Foliate Oak November 2019
Frail Creatures of the False Night
By T. Ben Bryant
The deluge from the second typhoon of the season ended at two thirty-six in the afternoon on June seventh. Just after sunrise, clouds the color of wet cement pushed orange fire and lacy streaks of pink and white from the west Tokyo sky. The still atmosphere rolled away or was forced inland and crushed against the northern alps. Trees with limbs that hung heavy and drooping began to dance on the rising breeze. The surface of the lake became a shrunken sea. When the first stinging drops cut free of the clouds and sliced their way through the mass of air separating heaven from earth, the trees were doing their warm up stretches before the tropic squall of the lake. By eleven fifteen, when the first assault of razor-sharp drops gave way to the main volley of fat drops which landed with thunderclaps and forced craters into the sandy soil of the walkways and footpaths circling the lake and taking twisting detours into the surrounding forested park, the trees were in the final throes of climax. The eager hands of the lake yearned for them to topple from their warped stage into its cold embrace. At one in the afternoon, the water’s wish was granted, and a willow cherry plunged lazily into the black water. Its roots remained reaching skyward, washed clean by the torrent.
The rain ended. The first to return were the birds. They emerged en masse from their hidden places and reclaimed their spots among the still swaying branches and gently trembling leaves. The birds were the first to see the boy, face down in the muddy path that ran along the northwest of the lake. Three massive pines stood honorary over his broken body. The pale gleam of his skin was a beacon for a handful of curious sparrows. They bounced around his body on their toothpick legs, but none dared approach too closely. The pigeons were the next to approach, but they too were too cautious to come closer than a meter from the boy’s marble fingers buried up to the second knuckles in the coarse silt. The crows were the first and only to disturb the discarded cherubim. They plunged their overthick beaks into the fatty flesh of his cheeks, thighs, and arms gorging themselves on the glistening rends of meat they worked free.
The first person to reenter the park was the photographer, Naoki Sakurai. He entered from the north and spent some time taking a great number of black and white photographs on his seventy-year-old Hasselblad. Naoki only had two subjects in his portfolio: trees and ex-lovers. The ancient lizard skinned pines rose from delicate mirrors pierced by their own cast-off needles. He placed his camera at careful angles to emphasize the most important elements of the scene. The hard slam of the mirror raising signaled that the light from that fraction of a second had been suspended in silver crystals. The hard slam of the mirror raising echoed the thrum of his heartbeat with each frozen moment. After precise chemical interactions the scene would be rendered in infinite shades of grey, of which the human eye could only detect thirty. He filled three rolls of Ilford PanF 50 with trees and continued along the path. He intended to develop them in a weak bath of Rodinal as soon as he arrived at his tiny one-bedroom apartment. He stepped clear of the last row of pines and saw the boy lying prone and reaching towards the lake. The crows rose black and violent against the sky. He walked around the body in a loose almost-circle. His hands didn’t tremble as he set up the Hasselblad and spent two rolls capturing the boy from all sides and angles. When he later developed the film, his favorite image, and one that would haunt his restless mind long after the original negative had been destroyed in a house fire, was of the boy’s outstretched hand and the fingers grasping the softened flesh of the earth. A few grains of dirt, in sharp focus, dotted the back of the hand and the rest of the image fell out of focus; the boy’s fine hair just a smear of gradated greys. The hand grasped for something attainable but just out of reach, the tips of the fingers almost connecting. If he focused hard enough, he imagined he could see what the hand sought. Naoki studied that hand as closely as if it gripped his throat.
Mitsuho Hata came around a bend in the path just in time to see that strange photographer, Sakurai she thought his name was, straighten and place his old camera back into the patched postal bag he always carried and sprint off along the path in the opposite direction. She watched his dark jacket fade into the shadow of the trees before she noticed the boy lying directly in front of where the photographer had just been. She moved forward. Her feet sucked into the ground. The blazing white of her sneaker soles ringed with thick mud. She knelt in front of the boy and studied the ruined parts of his face that were left visible in the mud. Her mind danced back to an autumn trip to Europe twenty-five years earlier where she had seen the same skin in the paintings of Vasari. The crows perched in the line straight branches overhead. After the initial shock subsided, she took the powder pink phone from her track pants pocket and dialed the local police box. The line was engaged so she sat on the low concrete fence that had been cast formed and painted to look like roughhewn logs and waited for a long five minutes. The sun played on the water creating pleasing patterns that could almost distract her from the dead child directly in front of her. The second time she phoned the police box an officer answered and introduced himself as Ohta in a soft voice that floated like bells. Her first instinct upon hearing the officer’s voice was to hang up and flee. She suppressed the urge and stayed on the line. She told the lady voiced patrolman what she had seen. She heard him sigh and chew the end of a pen. He asked her to stay put until he arrived and let slip with a strain of worry darkening his chiming voice that she was second to report the boy and that the original caller would be returning to the scene shortly. The policeman hung up and Mitsuho sat cold in the brightening day.
Sakurai returned to the lake and was surprised to see a woman in her late middle years sitting vigil with the lifeless cherubim boy. He cleared his throat as he approached and gave her a nod when she started. She smiled and a single silver tooth in the upper right of her mouth sparked in the light. She introduced herself as Hata and asked if he was the other who had called to report the body. He confessed that he hadn’t called but had come upon the boy and rushed home to get his phone before returning to call it in. They sat together on the fence as if the very presence of the other could ward off further misfortune.
Patrolman Ohta arrived twenty minutes later on a stripped silver bicycle that made the navy of his uniform appear black. He greeted Hata by name but was noticeably confused when Sakurai didn’t answer to Kimura. He took a small pad from the covered box on the back of his bicycle and a brass ballpoint pen from his breast pocket and took down the details that Sakurai offered. He asked about the time three times during Sakurai’s recounting and made furious marks on the pad. When he had finished taking the accounts from both Hata and Sakurai, he called for more assistance through his crackling belt radio. He and Sakurai smoked cigarettes and dropped the butts into a portable ashtray Sakurai carried in his back pocket. After each cigarette Ohta surveyed the boy and tried to note new details.
The child was male. Naked. Lying face down in the prone position with his left arm extended towards the lake. The little, ring, and middle fingers of that hand were pushed up to the second knuckle into the soft soil. The index finger was pointing towards the water and lay pristine above the mud. There were splatters of mud on the back of the hand but no soil on the index finger and none under its nail. The right arm was at his side with the hand facing palm up tucked under the hip. The shoulders were straight and flat. The face directly in the mud and submerged three or four millimeters. The left leg was straight with the foot turned outward. The right leg was slightly bent at the knee and the large toe and inside of the foot were pressed into the ground. The body was a hard unnatural white splattered about with mud and pine needles. The fine ash brown hair was muddy but not tousled. All over, the softer parts had been pecked and torn by crows leaving open gashes that did not spill blood.
Ohta sat on the fence pulling the last fires from his Lucky Strike deep into his chest and imagined frail creatures that resembled the best of men wrought from the stolen light of the moon fleeing from the false night of a brief summer typhoon and returning home to the gloom and sanctuary of the hidden depths with their reflected sky fracturing on the eternally dancing surface.
T. Ben Bryant is from rural Tennessee and lives and works in Tokyo. He is an internationally published writer with stories appearing in various magazines around the world.
* * *
By Jade Marzolf
Sometimes it feels like all I ever do is bus tables. The days marching from booth to booth at The Roost become faded and blurred together, like a watercolor painting, only not beautiful.
Today, as I walk through the tables, the flyer folded in my back-pocket crinkles. The crackling is a melody of hope that makes my spine straighter as I slide into a booth with the cutlery bin to fold silverware for the upcoming dinner rush.
