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Foliate Oak Found Archives
The Belly Dancer and the Old Man
By Grant Flint
I’m 80 now. The Match.com personal ad women responded much more when I was 79. 80 means they will be a widow again soon, if they pair with me.
Which means my ad "profile" must be written much better than before. I can no longer afford to be honest.
When I was 79, I asked for a woman like "C". Demanded her. "C" was a belly dancer/artist/author who took hormones, looked and acted 15 years younger than her real age. We made love 10 hours a week. I demanded that any woman who answered my ad must be like "C".
The women were intrigued, but intimidated.
"I can do some of that," a wealthy lady from San Francisco offered, "but I'm not a belly dancer."
When I was with “C”, there was no past, no future, only now. A moment, an hour. An hour, a moment.
"I love you," I told her. "I love you," she told me. We said the dear words like a charm, a prayer, a cross to scare away the Devil, over and over, a dozen times, a hundred times, with fresh fulfilling joy every time.
Our true age showed only on our necks. Our necks were loose and corded, out of control. Otherwise our bodies were weirdly young, eyes sparkling, her firm high full breasts a young woman's breasts, ample, pneumatic. I was tanned like a gray-haired Tarzan from swimming every day. She had the sensuous, rounded belly of a belly dancer, the glorious legs of a ballet dancer, the buttocks of a Greek peasant woman, full and firm yet gently wiggling.
We were a handsome couple, naked. Dressed, people said of us: "What a striking couple!" She had a Spanish face with Indian cheekbones and nose. I looked like the Kennedys and Jimmy Stewart when the world was young. I was tall, lean enough. My gray hair was wavy, uncut for five months, Cara's request.
"You're beautiful," Cara told me.
"You're beautiful," I told her. "You've always been beautiful. Men have always told you that, haven't they?"
She smiled a little, said nothing.
"And they've always told you how sexy you are, haven't they? And guess what? Men in the supermarket, I've seen it -- they watch you. They follow you sometimes, also. Just to watch you. That rear."
Cara smiled. She was happy, heart calm. And modest.
Her womb was removed long ago. My sperm, I suspect, packed no potency, hadn't been dangerous for some time. Maybe a long time.
We lay naked on her little bed in her little second-floor apartment, Mount Tamapais filling her western window, Willie Nelson on the CD player, alabaster and turquoise candles ready for night, her paintings swirling on all walls. She fed me huge chunks of expensive pink salmon every Wednesday night with an organic baked potato and a large bowl of salad, red tomatoes, green avocados, orange carrots.
We drank white wine, iridescent, $10 a bottle. Sometimes I forgot to offer to wash the dishes until she was finishing them while we talked joyously about life, writing, how sexy she looked in the kitchen light, how I loved her.
The Viagra pills worked, but not spectacularly. Cara and I never gave up, and after all those months together we had made peace with my mechanical problems, my tongue a young man's tongue, firm, agile, wicked, enormously wise. Our love was lovely. Warm and considerate, enduring and naughty.
"How many women have you -- been with?" she asked me once.
I hesitated. Considered the pluses and minuses of an honest answer.
"About a hundred, I guess."
She grinned. "Beat you! I’m a one-man woman, one at a time. But I've been with 124! Kept a record."
I didn't like that. Hid it fairly well. Managed to forget it, mostly, over our time together. Brought her flowers I hand-picked every time I came to see her.
We ate pot brownies, melted into each other in bed, her arm my arm, her heart my heart.
We went on this way, my Cara and I, for two glorious years. But something – my son, 33, paranoid schizophrenic living with me – or maybe my lingering commitment phobia – or both – started poisoning our Eden.
My son meant everything to me. I’d nursed him through the divorce, through the removal of his brain tumor when he was six, through all the years of his being almost all right, then suddenly dangerously mentally ill.
We had survived everything, walked an hour a day along theshoreline. San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge startling to the west.
“I love the Bay Bridge,” my son often said. “Better than the Golden Gate.”
“Don’t know. I just do.”
He also suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder. He overate, drank, played video games to assuage the terrors. Meds were no help.
We understood each other. Survivors.
Cara was afraid I would never leave my boy, could never live with her. Impossible for the three of us to live together. No one could put up with him as I did.
"I'll teach him this new business I’m learning," I told her, "which he can do at home, and he'll be able to be independent." She said nothing.
One afternoon she wanted us to look for a house we could share, just the two of us. We drove to the little towns and countryside beyond Petaluma, drove gently, almost drowsily, in the spring-time haze along the narrow pastoral road, tires crinkling, grass smell, sweet cows clean-skinned as though hosed off, udders filling, standing in communal groups, some lying down as though rewarding themselves, the sun warm on the car but not too warm.
My sweetheart, Cara, beside me was quiet, but our thoughts jived gently, she wanting me, gently of course, hardly a want, instead a holy plea, compassionate in its earnest, pure "whatever is good for you" even-keeled earnestness, forgiveness before the fact, she wanting me to move here with her to the countryside, the end of the earth, Hell, to live out our sweet lives.
"If you want to," her dear mind whispered to mine, "only if you want to, if you want to..."
I wanted to shout out to her a fury of anguished squealing, "I've been here, I grew up in a place like this, only it was Nebraska, hell of nothingness, endless vacuum of space, no life, no God, no humanity, just…
"I'd forgotten," I lied out loud, told the truth a little. "The peace. It's scary, but wonderful."
She grinned at me gently, gently touched my face.
"It's all right," she said. "It's all right.”
It wasn't all right, we both knew, suffered silently, as we drove and drove along the dreaming, lovely roads, country smell, country silence.
And hour later, defeated, we started back toward the freeway. Escape. Cara was silent.
We continued on, the problem unspoken.
I wrote a poem for her to dance to. Her request. It was like a test. It was improbable I could write a poem to recite as she belly danced before 1500 people.
But we did it. Higher and higher stakes. More and more required to maintain paradise. The microphone went off, then came on, I recited my two-minute poem, all about her, as she shimmied, twisted, undulated, skipped, swooped, delicately, proudly, a pro.
Success. Renewed romance for a while, but harder to stoke the fire.
Then came another crisis. She and four other women were about to read their sensual short stories, prior to publishing their combined work in a book. I was sitting with her as she waited to go to the stage.
Suddenly an unknown man came up to her, ignored me, put his arm around her, kissed her neck. She embraced him in turn.
Sick, I staggered to my feet, went down stairs, roamed around, mindless. Stupefied. Unbelievable. 124 men.
I left, went to her place, used my key, took anything that belonged to me, left a cold note.
All a mistake, "He was just a friend!" she told me the next day, as astounded by my reaction as I had been by her perceived treason.
"An old friend," she said, "we've known each other for years!"
I believed her, somewhat. Then almost totally believed her later. One-man woman.
It didn’t matter. I could never leave my son. I just wanted everything to stay the same.
We died in spurts. Pain, recovery, anguish, recovery, misery...
At Christmas time when she returned from visiting her daughter in the Midwest, I was waiting for her at the airport.
She was different. Very polite, like a fire recently aglow. But cold.
Finally she gave up on me, on our ever living together. She went back to Michigan to live with her daughter.
All my life I’d been afraid of commitment, but with her it had changed. I wanted her forever. The harsh loss, knifing pain, stayed on top of me. Ruined me. Day to day to day.
I pined, denied reality, remembered every moment with her. I tried the personal ads in a desperate stab to drive her out of my memory. Met only one woman. The woman saw it all in my eyes, nicely said goodbye.
Three and a half years after Cara moved away, my son jumped off the Bay Bridge. Just the day before, he’d informed me the Mafia were after him again, really bad this time.
The police gave me the telephone number of a witness. I called her. The young woman was crying.
“I saw him go over the barrier. Fast. Then he stood on the ledge. He raised his arms –”, the young woman sobbed, “ -- like making a victory sign. Then he jumped. Like a child does. Into a pool.”
That was the first time I cried. My little son. “Thank you, I told her. “Thank you.”
Seven months later now. Everything he was, is, remains here with me in the house. I cry, alone, only when I hear music he loved. Miss him, miss our walks, miss watching Letterman with him on T.V., miss watching the movie, “Rocky,” over and over with him. Miss even the hard times. Miss him every day.
His ashes are in the garage. Can’t bear to part from him. Maybe later, someday, I will go to the trail along the Bay where we walked together. Will stop at the place where we could best see the beautiful Bay Bridge, graceful death arches. “This is far enough, Dad, for today,” he would always say. Will bury my dear son’s ashes there. Someday.
Two months ago, Cara came out here to visit her many friends. I was one of them. She and I met at one o'clock over in San Rafael at an Indian restaurant. She always loved Indian food. We both did, in our time together.
It was strange meeting her. She looked wonderful. The Midwest, her new love back there -- it was all very good for her.
"You're as handsome as ever," she said, eyes glowing. She touched me. All through the meal we unconsciously, impulsively, touched each other's hands, moved closer together, laughed, loved, it was exactly as it used to be.
Except it was too late. She didn't say, "Now we can live together."
And yet there was love in her eyes, her touch. She loved me. Not like the new man, back there in Michigan. Always faithful, for her it is one man at a time.
But she loves me.
The belly dancer is gone, my son is dead, I’m 80. That’s a story which can be written on the palm of a hand. A “palm story.”
Marooned on an island, I send this message in a bottle. "I know you're happy, I'm glad you're happy. If anything changes for you, I’m here."
Maybe the belly dancer will change her mind someday. If miracles happen to old men who love.
* * *
Six for Dinner
By Liz Lane
The little boy, both scrawny and eloquent for his age, moved the step stool into the open closet. He climbed the three steps and stayed squatting on the stool until he was sure footed. Then he stretched himself up as high as he could reach. The smell of the air in the closet changed as he rose to the top of the closet where the shelf held all kinds of things packed away from daily life in the house. The air was stale and there were layers of scents, some familiar and some from a time he wasn’t a part of. They had always intrigued him, all those secret, old boxes up on the shelf brought out every once in a while. Maybe because someone in the family were looking for a specific something. Sometimes because he asked to look on a rainy day when he was stuck inside. It wasn’t often. It was a special thing, like getting to stay in a room when the adults were talking or being allowed a sip from the holiday punch on New Years.
He was looking for the hatbox. The special box, tan with stenciled women in hats all over it, the “painted ladies from Gay Paree,” she had told him with a grin and grand wave of her hand reaching to a far off place. He was being careful not to knock anything down. His father had spent a whole afternoon adding her things to the stored treasures of the closet, and he wasn’t about to disturb it all. The boy started to worry that the box wasn’t in the closet, that his father had given it to an aunt or one of the charities. But then he saw the hint of green, the lime green tissue paper he’d watch her unfold so carefully.
“Will you wear the pink hat? I like that one.”
“Well then, I guess I might. But you know, Chester, that hat is not just pink; it’s salmon pink.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Shades of difference, Chessie…shades and shades of difference.”
He remembered her saying it in that tone, her tone, the one that took the place of a lot of extra words.
The tissue paper was peeking out from the corner of the box where the lid was slightly tilted. He had the immediate thought that she would not have left it that way, but then just as quickly felt a pang of guilt because he knew his father would have tried to be as careful as she would have been. There were many small boxes on top of the hatbox. Some he recognized held photos, and some were the cardboard jewelry boxes embossed with shiny store logos that she’d always kept neatly tucked away in her drawers…her trinkets, she’d called them. They were out of place in the closet and the tightness gripped in his belly again. The ache felt to him just like that toothache he had for a time when he had a cavity before Leanne asked at dinner why he was only chewing on one side and he had to go to the dentist the next day. But he knew it wasn’t quite the same. His father had tried to explain it to him, that ache people feel, but he used words that seemed silly to the boy at the time and he couldn’t remember them now. There wasn’t time for it today though.
He needed to clear everything from the top of the hatbox but there wasn’t any free space to reposition the smaller boxes. He started to stack the little boxes in the crook of his left arm against his body, holding them tight with the hard edges pressing into his ribs. When the hatbox was clear, he wrapped a protective right arm over a tower of square, round, rectangular and oblong boxes amassed on his left, and began his decent. He planned to deposit the boxes on the floor then head back up for the hatbox.
“Chester, Chester, where are you?” his father called.
He’d made it to the last step of the ladder, his foot reaching towards the floor with no falling, no spilling, and then he froze. His heart began to thump nervously against the boxes. He didn’t answer but heard his father walking towards the room.
“Chessie, what are you doing?” his father asked as he rounded the corner to the closet.
The boy, still with a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, looked over his shoulder at his father.
“I…I was going to look for a picture I remembered,” he lied.
His father glanced at the stack of boxes in the boy’s arms and then back to his face.
“Well then…I left a collar shirt on your bed.”
“I’m already dressed. I have my lucky baseball shirt on.”
“We are dressing for dinner, Chester. I would appreciate it if you would put it on,” his father said in his tone, the one that was usually accompanied by a lot of extra words.
But the boy did not have time for that, not then, “Okay.”
His father looked at him for a moment, glanced up at the top of the closet but said nothing more before he turned and left the room. The boy quickly resumed his efforts in the closet. He felt nervous inside, almost desperate to get to the hat, her hat. “The right hat, Chessie, is a gala; it’s a celebration all by itself.”
About an hour later a yell from the kitchen signaling everything was ready sent everyone bustling into the room towards the set table. On holidays and special occasions, meals were taken in the living room because they did not have an official dining room. A table and chairs along with the china and serving bowls “passed down from generations” as the story was told, were set up, and it was a tradition that always made the celebration feel somehow more important than if they had just eaten in the kitchen. Today, there were six chairs, on that he had decided while the kids were off in their rooms and he stood alone in the living room making decorating decisions that he had always happily been left out of before. He had considered putting a place setting but decided against it. But he left her chair. The kids’school counselor had said that as each “situation” arises, he should do what feels right. He had wanted to tell her that nothing feels right but he had just nodded agreement.
“Grandpa, do you want to sit next to Chessie because you’re both left handed?” Leanne asked.
“That would be fine, sweetheart.”
“Dad, you’re at the head there, and that means you’re next to me Caleb!”
“Oh really, that’s SUPER,” he answered with an almost perfected thirteen-year-old smirk.
“You’re so snarky, Caleb,” she defended herself.
“You don’t even know what that word means,” Caleb replied.
“Yes I do. Dad says it means adolescent. She pronounced each syllable with care. Right, Dad? ” she called.
“Leanne,” her father answered, “Will you just come take these potatoes? I have the rolls and iced tea, and everything else is already on the table.”
“Where’s Chessie?” Leanne asked.
“Chester, we’re waiting,” his father called.
The last of the food was placed on the table and everyone took their seats. They were chatting about their favorites and how good everything smelled when the little boy walked into the room.
He approached the table and took his seat without making eye contact, which would have been difficult anyway because much of his small face was hidden under the festival of a hat atop his head. Crystal sequins, white lace, tiny white bows, and a long peachy pink sash adorned the magnificent hat she had treasured, and now the little boy who missed her so deeply was wearing it, nervous but with his chin up at the holiday dinner table.
The silence was that of an elephant in the room, a salmon one.
Jesus, the man thought, his mind starting to run. If that damn Mrs. Chayberry from around the corner catches a glimpse of this, the whole neighborhood will be talking about “that Menshaw boy.” He could hear her nails on a chalkboard voice clear in his head. “Poor little Chester Menshaw,” they would whisper, everyone at church and the ball field too.
“Chester,” his father started to speak but stopped.
The grandfather had dropped his hand that had been resting under his chin very gently to the table and drummed his fingers ever so lightly just once. It was the slightest of motions, almost imperceptible to someone who didn’t know him. But the man next to him saw it and understood it. It was his way of saying “Let it be.”
He glanced back at his small son, the buttons mostly fastened across his small chest and the sleeves of his baseball shirt peeking from under the stiff white cuffed sleeves. He saw a beautiful, elegant hat with a flowing sash and sparkling sequins that caught the light in every direction on a head that hadn’t grown into it yet, and he saw the past, and he saw the future. He wanted to yell, cry, get up and run away from the table and everyone at it and all the responsibility that came along with them. He wanted to laugh and wrap his arms around his small son. Mostly, he just wanted her back.
“Chessie, I uh…added the extra cinnamon and some pecans to the sweet potatoes; I know you like that,” the man said lifting the bowl.
“Thanks,” his voice was small. He reached up for the potatoes.
The grandfather said a short grace and that started the meal. They ate dinner and the conversation actually picked up its normal pace in places. They discussed the game later that day and the men talked about football. Leanne asked some questions about differences between quarterbacks and running backs while Caleb rolled his eyes at her. The kids updated their grandfather about school. Leanne said she might try out for the upcoming talent pageant. Caleb teased her just enough to earn a reprimand from his father. The little boy relaxed enough to enjoy himself.
When dinner was over they all rose and started to clear. Leanne spoke, “I’m glad you’re wearing it.” The boy looked at his sister and gave a grateful smile.
They stacked the dishes in the kitchen and the father told them to get ready to go to the field. The kids headed outside pulling their grandfather by his hand, excited to get to the ball field.
Alone in the kitchen, he put coffee in the machine to brew later and put some desserts on the counter for when they returned. He steadied himself, preparing to walk down the street and onto the field with a little boy in a fancy salmon colored hat. He rubbed his hand over his face, feeling the tension behind his eyes. And then, with his eyes closed he saw her face and knew exactly what she would say to him in a moment like this. Who cares what they think? Who the hell are they anyway…Helen Chayberry and her big fake smile “all tooth and no shine.”
He walked towards the door and glanced into the living room. It caught his eye, the lacy edge floating up over the corner of the chair. He walked in and saw the hat leaning against the back of the chair, the chair that had been empty during dinner. He ran his fingers over the long sash, the tips resting lightly on the table’s edge. The warmth of the meal, the scent of it in the room and the fullness of it in his stomach mingled with the grief that seemed to ensnare him all the time. There, hard in his belly and in the air around him. Sorrow was like an old coat he wore all the time. The heat rose and his throat tightened. He felt the pull behind his eyes and knelt down at the chair, resting his head on the arm and lightly brushing his hand over the hat. Of course he understood why the boy would want to wear it. It was her. She was beauty and lace and secrets. She was a special occasion. And the man, well he was just any ordinary day. “I’m sorry; I’m no good at this,” he said aloud. He spent a moment there with her hat and her chair. Then he flattened his palms out and pushed up, lengthening his spine and straightening his knees like he always did. He didn’t need to see her face to know what she would say, and he turned and headed out to the game to do the best he could.
* * *
Poems by Akilesh Ayyar
Palm-wide bars of impersonal morning light painted acoustically hollow white walls which housed unfurnitured space. The world swung with my steps, the carpet thick and unyielding beneath my little feet. The world to me now was 2 rooms: the room where I had done it, which was the living room, which carried my beloved Thomas the Tank Engine train set and its wooden rails all laid out in partial disarray, and the room where She was. I walked towards Her unclad from the waist down; my diaper lay abandoned in the first room. I tugged on Her skirt, a dark-green sacred fabric bell which never rang but rustled, and enclosed darkness.
“Where did you put your diaper,” came down the voice, the color of orange sun through a filled beer stein, rung through with a mandatory note.
“Ucki,” I said, and pointed her to the next room, which we walked to.
There it was, in not exactly the middle of the room. I had been learning to go potty. I thought, if thought is the right word, that She might be pleased. I held my head high, and smiled broadly. I lived in that natural state of knowledge in absentia which held space for future knowledge the way the vacant mind of the budding seed is held within the penciled sketch of the full-grown plant.
I could feel, sense, her body tense, though she didn’t hold me. Her face contorted, voice tones turned rigid, like the prongs on a rake, sharp but also thick and metallic.
A single elongated undulation sounded, like the effect of a ground tremor eddying through that sunlit beer, blast from some revenant foghorn, then, “Bad boy! Bad boy!”
Blunt electricity twice coursed through me, or rather through that original tangle of electric cords that wires all bodies. I saw only the uncomprehending white walls. They seemed blank and mute, helpless or unwilling to help.
From the ground one moment, altitude increased the next, and there was a smacking once on my bottom, what must have been my filthy, unwashed bottom. It was more sound than sensation, this clap, and then, as in the third of three separated images, I found myself carpeted again.
When She left I did not cry but staggered. The vague intimations of happy shared joy in my gift had turned a fugitive fantasy, a chalk mark on an already erased slate board. A state of disgrace caged me now in streaks of malevolent light. Between these two images was a space like that between the graphs of two asymptotes in time.
I might then, or perhaps it was later, have felt the first stirrings of a white, puke-warm discomfort and repulsion, a segmented worm rippling thickly through my solar plexus.
“Bad boy, bad boy, bad boy,” I whispered as I wandered through the house, and clapped weakly again and again the bottom of my pants.
You'll be talking to someone, and suddenly, micro-fissures erupt in the conversational landscape: a slight inflection is taken wrong; "there are good people who like to skate" is taken to mean that "all good people" like it; your hesitating breath pausing to take stock is taken to indicate disagreement; your hasty and confused attempts to clarify things only confuse them further. Some magical bird normally so swift it is invisible, employed to sail meaning across gusts of words, has been interrupted in flight and revealed to be a crude chewing-gum-and-aluminum affair.
