has zealously sharpened the blade before her arrival. He will hold the ax high with arms tense, extended. He will put the entire weight of his body behind it.
She will keep her eyes riveted to the pencil mark she has neatly traced on wood.
She knows he won’t miss it.
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Peacock Journal, Sein und Werden, Avis, and Ink on Thirds, among other journals and anthologies.
* * *
By Aparna Reddi
You park your car under the freeway and head for the office, thinking of the day ahead, how behind you are on everything, even though you started working from home at four in the morning and can feel your blood pressure rising in time with the traffic above, anxiety maybe, you don’t know because these feelings are foreign to you, maybe it’s age, you’re nearing the age that both of your parents developed high blood pressure, systolic maybe, and your older sister started having panic attacks, the kind that land her in the ER because she can barely breathe when she’s in the midst of them and you don’t want that life, but your life is a couple steps from turning into hers and now you hear the blood in your ears, and can’t remember if the swishing is systolic or diastolic blood pressure, so you reach into your pocket and take out your phone to look it up, but stop.
There’s a patch of color intruding on the spot of sidewalk where you’re about to step. It registers that you’re looking at an insect with orange and black wings, black trim on the wings, with white circles inside the border. You wonder what the butterfly is doing under the freeway – this isn’t migration season, there isn’t any milkweed nearby for it to eat. Maybe its circadian clock is off.
It’s as still as you with your foot frightened mid-step. A heartbeat later, the butterfly’s wings slowly start moving up and down, up and down, up and down. You watch the wings, and find your breathing now matches their rhythm. For a few beats, you and the butterfly are in synch. On the last beat, you breathe deep, taking in the smell of wet earth from the morning dew.
Aparna Reddi lives in San Francisco. Her fiction has appeared in J Journal: New Writing on Justice.
* * *
By Michael Snyder
It’s pudding day again. Which means I have decisions to make.
Like I used to tell my second wife, actions have consequences. And like she was wont to reply, “Inaction does too.” I deployed this line on my third wife, both in the kitchen and the bedroom, which led to arguments wherein I may or may not have inferred that that she was the ugliest woman I ever married. Not long after, she signed a stack of papers that led to my life-sentence in old folks purgatory. I heard she ran off with the lawyer who drew up the papers. Serves him right.
Anyhow. It took eight and two-thirds decades to finally find my calling. Three of those were spent sifting and sorting digits on spreadsheets. My business card proclaimed: Actuary. And based on my personal statistics, I have roughly four years left to exploit those latent abilities I had managed to squander in my youth. I’m not too proud to admit, fear probably played a part.
I call it The Amazing Albert Show. The administration refers to it as “conduct detrimental to the peace and tranquility of communal living.” As if there’s any real living going on here amid the shrinking bodies and idling minds. I used to set up in the common room, shut the TV off, and do a few comedy bits. The zombies never really laughed on cue, but remained steadfast, undeterred in their respective delusions. I performed song parodies, impersonations of nurses, and improvised monologues about the culinary abuse routinely foisted upon the elderly and infirmed. Eventually, my common room privileges were revoked. They claimed I was “upsetting the patients.” I suspect they were just pissed about me pilfering all the dentures soaking on nightstands to use as props in my puppet show.
I, for one thought it was hilarious. So did Sully’s grandkids when they deigned to their biannual visits. Sully himself seemed to exist only to blow gaping holes in my life’s work as his ninety-fifth birthday looms at the end of the month. Apparently I signed a covenant against such hijinks when they wheeled me into this place. I don’t recall signing anything. And I swear the handwriting doesn’t look like mine.
Anyhow, I love pudding, always have. And it’s the only foodstuff they serve around here that doesn’t smell like cat pee.
Nurse Kowalski makes a beeline toward me, looking remarkably like wife number two this morning. I spot Sully’s grandsons a few tables over, hangdogged and bored, like they could use some cheering up.
I consider faking a seizure. Or maybe using my first helping of banana pudding as a prop for an elaborate phony sneeze. But by then, Nurse Kowalski’s big round bottom is within groping distance. I wink at Sully’s boys, then begin crooning “Moon River” as I reach for the hem of the of Nurse Kowalski’s skirt.
There will be no second helpings of pudding. Not today. Not for a while. But the silent ovation is worth it. If I could stand, I’d take a bow.
Michael Snyder lives in middle Tennessee with his amazing wife and children. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The First Line; Cease, Cows; Everyday Fiction; Greater Sum; Relief Journal; Lit.Cat; Cicatrix Publishing, Funny In 500; and various other online haunts. His first three novels were published by Harper Collins/Zondervan. Michael sometimes plays in a band called Elvis Shrugged.