Reggie, my co-worker who has taken to following me around during my shifts instead of doing his job as the dishwasher boy, slides into the seat across from me. He’s noticed my reluctance to engage in mindless chatter with him is more determined than usual and has taken it upon himself to guess what’s on my mind. As I fold up a bundle of tableware inside a napkin, he folds his hands in anticipation.
“Your last test was an A minus instead of an A.” Even though he’s just finished his freshman year at Lacamore College and never went to my high school, he still knows of my studious reputation.
“You found a rat’s tooth in your meatloaf today.”
“Nice try. I don’t eat the cafeteria lunches.”
His eyes glint, the corners of his mouth twisting up to reveal a mischievous set of teeth. “Your underwear doesn’t match your bra.”
I cease folding up silverware and fix him with a frosty stare. “Okay. I think it’s time for me to just tell you.”
He laughs, delighted to have provoked a reaction out of me. “No, not yet. I like guessing.”
“Stop.” I shake my head. Reggie is one of those guys who thinks he’s charming and irresistible. He believes he can have anyone he wants. He’ll say or do anything to win someone over. He’s what my little brothers might define as “a bombastic nincompoop” if the three of them were locked in a name-calling battle.
“All right, all right. If it would make you happy, you can just tell me.” He flutters his wide sapphire eyes, trying to convince me of his righteousness.
I fidget and the flyer knowingly rumples in my pocket. “I’m contemplating whether or not I should apply for a scholarship.”
“What? That’s it?”
“I know you were expecting a huge, delicious secret, but alas, that is all.” I pick up my dinnerware bin and walk back to the kitchens. I’m not ready to buckle up for another four hours of clearing tables and pouring waters. A few times, I’ve thought about what would happen if I didn’t fasten the seatbelt of the employment mobile – I could get fired, lose my only source of income, and not be able to go to college. I would crash through the windshield.
I kneel down to place the dinnerware bin back in the cupboard and take out the busser bin. When I stand, I see Reggie has followed me again. He leans against the counter watching me. “So, what scholarship are you applying for?”
Since I’d rather not get stuck playing another one of his guessing games I respond tightly, “A study abroad trip,” and then march out of the kitchen to clean a few tables.
After I return to empty the dirty dinnerware in the sink he asks from his spot at the counter as if the conversation never ended, “A trip to where?”
“Madagascar? Why do you want to do that?”
I lift an eyebrow. “Haven’t you ever wondered if there’s more to life than spending your days doing school work and loading the dishwasher?”
He leans forward even further on the counter and props his chin up with a lazy hand. “No way. Working here is so …stimulating.” Normally I’d reward his sarcasm with an eye roll and add onto it. “Yes Reggie, loading dishwashers for four hours straight is my dream job too!”
I can’t. Not with the flyer in my pocket. Not with the dream of escaping even for a while, a concrete thing.
Unfortunately, as hope has become a physical thing, so has the exhaustion I usually push aside. I’ve been working here six days a week since I turned fifteen and Mom asked her friend who is the manager to hire me. The tiredness has become an ogre sitting on my shoulders, yanking my hair. It’s a cancer manifesting inside my bones, whispering to my body it should lead me back to bed and not let me get up again. Until I saw the flyer posted on the bulletin board outside the main office, I thought the only way to get rid of it was to wait until college came. Because then, my life would change. Everything was supposed to change when you went to college.
But now, there’s a way to escape earlier. Or at least, win a two week break from it.
It’s torture. I want the escape, but I know what could happen if I actually take it.
Unsettled by my lack of response to his joke, Reggie adds, “Plus, you know, we get those free bagels on Sundays.”
I nod. “Bagels. The real reason why I decided to work here.”
“Wait. I thought it was because you like my hair so much.”
“What?” I balk as he flops a few strands of his comb over back from his face. His hair is naturally brown, but he bleaches and dyes it until it’s the color of fresh snow.
“You don’t have to lie, Willow. I already know.” He runs fingers through the tufts of snow, smirking, waiting to hear what I have to say.
I never cared about Reggie’s hair. But now that he had to shove it in my face, I’m forced to admit it does look soft and feathery. And I’ll never be able to un-notice.
This is why I hate him.
He tilts his head. “Face it, I think you don’t really want to leave because you would miss me too much.”
“More like the other way around,” I scoff.
“That’s what they all say.” I resist the urge to toss a dirty fork at his face. “But seriously, study abroad sounds cool. I think you should go for it.”
I stare at him, surprised at this rare, serious tone he’s put on. He looks evenly back at me. “I can’t,” I say. “I need the money for college.”
“But you work all the time. And you just said there was more to life than working.”
“I want there to be.”
“So what’s the problem?” He grins slyly. “Unless you really would miss me too much.”
I roll my eyes. “I don’t think my mom would allow me to go. She’d freak out about me doing something irresponsible like taking off two weeks from work.” She’s been a single parent to me and my two brothers since I was five and Dad took off without an explanation. Missing a day from work and basically throwing away money isn’t done in this family. Especially because I’m supposed to go to college in a year and no one is sure if I’ll be able to afford it, even me.
“What’s the harm in just applying? You don’t have to tell her.”
“But what if I get it? Then what am I supposed to do?”
“What if your house burns down tomorrow and I have to bust through your window and carry you out through the inferno?” He turns around to check his reflection in the steel of the refrigerator. Mirror Reggie winks at me. “Are you going to worry about that? Or just cross the bridge if you get to it?”
Jade Marzolf is currently a student at Chatham University where she studies media arts and creative writing. She is a professional daydreamer and flash napper. Her work is forthcoming in Germ Magazine and has been published in The Minor Bird and by Z Publishing House. You can read more here:
* * *
By Tom Roth
I came by one afternoon to pick up the leaves and found all of Dad’s fishing poles and tackle boxes and nets in front of the rusted shed. Mom struggled out the door with a pair of old boots in each hand.
“What?” she said after setting the boots in a row.
Yellow leaves covered the backyard. Tall oaks stood everywhere. Their long branches made shadows that swayed on the mossy roof of our house. Dad said that someday a few of these trees would need cutting. I never got to it because who can you trust in this damn town? When I was little, I caught one of the roofers drinking our milk. The son of a bitch chugged the jar and wiped his mouth and spat on our porch. His coworkers laughed inside their truck and motioned him to hurry back. He burped when he tossed the jar behind the tall juniper bushes on the side of the house where they pissed, and probably smoked pot. Mr. Watkins saw him do it too. I could tell from the way he looked at me as he opened his car. We just stood there, waiting for the other to make a move.
“I said I’d get to it,” I said when I followed her inside.
Hooks and knives and scissors hung on a pegboard. Ice fishing spears crowded a corner. Orange life jackets sprawled all over the floor. A dusty fluke anchor stood on the long, tall table that ran through the middle of the shed. Bobbers and sinkers scattered the rest of the table. On the other wall was a worn map of Ohio lakes, rivers, and streams. I pulled the chain above the anchor and gold light washed the center of the table.
“Ten years,” she said as she bent down to scoop up jackets, “and that bulb has done more work in here than anyone else.”
“How did it get like this?” I asked as I followed her back out with a camp stool in my hands.
Mom set the jackets down in a line and crossed her arms when she looked up. Grey streaks ran through her black hair that hung just below her chin. Wrinkles lined her sunken cheeks. I was the only one with the same blue eyes as her. The Ohio State sweater draped into red ripples below her arms. Her weight worried me. They wouldn’t listen. They still don’t. Danny was snooping around with that bitch from Halloway at the time and Jessica was always blind to begin with. I swear that fucking snake she’s still seeing is no good. You know he’s under investigation? Lord help that child. Anyway, they were no help.