* * *
By Caitlin Barasch
I left the house on Tuesday at seven thirty, yawning, in a pair of worn jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. I started my old dirt-streaked Jeep and rolled down the quiet suburban street en route to Janie’s, the little local diner. Ever since my wife left me five years ago, I’ve been going there for breakfast every morning. It’s the one place Charlotte would never go, so when she left, it seemed reasonable and appropriately ironic to make it a part of my daily routine. Nevertheless, it’s harder to replace her than I ever imagined. Six days a week, I join the ranks of lonely diner dwellers. We all twitched to grab a hold of our coffee with the same tired eyes. Yet even in a town full of early risers and floundering divorcees, seven thirty was a quiet time at Janie’s.
Every day, as soon as I slide comfortably into my usual booth in the corner, Lucy descends upon me with an unflappable smile. Anyone else would describe it as an infectious one, but I don’t often smile. Lucy is the diner’s only waitress above the age of thirty-five (she’s sixty-eight) and also the friendliest. On my first day eating there, I ordered scrambled eggs and toast with jam. She smiled and had my food ready for me within five minutes. The second day, she made a beeline for my table and told me how delighted she was to see me again. She introduced herself as Lucy and asked what I wanted (scrambled eggs and toast with jam...) By the fourth day, she had my food waiting for me as soon as I’d settled into my booth and unzipped my jacket. She’s funny that way, stubbornly thinking that people don’t change. She’s seen enough customers to know that food is usually a constant in people’s lives, variations rare.
After two weeks, she lowered herself into the booth across from me, put her order pad and her elbows on the table, and watched as I ate my first bite of eggs. After chewing, I looked up at her with a blank stare of confusion. She giggled and swept her hands to indicate that there was only one other customer in the diner. “So. I’ve seen you every day for a while, hon. What’s your name?”
“John,” I answered quickly, and then attempted to shovel in another bite.
She smiled again and said, “That’s my son’s name. He’s about your age. Forty- eight.”
“I’m forty-five,” I told her, somewhat indignantly, and bit into my toast.
And from then on, after depositing my predictable order on the table, Lucy would sit down across from me and reminisce. “Ever since moving from California to Montana, my life’s been, well, a bit of a mistake,” Lucy said matter-of-factly after our fourth week together, sipping the water in front of her. She crossed one pudgy leg over the other. “And that was twenty years ago! I was just trying to escape, you know? After my husband died, Lewis slowly stopped calling. That’s not how a son is supposed to treat his mother!” I nod, and she is egged on. “Lewis has his own little family now. A wife and a daughter...I’ve never met her. My granddaughter.”
“That’s awful! I’m sorry,” I said sympathetically, before sheepishly asking for the check.
Aw, come on—sometimes I just wasn’t in the mood for her ramblings. Sometimes she wouldn’t even look at me, just stare out the window into the bleak parking lot and talk. You could always tell this diner was the last place she wanted to be. I could see past her cheery smiles, the supposed wisdom of her wrinkles, her resigned acceptance of the arthritis festering in her joints and limbs, to the woman who couldn’t believe her life had come to this. She was single, aged sixty-eight, living in a cheap condo complex in the middle of the vacant fields of Montana. She had a son right out of college, and decided to marry the jerk that got her pregnant. And after all that, the son who’d flung her world upside down had stopped talking to her for no reason at all. Of course she still loved him deeply anyway.
On a snowy morning years after our first meeting, Lucy told me it was her birthday. “I’m seventy-one today,” she admitted, and I stared at her, shocked. Seeing Lucy almost every single day had led me to believe she wasn’t getting older, at least not like the rest of us. She was seemingly immortal. I hadn’t been aware of her hair whitening gradually to overtake the sloppy dye job, or the growing wrinkles on her hands and face, the loose pockets of skin under her elbows and eyes, or the almost unnoticeable shake in what was once a stronger, steadier voice. “Happy birthday!” I managed, and toasted her with my half-drunk orange juice.
She blushed and sighed, lost in memories.
On this particularly miserable Tuesday, five years after our first meeting, Lucy did not have my food waiting for me when I arrived. As I looked incredulously around the small diner, taking in the cracks in the walls and the faded booths and the sticky counter and the grumbling coffee maker, I noticed that I was among a larger crowd. Almost all of the tables were filled, and my gaze caught the edge of Lucy’s apron as she disappeared into the kitchen. Before I could become increasingly offended and slightly disoriented, Delilah, the twenty-seven year old baby faced blonde, approached me. Her skin was smooth and her voice syrupy. I hesitated slightly before ordering chocolate chip pancakes. She nodded buoyantly as she wrote it down, and then sashayed away into the kitchen. Lucy never came over to say hi. I finished my stack of pancakes, licked the gooey residue off my fingertips, and then exited the diner, emerging into the morning sunshine.
I climbed into my Jeep in the parking lot and drove to work, per usual. I stepped into the sterile, white washed building, took the elevator to the eighth floor, and shuffled through the hallways. It’s been five years but Beth, the older lady who occupies the corner cubicle, still gives me this intense look of pity whenever I pass. It probably doesn’t help that I walk with my shoulders naturally stooped, but when I remember Charlotte was supposed to be the love of my life, I find it hard to straighten up. Eventually, after obliging the nosy, overbearing Beth with an attempted grin, I reached my office. I immediately sank into the swivel chair and closed my eyes, just for a moment. The rest of the day proved torturously sluggish, and when the sun began its descent, I drove towards home.
As the car clock melted from 6:58 to 6:59, my Jeep was bumping along past Janie’s Diner. It glowed a warm yellow in the dark. Impulsively, I careened into a random driveway, reversed, and headed back towards the light. Upon entering, I headed straight for Lucy, who was busily ringing up an order, glasses balanced on her nose. When she saw me, she shrieked—loudly. “John! What are you doing here?”
I shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
She smiled the smile I was used to. “I’ll be right with you. Go get your booth!”
It was weird to sit there with the windows showing nothing but night. When Lucy came over, I asked her impulsively, “What are you doing for dinner tonight, Luce?”
Her eyebrows rose. “Eating with you, silly!” And she sat down. We were both in our place now, where we knew we should be.
* * *
Drunk in a Valley
By Alex Billedeaux
Grit and sand whipped against Samuel’s face as the wind picked up. His skin was dry and cracked, like the compacted red of the sandstone beneath his boots. He rested his eyes on the shoes, but instead visualized the face of his mother reprimanding him. She had wanted to make sure he wouldn’t forget the damn things.
“What am I going to need boots for, Mom? It’s a road trip. I’m not hiking across Death Valley.”
She had insisted anyway. He grimaced silently at the irony.
The short black of his hair and beard seemed to be absorbing most of the abrasive sand, to the point of tan colored streaks showing in the thick of it. His head throbbed with the force of a splitting headache, likely attributed to the nearly empty fifth of Captain Morgan in his hand. He gripped it tightly, like the heft of a weapon.
The progress across the hot land was slow. Most of the time was spent attempting to disregard the sweat dripping down his forehead and neck. He wiped his free hand over his face, but a dull wound throbbed painfully in his palm.
Blood. A significant coat of deep crimson dripping from the gash in his hand. Samuel wiped it on his jeans and kept walking.
“Beth?” He shouted. His voice was hoarse. The only response he received was the whistle of slight wind in an empty valley. His eyes flicked up and left in their sockets as he tried to parse through what he did and what he did not remember from the previous night. There was a lot of black.
“We should race.” The drunken sentence echoed in his patchy memory.
“Race? To where?” Beth’s soft featured face had seemed mischievous in the fire light.
“I don’t think it matters,” Sam had nodded the traditional dragging pace of an assumedly wise drunk. “Somewhere out there.”
Beth shook her head. “Nope. I don’t think so.”
“Oh, but wh-” The tiny blonde leapt up and began to sprint away with a commitment not seen in the soberness of day.
Sam leapt up and followed, laughing.
“Try not to have too much sex.” Sasha called sarcastically from beside the fire. She turned back toward Conner as the pair vanished into the darkness.
The memory of the night began to fade. A few moments passed as Samuel began to feel the heat irritating his face and the burning heat of the Death Valley sun grounded him once again. He realized that he had been staring at it. How long had passed?
His mouth felt dry and sticky. A font of good decisions this one, a drunk, a fool, and as his family put it, he hadn’t made a right decision in years.
And still I don’t seem to care, he thought to himself. His legs were stiff as he began to trudge along, as though the land below would be damned if it was going to let him pass. It couldn’t be too much further. Just got to keep on moving.
His hand went to his head instinctively as it began to spin. The ground met him hard. Hours passed, with Samuel flat on the dirt.
The sun made it past the peak point in the sky while he lay. A brush lizard darted over his left leg and the wind tickled his back. A short dip of its gust drove dirt particles into his nose and he woke with a start. It was late afternoon.
The ground seemed barren around him. Thankless that he had returned. Not but a few pebbles were disturbed as he pushed himself to his feet, his wounded hand complaining all the way. One of the pebbles, however, caught his eye.
It was a different texture than the others. He knelt and picked up one of the pebbles near him. The texture on its bottom was the same as his special pebble. So it had flipped over. He shook his head. So what.
He strained to rise from his crouch.
One last sidelong glance at the pebble entranced him. There was a near invisible mar in the sandstone below it, as though it had been dragged along the ground a few centimeters. Samuel looked off in the direction the line pointed. It could have been dragged by a footfall.
He decided to stumble into the pebble’s pointed direction. The sick feeling he felt in his stomach could have been fever, as sickness would explain the thick film of sweat stuck to his body. In any regard, he assumed he should have some liquids soon. The fifth was still cool in his hand.
"Bad idea," he admonished.
Twenty minutes later he was taking swigs from the quickly diminishing bottle. The result was more sickness in his stomach, but even the rum seemed to satiate his lips and tongue. It was very near heaven. A steep rise in the land lay ahead of him and he sighed. A hill sounded like a depressing exertion. He began to take another swig, but stopped when he noticed something reflected on the side of the bottle. There was glass in the dirt nearby.
He got down to crawl and his legs were happy for the respite. Glass, quite a bit of it, was scattered here and there. One of the larger shards had the dried brown of blood along its edge. A neck of another fifth lay smashed, a half dozen feet to the right.
What a stupid way to wound yourself, Sam. He rolled his eyes and started off in the direction of the bottle’s neck, but stopped abruptly. He went back toward the hill, reasoning that the nearer glass shards had his blood on them, so he had probably thrown the bottle neck into the distance while drunk. It was just a red herring.
Hold on, Samuel. Since when were you a detective? Follow the bottle you idiot. He stopped and argued with himself, breathing heavily enough that his body swayed in the arid breeze. The voice of his mother took over his conscious to hand him a bit of guidance, thinking perhaps he would listen to it for once.
“There is more of a chance that you are just being foolish and you should keep walking. There’s only disappointment over that rise, Samuel.”
He stood with a furrowed brow, staring at the remains of a fifth scattered on the dirt. He took another swig of his own.
To hell with it.
He crested the hill.
* * *
By Michael Chaney
Public Internet users susceptible to the lurid covers of paperbacks swelled the checkout line. Two women were busy swiping cards, sliding books through a de-magnetizer, and passing items back to patrons with smiles so perfunctory they were almost vicious.
“Books are due in four weeks, the DVD in two,” said the larger woman. She leaned over to her partner, whose nametag read ‘Ms. Beatrice, County Library Acquisitions Specialist,’ and whispered: “It’s not like they would recognize you with your—Book items due in a month. Thanks.”
Every time Tiffany leaned over, her stool creakingly suggested that she lose a few pounds.
“Personally,” she continued, “I’d never do it. I had morality beat into me by—your DVDs.” Whispering again, “I heard of a woman who used Native American war paint, at first only to hide her face but then because of a certain, pricey clientele who got off on it.”
Beatrice adjusted her glasses. “Tiffany, let’s concentrate on check-outs, please.”
“Whatever you say, Chief.”
It was time for another patrol. Beatrice grabbed a walkie-talkie and headed for the stairwell. As she climbed to the third floor, she wondered why people were so reluctant to face the truths of their lives or to opt for the occasional salad.
Tiffany’s conversations were a cross between BT700 (early Christian history and thus the golden age of apologia) and PS700 (romance fiction). The closest she ever got to PN700 (non-fiction) came last week when she mentioned a video she made just for fun. A dance that could be her signature should she ever, God forbid, fall upon hard times and be forced to remove her clothes to escape the poorhouse.
If only there were such a place as the poorhouse, thought Beatrice. That would be genuine relief.
She entered the newspapers section. It was here where the city flotsam washed up to bask in the glow of florescence and waxed linoleum.
Spotting one, she pulled out her walkie.
“Got a code yellow on three, over.”
In a tiny room in the basement two men wedged before security monitors were mimicking the words “code yellow” through pealing laughter.
Beatrice approached the sleeping man.
“Sir, this is a public library.”
The man snored.
“You are in a library! Sir, wake up!”
Still no response. She looked around. Someone was near. Polished shoes could be seen through the slats of a low shelf. It was only a browser.
“Breaker, breaker. Situation Morpheus. Stand by, over.”
She set down the walkie, looked around, and while coughing to mask it, she kicked the chair hard.
“Yes, take care. God bless, yes.”
“You cannot sleep here.”
“No, no sleeping. She was a girl. And a beauty once upon a time.”
“Sir, you cannot sleep here.”
“Yes. I cannot do here what I was not doing, but accidentally did.”
“If you are caught sleeping again, it is within my power to have you removed from the library.”
“Yes, yes. You have the power,” he said with a thunder sound effect.
“I’ll have you forcibly removed if you can’t follow my instructions.”
“Yes, keep your arms and feet inside the library at all times, until the library comes to a complete stop.”
Exasperated, Beatrice picked up the walkie. “Stand down. Situation over, over.”
In the basement: “Over over!” roared one guard, nudging the other and making him spill his coffee.
Beatrice gasped. Where the polished shoes had been, there was now also a silver light coming from behind the shelves.
Her first impulse was to threaten. Filming her was a violation. But she was no ordinary librarian. She was an Acquisitions Specialist. This situation called for reverse psychology.
She warmed to the awakened man engrossed in an upside-down magazine: “My dear sir, are you feeling better now? Good. May I turn your magazine upright? There we are. If there’s nothing else, I’ll just be on my way.”
She simulated the sound and trajectory of a full exit. In actuality, she turned a corner and then crept silently towards her would-be camera assailant. She was craning her head around the latest issue of Pravda when a voice rang out from the other side of the shelf.
“What in the hell are you doing on the floor?”
She regained her posture and walked around the shelf to confront her adversary, a young man in a suit with spiky hair. She couldn’t tell if his pout was permanent or circumstantial.
“May I help you, sir?”
“Why you were crawling around?”
Shame made her bold. “What were you filming?”
“Filming? I was texting my boss. What were you doing on the floor over there?”
“Nothing. There’s a… contact I lost.”
“You wear contacts and glasses?”
“These are for reading,” she said fondling the glasses looped around her neck.
“So did you find them?”
“Your contacts or whatever, gosh!”
“No. I mean, yes.”
However much she repeated her mantra in her head – I’m an acquisitions specialist I am an acquisitions specialist—he regarded her as if she were crazy. When she saw that the table where the sleeping man had been could not be seen from this position, she wanted to scream.
“I was getting a sleeping patron to wake up. Sorry if I bothered you.”
“You have to kick out bums a lot, huh?”
“Yes. I do. Unfortunately.”
“What a shitty job,” he chuckled and resumed texting.
Many sepulchral seconds later she marched off, inwardly frantic: “I am an acquisitions specialist I am an acquisitions specialist…”
Had she been less rattled, she might have seen the silvery shine emanating from across the room, where a young man eager to increase the hits on his blog had been recording her all along. Several weeks later he would celebrate the virality of the video as it exceeded 500 views by purchasing a new cellphone. Newly unemployed, Beatrice recalled her disdain for Tiffany’s schemes of self-exposure with a bitterness whose release within her was long overdue.
* * *
Two Stories by Rizwati Freeman
Part 1, Motel Stories
One day out of the blue, Mom moved us to some little motel way out in Westchester. We took a long, hot, dry bus ride to get there, the kind of ride we’d never taken before. It was after she’d come back from the pawnshop with that look on her face like, Oh well. Mom was always hoping against hope for more money but it seemed like every Tom, Dick or Harry was out to rip her off.
My brother Ritt came over the first night – he looked like a human sheep with that short bleached wooly hair of his. Mom told me he was a punk rocker but I just thought he looked ridiculous. Right away he got all pissed off when he saw Mom had bought me a Barbie doll.
"Hey, man!" He shouted when he saw the skinny blond lying naked on the Gideon bible. "That’s like totally not fair!"
Everything was like totally not fair for Ritt. Mom said he had identity issues because he looked like our father and it didn’t help at all that I didn’t. Our father had had wooly hair too and dark beige kind of skin like chamois but I never met him. He died when I was a baby.
Ritt always looked like a sad, lost puppy dog – only he was always so moody he just had to be a boy. Animals aren’t like boys with those sour moods of theirs. You just want to slap their faces and say, Dude! Get over yourself. That’s one reason I like animals more than my brothers. Animals are predictable. If you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you. With my brothers it’s a totally different story.
When we were at that motel Mom brought stuff from the grocery store – noodles and salad and million dollar bars but at all the other motels we’d go out to eat somewhere. We were cooped up in there for three whole days.
The second day Ritt left, thank God. I can understand why Mom gave my brothers grass right out of the crib. They were like wild animals. That’s the only way you could take them. Whenever Ritt was around my stomach would twist into knots, and I’d get nervous that something bad would happen. He’s the kid who’d burn down a supermarket or rob an old lady for fun. Random acts of insanity.
Mom always said it was because of the boys home he’d been in – that’s when everything had gone wrong. Some boys had chased him outside, pushed him against a tree and lit his hair on fire. Mom said they called him lots of terrible names that she couldn’t repeat. The names only ill-bred people use.
It wasn’t so bad being in that motel room – I didn’t like the games my brother Pete had wanted me to play with him in the other one. But I missed skating at the beach and walking down all those steps over Pacific Coast Highway and digging in wet sand for sand crabs.
The second night I had a nightmare and woke up sweating. It was about Pete – he was laughing and it was so real. I could smell his gross boy breath and his dirty, dusty skin. He opened his mouth full of food, and tried to spit it all over me but Mom walked in. That’s when I woke up.
Mom was already awake, watching her show Taxi.
"Oh my God," she said. "You’re wheezing."
She handed me my inhaler and looked at me like she had so many times before. I could tell what was going through her mind. She was scared I was going to die.
"It’s okay, Mom," I managed to say. "It’s okay."
I sucked for my life and lay back. God, I was glad Pete wasn’t there. When Mom had come to the other motel room he’d taken away my inhaler.
That’s when I asked her about him.
"He’s gone away, sweetheart," she said, brushing her hand against my cheek. "He won’t hurt you anymore."
She hugged me tight, and a moment later I fell back to sleep.
The next morning the cops showed up at our door. One was tall with a buzz cut and looked like Nick Nolte on Rich Man, Poor Man, and the other one reminded me of Tatoo, only he was a little taller. They’d found Pete, they said, and had some questions for us. We went down to the station with them – they took Mom into one room, and me into another. They asked me about Pete – what he was doing the last time I saw him. I said he’d taken away my inhaler, that we’d fought over what to watch on TV. I’d wanted to watch Taxi but he insisted on watching Love, American Style.
In the end he’d taken my inhaler and smothered me with a pillow. The cop with the buzz cut said he’d have to check me out.
"Please lean forward like you’re at the doctor’s office and pull up your shirt," he ordered.
He began to touch my back with his long, bony fingers and I thought of Pete. None of this would’ve happened if he hadn’t been such a weirdo.
"Does that hurt?" He asked, jabbing me. "Does this?"
I shook my head. His hands were cold.
His partner came in and whispered to him, and a moment later a woman with long, frizzy gray hair and big, baby blue eyes walked in. She wore a turquoise muumuu and smelled of patchouli incense and menthol cigarettes. She smiled softly and said she wanted to take me to see Mom.
When Mom hugged me I didn’t want her to let me go because I knew when she did they’d take me away. I knew Pete had done something terrible, this was all his fault.
"I’ll come get you just as soon as I can, kiddo. This nice lady’s going to take you to a nice family. Just wait for me, okay? I won’t be long."
I hugged her once more and walked away with the social worker.
Mom likes to say God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. Which is why it’s taken me so long to remember what happened that night. The night that Pete died. She says she loved him but had to protect me and that not a day has gone by for the past 10 years that she doesn’t ask God to help her. Because she wouldn’t have done anything differently.
I had to protect you, she says. You’re my baby – my baby girl.
I read the court report for the first time six months ago and I burned it. It was full of lies about Mom, accused her of killing Pete. I knew it was wrong, all wrong. The nightmares started up again after I read it – seems like certain things just won’t die. Not if they live inside you. They’ll squirm and struggle and tear your guts out if necessary. That’s how I feel lately. Like I’m slowly going insane – or like I’m slipping slowly but surely away from what I thought to be true. I thought Pete had an accident. Or maybe got into trouble. All I knew was that Mom told me to go to the main room, while she talked to him in her room. She’d just walked in on us. Walked in on him trying to play his game. Walked in to see Love American, Style on the TV.