* * *
By Katherine D. Stutzman
I gave her my handwriting. I gave her the touch of my hand against the page. I gave her my fingers, grasping the pen.
I gave her my handwriting: one paragraph. One paragraph in which I had written the word bodies, the word longing.
I gave it to her in secret, one handwritten paragraph folded in the center of the typed pages, the work she had asked to see. I gave it to her in secret so that I could imagine her later, in a room alone, unfolding the pages and finding the words I had written with the fingers of my right hand.
I gave her my handwriting and she, unknowing, took it. She slipped the folded pages into her pocket. There were people around, mingling; we drifted away from each other. I watched her a few minutes later, taking the pages out, turning them over in her hand, not unfolding them. I watched her put them back in her pocket, to lay against her thigh in the dark.
I had touched the page, grasped the pen. But it didn’t work. I never grasped her, never touched her skin like a page.
I thought I knew the spell I was casting then. What am I working on now, as I type these sentences in front of a screen? Am I working a magic of declaration, of hardness? What will come of this that did not come of the magic of softness and secrecy?
Katherine D. Stutzman’s stories have appeared in Everyday Genius, Bound Off, and The Summerset Review, among other journals. Her book reviews can be found in Literary Mama, The Chattahoochee Review, and Pleiades. She currently lives, writes, and teaches in Philadelphia.
* * *
By Jonathan Tham
“Regent’s Park. Exit here for London Zoo. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform edge.”
As the doors squealed shut and we shuddered into motion, I couldn’t help but feel like the other passengers had missed their stop. I was pressed against a heavyset banker; from the grey creases in his suit and depth of his double chin, I half expected him to extend a swollen palm and introduce himself as “Mr. Hippopotamus”. Tourists were perched by the doors and their foreign cawing aroused amusement from the workman, who was grinning like a hyena, wiping sticky hands on his paint-splattered trousers. The chimpanzee children bounced off my legs; in desperation their mother reigned them in, tugging on the straps of their oversized backpacks. The platform for Oxford Circus blurred into sight and I cast a look of contempt upon the drove of beasts shuffling towards me. When Dante reflected on the nine circles of hell, he never envisioned that their gates would be on the intersection of the Bakerloo and Central lines.
I braced myself as the doors opened. The hordes poured forth, pressing into every crack and recess of the steel compartment. The air was moist with perspiration and I craned my neck, gasping for oxygen. An elbow thrust itself into my gut and I reeled, my figure contorted into a sweating tangle. My head collided with a solid shoulder and I released a disoriented grunt. Turning around, I was confronted by clenched teeth and a glare of disgust. The ferocity in the man’s eyes jolted me back to reality.
“You fucking moron!”
I stared blankly at him, was he for real?
“Watch where you’re going – are you fucking blind?”
I decided to ignore his brazen idiocy and slid to the other side of the carriage, nursing my throbbing scalp. The creature followed, thrusting the other passengers aside like a rhino smashing through a herd of cattle.
“Oi, I was talking to you!” he spat.
His breath warmed my face - it smelt of smoked fish and excrement. His arm was pinned against mine and I could feel him shaking, his wrath reverberating through my bones.
There was a shrill call. My antagonist jerked round and the furrows of hatred on his brow relaxed into a smooth red surface. Head bowed and shoulders hunched, he mumbled indifferent “excuse me’s” to the other passengers as he skulked away. He stopped by the chimpanzees and looked sheepishly up at a large lady who was shaking her head. She released an incomprehensible shriek at him, the crimson plumage of her dress flapping about as she gesticulated. His eyes fixed themselves glumly on the floor.
I gripped the railing tightly as we skidded to a halt. The door opened and a smile spread across my face as I strode out of the enclosure.
Jonathan completed an Economics degree before moving to London to work in a bank. He finds writing a creative outlet from busy city life. Jonathan's work has been published by Storgy Magazine and he maintains a short story blog .
* * *
By Biff Walker
“Ring-ring-ring!” says the alarm clock at 6:00am. Up and at ‘em!
Make up the bed: fitted sheet, and bed linens, and quilt, and duvet, and bedskirt, and pillowcase.
Breakfast time: eggs, and toast, and bacon, and juice. Orange juice or apple? Orange of course, you silly! You don’t drink apple juice with breakfast, that’s just absurd!
Now for a shower: not too hot, but if you get it too cold that certainly won’t do either. You must get it hot enough to burn away all your sins and your failings! Scrub, scrub, scrub! Hair, neck, unmentionables--don’t forget to wash behind your ears or else they’ll start to smell like bad fondu and people will talk! Don’t want that, now do we?