“Ross,” she said, drawing out my name. She used to have a way of tracing my thoughts. Like she could somehow connect the unclosed spaces and make a shape of them to help me understand. Ever since Dad died, though, her words made me wonder if she was hiding something from us. It got me thinking of other things she used to say when I was younger. How much of it was true? “Things just end up out of sorts whether you wanted them moved or not. What you thought in the first place has got nothing to do with where they end up.”
I followed her back into the shed. She began throwing all the tools from the pegboard into a garbage bag. I held a sinker up to the hanging bulb. Before we fished one morning, I asked dad if he’d ever been shot. He was threading my line through the ring of a sinker. A faint reflection of the sinker dangled in the lenses of his half-rimmed glasses after he tied the knot. Mosquitos spotted the black surface of the lake. Darkened spruce trees stood against a purple horizon. He said he was shot in Korea.
I watched her continue shoving the tools in the black garbage bag. She worked quick, like she didn’t give a damn about what he loved, like the things around her meant nothing to him or me or any of us. Dad wouldn’t had done that to her piano. She exited the shed with the garbage bag over her shoulder.
The Ohio map looked ancient. I pressed my palm to its threadbare skin and then traced a river with my finger like I did in the summers. Inside, the dark shed nearly muted the outside sounds of mowers, bugs, and my friends still playing backyard football with Danny. I imagined I was canoeing down the river I traced in search of a lost child. One time I fell asleep on a life jacket and dreamed about it. The child belonged to an Indian tribe. I found the little girl kneeling by a bonfire in a clearing near the river. She wore a buckskin dress with a black fish in the center. Her brown hair was braided into a long ponytail. We talked about sports and she said she had a baseball signed by Bob Feller. The way back felt like hours and the little girl got older the more and more I paddled. When we finally arrived at the tribe’s spot, the tepees had fallen down, and blood was splattered on a few and car tires marked the mud. The woman muttered something and then ran back into the river and vanished beneath the water. I woke up to Dad shaking me.
After removing the tacks, I set the giant map on one knee as I rolled it up. Mom wasn’t outside. I put the map in the passenger’s seat of my truck and then walked up the stone path that led to the front door. When he got sick, Mom finished building the rock wall that edged the path. The pieces were heavy, rectangular slabs of dark rock. It was Dad’s final project. He hauled each piece from his favorite little fishing spot at Tolscara Lake. We’d always stop there to walk on the boulders that stood above the still water to skip rocks for a little bit before eating our turkey sandwiches. One afternoon, when the water shined so hard that it hurt to look across the lake, Dad initialed our names on a rock while he wondered about taking some of them back to the house one day. Mom placed that same rock between the wall and the garden to make a step to the front yard.
I opened the half glass door and found her sitting at the dinner table in the kitchen. She was watching the small television beside the bananas on the counter below the cabinets.
“Look at all those people, Ross,” Mom said.
They pounded sledge hammers and pickaxes and chisels into the graffitied wall at night. Some stood on top and helped others climb up the wall to join them in cheering. Then the screen displayed a crowd rocking a piece of the wall back and forth until it collapsed. A crane lifted the piece in the air. It dangled against a grey sky. I’ve never seen people so happy. Was that what Americans were supposed to look like too? My father fought for that happiness. He took a bullet for the sake of my freedom. I love this country and I believe in it, but why do I have to question what we really look like? God only knows, but He doesn’t say because who the hell can He trust with His word these days? That’s what it is about this country. I believe in it, but I don’t trust it. Look at the ways people live now. Look at Danny. Look at Jess. Look at those bastards on the highway exits who beg for your money because they don’t want to work for their happiness. Look at the kids who don’t give a damn about their education and their parents who spend the government’s money on booze and painkillers and cigarettes. Look at those snobs from Halloway who do anything they want with the money they got. Look at these sorry crowds and search for the hidden few with ashen cheeks and cracked hands, the forgotten ones who suffer from the widespread refusal of work, of freedom, of love, of America. We are invisible to them. What’s worse is that God can’t trust us either since we got too many things on our tired hands. And it doesn’t matter which side you’re on nowadays when so much trust has gone to shit.
“I can take everything,” I said as I walked over to the trash can and looked down at the broken eggshells. I pulled out the bag and tied it and dropped it by the door. “There’s some space in the basement. I’ll clean everything and reorganize it the way dad had it only it’ll be in my house now. I’ll take care of the shed too. You want it gone right?”
“But when was the last time you’ve done any fishing?” she said. “Not since that weekend after the funeral, right? And that was only because I made you take Danny up there. I thought you hated fishing.”
“I don’t want Dad’s things gone to shit, alright?”
“Watch your mouth.”
“I’m not gonna’ let his property be misused by imbeciles who claim themselves true fishermen. That’s not what he would’ve wanted. To allow his valuables to be squandered by some fool who can’t tell the difference between his head and his ass.”
“Now you sound like a fool yourself when talk like that don’t you know? You want Julie to start picking up on those words? Cause that girl will the way she watches you. I sure hope Maggie still doesn’t put up with that crap. I don’t know where you got that mouth.”
“I said I’ll take care of everything.”
“Ross, when was the last time you fished?”
“Christ, you don’t trust me, do you? I said I’ll take care of it, dammit,” I said, faking a laugh like I didn’t take too much offense to it.
Mom brushed by me and walked down the hall. I turned off the television that showed East Germans shopping in West Germany and stood there in the kitchen and listened to nothing for a moment.
I wished she didn’t ask that. Calling me out when she let that goddam shed turn into a shithole. She never came with us. Then I realized she wasn’t supposed to come because Dad never asked her. And maybe, I think, Danny wasn’t even supposed to be there. If it was only me and him and the water, then maybe I’d fish more now.
She returned with a small cardboard box in her hands and then slid it onto the table.
“You can have these,” she said, opening the box.
I looked inside and found all his notepads stacked into three rows with a few shoved in the open spaces. I pulled one out and flipped through the pages of dated bullet points.
“I wondered how many there actually were,” I said. “This here is about when Jessica was born and a couple later, I bet,” I scanned through a couple more pages and found it, “yep, look. The day Kennedy was shot. Picked up Ross from school. Couldn’t answer any of his questions. Only told him it was okay when I knew it wasn’t.”
“I read them a long time ago,” she said.
“Why didn’t you show us these earlier?” I asked.
She walked to the window above the sink and stared at the dead cornfield across the street. Sunlight illuminated the wave of fawn, shriveled stalks rolled up against the horizon. In the distance stood the silhouette of a Gothic barn with side by side twins of towering silos.
“It just never felt like the right time until now, I guess,” she said, still staring at the barn. “Listen, Ross, when you read them,” she stopped. It seemed she waited on the biplane that sprayed the cornfield. She turned to me now. Her look held something back. Goddam those eyes.
“What?” I said.
“When you read them,” she said, “trust that your father tried, okay?”
I just stared back at her untelling eyes and waited to see what it was she meant.
“He tried,” she said again. She picked up the box of notepads. “I’ll put these in the truck,” she said as she swung open the door.
I don’t believe in hiding, but people do it all the time. Even the ones closest to you will bury secrets beneath their silence. She may know how to trace my thoughts, but I don’t trust her as much as I trusted him. Whatever he wrote in those books, I know it was the pure gospel of our lives. Of course he tried to tell it how it was. He wasn’t afraid of that. Most people, like Mom, tend to be.
When I walked outside, the biplane flew over the cornfield without any spray. I once told Dad I loved watching that plane fly, but he argued over the fertilizer. He worried about the drift. After a while, he went on that sometimes people do things that shouldn’t ever be done and there’s no stopping them from happening no matter how hard you fight. Sometimes, he said, you just got choose which wrongs to right and which wrongs to remember. I disagree. Not sometimes, but many times. Many times we’re forced to choose one and let the other haunt us. Many, many times.