She told me yesterday why she did it.
"I saw him trying to hurt you. And it’s like I went back to when my mother and my father hurt me. It was like the flip of the switch. I was that little girl again."
She said she walked over to him, slapped him across the face and placed the pillow over his face. Just the same way he’d done with me earlier.
They’re finally letting her out. They were able to get her off with temporary insanity. Turns out her nephew’s a hotshot lawyer with lots of connections. She says it’s God’s way of giving her another chance. She says the only way you can live right in the world is to befriend your demons.
Talk to them. Don’t close the door on them. I think she’s right but I’m not sure I’m ready to look at mine yet. What if they swallow me whole?
Otherwise you never know when they’ll come out and bite you in the ass. Otherwise you don’t know who’s steering the ship.
He Didn’t Need to Be Found
He descended upon their lives on a hot February day looking like a black Grizzly Adams who’d stepped off the set of The Shining. His name was Isaiah. He was wearing a long, black trench coat and dirty black pants, and he looked like a crow who hadn’t eaten in awhile. My sister Margaret noticed his eyes first. She didn’t recognize the father who’d left them – the one who’d play peek a boo with her under the covers, give her piggy back rides around the backyard and sing songs like The Mockingbird Song, My Favorite Things and Do Re Mi. This man was a stranger. A scary stranger, like one of those crazies on the news.
He’d been gone six years – six whole years – and she’d only heard that he’d been in the hospital and that he was sick but that was all. Mom had never talked about him. She should’ve been glad he’d come back but she wasn’t. She was terrified. Something in her gut gurgled and tightened like never before except maybe when she’d watched The Exorcist. She had the sensation that her world was closing in on her.
It was our oldest sister who’d made it happen – Isabel. Isabel who’d stood in front of Mom and demanded, I want my father! because she was tired of being mocked, scorned and ridiculed at school. She with her African features and loud mouth. Our mother had told all the kids they were special – my sisters and two brothers – told them they were somehow better than everyone else because all they had to do was look around and see, was anyone as beautiful? And everyone knew that the children of a white woman and a black man were more beautiful than anyone else in the whole wide world, and beauty itself was like a kind of magic that only a few people possessed. Mom herself was beautiful, and she walked, talked and behaved like a queen – having inherited a refined, elegant bearing from her mother who was supposedly from an aristocratic family, a family that had even founded Barcelona long, long ago. Or maybe it was Quebec.
Minutes after this hairy black crow had flown into their lives, Mom gave him his first assignment. She handed him a rolled up newspaper and told the kids to line up in the living room.
"Your father’s going to teach you a lesson,"she said, dropping into her military sergeant voice. "Spank them."
And he did. One by one they stood in front of him, and when it came to my brother Riley, a blue-eyed tow head, Isaiah asked, "Who’s this?"
"He’s our son," Mom replied.
"Oh, you gave up the ship?"
It’s a miracle she didn’t laugh – she’d never been modest when it came to sex, and anyway they’d had an arrangement – they only came together when they wanted to conceive. He hated the act, and Mom loved it – so she sated her appetites in other pastures.
Later, as Mom was cooking spaghetti and Isaiah sat nearby watching her blankly, she asked what he’d been up to in Frisco where the private investigator had found him. She didn’t talk about the sad things – the fact that he had been committed to Camarillo thanks to his mother, she didn’t ask why he’d been caught stealing things or what it had been like to get those shock treatments. Had they changed him? No, she fluttered around the kitchen like Snow White after the gorgeous prince has kissed her.
"Longshoreman," he said. "Picking grapes."
She lit a joint, closed her eyes and inhaled. She opened her eyes, and smiled. "My soul mate’s come home! I can’t believe you’re here!"
He seemed to be somewhere else – not with her. Far, far away. But at some point he began talking about his friends up north, and Isabel was sitting on the carpet right around the corner, pretending to play with her Cher doll. He said he’d only gone once to the temple of his beloved guru – and there he’d met some guys who’d taken him under their wing.
"They’d have these potlucks in the park where they’d read their poetry. That’s what turned me on about them. They had daughters too – they’d always bring them, but never their wives. It was pretty far out. I finally got to read my poems."
He was a beat poet, carried a little chapbook in his pocket at all times, but it seemed like the only one who’d wanted to hear his poetry was Mom.
The next morning was Isaiah’s second assignment. That’s where I came in. Mom said they did it quickly and that right afterward he kicked her out of the bed. Then the earth shook. Literally. 6.6 on the Richter scale. It wasn’t romantic but at least it was literary – mystical. It was the last time they lay together as man and wife.
Isaiah had other things on his mind. Like the friends he was calling up north, and his plan to make all the kids into yogis. In the attic room he showed them various asanas for an hour the next day and told them to go practice on their own. Margaret would stay, he said. She needed extra help. Isabel and the boys left the attic room, but Isabel peeked through the door to see what he was up to. Margaret, a skinny little eight-year old, sat in front of him wearing a flesh-colored leotard and tights. She hadn’t wanted to wear those but that’s all she had and she’d wanted to be a good girl. Isabel had said she should do what she wanted to, and not worry about the freaky black crow. But Margaret was the quiet one, the obedient one. Compliant. She’d never step outside the lines, or bring attention to herself. She’d never rock the boat. As Isabel looked through the door she saw Isaiah leading her little sister onto his lap. Margaret looked disturbed, frightened even, her little wiry body was clearly tense.
He touched her arms, then her waist and she began to squirm. He continued – and then he looked up. Had he seen Isabel? He let Margaret go. She ran so quickly that she didn’t notice Isabel in the hall. There was nowhere to run to, so she ran out back, behind the garage and cried like she’d never cried before. It would be the last time she’d cry for several years. It would be almost a lifetime.
The day passed in a blur for Margaret. There was nowhere to run to, nowhere at all. No place was safe. No place would ever be safe. Mom was stoned and buzzed on red wine as usual and over the moon that her ‘soul mate’ had returned, the other kids were scared out of their wits of the creature who’d suddenly appeared in their lives. When he’d come to the door he’d bang on it and shout at the top of his lungs, "It's Isaiah!"
He was so loud that the neighbor’s dogs would go crazy barking.
That night as Margaret lay in her bed, she prayed extra hard that Isaiah wouldn’t come get her. Isabel and the boys had all slept over their friends’ houses and Mom was at a Subud meeting so she was all alone in the house. She prayed her ass off but it was tricky - she always had a 50-50 chance with God.
It didn’t work.
He came in smelling of Dove soap - he’d just showered and his bee’s nest hair glistened with drops of water. It was her hair too, hair she’d learn to hate more and more, hair she could never control. Hair that would always remind her of him. He was naked to his waist, covered by a flimsy white towel. He said nothing at all and advanced toward her. And only then did she remember that word Isabel had overheard him say about his friends. Concubines. The daughters had been his friends’ concubines.
He collapsed into bed with her as if he belonged there, as if she belonged to him. As if she was not her own. He slowly groped at her through her nightgown, and she could feel his thing, his dirty lead pipe rub against her. Inside she screamed at the top of her lungs – but outside she was paralyzed. Her body, her voice. All had shut down. Frozen. In fear. Still, she prayed. Please God, let me disappear, please God, please let me disappear – please God, let me just die right here. GOD! Please God.
She didn’t realize it but she was shaking. And squirming. It seemed like his hands had poked at her and squeezed her for hours. She didn’t know how long he’d been there for, or how long he stayed. But suddenly he just stopped. She could hear a car pulling up to the curb. Oh God please let it be Mom. And a moment later he was gone.
Isaiah hadn’t counted on Isabel returning early, and he hadn’t seen her hide behind the door, or skulk like a cat into the master bedroom. Didn’t see her crouching in the shadows near the bed he shared with Mom.
When Mom found him later he looked like a troubled rag doll lying on the beige carpet. His expression was one of shock. Surprise. It took a few minutes for everything to register – and it was all too familiar. She had the feeling that she’d gone back in time to her father’s den in 1945. His body surrounded by splattered red, a mass of flesh stuck to the wall. And a 12-gauge shotgun lying beside him. That was Daddy, this was her soul mate. Both had…
Her eye fell on the picture of the hummingbird on the nightstand and a voice inside of her screamed, "NO!"
Nine months later I was born. Mom was staying with the nuns in a kind of rest home and the other kids had all gone up north to stay on some commune in Carmel. Mom wouldn’t talk for a long, long time – it was like she was frozen for a while. Paralyzed.
She couldn’t see the girls again – they reminded her too much of him. They were, she said, his spitting image. So she took back the boys and Isabel and Margaret went into foster homes. Once when I visited Margaret at her foster home she told me the whole thing was Isabel’s fault.
"Isaiah didn’t need to be found," she said."I’m glad you were born but he didn’t need to be found."
But afterward I started thinking and it came to me that that wasn’t right. I mean, if he hadn’t been found – where would that leave me? The nuns always say that everything happens for a reason but I don’t know about that. What I do know is I wish I’d known Mom before – and that she’d come back to me. To us. Seems like her favorite thing to do all day is to look at that picture of the hummingbird. Like it’s the answer to some question she keeps asking herself.
I pray about Mom a lot – every night in fact. And if the nuns have taught me one thing – it’s that you have to have faith. Without faith you’re dead.
These days faith’s all I got.
* * *
Natty Bumpo Rides Again
By Tom Fillion
I was trying to kill some time before going to Flint's so I stopped at a cafeteria near the University. A young woman with brown hair stood a short distance in front of me. She was dressed in a lavender skirt, creme-colored blouse, and black shoes with a small heel on them. She looked like she worked in a nearby office complex from the cut of her outfit. She surveyed the seating area behind us every few seconds as if she was looking for someone.
“How can I help you today, sir?” One of the old ladies in a white uniform, her hair netted and her hands wrapped in plastic, asked.
By the time I reached the dessert section, my tray was full, even though I wasn't that hungry. I looked down the line and she was still there getting a drink.
“Will that be all, sir?” Another lady asked.
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
I thought if our eyes met my chance of meeting her would increase, but when I looked up, she was gone.
In the dining area, she sat alone but kept looking for someone.
“Mind if I sit with you?”
She appeared startled but relieved.
“That’s fine. I hate to eat alone. I was expecting someone, but I guess my friend isn’t going to show,” she answered.
“Maybe it was me you were looking for, and didn't know it,” I said. “Sometimes fate throws people together. I was going to eat alone, but I saw you by yourself. There’s lots of older people here eating the soft, overcooked food. You looked out of place.”
She laughed then looked around. She smiled. Her demeanor changed, and I could tell she was pleased by my interest.
“There are a lot of older people here," she said looking around. "What does that make us?”
“We’re old people in training, I guess,” I said. “By the way, my name is Billy.”
“Oh, oh, my name is Susan. Glad to meet you,” she said offering her hand.
The lighting and the dark furnishings cast her hand into prominence. I noticed the absence of a wedding ring on her other hand.
“Well, not quite. I’m not sure. I’ve been going with a guy for over a year. We were engaged, but right now we’re not seeing each other. We both wanted to cool it. It’s such a commitment. Marriage means the rest of your life together. I want to be sure he’s the one,” she stated.
Her face turned serious and reflective.
“Men and women think differently about love and marriage,” she said.
“Who said we even think about it?”
“That’s true. Men just think about sex. Love and marriage should be the foreplay before it.”
I cut a piece of over-cooked chopped steak and inserted into my mouth. I finished chewing and put my knife and fork down.
“That’s an interesting thought."
“I got it from a friend of mine who writes poetry for greeting card publishers. I was waiting for her when you showed up. She must have gotten hung up on a poem she was working on. She said she might not make it,” Susan said.
“My best friend is writing a novel. Maybe you and your friend would like to meet us somewhere,” I suggested.
Susan put her fork down. I think she was beginning to like me.
“Okay. My boyfriend and I are split up. I really think it’s over between us,” she said. “We can meet you tonight. I know a place on Route 41. It’s right before you get to the old elementary school.”
“I know where that is,” I answered. “We’ll meet you about seven o’clock.”
“It’s a date then,” Susan agreed.
We finished what we could eat of our lunches and walked together to the cashier.
“See you tonight,” I said and gathered up a mint and a toothpick.
I owed Flint for the Oxford pub incident when I got jumped by the long-haired drunk and his friends. I owed him for the time I got stoned and drunk and puked at the theatre and he drove me home. This blind date was a small repayment.
Flint looked up from his make-shift throne topped by an orange and white parachute canopy. He put down “The Deerslayer” by James Fenimore Cooper on top of his spiral notebook and peeled off his reading gloves that minimized the tremors in his hands.
“I met this hot chick at a cafeteria. She’s got a friend and they want to meet us tonight. Her friend writes poetry,” I said. “So you can make it? You’re not going out with anyone?"
“Not tonight. Ellie stopped by the other day, and I told her I was dating someone else. It was hard to turn her away, but I had to. She’s broken my heart for the last time. I know she’ll divorce Frank someday, but I won’t be there for her. It kind of destroyed me,” Flint admitted. “I’ve got to get on with my life minus Ellie Windows.”
We both heard a car door open and close outside. Flint stood and walked to the back of the small house that Ellie had found for him. It was not far from her split level trailer in Thonotosassa which made it convenient for her to visit Flint when she got pissed at Frank. The only drawback was the puppy mill next door. The beagles barked and howled. It must have been feeding time.
“Tell her I’m in the bathroom,” he said.
“Take the toilet paper with you then,” I said.
He kept a roll on the table next to his reading chair. He grabbed it and walked to the back of the house.
There was a loud knock at the side door.
“Where’s Flint?” Ellie demanded.
“He’s in the bathroom.”
“When he gets out tell him George finally stopped by,” Ellie commanded.
“George stopped by? Who is George?”
“Goddammit, Billy, tell him that George stopped by. He’ll understand,” she repeated.
She slammed the door as hard as she did her car door and backed onto the highway. When Flint knew she was gone he returned to the living room.
“Ellie said George stopped by. Who’s George?”
Flint appeared relieved.
“George is her period,” Flint answered.
“Yeah. She had her period. She was freaked out and didn’t want to tell Frank. She thought she was pregnant. That’s why she’s been angry with me. That’s why I went out with Jacqueline, the English lit groupie, and Angelica. George came by! It means she’s not pregnant,” he said.
“You’ll sleep easier tonight.”
“You can say that again. I’m unfit to be a parent. Fatherhood would be a disaster,” he said.
“You made it!” Susan said when she saw me that evening.
“Flint will be here in a little while.”
“See, I told you there would be someone for you,” Susan said and tapped her friend on the arm.
Julie was a stunning blonde. I sat down on the other side of the table across from Susan. The chair opposite Julie was vacant. This was great payback. The slate would be clean. I wouldn’t owe him for the Oxford incident or the ‘Seven Beauties’ debacle. My bill would be paid in full, if not in advance. Maybe, he'd decide not to leave Tampa for her and forsake the others: Ellie Windows, Angelica, Jenna, Jacqueline, the English groupie, the Aardvark, and the provost’s secretary. Maybe she was the Manifest Destiny he was always talking about.
“When is your friend coming?”
“He should be here soon,” I said. “We were celebrating earlier this afternoon about meeting you two tonight.”
But he wasn’t.
Flint didn’t show up during the first round of drinks. I glanced at the front door every time it swung open. Old people. Cowboys. Rednecks. Hippies. No Flint Dupree.
“Can’t you call him?” Susan asked.
“That would be a problem. He doesn’t have a telephone.”
'No telephone' translated into a thousand different gestures of body languages but meant something very specific in their eyes. Uncommunicative. Distant. Recluse. Hermit. Possible asshole.
The waitress retrieved our empty glasses and returned a few minutes later with another round of daiquiris for the women and, for me, a draft beer with a head on it like a cumulus cloud.
I looked at the front door hoping that Flint would fulfill his promise and walk through it to embrace what I hoped would be his Manifest Destiny. Could concentrating on the door make him appear any sooner?
“Do you really have a friend?” Julie asked. “Maybe he doesn’t even exist.”
“Yes, I think he has a friend,” Susan said.
“I didn’t mean it exactly like that,” Julie stated then laughed at her friend’s reply.
I sat there excluded from the conversation, humiliated and feeling smaller and smaller like a psychedelic insect that Frank Windows might portray in one of his paintings.
“Do you think he has a friend that is going to show up? That’s what I meant.”
“That I don’t know,” Susan replied.
I had had enough humiliation. I retreated to the restroom to figure out what to do and met myself next to the Trojan dispenser, face to face, in the restroom mirror. I didn’t like what I saw: gloom and despair.
The window beckoned. My car was parked right outside. I could end this psychic flaying by tipping the garbage can upside down and using it as a step ladder to escape. I had done my best to no effect.
I turned over the metal cylinder, spewing soggy paper towels across the tiled floor, and was just about to pull the screen out when I heard a familiar sound. A 750 Honda. It had to be my biker novelist friend, Flint Dupree.
I stepped down from the trash can and headed for the lobby. My mood was the same, but I quickly brightened. Flint finally pushed his way through the front door.
“Flint, over here.”
He towered above the middle‑aged couple who followed him. He walked in my direction, stumbling then teetering to one side.
“I had a visit from George.”
“George is Ellie’s friend,” I reminded him. “It’s her period for Christ ‘sake.”
“George Dickel,” he corrected me.
That presented a problem. After I left him he must have sat on his Aztec throne and gotten sourmashed.
I looked over at the two women seated at the table.
“He finally got here,” I said, pointing at Flint who was dressed in a long sleeve white shirt, blue jeans and smooth, black boots.
Before I could introduce him to his dinner companion, Julie, Flint sat directly across from my date, Susan. He grabbed a piece of paper from his shirt pocket.
“It’s a poem I wrote about Natty Bumpo,” Flint said.
Julie looked confused. “The Deerslayer” was probably not on her reading list. She glanced at Susan and then at me. Susan’s demeanor turned to a glare. I lowered my head and stared at the menu. Flint read his poem about Natty Bumpo, “The Deerslayer.”
“I don’t get it,” Julie said when he finished.
I took a slug of beer.
“What’s it about?” Susan added.
“It’s not something for a greeting card,” Julie remarked.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Flint sneered. “That’s something The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly would publish, not a lousy greeting card.”
I coughed. Beer spurted out my nose.
“Julie writes poetry for greeting cards,” Susan explained, “and is quite successful at it.”
“Greeting cards?!” Flint guffawed.
Julie jettisoned out of her seat. She headed towards the door.
I took money out of my wallet and dropped it on the table.
“I’ll be back,” I said to Susan.
“I’ll be okay. I can’t leave without Julie. She’s driving. I’ll wait here for her.”
I followed Julie. She was athletic, and I had already envisioned a second date with the four of us playing tennis, Flint’s favorite sport where the lowest score was ‘love.’
“Love means you got nothing, but you gotta have balls to play,” Flint always said.
She walked out the door to the side parking lot. I caught up when she turned down a dark road that led to a nearby subdivision carved out of an orange grove.
“Let’s take a walk,” I suggested when I saw the anger on her face.
“I’ve never met... I’m not going to say it,” she fumed.
“He’s drunk,” I said, trying to apologize.
“He needs to think about other people’s feelings. What’s wrong with writing for greeting cards? It’s challenging,” she said.
“I don’t buy many greeting cards,” I admitted.
“Women love them. It shows that you are thinking about them. And by the way, you were supposed to be with Susan, and I was supposed to be with HIM,” she said.
“I get it. You’re upset because you got stuck with me instead of Flint! If that’s what pissed you off, let’s go back, and I’ll say something.”
I was used to it. Women preferred Flint to me. Who could really blame them? I was going to college but I was blue collar and worked in a battery factory. From one to ten on the excitement factor I was a minus ten. Flint was a biker novelist waiting to inherit his mother’s estate in Virginia. In tennis parlance that was match point.
“I’m going back anyway,” she said and turned in the opposite direction.
When we got to the parking lot, we both stopped in our tracks.
“That’s disgusting,” Julie groaned.
Godammit. I agreed.
Susan’s back was pressed against the galvanized metal fence surrounding the parking lot. Her blouse was open. Their mouths were locked together.
“I’m leaving,” Julie shouted.
Her voice interrupted them, and Susan broke away from Flint.
“I’ve got to go. Julie’s my ride,” she said.
She balled up her brassiere, buttoned her blouse, then walked hastily to Julie’s car. It didn’t take long before both women got in and sped away.
“You were supposed to be with Julie, and I was supposed to be with Susan.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
"I don’t know. I guess I should have. We’ll never see them again. They were goddesses too. They hated us.”
“Susan didn't hate me," Flint said.
Goddammit, he was right. He took the poem “Natty Bumpo Rides Again” out of his shirt pocket. Her phone number was scribbled on the bottom of it.
"I owe you,” he said.