Dry off and get dressed: shirt, and pants, and unmentionables, and socks, and shoes; all neatly folded in their drawers or neatly hanging in the closet. Got to make sure it all matches! Don’t want to look silly now do we! If we wear all white it will match and we’ll be encouraged to stay neat and clean so we don’t look like a ragamuffin out on the streets--don’t want that now do we!
Time to clean the house--but the phone!
“Ring-ring-ring!” says the phone.
… don’t panic…
“Hello? … Oh, hello Mr. Bill Collector!”
… don’t panic…
“No I’m afraid I forgot all about that!”
… don’t panic…
“Well I’ll come down and pay that staggering electric bill right away!”
Get in the car: keys in the ignition--for the love of god, don’t forget to buckle your seatbelt! You can’t afford to get a ticket after that astounding electric bill! Back out of the driveway, make sure to look both ways at least three times before backing into the street! Don’t want to hit a car, or a jogger, or someone’s damnable child that they aren’t watching! The coast is clear. Set the cruise control to 5mph. below the speed limit--can’t get that ticket after all! No, nevermind that we have to reset the cruise control every time we hit the break. It’s worth it for the peace of mind! Peace of mind! PEACE! OF MIND!
Park the car. Put 40 minutes worth of change in the meter--no, of course this won’t take more than 10 minutes, but better safe than sorry! Better safe than sorry! BETTER SAFE! THAN SORRY! THAN SORRY!
Walk into the money-takers’ office.
… don’t panic…
Stand in line. They’re moving awfully slow. I wish they would--oh, it’s my turn!
Write that check! “Have a nice day!” you lousy asshole, would it kill you to smile? It’s not my fault you hate your damn job.
Back home: what were we doing? Cleaning!
“Ring-ring-ring!” says the telephone again.
… don’t panic…
“Hello? … Mr. Bill Collector, what a pleasant surprise! … to hear from you again! … so soon!”
… don’t panic…
“... That check bounced! You don’t say?!”
… don’t panic…
“I’ll go take care of that right away!”
Seatbelt so you don’t get a fucking ticket.
Look both ways three times.
Forty minutes worth of quarters in the meter.
Damnable overdraft fees.
Damnable savings account not as full as it used to be.
Back to the money-takers’.
Back to the car.
Stop to get cigarettes.
Damnable gas station.
Damnable public restrooms.
Damnable previous public restroom patrons leaving the place a hellacious mess.
Damnable gas station attendant for not cleaning the place up.
The gas station is getting held-up.
Damnable hostage situation.
Well don’t panic now! You haven’t all day!
Damnable police officers not being able to diffuse this situation.
It’s been an hour! I’ve got to get home and clean!
I am drinking this Gatorade! I don’t care if it is stealing! I haven’t eaten since breakfast!
This day is ruined.
No officer, I don’t need to go to the ER.
Yes, I’m sure.
This house is a mess.
This house is a mess.
This house… is a mess.
Why am I crying?
Biff Walker is a writer, storyteller, and comedian based out of Columbus, Ohio. He also hosts the queer-themed arts and entertainment podcast Basement Debasement, which focuses on highlighting artists, philanthropists, and all-around interesting people in central Ohio and the surrounding area.
* * *
By Deng Xiang
Once, there was a boy who was carved out of wood. He had wooden arms, legs and joints that kept him together.
He could walk just like the other students, but a tad more stiffly. He could also motion with his hands and even talk using his wooden voice box and wooden tongue.
However, there was one thing that he had not been carved with: a personality.
He would walk around the school compound, slowly and emotionlessly, like a walking dead. He would watch as all the people he passed in school acted in starkly different ways from each other; their behavior, their speech - they were all uniquely different. He wondered how all these people still managed to interact with one another.
So, on day one, the wooden boy decided to carve himself a personality. He dressed in a tuxedo suit and carved wooden piercings on his ears. He made his legs skinnier and his face chiseled. To top it off, he practiced walking and behaving like the most important person in the world.
But no one noticed him.
Day two. The wooden boy sanded down everything he had carved previously and started afresh. He carved himself the most toned muscles he could carve. His lifeless body became sleek and athletic. He could technically sprint 100 meters per second and triumph in countless number of sports competitions.
But no one looked twice.
Day three. Desperately, he sanded himself down again, again and again, trying out several kinds of personalities. Suddenly, his wooden figure snapped, and his arms, legs and joints fell apart. He eventually rotted away into a pile of sawdust, fine as sand. Then a light breeze blew, it scattered them, leaving nothing behind.
No one had known who the wooden boy was, and life carried on as it has always been.
Deng Xiang graduated from Singapore Polytechnic with a Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media. He was involved in media-related assignments such as online journalism, creative story writing, and filmmaking. He enjoys writing poetry, short stories and news commentaries.