I met Mom at the truck. For some reason, she had climbed into the bed and was staring at the plane. I looked at her standing above me. Her hand shielded her blue eyes. Then I turned to find the plane. I kept watching its flight as I spoke to her.
“I could take Julie fishing,” I said. “Teach her how to bait a hook and cast a line. Show her what it means to wrestle a fish. Read her something from Dad’s journals and tell stories about him. Go up to Tolscara for a weekend. I haven’t been there in probably fifteen years.”
And I’ll tell her everything. She’ll know everything about him, the good and the bad. In doing so, we’ll be closer. We’ll know each other for what we are. Goddammit, we’ll be an honest family.
“Why is Charlie Mordon flying the plane?” Mom asked.
Tom Roth works for Sandy Valley Local Schools. His recent writing has appeared in The Canton Repository, Riggwelter Press, and Fictive Dream.
* * *
First World Trailer Park Issues
By Mike Sharlow
From my kitchen window I watched my next-door neighbor Floyd wipe down his Harley. He squinted as a cigarette dangled from his mouth. He was wearing a jean jacket vest with a patch across the back that said, “Prospect,” which meant he was at the bottom of the food chain in the biker club. Floyd was a big guy with a big bike. He was top heavy; barrel chested with a big belly and skinny legs. He stood about six-foot-five. A baseball cap on backwards, which I thought was stupid for a guy in his fifties, covered his curly salt and pepper hair. Underneath his vest he had on a black t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. At one time he might have had pipes to show off, but now atrophy had set in, and his arms although big, had little muscular definition.
I knew a bit about Floyd’s household. James, my neighbor on the other side of me, told me about them. Floyd lived next door to me with his girlfriend, Joan, his girlfriend’s brother, Wired Bob, Wired Bob’s girlfriend, Toothless Karen, and Joan and Wired Bob’s grandmother who owned the trailer. No one in the household worked. Grandma had money. She bought her granddaughter and grandson expensive, almost new, SUVs. Karen got a Lincoln MKX, which Floyd drove, and Wired Bob got a Chevy Trax. Floyd was on Social Security Disability. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked James.
“A lot of things supposedly,” James said. “He doesn’t take care of himself. The doctor said he might get his legs amputated.”
Sounded like diabetes to me. I didn’t know why this disqualified him from working, but I didn’t care. I used to think people Floyd were a parasite on the system, too lazy to work. Maybe he was lazy, but that didn’t matter either. The wealthiest people in the world were the biggest parasites. Their egregious and unconscionable behavior rigged the system in their favor, while at the same time pitting all of us lesser life forms against each other. So, no, I didn’t give a fuck if someone like Floyd was getting away with something. No one gets rich on Social Security Disability Insurance.
Floyd took a hit from his smoke then flicked it into the street, and I got instantly pissed. I was sick of sweeping up butts that blew into my driveway. I was also sick of the trash from Floyd’s over flowing garbage can blowing into my yard. Just because we lived in a trailer park, it didn’t mean we had to live up to the stereotype.
Have some fuckin’ self-respect and courtesy towards your neighbors, you fucking fuckhead.
I walked outside and approached Floyd. I was about the same age as him but about half his size. My advantage was, if shit got out of hand, that I was in pretty good shape. I went to the gym a few times a week. Then again, he was the size of a grizzly. If nothing else, I could out run him. I knew I needed to approach him without fear. Animals like him could smell fear. At the same time, I couldn’t come across too threatening. I needed to be assertive, not aggressive.
“Hey,” I said.
“Sup?” he growled.
“I don’t mean to be an asshole, but do you think you guys could throw your cigarette butts in a coffee can or something? They blow over to my driveway. It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine.” The more I talked, the pettier I felt. But no, goddamn it, there’s no reason why they can’t keep their shit picked up.
“Yeah, everyone’s got a peeve.” Floyd continued wiping down his bike.
“Well, I don’t think I’m asking much,” I said.
“No, no. I get it,” he said, backing down a bit. At that moment I realized I wasn’t the only neighbor who had complained about his household.
After Floyd finished wiping down his Harley, he dragged a rake through his front yard, which was mostly dirt, bits of garbage, and cigarette butts. He pulled together a small mound of debris that he left for days, further annoying me. About two weeks later Wired Bob came out, probably charged up from a meth binge, and picked it up the pile of shit with a snow shovel. He didn’t stop there. He continued to vigorously scrape the dirt patch for a lawn in front of his trailer.
It was garbage and recycling day, so Wired Bob dragged out his overflowing bins. A plastic Mountain Dew bottle fell out and bounced on the street. I felt a bit of anxiety waiting for him to put it back in the garbage can. Then a white Dodge pick up drove up and distracted him, as the plastic Mountain Dew bottle rolled away farther into the street.
What a dumb fucker.
Whoever was in the truck didn’t get out, and they kept the truck running. When Toothless Karen came out and slipped Wired Bob some cash, I knew a drug deal was going down. In a few minutes a chubby young blonde woman in a tight white shirt and black yoga pants got out of the passenger side of the truck. As she walked over to Wired Bob (Toothless Karen had gone back inside), the garbage truck came down the street, bellowing like an angry dinosaur. As the truck’s mechanical arms picked up Wired Bob’s trash and dumped it into its crushing maw, the driver flirted with the blonde woman. Over the racket I couldn’t hear the driver, but I could see him smiling and calling to her, as she laughed and called back.
As the garbage truck moved down the street, the blonde woman handed Wired Bob a flat worn out red cigarette pack, and he slipped her a small wad of bills folded three times. I hadn’t bought or sold drugs in over thirty years. It was interesting how methods hadn’t changed.
The blonde was back in the white pickup and gone. I thought Wired Bob would have been in a hurry to go inside and smoke, snort, or shoot whatever he had just bought, but he remained outside raking his dirt lawn.
I planned to go to Walmart today, which was just across the highway from the mobile home park, so now was as good a time as any, and it would give me an opportunity to talk to Wired Bob. I had spoken to him in the past. It was always a treat to navigate through his drug addled haze to have the most superficial of conversations.
Wired Bob and I had history. Almost a year ago, before he got his SUV, I was leaving for work, and as I backed out of my driveway, I accidentally rubbed his left front bumper with my right rear tire. My G6 rode higher than his Camry's bumper. It felt and sounded worse than it was. His Camry was old with various damage of scrapes and dents. The white paint was now chalky and faded. His car looked like an old retired fighter that had taken too many punches, and it was difficult to tell what damage I had done. Examining his car and looking back at mine, I determined that the black smudge about the size of my hand was my damage.
I thought about leaving without saying anything or leaving a note, because I didn’t think he would notice—but what if he did? It was 6:30 am on a Sunday, and what if someone saw me? What if he called the police? After vacillating for a few minutes, starting to write a note and then not, I decided to knock on Wired Bob’s door. No one answered, so I pounded, then Toothless Karen answered. Her long brown hair was tangled. She was wearing a white tank top without a bra. She didn’t seem to mind that I could see right through it. With a set of teeth, she could have been kind of cute. “Can I talk to your boyfriend?”
She stared at me without saying anything.
“I bumped his car. I want to show him.”
She closed the door and disappeared without saying anything. I wondered if she was coming back. I walked back to his car and waited. It wasn’t long before Wire Bob rushed outside, apparently expecting the worst. He had a pissed off look on his face, until I showed him the damage. Despite being a drug addict, he was a man of reason. “That? That’s nothing. Pfft, don’t worry about.” He extended his hand in truce.
“I just felt like you needed to know. I don’t want to be an asshole. You know?” In reality it was my level of paranoia, not my guilt, which guided my actions.