* * *
By Philip Goldberg
Luke wrapped his hands, large and strong for a 13-year-old, around the lawn mower’s handle. It was Saturday morning, and he was standing in Mrs. King’s front yard. A Canadian chill rode the stiff breeze, severing orange and brown leaves from their branches. He rubbed his reddened hands and blew warm air on them. A flick of the mower’s switch and it growled to life. His fingers stung from the motor’s vibrations as he pushed up and down the yard. On an upward swing he saw Mrs. King waving at him as she stood in a window framed by yellow curtains. The sun struck the glass and bathed her in a golden aura. He waved back.
Since Mrs. King had moved north from Mississippi three years ago, he had been mowing her lawn. About her, he knew little. She served hot chocolate to him on frosty mornings and icy lemonade on hot summer days. She fed stray cats. Other small facts he had learned about her: She talked slowly and her voice resonated with the distinct twang of someone raised in the South. She never cursed (at least he had never heard her). Dresses, she never wore them. She had told him that she had moved around quite a bit before settling here. Two marriages and one divorce. Four children scattered about. Nine grandchildren. She hummed, mostly hymns. And sometimes she grimaced for seemingly no reason.
“I was a substitute teacher in Chattanooga for a few years,” she had said once as the two drank hot cocoa while sitting in her sun room.
“Why’d you quit?”
She sipped her chocolate then ran the tip of her tongue across her lips. The lips curled into a content smile. “How’s your cocoa?” He allowed their talk to move elsewhere.
He thought about her as he guided the mower over the lawn, the cut blades of grass mixing with the multi-colored leaves beneath his stained sneakers. Behind him, his shadow lengthened across the trimmed lawn. A few starlings could be heard in the trees as he turned the mower for the final stretch of turf.
When he finally flicked off the mower’s switch, he paused to survey his work. The look of the fresh-cut lawn filled him with a small pride. Then, he pushed the mower off the grass and rolled it along the path running to the side of the house to where the tool shed stood. He put it between a snow shovel and a rake. As he reached for the leaf blower, a squeal of tires assaulted his ears. He left the blower on its hook and raced from the shed.
Two black sedans were parked at the curb with their doors wide open. Men wearing navy blue coats with FBI written in white letters on their backs were standing in a group at Mrs. King’s front door.
Luke was confused and a little frightened. He jumped when a scarlet leaf broke off a branch, spun through the air and landed on his shoulder. With the back of his hand, he brushed the leaf off and watched it touch down on the lawn among the others.
Without ceremony, the men led Mrs. King away, her tan overcoat draped over her shoulders and covering her hands. As she passed him, she smiled. An agent helped her into the back seat of one of the cars and closed the door. Then both cars sped off down the tree-lined street and disappeared.
Luke stood at the edge of the lawn while the onlookers that had gathered returned to their homes. Then he sat down on the stiff grass and shut his eyes. His head was swimming with conflicted thoughts. At the sound of leaves crunching behind him, his eyes shot open and he turned his head to see his mother standing a few feet away.
She sat down and draped an arm around him. Looking into his uncertain eyes, she said: “Sometimes people aren’t who you think they are.”
“But she was nice,” he protested.
When they returned home an hour later, the television in the kitchen was on and Luke watched with morbid curiosity. “Cynthia Shifter, also known as Helene Jeanne King had been living in this area for nearly three years.”
On the screen was a photo of a young woman with striking auburn hair piled on top in a beehive. Luke stared at the younger, prettier Mrs. King.
“Shifter had been on the run for nearly thirty-five years, having never stood trial as the main accomplice in the murder of civil rights activist, Rodney Bean.”
It was incomprehensible. He shook his head as if it would make this more believable or understandable.
“Authorities had been tracking Shifter through many states until a recent tip heated up what had been a long, cold trail.”
He shut his eyes and balled his hands into fists. But he could still hear the newscaster. Opening his eyes, he grabbed the remote and switched off the set. Then, he walked to his room and sat on the bed. His mother appeared in the doorway.
“Feeling any better, babe?”
She leaned over to run a hand through his hair. But after a few moments, she left him alone again.
He stayed in the room for a few hours. Walking to the window and pulling the curtain away, he looked past his front yard. In the late afternoon light, shadows knifed across the freshly cut grass of Mrs. King’s lawn. The news trucks were still parked outside, although the reporters were nowhere to be seen. A few people gawked at the house from the sidewalk.
Luke left the room and went outside. He walked slowly toward the little yellow house. He stopped beside a lanky man with a scraggly beard. “Did you know her?” the man asked.
“Hope she gets what she deserves,” said a woman with pock-marked skin standing nearby.
Luke glared at her and barked: “She was a good person. Then he turned and stalked off down the street. A hard wind kicked up, and he thrust his hands into his coat pockets. Winter was coming, faster than expected.
He walked down familiar neighborhood streets. The scenery blurred. Night fell. The air grew colder, sharper, more biting. He pulled up his collar, protecting his exposed neck. His anger rose under the glowing street lights. Leaves swirled around him. His shoes kicked them up as he walked. He inhaled the frigid air. White steam flowed like car exhaust from his mouth. His teeth chattered. But the cold was calming to him, and soon he slowed and turned to head back home.
Later that night, much later, the buzz of the lawnmower broke the sleepy silence of the suburban street. Luke was pushing it across Mrs. King’s lawn. Behind him, her house stood unlit except for a single security lamp attached to the porch. Howls and barks soon added to the cacophony as the neighborhood dogs reacted to the buzz of the machine. Lights came on in the other houses on the block.
Neighbors began to gather on the sidewalk. “What the hell are you doing?” shouted one of them. But Luke stared straight ahead and continued to push the mower over the already cut grass. Patches of dirt appeared where he was wearing ruts into the sod with the wheels of the mower.
Luke’s mother pushed her way through the crowd of people. At the edge of what was once grass, she stopped for a moment, watching her son. Finally she stepped onto the lawn and walked to him. When he saw her, he shut off the mower. The silence was uncomfortable and soon people were turning to go back to their homes.
When the final neighbor had left, Luke stepped into his mother’s waiting arms and let them close in on him. She held tight. The glow of the street lamps made his blue eyes sparkle as he stared over her shoulder at Mrs. King’s lawn.
* * *
The Allure of Younger Men
By C.E. Hyun
Corey Siddig first saw Matthew on the San Francisco Muni, on that Wednesday morning she called in sick to work. He looked to be about twenty or twenty-one and was unpretentiously hipster, with his wide brown eyes, tight jeans, and dark green jacket. Over his shoulder was a bulging canvas bag adorned with badges. He stood leaning against a pole, clutching a giant sketchbook, looking so pretty and oblivious that Corey found it hard not to stare.
“You’re going through all that quarter-life angst,” Hayden had told her several weeks back when she said that she felt stuck, that she wanted to move forward with her life but didn’t know what it was that she should work towards.
Corey was twenty-four, next week turning twenty-five. Hayden was Vice President of Sales and Marketing where she worked and the boss of her boss.
“How do you get over it?” she had asked.
“Get married. Have kids. Take on another set of problems so that the old ones seem irrelevant.”
“That was reassuring. Thanks for giving me something to look forward to.”
Corey worked in the Marketing department of a Fortune 500 subsidiary that specialized in trendy electronics. Career-wise, it was her first real job, great on the resume and with many useful learning opportunities. She didn’t usually skip work for no reason but had decided she needed the break. She was good at what she did, but also increasingly aware that the reality of her job was to convince consumers who should be doing something constructive with their money to go spend it on some hot new thing that would be obsolete in less than a year. It was within this context that she first saw Matthew.
They got off at the same stop, at Market and Montgomery. Corey watched Matthew stride off down New Montgomery in the direction where a bunch of art museums were located. She wondered what he drew, if he did it for fun or planned to pursue it professionally. Then she wondered if he had a girlfriend, a pretty nymph sporting thrift store clothes and a flawless complexion, the latter the courtesy of a diet of organic, locally grown foods and all that exercise riding her fixed-gear bicycle.
As for Corey, she trudged toward Fisherman’s Wharf with the intention of playing tourist. She had no plan and if she had been hoping that inspiration would hit and what to do would magically reveal itself, she was mistaken. She ended up aimlessly wandering, depressed by the realization that she was wasting her day, counting down the hours as she would have done if she’d just gone on in to work.
She was still thinking about Matthew the next day at work. At twelve Corey grabbed her purse and keys. On the way out she met Hayden. He was just entering the building and took off his sunglasses as he saw her.
“Hey Corey. Lunchtime?”
“Yeah, meeting a friend.”
“No. A girl friend. You’ve met her before. My friend, Sam? Tall, dark hair, works at _____.”
“Your Berkeley friend. Where you two off to today?”
“That little Japanese place next to Panera.”
Hayden grinned. “Have a good time.”
“I will, thanks,” she said as she passed him. She didn’t need to turn around to know that Hayden had glanced back to watch her; she wore a pencil skirt well. Biting back a smile, she headed toward her car.
If Corey was completely honest, she had noticed Hayden her first day on the job, him amongst the many men she was introduced to that day. In that thirty-second introduction, she thought she glimpsed the fifty-year-old version of the man she had always searched for but never found in college. In school, she was surrounded by undergraduate boys who were as insecure about the real world as she was, and Corey wanted someone who was confident in his ability to navigate the corporate world. Then she met Hayden with his self-deprecating smile, his tendency to flirt with the ladies.
She never told anyone about her little crush. He was married and had two kids, the oldest of whom was in her second year of college. Even if he had been willing, there was a stickiness there that she knew, rationally, she wouldn’t be willing to deal with. But she was drawn to him; he made her curious. He was fun to talk to, refreshingly candid beneath his banter. He was someone she could admit her insecurities to.
“I’m telling you like it is. I work, get paid, go home, and play ATM,” Hayden told her when Corey said that his account of adult life gave her little to look forward to.
Corey’s eyes narrowed. “Right, your wife is just sitting around at home, doing her nails and shopping, while your kids take care of themselves.”
“No, my wife is an amazing woman, especially with our kids—they’re little hellions. They’re a blast,” he added at Corey’s look. “But they’re autonomous beings, have needs, make demands, do everything you don’t want them to do. They’re expensive. Worth the price but they drive you nuts.” He grinned. “What are you like with your parents? I bet you’re a completely different person than you are at work.”
“My sister Caitlin had the attitude. I was an angel.”
“Sure you were. My point is that whatever the rewards, family life comes with its own set of costs.”
“You’re not supposed to tell me these things.”
“You’re supposed to tell me how you made all the right decisions at my age and now you’re reaping the benefits. Or give me the inside scoop so I don’t make the same mistakes.”
“This is the inside scoop. Mess around and be selfish now. Don’t go into debt. You have a good job, make decent money. No reason you can’t start putting money toward a retirement account. Don’t get caught up in the materialistic frenzy that we promote around here. A house is an investment. These fancy gadgets we make aren’t.”
“Did you know what you wanted to do when you were my age?”
“Oh god no. I majored in Political Science, had vague notions of going to law school like every other liberal arts grad. My first job was in sales. I worked my way up, got my MBA. I fell into what I did. Most people do.”
It wasn’t a particularly inspiring revelation, but still. “I guess I can understand that.”
Hayden grinned at the look on her face. “I was in your position once, myself. You look at all of us old people and we depress you, and you look down on us, don’t you?”
“I-, what, no.”
“I have two teenage girls. Not entirely senile like you guys think. I see things.”
Corey smirked at that. “I have to get ready for a meeting.”
Corey met Matthew on her birthday. It was Tuesday and she was at a café-bar, waiting for her roommate to get out of class at UCSF. The café was packed and people were sharing tables. Corey got her drink and saw Matthew sitting alone, reading a book. He seemed distracted. He kept glancing up and staring around. She approached him and pointed to the chair opposite him.
“Anyone sitting here?”
He shook his head and she sat down. In another of his glances around the room, he caught her gaze. He smiled.
“What are you reading?” she asked.
He held up his book so she could see the cover.
“I was somehow able to avoid him all through high school and college. And I majored in English.” She pretended to consider his face. “I’ve seen you on the Muni. You hit me once with your giant sketchbook.”
“Yeah? Sorry about that.”
“I’m kidding. What do you draw?”
“I’m taking an anatomy class.”
“Are you an art student?”
“No, film. The art class is for fun.”
“That’s really neat.” She smiled. “I’m Corey.”
“What year are you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Third year at SF State.”
“I took a night class there about a year back.”
“Oh yeah, what class?”
“Photoshop and InDesign, for work.”
“Where do you work?”
She told him and he asked her what she did and how she liked it. Listening to herself speak, Corey realized she portrayed herself as a person who looked down on her job but was nonetheless a workaholic.
“So what do you do for fun?” Matthew asked.
Until then, he had spoken as one does with a casual stranger, no reason to be disinterested but no reason to care too much about what she had to say. He looked at her now as though her answer would determine the opinion he was forming about her. It took her back, and a feeling of deficiency came over her as she considered her answer. What did she do for fun? Watch TV, drink with friends, go shopping?
“I don’t know. I should start focusing more on that aspect of my life, shouldn’t I?”
Earlier that day, Hayden had caught up to Corey as she was leaving work. “I hear today’s your birthday,” he said. “Any special plans?”
“Not tonight. My sister and my friend Sam are coming up into the city this weekend, so we’re going out then.”
“Pick up some guys, have them buy your drinks?”
“Not a huge fan of strangers buying me drinks.”
Corey shrugged. “It just feels weird, receiving something when I know I’m not going to give anything in return.”
“For the pleasure of your five-minute company.”
“You’re not going to shatter the guy’s heart into a thousand pieces. He offered to buy. He didn’t have to.” When Corey didn’t say anything, Hayden said, “you need to open your mind. You’re a good-looking girl. You live in the city. You’re telling me you can’t find any guy that interests you? What are you waiting for?”
“True love. Instant chemistry. The other half to my power couple.”
“Well until you find him, have some fun. You can plan and detail as much as you want, but real life is trial and error and luck.”
“Maybe you should try someone older, if guys your own age don’t interest you.”
Corey looked at Hayden and wondered if he had ever cheated on his wife. She’d met plenty of flirts. But what did she really know about those who took it further? “Or someone younger,” she said.
“No, you don’t want to date younger guys.”
“Come on, I was at that age once, and all my friends. We were just-. I know what I was thinking then, things you wouldn’t want to know about.”
“Right, because as you get older, you just naturally become more honorable.”
“No, we grow up. Stop taking things for granted. Start realizing who it is that has the control.”
“That’s a nice move, conceding your power like that.”
“Hey, it worked on my wife. Besides we have to humble up as we get more competition. The women start looking twice at the nerds.”
Corey smiled. “I think dating a younger guy would be fun.”
She saw Matthew again that weekend at a dance club in the Mission. He wore a light blue dress shirt, holding a drink in his hand. She saw him dance with several girls so perhaps they were his friends and not a girlfriend. The girls looked younger than her.
He saw her later when she was coming back from the bar; he must have come from the restroom. “Hey… Corey, right?”
“Good memory. I keep seeing you everywhere.”
“Yeah, do you come here often?”
“No, not for over a year.”
“What’s the special occasion?”
“I’m celebrating my birthday.”
Matthew looked her over. “Late twenties. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight.”
“Ouch. Try twenty-five.”
He smiled. “It’s because you come across as more the put-together type.”
“Thanks… I think.”
She moved aside for a trail of new arrivals, putting her in closer proximity to Matthew. She glanced past him, noticing the pool table lit up in red and the dance floor vaguely blue behind it, the figures shadowed and blurred. Close to him, she didn’t move away. She met his eyes, trying to gauge his interest.
He noticed and said, “I have a girlfriend.”
“Sorry.” Corey glanced out toward the dance floor, wondering if his girlfriend was out among the bunch of girls she had seen him with.
Watching them, she felt herself overcome by a strange panic. She was used to being noticed at work, what with good-looking twenty-somethings being something of a novelty in the corporate world. Here at the club though, it didn’t matter. She would never register on Matthew’s radar because she was already too old.
She watched those young, imperfect girls, who had fun and were simultaneously arrogant and insecure about their ability to attract boys, their clothes that might be trendy but not yet their own style. They were more beautiful and desirable in their awkwardness than Corey could ever dream of being, no matter how fetching her clothes, how perfect her figure, how far she advanced in her career. They possessed something she had lost—exactly when had she lost it?—that lack of awareness, that damning self-consciousness, when you know you are not invincible, but that you must perfect the art of appearing invincible.
She felt Matthew watching her. “Is she here?”
“Yeah, she’s here.”
“Where’d you two meet?”
“I met her at school.”
“How long have you been with your girlfriend?” she asked.
“A little over a year.”
Corey nodded. She knew then that if she wanted Hayden, she would be the one who would have to make the first move. It was a strange power, knowing that she could have him if she wanted him, the power she had in not having yet lived her life, the chance to do things differently.
She met Matthew’s gaze. “You’re an attractive guy. I thought that, the first time I saw you. I don’t know why I didn’t see it when I was your age.” Back then, she wouldn’t have looked twice. It wouldn’t have occurred to her that his type was one she could be drawn to. “I better go and find my friends. Thanks for indulging an older woman in conversation. Yeah,” Corey smiled, cutting Matthew off when he opened his mouth to speak. “You thought I was twenty-eight. That’s okay. Just wish me a happy birthday.”
* * *
By Jason Hibbitts
Late fall. A dearth of stars hover in wide gaps over someone else’s plastic wading pool. Water not even deep enough to cover anything proper. You haven’t yet understood the naturist impulses of your parents, their need to trespass. So you make a water-angel while your mother and father examine a bed of violets. Your father, always brave enough to pick a few, offers to dress your mother in flowers. He begins with the crevices of her body: a petal behind each of her ears, one on the inside of her elbows, and two more between her breasts. He measures his work for a moment, finds it wanting. But then he threads a few stems through the hairs of your mother’s pubis, crossing the blooms wherever he can. His work now complete.
“And you are going to get us in trouble,” your mother answers. Already, her outfit is wilting and falling from her. She can’t even wear this, you think.
No matter. You have brownbagged stars for a mild distraction, all of their light stuffing into morning. Constellations seem more like a convention of every connect-the-dots puzzle you never finished. Both dippers are without their handles. And Orion seems to share your family’s exposure with the absence of his belt. Don’t let the small laughter bubbles escape to the surface at this realization. And don’t forget to forgive yourself years later when you break your parents only rule of absolute silence by screaming for help after some water you swallow finds the wrong pipe. It is only a mouthful or two.
An itemized list of things you should not have to remember:
1) Sudden eye pollution of porchlight.
2) The ear sting of a siren in the front yard.
3) A game of tug-of-war between your mother and the uniformed officer with you as the rope.
4) Petals from your mother’s flower garden ears snowing on your face.
5) The cinched Salvation Army tie at your throat as you ride to your first foster home—Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Exclude yourself from these things tonight. Drive to a town you haven’t been through at three am. Find a public pool. Strip. Seek only the ripples of water and flesh. Breaststroke and devil-may-care backstroke. Let your genitals be free to observe the cacophony of a life free of zippered exclusion. Wish for the last of this summer humidity to brave others into your discovery. After all, swimming is a lesser, more lyric form of flight. In small measures, crack your mouth into a smile and swallow. Only enough to keep your mouth from drying this time. Try to remember the percentage of human tissue comprised of water, though it will not seem adequate one you do. If you can, flex your muscles until they split into tiny waves and swim away into molecules more hydrogen than air.
* * *
Two Stories by Michael Kroeshe
The Pool Boy Gets A Day Off
It was the late afternoon and the lawn furniture and pool chairs cast long shadows on the patio. The yard was suburban. There was a pinwheel shaped like a sunflower in the garden with water spots on it. A baseball bat was lying near the edge of the swimming pool, looking plain next to the brightly colored pool toys floating in the water. Earl stood about three feet back from the edge, a red cooler filled with ice and a six-pack of Keystone Lights next to him. As the sun began to dip down, he looped his thumb under his belt and took a sip of beer.
At the sound of the sliding glass door opening and closing, followed by the thud of cowboy boots, Earl scratched the back of his head and said "That you, Ted?"
"Yeah. Marlene let me in. Those cookies she was baking smelled great."
"Yup. She makes some damn good cookies. You want a beer Ted?"
"Sure thing." he replied, walking up next to Earl, the cooler between them.
"So Earl, what is it you wanted me to see so bad you got me to drag my butt over here on a Tuesday afternoon?"
"There's a shark in my pool."
Ted looked down into the water and, just as Earl had said, there was indeed a shark in the swimming pool. It was swimming in circles underneath the shadow cast by the diving board. The scales as it passed in the fading sunlight glinted like aluminum pop tops, the smooth body curving in the water. It was seven feet long, pointed at the tip like sewing needle, and dark oblong spots lined the upper half of its body. The coiled muscles rolled with every turn as its tail moved back and forth. Ted stood there for a moment perplexed, his brow creased while Earl just continued to sip on the cold beer in his hand. For a moment, the only sound was the glass wind chime hanging from the eave of the house, and water gently lapping the pool in small waves as the shark moved in circles near the white cement edge of the pool.
Finally, Ted spoke up and said, "Is it real?"
“It's real. Real enough that Jeremy threw a steak in the pool, one of the good ones Marlene bought today mind you, to see if it'd eat it or not. The neighbor’s dog got so excited that it jumped in after the meat. It was a mess."