On my way home from work I stopped at The Hungry Traveler Restaurant and bought Wired Bob and Toothless Karen a twenty-five-dollar gift certificate. They were surprised and elated. My next-door neighbors who once looked at me with suspicion and distrust, became a bit friendly and less paranoid. I would get a lot of mileage from this.
“Good man!” I called over to Wired Bob, as I walked towards my car to go to Walmart.
“What? Huh?” Wired Bob’s eyes were dilated so much it looked like they were sucking in the world, as his brain crackled from the overload.
I walked over to him. “Thanks for cleaning up,” I said.
“Heh, heh,” he laughed nervously. Wired Bob was wearing an untucked plaid short sleeved shirt. He also had on plaid shorts, but of different pattern and different colors. With his short hair and intelligent fashionable glasses, he looked like a nerd, but his pale complexion, tattoos, wild eyes, and his struggle to string together a complete sentence gave him away. “You don’t smoke, so heh, heh. Why let them blow over there?” He pointed at my driveway. “I wouldn’t like it either.”
“It’s littering. Cigarette butts all over the fucking ground looks like shit,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. I got pulled over for throwing a butt out the window when I was driving, heh, heh.”
Figures, I thought.
I stepped close to Wired Bob. Close enough so that he had to pay attention, but enough out of his bubble so he wouldn’t feel immediately threatened. “You know, I don’t care how you live your life, what you do, as long as you keep your shit picked up and out of my yard. Then we won’t have a problem.” This wasn’t entirely true. I would rather not have drug addicts for neighbors, but I knew I didn’t have the power to stop him or any other drug addict from using. Although, I did believe I might have the ability to change their behavior a little bit. I repeated everything I just said one more time so Wired Bob completely understood.
He nodded nervously, nothing to do with the drugs that were presently white-water rafting through his veins.
“You know, there’s other neighbors who don’t feel the same way as I do, so you might want to be discreet. Have a good day.” I walked away, got into my car, and drove to Walmart.
Mike Sharlow lives in a small city in Wisconsin on the banks of the Mississippi. He's published short stories in many magazines and anthologies. His bibliography can be found on his website. www.mikesharlowwriter.com
* * *
By Mike Sutton
Have you ever wanted something so bad it hurts? Every second of every day bound to a single purpose? No breaks. No rhyme. No reason. Only the grind.
Can you imagine?
The alarm screams. My eyes peel open and lock on blazing blue characters: 4:00. There’s no snooze button. Never has been. It exists, but it doesn’t. Not for me. It lingers on the periphery. My head throbs as I shift in bed, pale feet extending and reaching for the carpet. They carry me to the shower. Within seconds of the alarm’s rousing, I’m stepping into a wave of heat. The water pours over me, stirring me from the half-drunk stupor. I shave. I dress. Always the same.
Out the door.
It’s cold this morning, but I’m wearing the usual uniform. I pull a jacket tight as I warm my Jeep. The rough ride carries me through the sleeping town, up the university drive, and parks in a concrete deck. I move like a ghost through the night. A jogger glides by and vanishes. My hands grip my keys tight, each jutting like a dagger between two bloodless knuckles. A breeze blows and whips as I stride. I’m the first person in the building, if you don’t count the night crew that’s still cleaning the bottom floor, working their way steadily downward.
If you want it, you’ll do what it takes. If you want it, you won’t make excuses.
There’s no coffee. No tea. Not yet anyway. My feet carry me up the stairs and into the library. A card grants me passage to the silence. The fluorescents hum, sterile and lifeless. There’s not a soul here. I move through the shelves, a sense of urgency hanging close behind, brandishing a bullwhip. It’s all in my mind. It’s all me. I drop my bag in the same spot. Always the same. I pull back a red padded chair and take my seat. My spot. My laptop thrums to life, the earbuds slide into place, the outline manifests in white and black.
I surrender to the grind.
My view sports all the glory of white cinder blocks, stacked one on top of the other, higher and higher. It’s better this way. Fewer distractions. Hell, I can’t even see if there’s an axe murderer looming behind me. I probably wouldn’t care if there was. Give me a quick death. Give me salvation.
I pull a book from my bag, splay it flat in front of me, and flip through the pages to the next batch of cases. I’m not here out of conviction. Not out of desire to change the world or to wield justice to right the world’s wrongs. I couldn’t care less. I’m here because life is cruel. Because for thousands of years, people were slaves and serfs and lived for nothing but subsistence and here I am hoping I’ll be the link in an endless chain that matters. I hate I can’t aspire like everyone else. I hate I can’t exist in a fairy tale or believe life’s about pursuing happiness. I don’t have a choice. But, I have all the choice in the world.
Can you imagine?
There’s purpose in the madness. There’s a reason I’m here before God wakes up. I’m addicted, to something that doesn’t really exist. A number. A single pixelated figure, a thing altogether innocent, but something terrible in purpose. Every student, stacked one on top of the other, first to last, their worth etched in objective certainty. I see the bodies thrashing.
Why do I care? Why? Maybe it’s because for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m accomplishing something? Maybe it’s because this is proof of my worth? Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to it all. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe.
It infects. It invades. Nothing spared.
Everything else is noise. Distraction. Futility.
Hours melt away. My eyes trace every word of every case, not once, not twice, but three times. Every damn word. Why? Fear. Honest to God I’m afraid I’ll look stupid. That’s it. There’s nothing noble. Nothing righteous. It’s not healthy, but fear gets shit done.
I check the clock on my laptop, fifteen minutes to go. I pack my things, slide out of the library, and climb the stairs to the third floor. I move through the halls, purpose in every step. I find the classroom, familiar, and take my seat. My spot. The laptop hums. The books pull free of the bag and splay wide.
An hour melts away and the lecture ends. I’ve not been called on, again. Beautiful. But tomorrow . . .
I know what needs to happen.
I return to my spot. The laptop hums. The books pull free of the bag and splay wide. The outline manifests itself, black and white. But now, there’s coffee. The one kindness I allow myself. It’s the house blend, with just a splash of milk to soften the acid that’s already devoured my stomach’s lining. I drink it in gulps, clinging to the bright pinprick in my day.
There’s more to do, so I set myself to the task.
The outlines need updating from the day’s lectures. Mine are too long. I know they’re too long. I’ve seen what other people work from, and I know, for a fact, mine are too long. I can’t help it. The outline is the only thing that matters, the source for the exams. It’s too important. The golden nuggets. What if I leave something out? What if I need to know it? What if? The fear takes hold. Truth is, it never loosens. I put it in the outline. All of it. Every little detail, but I still wonder, what have I forgotten?
Where’s the rest? Where’s the break? Where’s the humanity?
There isn’t any.
I know that I’ll be here during Spring Break. While the others are lounging on beaches or recovering from drunken binges, I’ll be staring glass-eyed at Times New Roman on milk-white pages. When Thanksgiving rolls around, I won’t be with family or friends. I’ll be staring glass-eyed at black and white. Always the same.
If you want it, you’ll do what it takes. If you want it, you won’t make excuses.
But today isn’t a holiday, not that it makes a damn bit of difference. I work the two windows, one filled with notes, the other, my outline that’s too long. I organize the words, ripping and tearing. I pull a book from my bag, spread it flat in front of me, and flip through the pages to cases I’ve already read three times. There are stars, underlines, highlighter marks in bright neon blue. What if I leave something out? What if I need to know it? What if? My eyes trace the pages as I stuff even more into my already too long outline. I can’t help it. I just can’t.
As I struggle to polish off the labors of today, I know tomorrow is hurdling closer like a bullet. There’s no stopping it. There’s no control, no mercy, no relief. I surrender to it, close my eyes, and wait for the hollow point to rip through my skull and obliterate the brain.
I return to my locker, swap today’s books for tomorrow’s, and return to my spot. I pull a book from my bag, splay it flat in front of me, and flip through the pages to the next batch of cases. These are new. They’re fresh. I’m already sick of them.
Hours and hours slip away and before long, it’s approaching ten. I am exhausted, but it doesn’t matter. I think of my mother’s voice, telling me how proud she is. I think of the way people look at me, how they scribble down every word I speak like some prophet. I think of the way people introduce me, first in his class. A bumper sticker. A badge. Anything and everything all at once.
My feet carry me from the library, down the stairs, and into the frigid night. I move like a shade in the darkness across an abandoned campus. A jacket is pulled tight around me as I warm my Jeep. The rough ride carries me through the quiet town, down the university drive, and parks in front of my quiet apartment complex. It’s nearly eleven.
I slip into my cold apartment. The heats been off all day. I can’t afford to keep it running when the place is empty. But that’s not important. That’s the least of my problems. I drop my bag close to the couch, strip my jacket free and hang it on the back of a stool. I warm dinner in the microwave, a plain mix of vegetables and rice I make out of a pot every week. Simple. Efficient. My feet carry me to the shower, to the sink, where I brush and floss as quickly as possible.
As I see myself in the mirror, the dark ringlets around my eyes, I feel it sink in. I’ve failed. Again, another day, I fell short. I didn’t get enough done. I didn’t read enough. There’s more I could have outlined. There’s more I can still do, if I’m willing. If I’m tough enough. There’s always more. My eyelids are heavy and there aren’t words that can really capture just how drained I am. But, I have to try. I can’t not try.
If you want it, you’ll do what it takes. If you want it, you won’t make excuses.
I move to the bed, fluorescents burning overhead. I pull a book from my bag, splay it flat in front of me across a red blanket, and flip through the pages to the next batch of cases. It’s the same batch I’ve already read once. Two more to go. Why? Fear. It burns somewhere deep.
My eyes trace the words, processing nothing. I know it. I know my lobes are already saturated. They’ve soaked up every drop they can and I’m doing more harm than good. I can’t help it. I have to. It’s impulse. It’s necessity. It’s the grind.
Midnight approaches and I know the alarm will scream in four short hours. There’s no snooze button. Never has been. It exists, but it doesn’t. Not for me. Tomorrow will be no different. I slip the book back into the bag that smells faintly of coffee, flick the light switch, and wrap myself under a red blanket. My mind swirls with everything I failed to do, with all the many shortcomings of my day. I feel them, each and every one, as my eyeballs twitch beneath the lids. They sing me to sleep, like an off-key lullaby. Tomorrow, it begins again.
Mike Sutton calls the rolling hills of Northwest Arkansas home, where he practices law and writes in his free time. Prior to entering the legal profession, Mike served in the U.S. Air Force as a military police officer and attended Ouachita Baptist University. You can find Mike writing in one of Fayetteville’s local coffee shops or on the water, fishing pole in hand.
* * *
By Jake Cosmos Aller
We live in a world
Of fake things
By all the fake things
How can anything real exist?
Is it all nothing but fake things
Designed to deceive us all?
John (“Jake”) Cosmos Aller is a novelist, poet, and former Foreign Service officer having served 27 years with the U.S. State Department serving in ten countries (Korea, Thailand, India, the Eastern Caribbean (lived in Barbados but covering Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts, St Lucia, and St Vincent) and Spain. Prior to joining the U.S. State Department, Jake taught overseas for eight years. Jake served in the Peace Corps in Korea. He grew up in Berkeley but has lived in Seattle, Stockton, Washington DC, Alexandria, Virginia and Medford, Oregon. He has traveled to over 45 countries and 49 states. He has been writing poetry, fiction, and novels for years. He has completed four SF novels and is seeking publication. His work has appeared in numerous literary magazines online. His poetry blog can be found at https://theworldaccordingtocosmos.com
* * *
Returning To Earth
By Carl Boon
The night Neil Armstrong returned to earth
I watched the moon from my bedroom window:
haunted, lonely, willing to forgive.
And I felt haunted and lonely, too,
a little sad in my spaceship pajamas
that snapped at the crotch and tugged
at my shoulders. I was getting taller,
and the girls at the park smelled like
strawberry ice cream and Ivory shampoo.
When their shoulders rubbed mine
in the dodgeball line, I wished the sky
were smaller—I wished we could sit
by the charcoal grills with the charcoal ash
at our shins and watch the sky just disappear
until it was us alone, nudged and painted in,
but growing. Even then, I knew the world
and that beyond would always be watching--
my hands, my mouth, the swelling down there
that wasn’t there the summer before.
Carl Boon’s debut collection of poems, Places & Names, will be published early this year by The Nasiona Press. His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Posit and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American culture and literature at Dokuz Eylül University.
* * *
Two Poems by Laurie Kolp
Any Date Is Great Without the Kids
The man to my left looks like a ghost, I tell my husband.
We’re at the counter waiting to give blood, something
I’d never done. Once while in college, I made it all the way
to the chamber chair prepared to possibly die, chickened
out just in time. The alcohol on my arm not even dry when
I darted back into the mall. Today my husband's with me--
what a romantic date. I like the idea of donating blood as
a new year’s resolution. Mine is sweet because Mother
always said mosquitoes liked to suck my honey blood.
Husband and I sit side by side while blood (his is bitter)
is sucked from our arms. Phlebotomist thinks I’m pale
asks if I’d like cool wash cloth. She always looks wan,
Husband says. Phlebotomist glares at him with shut
up eyes, and then goes on about a customer who once
bugged her so much she picked a bugger from her nose
and flicked it on him. She places a finger on his arm
as if to dare him to speak. I can almost see smoke rising
from his skin. I remind Husband about the time I
passed out when looking at my hammertoe, two days
post-surgery, steel post sticking out of purple toe
like a straw in grape juice. Nurse used smelling salt.
And the time I fainted when he was bleeding profusely
on our second date. He’d sliced his finger with a knife
while dicing potatoes with one hand. Remember that?
He asks for a cold washcloth after all, while I envision
our afterward cookie treat. Oh, what a romantic date.
At the Old Cattle Guard
I stop the car— dusk a must
to capture by camera, a cow
photo bomb an added plus.
Amateur, but eager,
in this whole photography thing,
I shoot pictures from all angles
where sky and land meld as one
gorgeous Texas sunset reminding me
of layered sherbet: pineapple, orange, lime
punch with Ginger Ale, a scoop the setting
sun in crystal bowl, reminding me
of Mom’s piano recital
and I, there to help, wait too long
to take the sherbet out
of the freezer, must hurry up
and peel away the carton,
plop it in, stir, stir, STIR--
my arm hurts! —breaking
plastic serving spoon
just as crowd rolls in…
Wait. A movement in my periphery, one
turnaround and I see
a herd of cattle heading my way.
I hop into the car and 360
over metal bars,
BuMp, bUmP, BumP
blowing up dust like a desperado.
Laurie Kolp is the author of the complete poetry collection, Upon the Blue Couch, and chapbook, Hello, It's Your Mother. Her publications include The Southern Poetry Anthology VIII: Texas, Stirring, Rust + Moth, Whale Road Review, Front Porch Journal, and more. Laurie lives in Southeast Texas with her husband, three children and two dogs.
* * *
The Loons of White Fish Lake
By Michael Phillips
The first time I heard a loon
I thought the lake itself had wailed for the dead.
I couldn’t pinpoint the call’s origin
While on water as vast as White Fish Lake.
It had simply arisen and grown diffuse,
Broadcast in warning or lament.