"Oh. That explains why I didn't hear Bull barking his head off when I came up the driveway."
"Yeah it's a damn shame,” Earl said, allowing himself a small grin. “You should’ve seen the look on Mrs. Cooper’s face as the dog leapt over the chain link fence."
The two men stood there for a few more minutes in silence as the shark swam in circles in the deep end as if hunting the inner tube floating anxiously on the surface. Ted grabbed two more cans out of the cooler and, tossing one of them to Earl, and said, "I think it's a tiger shark."
"You'd be right. Saw a special about them on the Animal Planet. Apparently they can be right mean. Bite you if they have half a mind to."
"I thought sharks and the like couldn't live in chlorine."
"'Fraid this one can."
Ted reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. He took two of the cigarettes out of the box and handed one to Earl. As they lit up, there was a quiet splash followed by a hissing sound.
"Well, that son of a bitch just got his jaws on my inner tube."
"Yes, he does Earl. Look at those teeth! Hate to get chomped by those suckers like your inner tube there."
"You better believe it. And look, he's got little rows of 'em all lined up like the edges of a hacksaw."
Ted dropped his cigarette and crushed it under the toe of his cowboy boot and watched as the plastic remains of the inner tube began to sink to the bottom of the pool. The shark just kept swimming.
"So, you gonna keep it or what? Make some soup out of it?"
"Naw. You know Marlene isn't into that Asian cooking stuff. Hell, she won't even eat out at the Red Dragon on 3rd. I gave Dale a call down at the pest control. After he stopped pissin' himself from laughing so hard he said he'd make some calls and someone would be by tomorrow to take care of it."
The two men stood there for a moment longer watching the shark move through the water like quicksilver, the scales giving off a final glare as the sun dropped below the horizon. Earl spat unconsciously on to the lawn behind him.
"I gotta call the pool boy before it gets too late. Tell him he has the day off tomorrow. I'd invite you to dinner Ted but the extra steak got used up feeding that shark."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Marlene grills a mean steak, Earl."
"That she does.”
Julie Dumps Jared
The kettle whistles and clucks with a tinny ping on the stovetop, the blue flames licking around the blackened chrome ring of its base. Jared walks over and turns the black knob down, grabs a rag, and the kettle slips from a shrill yell to silence. He pours the boiling water into a putty-colored mug and steam rises from its mouth. He stirs four spoons of sugar into tea and blows over the rim of the mug, the steam escaping and dissipating away from his face. Through the open window of the kitchen the birds were enervated, chirping away madly and enjoying the spring warmth that had finally blossomed.
He stands in the kitchen with the mug cupped in both hands. He is wearing blue slippers, and his white ankles are exposed and covered in coarse black hairs. He is still in his checkered bathrobe even though it is 3:00 in the afternoon, and it hangs loosely around his thin waist, the robe’s tie cinched loosely in a square knot. His face is unshaven, the five o’clock shadow carpeting his prominent chin line and around the light pink of his lips. He has a wild cowlick on the back left side of his thin brown hair, spidering up and out in a crest away from his skull. Taking his first sip of the tea, he walks back to the living room and carefully sits down on the couch, sinking into the crevice of the cushions.
There is the sound of a key clacking in the entrance to the apartment and the deadbolt slides into the door. Julie walks in and sets her purse on the table near the door and, pausing to hook a finger in the back strap of her stilettos, slides the black shoes off. She has a large white shopping bag clutched in the hand she is using to brace herself against the wall. She is thin and pretty, despite her large feet. Her red hair is straightened and hangs in a shiny curtain around her well-proportioned face. She wears little makeup, and light freckles spot her nose and elegant cheekbones.
“Hey Jules, you’re home early,” says Jared, sitting up and setting down the half-emptied mug of tea.
Julie says nothing and she isn’t smiling. She looks at Jared and then moves towards the bedroom, the shopping bag swaying back and forth with every barefoot step across the living room. She disappears into the bedroom and, opening the folding doors to their closet, pulls out a large, clunky suitcase. Jared gets up from the sofa with a worried look.
“What’s with the suitcase, Jules? Are you going to visit your family or something?”
Julie presses to steel buttons and the toothy latches flip open with a loud clack. She sighs and leans on the suitcase, her red hair cascading down and hiding her face.
“No, Jared, I’m not going to visit my family. I’m leaving you.”
Julie begins emptying the drawers of her dresser, stuffing clothes haphazardly into the suitcase, bra cups crumpling and pressed into a corner. Jared stands stock still, cow-eyed, his mouth hanging open in shock. He is still too stunned to speak or move as Julie violently shuts the suitcase and fastens the clasps as quickly as her thin fingers can. Jared finally snaps back into consciousness and begins to stammer.
“Jules… please… you’re joking right? We’ve been living together for three years! I love you, you can’t be leaving!”
“I’ve met someone Jared. His name is Robert. He’s coming to pick me up soon.”
Jared is reduced to silence again as a knock comes from the door.
“That’s him now.”
Julie walks to the door and opens it and standing in the threshold is a clown. A large blue wig balloons out in wiry curls from his head. His face is covered in white makeup, a black tear painted just below his right eye. His jumpsuit is yellow with black and blue checkers patterned all over it, ending in frilly cuffs around the neck, ankles, and wrists like cupcake wrappers. His shoes are large and red, like squashed bell peppers, the yellow laces neatly tied. Jared just looks at him.
“You ready to go, babe? We’ve got a show in a couple hours.”
“I just need to get ready, can you wait a bit? I’m still finishing things with Jared here.”
Julie returns to the bedroom and strips down to her underwear. She reaches into the shopping bag and pulls out a large baggy jumpsuit patterned in blue and red polka dots, ending in frilled cuffs like Robert’s. After putting it on and zipping up the large zipper on the front, she ties her mass of red hair back into a tight bun that presses to her head. She takes a makeup case out from the shopping bag and, white-tipped sponge in hand, begins dabbing makeup under her eyes. She paints her cheekbones in small touches, covering the freckles.
“Jared, this just hasn’t been working. You’re still in your bathrobe for Christ’s sake. We’ve grown apart. I need something new.”
Jared steps back and flops onto the couch, his expression numb and blank. He begins to cry, and Robert begins examining the doorframe in embarrassment.
“But… but Jules… this is so sudden. I mean, three years. What am I supposed to do?” he says between sobs, his robe falling open revealing his undefined upper body and striped boxers.
Julie finishes applying the white makeup, her face blank and stark against the red of her hair. She takes a small paintbrush and paints a bright yellow star onto her right cheek. Her fingers move delicately up and down, her wrist perfectly still.
“See, that’s another thing. You haven’t listened to me. I’ve told you a hundred times that I hate being called 'Jules'. My name is Julie.”
She finishes painting the yellow star, and puts the paintbrush and makeup case back into the shopping bag. She takes a poofy canary yellow wig out from the bag and carefully places it on her head, covering her red hair.
“You need to do something with your life Jared. Everything has just been so stagnant. High heels, black pantsuits, spaghetti every Thursday for dinner, and you always in that damn checkered bathrobe. I don’t care if you work out of home, but you could have at least tried shaving and dressing up for me once in awhile.”
She takes a novelty bowtie out from the bag the size of a placemat and fastens it around her neck. She then sits on the bed and ties a pair of enormous red shoes identical to Robert’s around her feet, carefully lacing them as if working a sewing needle. Julie stands and as she takes a few steps towards the door the shoes making an awful honking noise.
“I mean, look at you, Jared. How could I ever take you seriously?”
Robert picks up Julie’s suitcase and says, “If you’re ready, we can leave.”
Julie looks at Jared as he remains sitting on the sofa, eyes red with sobbing and says, “Goodbye, Jared. It was fun.”
The honking sounds of Julie and Robert’s shoes grow distant as they move down the hallway into the parking lot. Jared stands up and moves to the doorway, not bothering to try and close his bathrobe, and stares at Julie as she climbs into the passenger side of a garishly painted van. “Robert-O!” is painted in glaring apple red, surrounded by polka dots of every color above a phone number. He cries quietly and wipes his face as the van drives off, Julie’s yellow wig shaking in the wind blowing through the open window of the van.
* * *
Leap of Faith
By Susan Kirchoff
September 7, 2006 12:08 AM Charlotte, North Carolina
I look around and she surrounds me. She permeates every detail of this house. She is in the details of this self-imposed prison of nineteen years and I find myself adrift on a sea of memories.
The little kitten looks up unblinking from the pillow she is embroidered on. The closet in the guest bedroom overflows with half-finished sewing projects that will never be completed. My mother immersed herself in an unending supply of complicated projects to pass the time – the years – to stave off insanity – her mind embittered by the ugliness of betrayal in her marriage. I am the guest in this room.
I have returned to my mother’s side to be with her at the end of her life. She lies in her temporary medical bed dropped off by the hospice people in her living room struggling to remain here – to make up for lost time and laugh and smile with me and tell me everything before it is truly time to go. We have nearly 20 years of life to condense into the short time she has left.
She struggles to stay.
I cannot say exactly what happened that kept us apart for 19 years. There was no one defining moment. I feel as though I am as much to blame as she is. She was so broken by my father’s infidelities and I was unable to help her process. I was graduating from college and she didn’t want my father there and I didn’t want to take a stand against anybody. I was so happy to be graduating – I just wanted it to be about me.
She didn’t attend and there was tension. After that I can only say there was a phone call between us and then there was a lost mother, a lost daughter and then the silence began.
I spent the years waiting for an opening yet it never came until now – when I know she is too weak to hang up the phone or slam a door in my face (would she have slammed the door in my face if I had shown up on her doorstep?)
It is so tragic that I have come just for the end. My heart is heavy.
Just the three people that she brought into this world surround my mother.
I see signs of Christmas everywhere – yet I know she spent her Christmas’ alone. She didn’t quite get the decorations put away this year - she must have been sick for a long time and didn’t bother to try to get well. It is so odd to see the decorations now, all the nutcrackers and angels so lonely and out of sync with the world. Certainly it could be a metaphor for my mother’s own life. Sometimes it is a leap of faith to keep believing in the good that the world has to offer.
She removed me from her will. I don’t know when – but she did it. She wanted no part of me and wanted to make sure I would get no part of her.
Now that I am here, she is insistent about making sure I will take things. She is worried that nobody wants anything, as though she didn’t matter. She wants to be validated.
She bought a ring with my birthstones in it a few years back and asked me to bring it from her jewelry box. She told me today the story of my birth. I had never heard it before. A mother doesn’t forget even if she chooses to be alienated. I accepted the ring this afternoon because she told me she was thinking of me when she bought it.
I will think of her when I wear it.
I feel time pressing in on me, on us. Our mid-morning chats will end soon and I will be truly alone after that. I will know that there isn’t any chance for us to be reunited like what I waited for during the past nineteen years. It will just be the end.
I told her I loved her and she said it back.
I can’t breathe.
My tears threaten to drown me.
September 7, 2006 11:07 AM EST
There will be no conversations with my mother this morning. The pill for nausea has the side effect of sleep. She sleeps. I look for the quiet rise and fall of the blanket covering her so I know she hasn’t left yet.
I had looked forward to our conversation this morning; she has released information never told before. Her sickness has opened doors. I am not sure if it is the approach of death or maybe just the morphine but I have been afforded the chance to know this private, dignified woman – my mother. I wanted to tell her today that her life mattered. That she gave a lot to us kids – good and bad, but I can forgive the bad. I wanted to offer her forgiveness.
Wake up so I can tell you.
I reflect on all that she has told me, a lifetime of impressions and memories giving me insight into her and the way my brother and sister and I were raised. Suddenly things make sense. The quiet of the morning allows me space for my emotions. I am glad I didn’t bother to put on make-up today – it would have been washed away already.
But I have more questions.
Please don’t go yet.
September 7, 2006 12:45 PM
The clock chimes the passing of time. I am grateful for its persistent marking of the hour; otherwise I think I would be lost in the swirl. My memories float around me as I walk noiselessly through the rooms. . I find my first oil painting, a stained glass owl (from the 70’s), linen handkerchiefs and the fateful college graduation announcement.
The house is a time capsule of my life too.
September 9, 2006 12:07 AM
Yesterday was a bad day. I guess it was the turning point. She was lucid for less than an hour. No time to talk, just maintenance - hospice care at home.
Resolve has come and now there is anticipation of the finish of all the suffering.
Her passing is a difficult one.
I haven’t slept for days. Her ragged breathing fills the house with its sound - night and day. The air inside the house is dense with confusion and sadness. My brother, sister and I are empty.
We are exhausted.
My sister’s dog stayed close all day. She and my brother were out for most of the day again and he sat on my lap while I sat at the dining table writing and reading. He knows, and perhaps he sees. He was growling at the doorway to her room today. She was lying in her bed with the sun filtering through the trees and window and lighting the room with a soft golden glow. She appeared to be in negotiations – her mouth silently moving and her face expressing a plethora of emotions.
She is talking to her ancestors as they coax her over to the other side.
September 10, 2006 2:10 PM
I am perplexed by my mother’s record keeping. She kept a yearly calendar and filled each page with events and happenings. I want to read between the lines. I feel as though she was marking time. Ordering. Organizing records to survive after her life here. She didn’t want to forget – she didn’t want to get lost.
I have been looking through the house and re-visiting her treasures. There are things that I have seen my whole life so far. Some of the mysteries have been solved through our conversations, yet some will remain mysteries. I try to float on the memories to avoid the ugliness of the reality. There will be a dismantling of her home. Decisions will throw chaos into the silent order of my mother’s home – her life disrupted by the surprise (the surprise?) of cancer and her approaching death.
She had plans to continue her garden. I want to finish it for her but I know I won’t.
Nothing is permanent. Nothing can be counted on except death.
We await hers.
September 11, 2006
My mother died at 12:05 PM today.
All is lost.
September 25, 2006 10:50PM Los Angeles, CA
I wait until the house is quiet, the kids sleeping peacefully, my husband away and I open the door to my sadness. It washes over me and makes my breath come out in staccato gasps. My face is wet from the tears that flow from the deep well of sorrow.
I often wondered through the years what I would feel when my mother would die and be truly gone forever. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to feel anything.It is said that when your relationship is strained the pain or sorrow is greater.
I try to make sense of what has happened but fail to come up with answers. I think of my mother trying to do the same. I am part of her. I want to recede into a fog. I want to isolate myself with only things I love. I want to escape the reality of the daily drudgery of life and float away.
I feel lost.
I am aware of my breath. I flash on the image of her chest rising and falling underneath the blanket. The printed butterflies on her hospital gown stained with purple from the liquid Morphine.
I watched the last breath leave her.
A final push off the wall as she took flight.
I sat in her garden that afternoon and looked for her in the trees. The wind ruffled the leaves but she wasn’t there. She was gone.
She lived in a brick house with black and white trim; austere and unimaginative but the house was surrounded by her incredible, magical Japanese garden.
My sister told me she buried her dog underneath the exquisite Japanese maple tree. I imagine her digging a hole and laying the body in it. Did she cry, I wonder.
Did the dog die from lung cancer too?
I think of the lists that she wrote, they were her company; her voice resonating throughout the NFL football statistics year after year. I think it was her anchor – a way to stay here; a way to remain. Nineteen years of solitude. Nobody visited her. No one ever came by her home.
I thought she hated me, but I am a mother too and I am sure it is impossible to hate your children. I know that now.
It was herself that she hated.
I wonder if her incessant smoking was her way of committing suicide? My mind wanders through the facts and I try to order it.
I try to find a way to be at peace but I stumble upon my anguish.
I am lost.
I am treading water in the well of sorrow with my eyes closed.
I was angry she wasn’t there when I gave birth to my first son. She never called, no note. Nothing. Silence.
When I gave birth to my second son I wasn’t angry because I knew she wasn’t going to come or call or send a note. There would ust be more silence.
But I saw their birthdays marked down in the calendars. It is strangely comforting. I will take it. I will take any crumb.
She would have loved my boys.
September 27, 2006 11:56 PM
The boxes containing my mother’s belongings arrived today; I requested few things.
I wanted only items that inspired happy memories – selective memories. I think I have so many confused feelings that I edited my choices carefully.
Unwrapping the delicate porcelain teacups and setting them down in my house felt odd. I imagine she would be glad the teacups their way to my home and were not given to a local charity. She really wanted to know that her things would be looked after and wanted. It must be so strange to know you are about to die. But I think maybe for her it was a release from her suffering and she desired it.
The finality of her death again is brought forward because I can’t ask her. I have so many questions.
There is such a void.
November 1, 2006 9:14 AM
It is coming on two months since my mother died. It has become a memory instead of an incident. The pain and sorrow have been replaced by numbness.
My sister says she misses calling her for a chat. I don’t miss her because I had already lost her nineteen years prior when she decided to quit communicating with my brother and I.
I don’t miss her.
But my heart hurts when I remember the lonely life she lived. I don’t want to be like her.
I struggle to keep my head above the cold waters of solitude.
I won’t be like that.
November 6, 2006 10:12 PM
I have become the guardian of a collection of my mother’s Bonsai plants, or are they called Bonsai trees? Or perhaps just Bonsai’s. They are perfect specimens – little masterpieces.
My mother was always an avid gardener when I was young. She always said she wanted a Japanese garden someday. When I arrived at her home in North Carolina I was stunned by the perfect and beautiful Japanese garden that encompassed her entire yard. It was her canvas.
One of the few things I did take from my mother’s home was her notebook on the care of these rare and delicate plants. It is a testament to her obsession with these trees.
It is all hand-written with a sharp pencil. There are small descriptive paragraphs and photos cut from magazines and pasted on the pages as well as price tags and labels that come from the source. There are years of notes detailing when to pinch the leaves, when to fertilize, when to water. There are charts on which tree gets full sun or partial shade, the time of year best for re-potting and when each of her little trees had its maintenance done.
My mother studied and figured out the formulas for optimum growth.
Now I look at these perfect specimens and I worry about them. Their futures are uncertain in my hands.
December 22, 2006 3:23 PM
I have a line from a song stuck in my head today. All day I am hearing the repetition of this line, ‘haunted , haunted by the past…” but that is it – no beginning and no end, just the fragment.
Now that song haunts me –I am doomed to be haunted. Haunted, haunted by the past.
How does one deal with sorrow – with death? Is being “haunted’ really about having feelings that haven’t been resolved?
Uncategorized feelings. We want to put everything into compartments so we can have order.
Order from the inevitable chaos of death.
Chaos describes my feelings. My mother died and everything is so unresolved. I want to burst into tears (I often do), I want to breathe a sigh of relief (I do that too). I want to scream in anger and fight someone with my fists. I am so mad with her.
Nobody knows how I feel. In the end, nobody cares.
We are all living separate lives and we have separate identities. We look for moments when they overlap and find similarities. We grasp these fleeting moments of shared realities and build dreams and lives upon them but they are sandcastles.
I drive too fast down the coast highway alone in the dark. The only light is the reflected light from my headlights and the soft glow from the lights on my dashboard. My hands are gripping the steering wheel - my knuckles are white. My face is wet with tears.
What does it all mean while we are here?
* * *
A Bow for Love
By Robert Lamon
Canada Geese honked overhead, and I stopped to watch them as they flew by in perfect formation. I always stopped to look as they flew, or grazed in a field, or strolled with their goslings. Their existence seemed so orderly, so sensible—and most important of all, they each took a single mate for life.
My own life had come apart more than once, which likely explains my fascination with the geese. Twice I married the wrong girl. I blame myself for this, of course. The mismatch in each case should have been obvious, but the beauty of both women, each a distillation of the purest physical femininity, blinded me. I dare say, this often happens to those unsung creatures—American men. But I’m rich through inheritance and should have realized I might easily be married for my money. I knew I lacked charm, though, if I may say so, I wasn’t all that bad looking.
My first wife, Ruth Ann, was a writer of sorts. I made her comfortable and provided what she needed for her writing, and she no longer had to fish for grants. She had a pleasant study overlooking the woods and the very best IBM Selectric typewriter. When a computer became an essential tool, I bought her a state-of–the art model. She was svelte, willowy and desirable, and when she wasn’t writing, or sleeping beside me, she was making wine lists for her friends, or trading recipes, or advising couples about weddings.
I truly loved her and admired her versatility. But one day, shortly after our seventh wedding anniversary, she announced she was leaving me. One of her old flames had shown up at a wine shop where she happened to be browsing. He was a writer himself and, as they say, hungering for experience. And so, off they went together. After the divorce, our two children visited me each week, and I agreed to pay for their college education.
A year later, not having learned my lesson, I married again. I met my second wife, Melissa—blond, beautiful, and poised—at my dining club where she was a regular. Without realizing it, I had done the chic thing—I had joined a club and hardly ever gone there. Thus, when I did show up in my blazer and bow tie, usually with a business partner, the other members were surprised, and I got attention. Here I should mention that I wasn’t content to live on the returns from my inheritance. I had invested in two local automobile dealerships, a beer distributorship, and a luxury apartment complex. I was well known in the local business world.
Anyway, Melissa and I got married—much too soon—and settled in my same old homestead. She was skilled in the art of lovemaking, and having her beside me provided some passionate moments. But properly dressed in the daytime, we hardly ever spoke of anything of importance, beyond what I should buy next. After five years and one child, Melissa declared us incompatible, took our child, and went to live in our second home in the mountains—she later got it in the divorce settlement. I agreed to pay for our child’s college education. I was doing my part in populating the educated elite.
After my second divorce, I decided I was simply out of step with the wedded world. I had always thought of myself as a pretty good guy. I was fair in my business dealings, contributed money and time to the local mission, and donated to the usual charities. Despite my two divorces, I had thoughts of running for mayor. But as for women—I was now determined to avoid them. Oh—I must admit, I did consider sneaking out of town to some high-class whorehouse, or making a discreet call to one of those escort services. They were the simplest and cheapest ways to satisfy the needs of a still-vigorous male. Yet they were seedy, however discreet I might be. After all, I would know what I was doing—even if the world didn’t.
In any event, there I was, in my forties, in good health, with my waistline still firm and narrow. My businesses were all doing well. I drove a BMW for workaday missions and a vintage Corvette for fun. My only concerns about women were the two monthly checks I sent to Ruth Ann and Melissa. Then I got that letter from the Sheriff summoning me to Jury Duty. As always, I was willing to serve.
I was sitting in the Jury Room, when the Clerk of the Jurors announced that a trial was about to begin. All the prospective jurors filed out of the room, and down the hall, and into the Superior Court room. I was seated as Juror Six—Juror Seven was an attractive, but not beautiful nurse. She was talkative in a very pleasant Southern way, and we seemed to hit it off, though at first, I wasn’t paying her much attention.
Anyway, the defendant in the court case was an immigrant hero, who had a wife, a mistress, and a part-time girlfriend, and decided to enjoy sexual freedom at the expense of his nine-year-old daughter. As the trial dragged on, we heard all the awful evidence establishing the nature of the crime and the identity of the criminal. And needing a pleasant interlude, the nurse, Effie Jamison, and I began having lunch together. After our jury’s verdict was read and the defendant put in handcuffs, Effie and I agreed to get together sometime, and we dated and eventually married. And as amazing as it seems, our marriage lasted, and lasted.
Now here is a curious thing about our union. I have always preferred bow ties, a taste I inherited from my father—neither he nor I ever wore the phony clip-on kind. But I often had trouble getting them neatly tied, and when I did, my patience would desert me. On the other hand, Effie could tie a bow tie to perfection. She always got the tie straight and the ends exactly even. And so, before I went to my office, and whenever we went to a banquet, or to a friend’s wedding, or later to a friend’s funeral, Effie would always tie my tie just right. Then she would gaze at me with her gentle eyes and kiss me on the cheek, and we would embrace. And each time she tied my tie, our love was somehow renewed. I think our long romance was sustained by those lovely moments—and my bow tie.
* * *
By Michael Pacheco
Paul knew the corporate world could swallow careless people whole. He’d read about the pressures of success and the long trail of ruined lives left in its wake. But oh, what he’d give for just a taste of it.
He was tired of slaving away at minimum wage. He’d seen his parents do that for years and even now they paid more interest than principal on their mortgage.
Paul’s career seemed destined to follow the same path. He and his two friends, Kellen and Billy, had started their careers at Morgan Getty in the same month. But going into their third year, none of them was getting rich and they weren’t getting any younger. Something had to change.
Kellen was considering marrying his girlfriend and moving on. Billy was content to collect a paycheck for another year and hope the economy would improve.
Of the three, Paul was the scrappy kid with promise. Long ago, he’d traded membership in the blue collar crowd for a career in stocks and financial trading. He was twenty six and Ivy-educated, a Harvard and Wharton graduate. He was his mother’s hope for the future, the son, the entrepreneur only his mother had backed.
“Hey, Paul,” called Billy, sticking his bushy red head into Paul’s office.
Paul lifted his gaze from the computer screen.
Billy grinned. “The boss says you’re a faggot!”
Paul forced a smile out of kindness. “She didn’t say that.” He turned back toward the monitor.
Marie VanAllen was his supervisor and a senior partner of the firm. The recently divorced beauty, who was five years older than Paul, had invited him twice to dinner. Out of sheer nervousness, he declined both times. He never should’ve told his friends because since then, he’d become the butt of their jokes, challenging his manhood.
Just to mess with Billy’s mind, Paul shot back, “You keep that up, I’ll make you my girlfriend.”
The smile left Billy’s face. “You’re gross.”
Kellen’s head popped up over Billy’s shoulder. “Dude, Marie wants to see you.”
Paul grinned. “See, I told you. She wants my body.” At work, he’d imagined her in his arms, satisfying her lusty desires. At night, he’d seen her come to him, wanting him. But those were only fleeting, make-believe images.
Kellen looked at Billy. “What’s he talking about?”
“You know Pauli. He’s being delusional again.”
Paul rose, checked his reflection in the glass-framed Monet on the wall, then straightened his tie. “I smell a pay raise coming,” he said, brushing past his buddies and marching toward Marie’s office.
“I wish I could sleep my way to the top,” teased Kellen.
“You know that’s not my style. It’s what’s in here that’s gonna get me to the top,” said Paul, tapping his temple.
“A little tussle between the sheets couldn’t hurt,” said Billy. As Paul turned the corner to Marie’s office, he called out “Don’t worry, I heard she doesn’t bite . . . at least not too hard.”
Paul stood at the threshold and waited. Marie studied a spreadsheet on her computer screen. Paul couldn’t help but admire her high cheek bones and perky nose. The thin dress she wore left no doubt as to the womanly figure underneath. Someday he’d ask her why her husband left her. She seemed like the perfect wife, physically attractive and mentally sharp. What was not to like?
Maybe his friends were right. She could catapult him into a higher pay grade, perhaps even into a management position. He closed his eyes. The warmth of the universe swelled inside his nostrils. He took what the air gave him, a mixed fragrance of passion fruit, vanilla, peach and sandalwood.
She clicked to save the document, yanking him out of his reverie. Then, without turning, she said, “Have a seat, Paul. You don’t think I bite, do you?”
He was glad she wasn’t facing him or she’d see his strawberry-toned face. “Yes, thank you.”
She spun around. “What?”
“Oh, no. No. What I meant was yes, thank you for the chair.”
She smiled and licked her lips like a cougar ready to bite. He thought he heard a low growl emanate from her side of the desk. She pointed at the door with her chin. “Can you shut the door, please?”
“Sure,” said Paul. He shut the door quietly and smiled at her. “Am I in trouble or something?”
“Don’t be silly. Actually, that’s why I called you in here.”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” said Paul.
“Let’s just say you always care about doing the right thing. Call it a sense of ethics or morals, not everyone has those traits.”
“The reason it matters is that I want to offer you an after-hours assignment.”
Little furrows formed in Paul’s forehead. “You mean I’d be on-the-clock after hours?”
“Sort of. I mean you’d get paid, for sure.” She paused and studied him from head to toe. When he remained silent, she continued. “I’d like you to be my designated driver for a night. I’m planning on attending a leadership conference downtown and I know I won’t be able to drive myself home when it’s time to leave. Once I start drinking, boy, look out.”
Paul tilted his head. “Why me? Couldn’t you just hire a limo or a chauffeur or maybe a taxi?”
“Yep. Thought of that already, but you know what?” She glanced at the door and Paul knew she was about to say something of a private nature.
“When I drink too much, I turn into a slutty fool! I do things with men I regret the next morning. I know you aren’t interested in me romantically. You’ve turned me down twice to go out on a date. I can respect that. So, as I see it, who better to lug me home than someone I already know and trust?”
Paul was caught off guard, almost speechless. He blurted out the first words that came to mind. “Do I have to wear a suit?”
* * *
Five Poems by Gary Blankenberg
A REAL POET
I phoned a young poet friend
and asked him what he was up to.
He said, Well, I’m eating a bologna
sandwich, drinking a glass
of whiskey, and washing out
my good shirt in the sink
with dish detergent
because I have a reading
in the city tonight. I said,
You’re living the poet’s life.
You stay poor, stay lean, stay hungry,
shun the successful, keep at the work.
for Richard Sober
It was his graceful
the ease at which
he found himself
when so intoxicated,
with the audience--
that endeared him
to me immediately.
Besides being a poet,
he was also a painter.
One of his paintings won
because it had
blue chickens in it.
After his reading,
he gave away his art--
lovely, flowing abstracts
sprawled on flimsy paper.
When he scattered them
about the room
they fluttered, then paused
for a moment
on the still air.
LOST IN ILLINOIS
Chesterton, Illinois 2011
Winding my way off Interstate 74
going from Champaign to Sullivan
with my Google map beside me,
I’ve missed a country road turn-off
and find myself lost in the little
town of Chesterton. I pull into
the gravel lot of an antique store
just as a plump Amish woman in full
black garb peddles toward me on her
bicycle. Her basket carries whatever
it was her errand was about, and beads
of sweat have formed on her forehead.
I wave her to a stop to ask directions,
and she tells me to go straight ahead
and turn right after the one lane bridge
and proceed through Arthur. Sullivan,
she says, is just seven miles further.
She adds that I will see signs.
I thank her and watch her pump,
her fat-tired Schwinn into motion.
It wobbles for several yards and then
straightens into a labored progress.
Her white bonnet and black dress
ripple as a car whizzes by.
I plan to watch for signs.
The moon was many times full
while I was ignorant of its light,
while I, in moon-flooded night,
made love to my own mortality.
Each evening could have been the last,
but I would not be the one to say,
Let’s call it a night, because endings
are as bitter as the brittle moon--
the curved silvered moon I finally came
to know as a cuticle, a forecast, an eclipse.
The tall old elm tree that overlooks
the porch where I smoke and read
is ornamented with a dozen or more
vultures. At age seventy, it’s high time
I put on my game face and commit
to a resistance of all things dark--
time to dispel all allurements of death
and man-up for the long haul.
I think about this while I smoke my cigar
and take a pull now and then on my iced tea.
This would all be so much easier if
only whiskey were my friend.
* * *
The Revolt of the Test Cases
By Ken Poyner
I’ve put up plywood on the inside of the windows and braced the main door. They will break out the glass, but the new wood will hold. I will listen to them scratching against it, then I might fall asleep in the middle of the floor wrapped in the rug we took in as a last minute wedding gift.
I have to remember: these are actual examples, the representative samples, the collected set of typical outcomes. These are what I became an accountant to manage. Oh, they may be howling and circling the house now. They may be shaking out the pants legs of their mediocrity at the moment; but, come morning, I will have them in columns and rows, in tabular sums. The pumpkin-hollow faces of everyone’s 1.7 children will be squeezed again into a ledger, made to ride without complaint a normalized curve.
It does not matter where any graph line is going. It only matters that the majority of the points fall on that line. Drive the standard deviation down to zero is what I say. Explain errant points as testing bias. Have a good enough conclusion, and the data will conform.
I’ve gotten to where I can recognize by sound and fury alone some of the typical subjects, can occasionally identify some random sample individually. Most fade into white noise, but a few would have to stand out to make this collection representative.
As predicted, my wife cannot take it. She places a hand over each ear, bends forward as though to roll up into a pliant protective ball. She emits something too weak to be a scream: perhaps air leaking from her scrunched lungs unannounced, or a blockage in the larynx where the work of belief is simply too much to get uniformly past. All these jostled data points surrounding the house, prying at any crack in our domestic armor, drives her into a pointless stammer of raw existentialism. She has been hiding upstairs in the master closet for most of the night, filling the statistically predicted position of the subject who cannot cope. She will return to the closet, instinctively believing small spaces are safer, unaware that small spaces and samples gives you no insight into how the whole of anything will, by cookie-cutter, turn out.
She cannot stay indefinitely in the closet. In the excitement of this temporary chaos of statistical input, she has forgotten that tonight is the eighth consecutive night since she and I last accomplished sex, given my one mathematically established failed pseudorandom attempt during our physical relations drought. Today is my day to be successful, with a 103 second performance that at least I will find satisfying.
I will coax her out by explaining that all averages are ineffectual, and that in the morning we will find our data subjects waiting in their accustomed lines and rows, equally spaced, happy to be back in their predicted places. What else would they do? They are data points, samples: a random, manageable collection drawn from the great anonymous mass that none of us wants to deal with. Yes, every so often they get muddled, set themselves against the hobgoblin machinery that gives them definition. They rise against those of us who, by collecting the trivial information of their cluttered lives, and ordering their insignificance into trends, give them a locatable place in our world. But such revolt as this against our predictions cannot last long. Their lives are nothing but trends, elements of normalization, choices of no choice: merely the stuttering latch-key that unlocks the next batch of data points.
I will have spreadsheets for them all. I will welcome them into my analysis programs. They have always been comfortable there. These stray, disorderly blips on the graph occur only rarely, and in the morning not even they will remember their disquiet. By the creaking hinge of dawn they will all be whipped into a statistical mean that nearly hums of the ordinary, chuckles of the expected.
My wife will be talked out of the closet inch by inch, her face as taut as mooring lines in a flood. She will come out to me, wincing at the scratching and thumping coming from outside, the ineffectual noise of the assault by this horde of data points raging against our properly rated and tested reinforcements. She will realize that this is the night where, statistically, in any marriage, I toss her across the bed and ensure she is simply the object of my carnal ferocity. I have taught her the averages of this: she understands the numbers; she understands her part in the repeating equation.
If my back holds out, she will sleep late into morning. The morning will be a bit of crisp, empty air, with a smattering of dampness: and the data points will be quiet again, stretched out across the multi-use land like rolls of hay, or sheared corn stalks waiting the wonder of an economically viable cellulosic ethanol trade. Breakfast, with everything back to form, will be scrambled eggs and a roll left over from Thursday’s dinner. She will not speak until I have had too much butter. I will see the idle love in her eyes that is common to our age, and we will small talk our glorious way into the daily typical. I am a lucky man in these things: a very, very lucky man. Just like every other man. Just like the collection of many experiences colors me to be. Just like anyone who can see the odds coming.
* * *
Five Poems by Janet Butler
The news drones on and spills from the tv
while I knit. War ghosts and other griefs
drift like smoke around the room, weaving themselves
into the empty spaces of knit/purl, the forest green I carefully chose
darkened with their shadows of ash.
Faces flicker alive on the thin skin
of cyber space, their pixelled vibrancy a tease
that comforts imagination, while hands and fingers
long for the surface touch of a photograph,
real enough to press longingly against a longing heart.
My knitting needles grow heavy. They slow and stop.
I unravel the darkened weave of snared ghosts
freed to search for the dark road to heaven.
We meander though the city in wide time
our plump driver a happy Buddha, her flesh rolling
in waves over the small hard driver’s seat.
I catch a glimpse of sun-
scintillas on fenders and hubcaps.
Honeycombed apartments stack to the sky
their half-drawn blinds shadow interiors
backing away from curious eyes.
The streets vibrate with disorder
disciplined by invisible walls that rise
from white lines harried cars nose up to.
I watch the crowd ebb & flow
a momentarily merge of disparate lives
awash through afternoon streets.
Why Moon is blue
She floats in her sea of salt
a knuckle of reflected light
agape with the pain of abandon,
tethered by old ties to that distant
blue dot, plump, ripe with life.
My love, she cries.
Echoes fill the night with unease
and lonely women walk to windows,
search her sad eyes in sisterhood
they too lonely moons that orbit
now distant planets, reflected light
grown dim, mouths agape with pain
tethered by old ties, unraveling.
The day holds promise, limpid
in early hours, and she feels the moment
cleanse her from worry.
A soft breeze, light as dawn, cools
her. A veil of curtain lifts,
throwing transparent shadows
over floor and bed, illusion of movement
in the quiet room where he sleeps yet, his back
facing her, its stare mute.
She looks towards skies blue like that wide ocean
of promise they stood before in another life,
Eden gleaming in the distance.
Currents that once buoyed a happy mermaid
heave her out to sea. Her world pulls back,
its shores misting in the distance.
Walking the dog
My dog and I walk the early morning hours
when sky begins to crack and egg shell colors spill through
muted, spring-like in their freshness.
The air tastes of faraway stars
a lingering metallic tang become green-scented breeze
that clears the head.
We walk in a silence full of the bustle of waking things,
of trees that rustle and stretch under a bluing sky
flooding east to west.
Minutes thicken with life. A pale sun hardens,
shadows seep from sidewalk cracks and flood streets
as dog and I turn towards home.
* * *
By Michael Barber
It was hardly a homecoming: no hoopla, no key to the city, no sharp affinity for those things left behind. Only the fat drops of rain splattering the tarmac – splashes of memory popping up here and there, bubbles in a well. I walked carefully off the plane, my right hand gripping the wet rail, the empty left sleeve of my uniform flapping in the April breeze.
And then my wife’s arm around my neck, her other arm cradling our ten-week old son. Her lips were warm, softer than I remembered, like velvet against my ear. “Welcome home, Joe,” she whispered. I moved back just enough to focus: wet, tangled hair curling around her pale face like dark ivy, emerald eyes rich with curious light, one brow always endearingly higher than the other. Gina was half Italian, half Irish – often a volatile mix.
She held up the baby for me. It gurgled along with the chorus of rain, lips moving in amoeba fashion, gazing up at me skeptically. Struggling with a half-smile, I pressed a forefinger against its stomach.
“Hi there, Chad,” I said.
He shifted his blue eyes back to his mother for verification. Apparently, I passed, for the lips formed into a tentative smile.
“He’s got your eyes,” she said. She toyed with a dark tuft of newly-hatched hair at the back of his head. “And my hair.” She smiled with that shyness that, in the beginning, had rocked me like a truck.
I was silent all the way home. Gina chattered on about the new baby, new friends. I heard little. She asked when I’d be going to Walter Reed to be fitted for a prosthesis. Coldly, I told her I didn’t know, didn’t even know if I wanted one. After a moment, she wondered aloud if they could give me an attitude adjustment at the same time. Turning into the driveway of our small ranch, she suggested a welcome home party. Discussion on this point was brevity itself: “No,” I said. She said fine, but told me not to expect her attendance at my pity party. And so it went.
Later, I peeked in on Chad, awake in his crib. But I wasn’t seeing my son; I was mesmerized by the gray shadows within his eyes, swirling like smoke rising from ruins into the sky. Baghdad blue. I was still there, a prisoner of the images that haunted me.
For weeks, I showed little interest in my wife or son. I assumed a civil manner, a pretense which Gina, unsuccessfully, tried to penetrate. Despite her occasional outbursts, she never gave up reaching out to me, but I didn’t respond. I paced around the house for no reason, drank too much. I visited old friends leading normal lives which only made me feel worse.
There were cold sweats at night from technicolor nightmares: rocket-propelled grenades exploding; house-to-house firefights; the surreal carnage of a suicide attack; the charred corpses of children; the slow-motion horror of the landmine that took away our humvee, my left arm, and my best friend, Tim. And the guilt: shooting two suspects in the back as they fled, how troubled I was by how good it had felt; a bullet of mine ricocheting off a wall and just missing a small boy, his mother wailing and pointing at me.
Like unwanted companions, depression and anxiety followed me wherever I went. I was edgy in traffic, anxious in crowds, uncomfortable around strangers.
Still Gina tried. One morning, she pointed out the kitchen window. “Oh Joe, look! Calvin’s back.” Calvin was a cardinal who had seemingly adopted us. Gina had come up with the name. I looked out and, sure enough, there he was: impossibly red against a lingering smudge of snow, twittering and showing off his wings. Gina looked up at me hopefully – maybe Calvin could set off a spark. He didn’t.
Later: “Maybe I should go see a shrink,” I said.
She was rocking the baby on the bed and never looked up. I was becoming an outsider.
“Save your money, Joe, and go talk to Tony.”
So I did. Tony had become a surrogate father of sorts after my parents were killed in a car accident seven years ago. Tony’s Pizzeria had been an institution in our town for as long as I could remember. I got there at four when things would be slow. The place hadn’t changed: cozy booths dressed in red-checked tablecloths, drip-candles in Chianti bottles and, of course, Buddy, Tony’s old basset hound who patrolled the perimeter. It was the kind of place that, should you exit out the rear, you just might trip over Lady and the Tramp.
Tony spotted me right away as I came in, greeting me with his customary Italian schmooze-fest: arms open, head cocked in happy surprise. “Joe, where you been?” Tony looked a bit older, a bit grayer, but the brown eyes were as lively as ever. After a long look, his smile collapsed; his hug was tighter, lasted longer. Over a beer, I spilled everything. He was a good listener.
“Joe, listen to your old Tony now. I was in Korea as you know and I see many things. Bad things. Horrible things. A friend of mine died in my arms, Joe. Some of the closest friends you ever make are during wartime. Your Tony knows this. Your friend Tim will never be gone, Joe. That’s because you got him locked up nice and safe right here.” Tony thumped his chest. “Be thankful that you had the chance to have such a friend – many people never do. My closest friend in the world was your father. He always lives right here.” He thumped his chest again. “In fact, your old Tony wouldn’t be surprised if he walked through that door right now.”