Maybe the world is haunted,
And ghosts and echoes of the dead linger
On the fringes and frayed edges,
Like the bottoms of deep lakes
And other places we can’t see,
And find their voice through loons on wide water.
Michael Phillips has published short stories and poems in several publications, including Roanoke Review, Philadelphia Stories, and Tar River Review. He has an MA in English and work as an editor for a nonprofit healthcare research institute. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Philadelphia suburbs.
* * *
By Timothy Robbins
In my teens I was often careless
backing out. Backing out of
the Methodist Church, I knocked
over what I thought was a stack of
hymnals. It was the “touchy
about his height” deacon who had
always regarded my clumsiness
as a spiritual failing. Backing off
a stage (playing the old servant
again) I was so bothered by my
miscast livery I forgot my line.
Not a line that advanced the plot
but the only line that betrayed my
unborn rebellion against my lot.
In high school I had an unwitting
beard named Kim. I didn’t fear
homophobia when I told her
how I felt about John. She was
from a liberal family, was proud
to the point of belligerence when
it came to her lesbian aunt. It
never occurred to me her grief
over the end of a brief mis-
oriented crush would tempt her
to the sin rabbis call terrible
tongue. There was no side or
rearview mirror when, backing out
of the garage, I maimed my cat.
Timothy Robbins’s work has appeared in Hanging Loose, Main Street Rag, Off The Coast, Bayou Magazine, Slant, Tipton Review, Cholla Needles nd many others. He has published two volumes of poetry: Denny’s Arbor Vitae (Adelaide Books) and Carrying Bodies (Main Street Rag Press). He lives with his husband of twenty years.
* * *
By Claire Scott
a tangled web of treachery
and you send flowers?
my Tuesday night Spanish lessons
spent frolicking in Sean’s king-size bed
not a word of Spanish spoken
only moans and ‘more’ and ‘yes’
in feverish fornication
last night I tearfully confessed
after I ended it with Sean
I couldn’t stand living
a performance piece from hell
method acting my way to sanity
and you send flowers? really?
I need you to rage
in order to feel seen
I need you to rage
in order to choose you
in order to choose us
I am lost in your cheap
Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been accepted by the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Enizagam and Healing Muse among others. Claire is the author of Waiting to be Called.
* * *
By Megha Sood
I'm etched in your memory
somewhere neatly rooted
in the crevices of your mind,
people celebrate the lost and forgotten
like a rusted bicycle in the ransacked city
down the back alley,
decorated with the bunch of magnolias
pristine and pure,
you walk down this road of melancholy
sadness neatly perched in your heart
pain is the deep stench,
carried by this stale air
heavy with the remembrance.
the pain of getting triggered
deeply rooted in the ashen eyes of
that fearful sparrow
frantically kicking out the
eggs out the nest
to keep that slithering fear
away from its nest.
your mind always waits
for the second chance
a sunflower waiting for its due
an old dilapidated temple,
waiting to be discovered
a hand to wipe off that dust.
Megha Sood lives in New Jersey, USA. She is a contributing author at GoDogGO, Candles Online,FVR, Whisper and the Roar. Her works have appeared or forthcoming in 521 Magazine, KOAN(Paragon press), Fourth and Sycamore, Dime Show Review, Piker Press. She won 1st prize in NAMI NJ Axelrod Poetry contest. She blogs at https://meghasworldsite.wordpress.com/.
* * *
By Chelsey Clammer
I’ve been talking to June bugs lately. Each night since I’ve lived in this apartment that you will never see inside of (because I’ve constructed a you-less place and it needs to stay that way, and thankfully I have a friend who reminds me to do this—to start a new type of living that is not toxic with memories of you or us or our marriage and so, yes, when you blamed my friend for our downfall, you were, in a weird way, correct—but not because she tried to ruin anything but because she empowered me, gave me hope and support, encouraged me to protect my heart and to move beyond your abuse. So while you might blame her, I thank her.) Anyways. The June bugs.
Each night since I’ve lived in this apartment that you will never see inside of, right before I go to bed, I sit outside my front door and write under the porch light—which, I have come to discover, is the happening place to be if you’re a June bug within flying vicinity. As I write, handfuls of them dive-bomb me throughout the night, like how they’re dive-bombing my head right now. Thunk. Oddly enough, I’ve become so accustomed to their company that now their diving feels like an old joke between friends, like a familiar form of playfulness.
Last night, when I was outside and trying not to write or think about you, I noticed a June bug was on my knee. Black and shiny, it just sat there. I looked at it for a moment, wondering how I didn’t feel it thunk onto my knee, and then I said, “Hello.” Soon after, a second June bug joined, though this one was green. I stared at my knee some more, stared at them, and said, “June bug. Party of two!” And then I laughed out loud because lately I’ve been feeling lonely. Those June bugs sat on my knee all night like they were keeping watch, keeping me company, keeping me to keep on writing about everything and anything but you, helping me not to fall back into those obsessive, destructive recollections of our failed marriage. In the simplest of terms, they were, well, they were there for me.
I tell you this because all of it is about more than just our imploded marriage. It’s about our fourteen-year friendship that started with the more-than-friendship “friendship” with its OMG-let's-just-keep-getting-drunk-together-so-we-can-flirt aspect to it, our nine years of silence because that’s what happens when life happens, and then our re-connection and then the two-month-long long-distance relationship and then our sudden marriage, and now, finally, this five-years-later flailing. It’s about how I think those knee-squatting June bugs perfectly speak to what we thought we were. Two same-yet-different beings finding each other, silently sharing a space in this chaotic world, and just sitting still together. Keeping each other company. Providing comfort, perhaps. Like a partnership. This is what I love about the June bugs—their ability to just sit and exist. I feel like that’s what we had early on in our marriage and it felt loving and perfect. And it’s what I mourn the most—how I miss the good us, miss the calm you. Miss how we simply existed together because not doing so just didn’t make sense.
I went to bed feeling tranquil, feeling that if we were meant to be together, then we will one day re-find one another and go back to that calm existence, or perhaps even create a new one.
This morning, when I went outside with my coffee and notebook, I saw a June bug corpse right outside my door. Not the green one. The shiny black one was lying on its back, body rigid, stick-like legs folded into themselves. I felt like this death should have made me sad after seeing how much life it had just the night before—how much life it gave me. But it didn’t make me sad. Things die. Especially clumsy insects. When I looked at the dead June bug, what I felt wasn’t a sense of failure or grief, but hope. Hope because this isn’t about the comfort of silence or how to re-create a co-existence in calmness, but it’s about the green June bug. How in the morning, she wasn’t still sitting there. How at some point she had moved on. Flown elsewhere.
And how she kept on going, regardless.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of Circadian (winner of the Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award) and BodyHome. She is a Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist who has been published in Brevity, Salon, The Rumpus, Hobart, The Normal School, Essay Daily, The Water~Stone Review and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She teaches creative writing online with WOW! Women On Writing. Clammer holds in MFA in Creative Writing from Rainier Writing Workshop.
* * *
Somewhere In Between Tennessee and Georgia (2010-2013)
By Janet Dale
Tennessee's a hillbilly dumping ground, and Georgia's a lousy state too.
During my three years of graduate school, I drove the 484 miles between Memphis and Milledgeville approximately 25 times spending more than 12,000 miles alone in my car.
The path I cut began at the bottom left-hand corner of Tennessee and took me into the heart of Georgia. The 225 miles on US 78 across Northern Mississippi into Alabama toward Birmingham, 206 miles on I-20 into Georgia through Atlanta to Madison, and 53 miles on Route 441 into central Georgia became oddly comforting, like a good friend.
78-->441(It’s simple enough to reverse the directions.) 441-->78
US 78 is a highway running 715 miles EàW from Memphis all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in Charleston, South Carolina. The portion of the highway between Memphis and Birmingham has been upgraded and will later be known as I-22.