He lowered his voice. “Forget the bad things, Joe. It was war. I do some things I’m not proud of either. It’s time for the living now, Joe. I know you’re afraid. You don’t want to lose anyone else you love, but none of us know how long we have someone for. All we can do is love them while they’re here. You get that new arm and you hold your Gina that much closer, no?” He gave me a conspiratorial wink. “You think about all this now, Joe, while your Tony gets you a nice pepperoni pizza.”
Tony left for the kitchen. Buddy placed his front paws on my knee, cocked his head, and whimpered softly. Just as animals could sense earthquakes in advance, was it possible that Buddy had become alert to some seismic shift taking place within me? Something that I didn’t know yet?
Tony brought the pizza. My first bite of crust sounded like the crunch of boots over rubble and, suddenly, I pushed the pizza away and buried my face in my arm. The tears came fast and furious. Tony came by and placed a hand briefly on one of my shaking shoulders. “That’s it, Joe, he said. “You have a good cry now.” A member of a combat stress-control team had once told me to expect such a breakdown but that it would come unexpectedly.
Afterward, I sat back up. Tony came back and sat down. “Everyone hungry now?” Buddy barked in the affirmative. The three of us ate every crumb.
Tony patted his stomach. “How about a little song now, huh?”
I smiled. “Why not,” I said and Tony got up and slid in beside me. He placed an arm around my shoulder and we launched into our little song and dance act we’d do sometimes. Heads together, we sang:
When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
Buddy bayed along as best he could. For the middle section, we held up our invisible little bells between thumb and forefinger.
Ting-aling-a-ling, ting-aling-a-ling, ting-aling-a-ling
I got up. It was finally time to go home. I hugged Tony one more time, scratched Buddy behind the ears.
“You no longer be a stranger now, huh?” Tony asked. I nodded.
Outside, it was raining again. But this time I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to experience moments of absolute purity, so singular that they are rarely forgotten. One of those moments was in the making, filling quickly with redemption and reconciliation. And surrender.
Driving back, I spotted an old woman selling flowers at a roadside stand. She wore a big, floppy red hat that flapped in the wind; it reminded me oddly of Calvin. I got out, dancing my way toward her around the puddles. In the rising orchestration of wind and water, I felt something else emerge, something I hadn’t felt in a long time: joy. I told the woman that I liked her hat, and then bought flowers for Gina. White roses.
* * *
A BUM GOES HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
By Sam Silva
Frosty is the nitwit mind
which stumbles Autumn
leaves... and beer
bristling at the lips
the savage poet coughs and spits
the chill within his wayward song
the song within his likewise leer
on such a wondrous holiday
...turkey day or Halloween
soaked in rum
and drenched in wine
..."I paint a hollow Saturday with words."
so moans the poet blind
stumbling on the freezing wind
...stumbling ever southward
* * *
By Thom Didato
Summer has come, and gone. Another school year well underway. In the waning climatic remnants of the season, the boy is playing in the backyard. The leaves, browning with each passing day, have begun to fall at their expected pace. The once green grass, now a yellowed brown scorched by a summer's worth of sun, fruitlessly attempts to rejuvenate itself before the oncoming frost of an early winter.
The blue-eyed boy stands with his back against the family shed; the gray shed to the right of the gray house at the end of the gray pebbled driveway. There is a gun in his hand -- a BB gun -- and he hugs it close to his body, the barrel of which points toward the gray sky.
Beyond the boundaries of the family backyard, just past the wooden fence that borders the surrounding forest, a blue jay is perched on the limb of a tree. The bird, enormous for its kind, rests on the branch, pecking at the bark beneath him.
The boy’s been watching the blue jay for the better part of an hour. Now, its time. The boy eases his way around the backside of the shed. Despite a year of practice, he's failed to hit anything all year (except, once, his older brother). But in general, blue jays are always a prime target, even hated by the boy's mother because they often scare away all other sweet and small birds by the family feeder. So, just as his older brothers have taught him, this opportunity is too good to pass up.
There's no way this one's getting away.
After peeking around the corner of the shed to make sure the bird is still there, the boy loads the BB into the gun. Better put in 3 BBs just to make sure. He pumps the gun the maximum ten times. Better pump it twenty, he thinks. Just to make sure.
He raises the rifle.
The blue jay sees its fate a split second before it hits him. It turns its head and those bluish gray wings open -- all in preparation for flight -- a failed escape. With these wings expanded, the boy sees the soft feathered underbelly of the bird.
"THWAP, THWAP, THWAP." The BBs pierce the bird's puffy white chest leaving small but visible black holes. The creature stumbles. Makes one last "CRAW." And falls.
In the seconds since firing, the boy stands motionless, watching the events unfold before him. God, what a beautiful bird, he realizes. Soon his excitement is replaced, by a sickening sense of remorse. Maybe I missed him? He hopes. He steps forward. No. He stops. Staring at the bush where the bird fell, part of him wants to run and find out the answer. Maybe I can help it?
But he drops the BB gun and runs away.
The boy goes to bed early that evening. Skips dinner. Tells his mom that he’s "not feeling so good."
Lying alone in the corner of his bedroom; the setting sun casts a strange orange-red glow through the windowpanes. Face down on his bed, the boy buries his face in the pillow -- embraces the wet stains on the pillowcase -- and listens to life’s constant reminder -- the erratic panting of his breathing. He refuses to raise his head, to face the fear, to abandon a life that has been, and will continue to be, a sad story of cruelty to creatures.
* * *
By Stephen Leonard
When the Duchess of Egglestonshire first visited Paris, her name was simply Kate. The sky was the colour of sky, and her heart was free to love whomever it pleased. It chose a rather spirited green bird she had plucked from a cage in the flower market near Notre Dame. She named it Peedlesby, and it sang sweet nothings to her as she strolled through the lilies and the birdseed, headed towards the river.
She knew nothing of the torrid love affair that was about to engulf her, for across the Seine the young American Randolph had only just spied her and fallen hopelessly for her. As she and Peedlesby continued along the Quai de la Corse, they idled next to a bouquiniste. She picked up a plastic-sheathed copy of a Paris Match magazine from a bygone era when women were glamorous, eyeing an old edition of a Tintin bande-dessiné out of the corner of her eye. Peedlesby was interested in neither.
Randolph, he of the romantic heart and excellent vision, followed her on his parallel course on the other side of the water. He had just arrived on Sunday, a week before his semester was to start at the Sorbonne. Though he had fallen in love six times since his plane had touched down, he was sure those other women, none of whom he had even spoken to, were just passing fancies. No, this sparkling jewel across the Seine was to be the love of his life, of this he swore.
Randolph raced across the Pont de Notre Dame and onto the Île de la Cité. As Kate continued along the water, dreamily breathing in the warm, late summer air, she took no notice of the love-struck American now following her. While love lurked behind and thoughts of a return to English pomp were kept locked away in the deep recesses of her mind, she spoke lovingly to her newfound friend Peedlesby.
“I shan’t find a more perfect day, nor a more perfect companion for such a day as you, my beloved Peedlesby. You and I are foreigners in this magical realm – for even if you were born here, I shall ever think of you as from the jungles of Brazil or some other far off land – and as such, we experience the awe and wonder that comes with viewing Paris for the first time, as well as the melancholy knowing we shall never be able to truly call ourselves Parisians, no matter how long we were to stay here. Alas, I shall return to Egglestonshire, and the dull life of the daughter of a duke, in only a few days’ time. You will accompany me, won’t you, Peedlesby?”
The green bird remained perched on her left shoulder but made no real sign that he knew what she was talking about. He was just happy to be out of his cage. But perhaps that is why the two of them had gotten along so well from the beginning. They had both been liberated from their cages and were now free to enjoy the splendours of Paris.
Randolph strayed behind the magnificent young woman and her bird. Though he could not hear what she was saying, he could see she loved the little green bird, and her affection for such only helped to increase his ardour for her. But how do I approach such a fair goddess? With what words could I possibly hope to woo her? I know not but a handful of French mots, and if she speaks not English, how will we communicate?
Love. That is all he needed. He ran, unbound, caring not for anything but to hear one word from the beautiful woman with the bird. Language was not necessary for surely his tongue would find whatever needed to be said, and her ears would receive it as if they had been undeafened for the first time.
Kate heard someone approaching from behind her. She turned, and as if the world had slowed down to a crawl, her eyes took in the splendour that was this beautiful boy, galloping towards her, his heart seemingly three feet in front of the rest of his body. She like the fish to the worm took his pulsing bait before he even had need to open his mouth. She laughed, producing the most beautiful music Randolph had ever heard in his life. He found it was his ears that had become undeafened. He stood smiling and panting in front of her, his baggy pants drooping below the knees. He removed his baseball cap, and stretched his entire six-foot frame in front of her, so that she could take him in, in all his young, male grandeur.
She reached out her right hand and brushed his left shoulder gently, smiling at him as much with her painted brown lips as with her chestnut eyes. “This is Peedlesby,” she said.
Two weeks later, all three of them were dead of bird flu.
* * *
By Tim Sawicki
It was a big day for the Class of ’36 at Northington Junior High, and the air felt charged. All the sports equipment in the gymnasium had been pushed back against the walls. The bleachers were in their retracted position, which the children only saw happen during standardized tests. Something was definitely happening.
As they were still in seventh grade, it was health and wellness period for most of the students. Besides their usual teacher for the subject, Mrs. Hannigan, there were also Mr. Bongers, the gym teacher; Ms. Fessworth, the history teacher; and three of the four guidance counselors watching over the crowd.
And no wonder! With all the giggling and pointing going on, you could swear they were about to commence ballroom dancing lessons. Jimmy Teasdale had been scolded twice already by stuffy, old Counselor Boggs, and it was only ten minutes into the period!
Not that anyone was counting minutes right now. Choosing Day, like Driver’s Ed, typically commanded even the most truant child’s attention. The colored banners were already set up in the six corners of the room - blue, purple and peach on the boys' side of the room, and green, pink, and red on the girls' side.
“Peach is the luckiest!” shouted Ritchie, before being swatted at by a nearby counselor.
“I don’t know,” said Molly, grinning at Patti. “I think red is pretty great.” Patti could only cover her mouth and giggle.
It was widely accepted that blue and pink got short shrift.
The teachers weren’t required to wear color badges, but many of them did anyway on Choosing Day. Mrs. Hannigan wore a little square of red hanging off the button of her corduroy jacket. Ms. Fensworth had opted for a pink neck-scarf. A few of the boys from the farmer’s complex pointed and laughed at Counselor Boggs’ stick-on violet badge until Mr. Willis, the hip, young music teacher pulled them all into the hallway just outside the gym. They got such a scolding - everyone could hear!
After a good ten minutes, all three of the boys walked back in, their faces red and their eyes on their shoes. One by one they gave an embarrassed apology to Mr. Boggs and went back to their place in line. When Mr. Willis returned, he had taken a violet kerchief from his pocket and tied it around his head, adding to the violet dot already affixed to his collar.
No one giggled and pointed at Mr. Willis. In fact a number of the boys whispered to each other, agreeing that if Willis was wearing violet, then it had to be the height of cool.
Little Tammy Jenkins broke down about halfway through the explanations. “But I don’t know what color I am,” she cried. “What if I choose wrong?”
Counselor Biggs, all dressed up in a hunter-green pants suit, patted Tammy’s hand and laughed softly. “Oh, dear, don’t worry yourself. If you decide you’ve chosen wrong, you can just switch.”
“Whenever I want?” asked Tammy.
“Yes, whenever you want,” said Mrs. Biggs.
A few other girls in line seemed to share a bit of Tammy’s relief at the news. Of course they’d known they could switch whenever they liked! But hearing this was quite comforting all the same. It was easy to forget all they’d learned in health and wellness with the moment of choice looming. After all, it was Choosing Day and you had to choose something!
All at once a clanging tone sounded, and everyone hushed up right quick, looking toward the center of the room where Mrs. Hannigan was hitting a silver triangle.
“All-right boys and girls!” said Mrs. Hannigan. “You have come quite a long way in my classes from where you started. Do you remember our first day together?” A few children giggled, remembering the awkward silences and fits of laughter. Mrs. Hannigan raised an eyebrow. “Well, are we still at the giggling stage, then? Perhaps I should keep a few of you until next Choosing Day?”
That shut them up. Rowdy or not, no child wished to even contemplate that level of embarrassment.
“As I was saying, we’ve come a long way together, and I shall certainly miss the lot of you now after you’ve passed through this most important of ceremonies. Please remember, Choosing Day is not about who you are, nor is it about who you are going to be. The choice changes nothing. Choosing Day is about two things: honesty and responsibility. Now, I know you know this, so why don’t we say those two words together.”
Mrs. Hannigan raised her green-clad arms, and with the practiced drone of young children, the crowd recited “Honesty and responsibility.”
"Very good!” beamed Mrs. Hannigan. “Responsibility for the feelings and choices of our fellows, and honesty to ourselves for our own. I do think I’ve said this once before, but today is also about bravery: both our own, and that of countless millions who lived in a time when choosing was not so easy.”
“Now, let’s ring in together your first big step toward adulthood! Let the choosing begin!” With that, she began to strike the triangle over and over again, and the children erupted into a mixture of cheers and excited talking.
The teachers began to guide the long lines of students toward their respective choosing table, one for boys and one for girls. Some children took longer than others, each counselor speaking to them quietly at the table with the utmost patience and discretion. Other teachers kept watch on the lines, breaking up groups that appeared to be levying pressure on their fellows to choose one way or another. This was an individual decision, and the natural inclinations for the children at this age to form cliques and clubs was quite disruptive to the process.
Finally the lines began to dwindle, and the children stood grouped under the banners, each wearing a shiny cloth ribbon matching the colored banner above them.
When the last child, Gabby Winters, had chosen, a cheer went up from the children, heralding Gabby to her place among those with pink ribbons. As the tumult mounted, Mrs. Hannigan gave the triangle one final jangle and handed it back to Mr. Willis. He made a show of inspecting it for damage, and the children giggled.
“Very good children! I am so proud of each of you. Now, please rejoin the teacher you came in with and we’ll continue with fifth period."
After the expected collective groan went up from the students, Mrs. Hannigan walked over to Counselor Boggs, who was tallying the numbers.
"How did we do, Jim?” she asked, straightening her jacket.
Jim looked over the papers before him. “Very well. Everyone chose. Most notably, we have twelve percent more female bisexuals than last year, and a significant drop in heterosexual males.”
“Less and less every year,” said Hannigan. “It’s a good thing they’ve made sperm donation mandatory,” she said.
Boggs nodded. “Indeed,” he said. “All in all, a wonderfully smooth Choosing Day. Congratulations.”
Hannigan smiled. “Thanks, Jim. Tomorrow it’s the sex, stimulation, and sexual cleanliness videos. It only gets harder from here.”
“Did you hear,” he said with a wrinkle of distaste, “they’re allowing gender identity selection in New Hampshire, come the new year? They’re to tie it to Choosing Day. Can you imagine? Girls just... becoming boys and vice-versa. In high school no less!”
“Come now, Jim,” said Mrs. Hannigan, helping him clean his things up. “If they don’t decide these things in the learned, accepting environment of school, where will they do it? In their bedrooms, alone, fearing disapproving parents?”
Boggs sighed, nodding. He straightened his purple tag. “Of course, you’re right. I don’t know if I shall ever get used to that level of choice, though. I suppose it was inevitable - I’ve just become an old dinosaur.”
Hannigan put her hand on Boggs’ shoulder as he grabbed his briefcase, and they walked together out of the gym. “You know, I think we all are, Jim... in our own way.”
* * *
Behind the Outhouse
By Steve Meador
He could have been kicking dust
over a million babies, but the whiteness
of the blobs in the dirt were validation
of his transient childhood.
Jism turns yellow when you are about
18, then it is dangerous to girls. Once
you get old, like around 40, it turns green
and is safe again.
Leroy learned this from his uncle,
who learned it during the war and hauled
it home with his rucksack of mysteries,
chopsticks and a monkey skull.
When he shared this it was a warm fall day
with metamorphic clouds, hickory trees blazing
on the horizon and the grass calmly basking
before turning in for a long rest.
* * *
Poems by Allison Thorpe
I used to be new and shiny
A thing of wonder
Too many mornings
Too many cow kicks
But I can still do the work
The first few minutes
Fill the barn with our harmony --
Milk and metal --
And I feel young
She values my experience
Each dawning the same corner
Never a minute late
The old man is all business though
He wants to retire me
Wants to bring in a replacement
But she will have none of it
What will I do
When that hour comes?
Become a bucket for fishing bait?
Travel to the back forty?
Spend my time in the sun
Of some scrap metal mountain?
Today she picks me up
Full of liquid life
And raises me into the day
Zsa Zsa and The Harmony of Puddles
We were cutting up the peach tree
The storm last night took it
A slain giant, fallen now
After a wet and windy battle
The sun breaks cloud
Washes our faces as if in apology
A trade off in one of those
Giveth and taketh away moments
Neighbors call this soggy ground “rotten”
You, gone so long, rejoice each squishy step
After chores, we sprawl in the gazebo
Not wanting to give up the day
Linked to spirit’s renewal
Wonder of sense and form:
The inhaled creed of lilacs
Witness of a faithful moon
Feasting each breath as first
Lusting each sigh as last
Zsa Zsa, glad we are out and about,
Barks her jubilation
(An accented yelp you always said)
Then dashes to a puddle and drinks her fill
Snowmelt or rain, her preference,
Ignoring her full dish
Maybe she smells the chlorine
The citiness of the water we provide
Maybe she races from puddle to puddle
As if she too might forget the taste of earth
* * *
Saturday Night in Nirvana Texas
By Christopher Woods
On the porch of the lavender house where Sister Lisa reads tarot, insects crowd like refugees in the yellow light. Sister Lisa is much the border guard, foot in the door, poised, worn hands full of prophecies, taking us inside one by one. Later, our pockets empty, we will be ready to enter the world again. She would steal from the stars if she could hide their light in her escape. Proprietress of a ramshackle temple of prediction, she leads us to every promised land, nightly.
There will be bourbon for bums, a gigolo for the brokenhearted, young flesh for the priests, love for the truly lonely, eternal life for the suicidal, dark sleep for weary spirits, mending ways for the ill, real and imagined.
In short, she can give us everything in the world. We stand patiently with the bugs outside her house, breathing in the yellow air, all of us shoplifted spirits intent on salvation.
* * *
The Four Fold Transformation of Yellowstone National Park
By Ravi Mangla
Carter Beaumont has been a tour guide for twenty-three years and has never seen anything like this. On schedule – as it always is - Old Faithful erupts in a tall, columned fountain. Only this upsurge is black and thick, like the missing plague. It continues for several minutes before one of the tourists, a young girl wearing a pink plastic visor, asks if this is normal. Carter isn’t sure what to say. He tells her it has to do with alluvial build-up. After the tour has finished, he goes to notify Mr. Kubus.
Mr. Kubus, the park director, has a face like an inverted pyramid. He is rolling a marble by his ear as if listening for some long-held secret. His feet are up on the desk and he nods like he understands. Carter leaves, and Mr. Kubus makes some calls.
A silver fleet of Pri-i come racing across the Wyoming landscape. Carter stands outside of Mr. Kubus’s cabin. He hears the squealing hinges of briefcases and jargon-filled back-and-forth. They talk about senators and departments and Mr. Kubus’s annual report to the USFS. Carter doesn’t know what it all means. Then he hears the scrambling of paper and Mr. Kubus’ marble hit the ground with a hard, metallic bump.
Mr. Kubus buys a villa in Tuscany. He’s been talking about Italy for years, even keeping a map of the old boot behind his desk. From his house, Carter watches the derricks teeter up and down like one long, hulking chain gang. His application at Yosemite is processing. Until then he watches the derricks silhouetted against the dark skyline. According to the commercials, they’re powered by wind energy – they’re “a new generation in derrick”. If he squints, he thinks he can see the small pinwheels, like bows in their steel gray hair.
* * *
By Brandon Meyers
Sunlight danced sharply through the trees and into the cabin of the train as it coasted along the tracks. It was high summer and soon the leaves would be falling, but for now, they held the contented attention of Jake Rickshaw through the square pane of glass that accompanied his seat.
Jake loved to take the train. Whenever the schedule allowed, he did all of his business traveling by rail, by far preferring the various bumps and jostles of transport at ground level rather than thirty-thousand feet above it. In fact, it was the place where he got his best thinking done.
The train was scheduled to reach Bangor in another hour, and was thus far running very much on time. The six hour trip south was one that Jake was very familiar with and, as always, he found himself feeling a little disappointed on this final leg of it.
When the train began to slow, however, Jake was pulled from his thoughts as he watched the passing trees come to a still.
Raising his head, Jake peered quickly around the train, seeing that none of the other passengers seemed to have taken any notice, or if they had, did not care. He did note that the car was unusually full. Jake leaned curiously toward the boarding side of the train, hoping to see any signs of a station that he had previously ignored. But as soon as it had completely halted, the train had again begun to accelerate.
Jake slid back into his seat and fumbled in his bag for the mystery novel he had been reading. When he sat back up, with book in hand, he let out a shriek of surprise. A tall, gaunt gentleman was sitting in the previously empty seat beside him. The man turned to regard Jake with an apologetic smile.