I-20 also runs EàW across the South, but at 1,535 miles it is more than double the distance of US 78. Beginning in Texas, it also ends in South Carolina, intersecting seven of the 10 primary NàS interstates that traverse the continental United States.
Passing through the states of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, Route 441 acts as a connector between several urban areas including Athens in Georgia and Knoxville in Tennessee. It is known as a spur route, which means it forms a branch from a longer, more important road, freeway, Interstate, or Highway.
My first visit to Milledgeville happened at the end of March and was the longest distance from home I had ever driven alone. After being accepted into the graduate writing program via e-mail, I wanted to get a feel for the place—try it on for size and walk around in it for a few days—discover where my home would be for a while.
During the last portion of the road trip, after I got off I-20 at Exit 114 and began down the most rural stretch, the sun was already low in the sky painting it shades of deep purple and red. Black and white dairy cows were grazing on either side of the road. Tears streamed down my face. I had composed myself by the time I got out of my car in the Holiday Inn Express parking lot, but I knew my life was going to change.
The next morning I was to meet with the director of the writing program, I left my hotel early to drive around downtown. Because students were on Spring Break, it was especially empty and eerie. I found Memory Hill cemetery and visited Flannery O’Connor. Pennies and remnants of peacock feathers decorated her grave. I asked if she had any advice for me and listened hard for her reply. During my meeting, it was the director who pointed out the date, March 25.
O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, but lived almost half her life in Milledgeville where she died from complications of lupus on August 3, 1964. Andalusia, the family farm sits on more than 500 acres and its setting and atmosphere found its way into much of her fiction. Although it perplexed me a great deal when I studied it for an American Gothic literature course as an undergrad, my favorite novel by O’Connor is The Violent Bear It Away. In it, a 14-year-old boy tries to escape his dead grandfather’s order to baptize his “dim-witted’ cousin. Not only would the act secure the boy’s status as a prophet, but also save the little boy’s soul from his non-Christian father. My ability to discuss the novel at length, probably led to my position as circulation assistant for the Flannery O’Connor Review my first two years in Milledgeville.
To keep from getting bored on my solo road trips, I made up games to play along the way. For example, count how many times the same song comes on the radio. Restrictions: songs must be more than ten years old AND must be playing in different states. I never caught the same song in all four states during the same trip, but sometimes there were doubles:
Georgia and Alabama: “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders
Alabama and Mississippi: “Just What I Needed” by The Cars
Mississippi and Tennessee: “Hotel California” by The Eagles
Tennessee and Georgia: “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen
After filling my tank when I would leave Memphis, I learned I could make it into Georgia before stopping at the first exit in Tallapoosa where lottery tickets are sold at an alarming rate. But in Birmingham, there is an Arby’s with a large classic cowboy sign welcoming customer—I often stopped at for a brief restroom visit and run through the drive-thru for something to eat.
When I filled my tank at the beginning in Milledgeville, I learned I could travel almost all the way to the Mississippi border without having to stop for gas again. When I did, it was either in Winfield, AL, or right across the state line in Fulton, MS, as often as possible at the same big chain gas stations.
Just like Memphis, Milledgeville is located near a waterway. The Oconee runs 220-miles from Hall County in North Georgia S toward Lumber City where it terminates to join another river. “Oconee” comes from the Native-American word Okvni which means “born from water” or “living on water.” Milledgeville was the capital of Georgia for 64 years (1804-1868), spanning the entire Civil War. Even today it likes to remind visitors of its Capitals, Columns, & Culture.
Named after an ancient capital of Lower Egypt, Memphis sits atop a bluff, 337 feet above sea level overlooking the Mississippi. Its namesake also sits on a famous river, the Nile. Although Memphis is not the capital of Tennessee as far as the population within its city limits is concerned, it is both the largest city in Tennessee and on the Mississippi river. Because it is in the western corner of the state, the Memphis metro area expands to include counties in two boarding states: Southeastern Arkansas, and Northwestern Mississippi which doubles the population.
Rising in northern Minnesota and running south to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi river borders or cuts through ten states. Just like the Oconee, the name comes from a Native-American word Misi-ziibi which translates to “Great River.” Over 2,500 miles, it is the fourth longest river in the world.
In April and May, the largest and most damaging recorded flooding in the past century occurred along the Mississippi. More than 5,000 residents of Memphis were evacuated as the river fell its banks into Tom Lee Park, rising over Riverside Drive to meet Beale Street. My trip from Milledgeville to Memphis was quick; I was in town when the river hit its highest level since 1927, cresting at 47.8 feet, more than thirteen feet above flood stage. This was also the day after my birthday.
One Sunday a few weeks later, I accidently drove 889 miles.
That’s one full trip from Memphis back to Milledgeville and then an additional 400 miles back and forth to the not-my-regular gas station in Alabama where I had dropped my wallet in the bathroom after filling my tank.
The small gas station didn’t even have a phone at the counter, and because I opted NOT to have a receipt printed the only way I tracked down the exact location only because I remembered it was connected to a restaurant. After I found the right Huddle House, a hostess who answered the phone was kind enough to act as my liaison and found out my wallet had been turned in to the gas station attendant. Yes, and still tucked inside were my driver’s license, debit and credit cards, student id, and two single dollar bills. Before I drove back I had to borrow money for gas from my roommate and when I finally made it back to the location just before midnight the hostess and the original attendant were both gone.
Later that October, I made an unanticipated trip back to Memphis to be with my mother while she underwent a heart procedure. I left on the Wednesday before the long Halloween weekend after teaching a morning composition class to a group of freshmen.
Along with necessities, I brought a bag filled with the most recent round of essays to grade. The papers kept me company at hospital early the next morning while I waited for my mother to return to her room. Two days later she was released, and I was on my way back to Milledgeville. I don’t remember anything very specific about either leg of the trip other than more nighttime driving hours than I prefer. I can only assume it went smoothly and was uneventful, just as most of my other trips were.
Something else to look for during my road trips were double city and town names. Not too far from Memphis, there is an Oxford (Mississippi)—home to Ole Miss, William Faulkner, and his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. But there is also an Oxford (Alabama).
The Oxford in MS was founded in 1837 and was so named to attract a state university. The Oxford in AL was founded in the early 1850s and was originally named Lick Skillet. Within his work, Faulkner chronicled life in the South and often without fail talked about cooking and what was within those iron skillets in the kitchen.
I suffered my first blowout on the way back to Milledgeville for my final two semesters of school. It was a hot August day, my trunk full of clothes and books to help finish my thesis. I don’t remember the sound the front passenger tire made as it gave way, but only the thumping and the horrible smell immediately afterward.
Thankfully, I was already on 441, twenty miles outside of town and by the time I emptied the contents of my trunk into the backseat, a stranger stopped. He helped me—or I should admit—I barely assisted as he put on the spare. His name was Jeff and he was probably close to my parent’s age, so after he gave me spare-tire driving advice and we shook hands, I continued toward the Walmart closest to my rented house to purchase a new tire.
Less than fifteen hours after walking across a collapsible stage and receiving an empty diploma cover with room for my later-to-be mailed M.F.A. degree, I was driving back to Memphis to celebrate with friends and family. In a blinding rain shower about 10 miles away from the GA/AL border, I was blown off I-20 by an 18-wheeler. As my Saturn Ion spun into the median at 60+ mph, I avoided hitting a nearby SUV and a second thundering 18-wheeler.
They say time slows when you brush against death. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but before coming to a full stop all the miles, landmarks, songs, moments seemingly spun around my brain in the same direction as my car. I knew if I survived I had another essay to write.