“Forgive me,” he said in a kind but gravel-filled voice. “Is this seat taken?”
“No, no,” Jake said with embarrassment. “It’s not. I’m sorry, I just looked down and…you startled me.”
“Please do not apologize,” the man said in a diplomatic eloquence that had the faintest hint of a foreign drawl behind it. “It was my fault for…sneaking up on you so.”
“Forget about it,” Jake said with a smile, turning his attention to the book in his lap. It wasn’t that Jake did not like making small-talk with strangers, it was simply that he did not like making small-talk with strangers on a train ride. Or anyone, for that matter. Train time was Jake’s time, silly as it may sound. So when the stranger continued to chat after a moment, it put Jake on the irritated offensive.
“A pleasant day, is it not?”
“Very nice, yes,” Jake agreed with a flat nod at his book.
“I do not get around to these parts of the world near often enough,” the man continued. “The scenery is beautiful.”
Indeed Jake agreed with this, and it was one of the main arguments he made when trying to excuse his small fear of flying to anyone inquiring. He did not, however, voice any of his thoughts to the gentleman, but merely nodded again.
“It is always astonishing to me to think that people will consciously choose aviation over a locomotive as a means of travel, or better yet, the automobile. Is that not the beauty of traveling? To watch the world change before your eyes as you are moving.”
“You’d hardly believe it, wouldn’t you,” Jake said, hoping that a more syllabically-endowed response would satisfy him.
“Indeed,” the man said. “I sometimes forget how fulfilling a train ride can be.”
“I’m sorry,” Jake said, looking up from his book, “but I’m trying to get a little reading…”
When he looked into the man’s face, silence gripped his words. Having not looked at him fully before, Jake now wiggled in his seat uncomfortably. The man was of an indeterminable age. Not because he looked well-preserved, but because he seemed to actually shift up and down the scale of time as Jake looked at him. He had completely forgotten what he had been in the middle of saying as he peered into the gentleman’s eyes, which were of a color that Jake had never seen before, and would probably have trouble ever having to describe again: a shade like all the colors of an artist’s palette who was painting a forest scene that have been swirled together but not quite blended. The most unnerving part was that the eyes seemed to look directly at Jake, but right through him at the same time.
Jake dropped his gaze immediately. He felt the stare of the gaunt man beside him and continued, “I’m sorry, I have to get by you. Restroom,” he mumbled.
Moments later, Jake was splashing cold water on his face in the lavatory. After giving himself a good long stare, he had decided to forego the reading and try to get in an obviously necessary nap before they reached the depot in Bangor. Perhaps the convention had been a little more stressful than he’d realized.
When he returned to his seat, though, he found a little surprise waiting for him. The man had taken the seat next to the window, and had placed Jake’s bag and book on the aisle seat. He stood there for a moment, a little confused, before taking his new seat. The man, who paid him no notice, was busy looking out the window with great interest.
Jake tilted back his seat quietly and began to take a series of deep, calming breaths, hopefully inching his way towards a nap. A minute or so went by before the man again began to speak.
“I apologize if I have made you uncomfortable,” the man offered. “Sometimes when I find myself a little ahead of schedule, I tend to prattle.”
“It’s nothing,” Jake insisted, keeping his eyes closed. “No worries.” Jake’s heart had begun to pulse faster, though, and something within him seemed to be insisting that something was amiss in his situation. What exactly, he was not sure, but it was unsettling.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you again, but may I ask you a question?”
Jake thought momentarily about trying to act as though he had already nodded off, but knew that since it had only been a few seconds that the option was blown. “Sure,” he said, half lifting his eyelids, but not moving his head.
“It is just that. . .have you ever wondered about the emotion of fear in mortals?”
At this, Jake’s heartbeat again quickened.
“Particularly the fear of death,” he said in dark monotone. “It is most unreasonable, is it not?” After a slight pause during which the man had probably expected a reply, he continued. “As it stands, all living things eventually reach the point of transition in which they must leave their bodily vessels behind as so many dried husks. It is a known fact. Why do so many fear such a fact intrinsically? It makes even less sense yet when these same people find themselves taken by surprise, or angered when it finally happens? It does make my job ever so much more involved.” The man sighed.
Jake dared to look at him again, going against every wish of the pounding organ in his chest. The train was approaching a short tunnel, and as it submerged, the cabin was washed in darkness. Jake backed away from his fellow passenger with a shrill scream. In the window seat sat a visage of inky shadow. Its darkness swirled and flickered about it in wisps of ebony that seemed to have their own luminescence, giving a dark glow that revealed a face leaning against the window. It was the face of the traveler, that was sure, but his gaunt features had been magnified, appearing to Jake as a pale ghoul cloaked in the living night.
The train emerged from the tunnel, and the figure in the window seat changed immediately back to normal, as Jake sat horrified on the aisle floor. He was vaguely aware that his fellow passengers had taken notice of him, and a few looked rather uncomfortable.
The ghastly man looked down at Jake and beckoned him to return to his seat. “Please, Jacob. You are causing an unnecessary scene. Fear is a contagion.” All the while, the man seemed to speak without moving his lips, offering instead a rictus that bore far too many teeth.
If it occurred to Jake exactly how this figure had known his name, it was a thought overlooked very quickly by his lingering fright. He crawled in the style of crabs a few rows down the aisle before stopping out of sight of his seat.
A little girl with pigtails was seated beside him and she pointed. “Don’t be a-scared mister. My momma sez that when I get scared on the train just to hold my Binky.” She squeezed the tatty doll in her arms affectionately. “Do you have a Binky, mister?”
“Sweetie, leave the nice man alone,” said her mother, pulling her daughter carefully out of her aisle seat and into her lap. She glowered threateningly at the questionable looking man sitting in the aisle, undoubtedly ready to plant a spiked heel in his face should he happen not to be such a nice man.
Jake kept moving, eventually finding that his legs would permit him to stand, and found himself again in the restroom. Sweat beaded down his chest and underarms. He had never felt so afraid in all his thirty-eight years. The billowing specter was imprinted on his vision like a sunspot. He knew without a doubt what the man had really been when he had glimpsed him in the darkness.
“Death,” he whispered. Jake curled his knees up to his chest while sitting on the toilet seat. The monster had come to claim them. In a flash of mental clarity, Jake saw the entire train being derailed at a near point down the tracks. In a blaze of smoke and twisted metal, none of the passenger cars would hold any survivors, all of them swallowed by unforgiving wreckage and flame. Jake gulped. That thing out there was present to claim the souls of the countless departed. He tried to remember what he had ever heard about the spectral usher to the dead, but in his panicked state, Jake’s mind remained numbly blank.
He began to despair, knowing that the end was coming for all of the passengers of the train, who were all happily enjoying the ride and thinking nothing of their immediate death. Most of all, however, he was thinking of himself. Of how he would never again be able to take one of his beloved railway journeys. A stupid thing to preemptively miss when one’s life is flashing before his eyes, but he missed it anyhow. Jake began to cry, rocking back and forth on the toilet.
After a few minutes had passed, there was knocking on the restroom door.
“Excuse me, sir?” came a soft voice from the other side. “Are you alright? Some of the other passengers said there was a kind of disturbance. Sir, will you please respond. If you don’t respond, we’ll have to force the door for your safety.”
Jake eyed the door warily. “Yes.” His safety. If they only knew; they were doomed. All of them.
From somewhere within him, Jake felt a calling of self-preservation, one which will often occur to an individual who is certain that their mortality is in peril and have decided to do something about it. No matter how futile.
Jake rubbed the wetness away from his eyes and stood to straighten out his appearance. When he opened the door, the plump steward backed away from him, perhaps certain she was going to have to barrel down the door and pull some drunk or junkie from the small lavatory closet by force.
“Are you absolutely sure everything’s in order?”
“Yes, thank you,” he said somewhat urgently. “Stomach flu or something.” He brushed her stare off and looked sharply down the aisle, toward the connecting car. Somewhere up the line—it had to be one or two cars—would be the engineer’s cabin. If Jake could make his way inconspicuously to that car, perhaps he could clobber the engineer and engage the brakes before the train found certain disaster. All of this flashed quickly in his brain, and, under normal circumstances, he would probably have been quite proud of himself for it, but at the moment only the thought of saving himself was of importance.
“You may want to check on that guy up in seat 18, though,” said Jake as steadily as he could. “The one dressed in the black suit. He seemed to be having some trouble.” The steward gave a skeptical look over Jake’s shoulder and proceeded to brush past him.
Jake followed closely behind, and was somewhat surprised to see that Death was no longer in his seat. He was nowhere to be seen. While the stocky woman turned back to look at Jake imploringly, something snapped inside of his head and he shoved her down into the seat, turning to run the length of the car and to the large door separating it from the next one.
Jake fumbled with the latch and finally pushed the door inward. Stepping into the breezeway, he cast a glance backward to the steward, who was speaking haughtily into a small pocket radio. She looked extremely angry, and so Jake wasted no time in slamming the door behind him and entering the next car. So much for inconspicuousness.
Running as fast as he could, Jake clambered through the second car and opened the doors to the third. It was here, however, he saw the only thing standing between him and the continuation of living. A sturdy-looking man stood in the middle of the aisle and watched Jake with the eyes of a predator, or simply a man trained to act like one.
“I’m going to have to ask you to stop right there, sir,” the man said gruffly. Jake spied a small silver badge fastened below the man’s lapel that marked him as either transportation security, or maybe even a police officer. Jake did not see a gun on the man, but noticed that his hand was held at the ready next to his breast coat pocket. “Please turn around slowly so that I can walk you back to your seat and figure out what the problem is.”
“The problem?” Jake shouted. “I’ll tell you what the problem is, man.” In the middle of speaking, Jake’s eye was caught by the man sitting at his elbow near the doorway.
Grinning slightly, the morphing face of Death stared up at him, and shook his head in disapproval. “Jacob, come now. Have a seat.”
“This man. This man right here is the goddam problem. He’s here for all of us!” Jake shook an accusing finger at the haunting figure, looking frantically between him and the security guard.
At first, the guard looked confused, but then concerned, and he began to step forward through the aisle. “Sir, what man?”
Jake looked down and saw Death still watching him intently, but he also saw an elderly woman sitting fearfully close to the window, not daring to look directly at Jake.
“They can’t see you,” Jake whispered.
“Of course not, Jacob. Come now, you are scaring these poor people. Even that man there is mere inches from drawing his weapon and shooting you on the spot.”
“You’re all going to die!” Jake shouted. “We all are!”
Those must have been the magic words that the guard had been waiting to hear, because his hand shot into his coat jacket and pulled at what was surely a large-caliber weapon. Something had caught, perhaps the release on the holster, but for a moment the guard was obviously struggling, and Jake rushed forward to bowl him over. During the course of the loud collision, a few things happened: the guard’s gun came free and spun out of his grasp, Jake slammed his head into a seat back, and a noise like breaking glass filled the cabin.
Opting to reach for his gun rather than for Jake, the guard managed to let him slip past. Jake hit the door and frantically grabbed at the handle, which would not budge. It was locked.
Jake gasped when he saw a frightened face looking back at him through the panes that joined to the engineer’s car. Stepping back, Jake realized it was the face of a very spooked train operator. In his back step, Jake also saw a glimmer on the floor. The guard’s keys. And the most noticeable thing on the ring was a large plastic access card, which Jake had little doubt would grant him access through the door. He stooped to pick them up.
“Freeze!” commanded the guard from behind him. “U.S. Transportation Security. You are threatening civilian lives, sir. If you do not step away from the door, I will open fire.” There was no uncertainty whatsoever in the stony voice.
Jake hesitated, eyeing the slot next to the handle where the keycard must pass through. Next to it was a lock, as well. Jake did not have time to fiddle with keys, and knew that if he tried, he had better be able to do it while full of holes.
“Three…” said the guard.
Jake looked at the engineer apologetically.
“Okay,” Jake said. The guard paused, and in the next second Jake shot his hand precisely with the card, miraculously finding the slot. The card slid through with a sharp explosion. A green light flashed on the reader and Jake fell forward into the adjoining breezeway. The door slipped shut behind him, with more explosions following.
Jake knew immediately that he had been shot. Blood coated his right hand; his ribs were on fire. He fought nausea watching the ground slip by at an alarming rate. The junction separating the engineer’s cabin was not enclosed as were the other breezeways that Jake had passed through. Wind whipped through his hair in a deafening roar. The key card had tumbled out and onto the now distant tracks.
Pulling himself to his feet, Jake glimpsed back at the government guard through the blood-spattered glass of the closed door. Surely it had been bulletproof. Unfortunately, Jake had not.
The engineer watched Jake intensely.
“Let me in! You’ve gotta let me in!”
Jake pounded on the glass, leaving bloody fist prints on the pane. “There’s something on the tracks! Please let me in!”He began to lose strength, and finally found himself mouthing help to the engineer.
The engineer seemed to be struggling with the decision of letting an injured man die before him or letting a potential threat enter his cabin. Apparently, the engineer had a heart. He released the latch from his side and pulled Jake inside.
Not getting too friendly, he let Jake fall to the floor and asked him, “What in the hell is going on here? Tell me right now, or so help me God, you’re gonna bleed to death right there on the floor.”
“The tracks,” Jake spat. “There’s something on the tracks. It’s going to kill us all."
“What! How in the hell do you know that?”
“Death. I saw death in the seat next to me.”
“Son, are you on drugs?”
“Just let me stop the train,” Jake said, summoning some inner reserve of strength. He climbed to his feet and stumbled forward toward the driver, who promptly socked him in the mouth. Jake stumbled backward into the door. “You’re all gonna die.”
Realizing that there was no visible brake like he had seen in so many movies, Jake groggily stepped backward and released the hatch.
“I can still save me,” Jake slurred.
For a second the engineer looked like he was going to come forward and stop Jake, but finally the response to a potentially dangerous threat won out, and he let Jake step through the doorway and tumble off the side of the car junction.
As the train had begun to make an emergency stop in the distance, the dark figure loomed over a grit-toughened and bloody body lying facedown in the weeds.
“Ah, fear. I do not believe I shall ever comprehend it.”
* * *
Einstein and Kerouac at my Family Reunions
By Gail Gray
These competitions in my family. When will they stop? When will my family start acting like other families? You know the ones where the competing comes down to who has a baby first, or who has the biggest McMansion, or the best paying geek job in the most far off big city, or the smartest kid or the newest Range Rover…you know the normal stuff.
No, mine, is this contest between my uncle Peter and my dad trickled down to me and my two cousins. You see my uncle (who at some time was in prison but my folks would never tell me why) went on about how in New Jersey he and Einstein met in this tea room. This is back in the day when they didn’t have Starbucks or even privately owned coffee houses, but they had tea rooms. We had one here too but we didn’t get to go until we were teenagers and that wasn’t for the tea but for what the tall gypsy lady said when she came by after we finished our cup of tea and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. The gypsy lady swayed over, coin bracelets clanking at her wrists and she’d sit down and with a solemn look on her angular dark face, she’d read our tea leaves.
Well, anyway, my uncle Peter used to talk about how at the tea room he would be the only customer who would sit at a table with Einstein because they all thought he was nuts with that whacked out hair and the crazy way he talked. But the place was really small. And if you wanted your lunch or to have your tea leaves read then you had to share a table sometimes. Well my uncle liked the way Enstien talked and in fact I remember my uncle even talking about the stuff they talked about… wormholes and such things. And at first I thought he meant real wormholes like in the garden (which I had never seen) and then later after Dune came out, I figured it was the wormholes the spice worms made on Arakis. Especially since Einstein talked about the planets and space and stuff too, but it wasn’t until later, actually after my uncle died when I realized he was talking about wormholes… you know space/time-rip type of wormholes like in the movie, Donnie Darko, and that’s how my uncle said he got out of prison… through a wormhole.
And then my dad used to talk about how he bought drinks for Jack Kerouac. This was at the Old Worthen Inn in our home town, Lowell, Mass., on Worthen Street (one of the cobblestone streets still left near downtown, not far from where my mother would later work at City Hall.) And my dad bought rounds for Kerouac just like he bought rounds for everyone in some bar somewhere every Friday night. He was a good time generous drunk…and his friends knew to count on him.
But all their lives, my dad and uncle tell their stories at every family get together and my uncle would always win. My family believed him along with all that crap about escaping from prison through a wormhole that Einstein told him about. They didn’t believe my dad who sat and drank beer with Kerouac – this was before On the Road. Maybe even my dad inspired Kerouac to go on the road or maybe even write some of the stuff he did on the road….who knows? Sometimes you sit and listen to the guy whose footing your bar tab all night, right?
But it would all come down to me and my cousins and they would always win. I don’t know if it’s ‘cause I was an only child and easy to outnumber or because they liked the wilder most likely untrue story; or because my dad’s story wasn’t as exciting because after all, it happened in Lowell, our home town and the place we all lived. Lowell didn’t have the magical charm of the 100 mile rule; or maybe Einstein had more clout than Kerouac; or maybe it was more exiting because my dad just drank beer and their dad escaped from prison.
So, when I found the trunk full of letters after my dad died things got a little weird…a little tense. First of all I found this letter, see….it was from my uncle to my dad. It was dated 1957 and he talked about how he was now out of prison because of this wormhole idea put forth by a friend of his, some weird guy who didn’t do much but sit and scribble strange letters and numbers on a pad but he taught my uncle how to find the wormholes. And my uncle claimed he did although I have to wonder how he could go on living in New Jersey and then later return to Lowell if he was an escaped convict to raise his kids and all. But attached to this letter with an old rusty paper clip was a small piece of paper, maybe the size of an index card and on it my uncle claims is the theorem written out by Einstein himself and my uncle wanted my dad to have it in case the cops ever caught up with him as an escaped felon or my dad ever himself got arrested and needed to get out of jail. Although how my dad would know how to recognize or summon a wormhole, whatever the hell you do with them if he ever went to jail, is beyond me. Or do you just chant it like a mantra and it automatically appears? Maybe that’s how Einstein got out of Germany in the 2nd World War, who knows?
Anyway the theorem was not in the same handwriting as my uncle’s letter.
A few weeks later, after flipping through a lot of old photographs and some old letters from my aunts in England to my mom in Lowell, I found a stained piece of notebook paper and on it was this poem….this weird poem. No date, mind you. But two initials down at the bottom….J.K…..and the poem talked about the night this J.K. dude and some other guy (maybe my dad) had broken into the Hi Hat Roller Rink (which was right up the street form us in Lowell) and skated around all night for free although minus the live organ music and how they’d stolen a couple of pairs of skates and after that would make night time runs to roller skate on the roof of the Blue Moon night club kind of catty corner across Princeton Blvd. from the Hi Hat.
Also in the trunk were these photos. None of J.K. or Jack Kerouac (as I interpreted the initials) and my dad, but a bunch of my dad on roller skates on a roof somewhere and he’s hefting some lithesome showgirl up in a fancy Olympic pairs kind of move…you know the kind where you think the guy’s gonna drop the girl. And I just got to wonder…was J.K. the guy taking the photos? Because you know, J.K. was a football guy…maybe he thought roller skating was for sissies. But my dad was no sissy. He was a slender guy, sure, but he had the heft to lift a showgirl. I would argue that my dad was just as strong as Kerouac as any football player, had been in the Coast Guard, while Kerouac had only been in the Merchant Marines and my dad was known to be a roller skating champion of some sorts (maybe that’s how he knew how to break into the Hi Hat Roller Rink). Maybe Kerouac knew he didn’t have the style or maybe he was too drunk so he ended up taking the pictures.
And so now I’ve got a dilemma. When I meet my cousins at the next family gathering, it may be Ronnie’s, the younger one; at his 50th birthday…do I show him my dad’s photo and the J.K. poem? Or do I show him the letter from his dad with the additional theorem? Or do I show him all of them? No matter what I do, even if I went to the lengths of handwriting analysis….what’s all this gonna do to the competition?
* * *
Poems by Amy L. George
When the water went down,
he went back.
Shafts of light found
the darkness, transformed
blind broken plates into
shadows that trembled
with every shudder
of his flashlight.
He sloshed through drowned keepsakes,
thankful that his memories
The sofa used to be around here somewhere.
His eyes followed the murky ripples
to the baby cradle,
crushed in the corner,
the boards his grandfather sanded
like a rotting woodpile,
collapsed and askew.
The TV antennae caught the light,
one of the arms wore
one of his wife’s sweaters,
frayed and torn.
I never did like that sweater.
His daughter’s violin case floated by,
and he strained to reach and grab it.
One day her notes would trill
through the air again,
over the city.
Past the water.
Your eyes shift
The wind has slaughtered
your thoughts again,
rattled you as it does
the loose window,
pulling at the strength
of the pane.
Focus is hard for you these days.
The cold air outside
is a blank canvas to you,
you say the trees are lonely,
wonder where the leaves have gone.
Funny, you muttered,
they were orange yesterday.
I’ve come again to sing for you, Mattie,
though the tunes are still in your body.
The lyrics to “Amazing Grace”
float up from some forgotten corridor,
your smile a candle
to guide them back
as though you’ve not lost the days.
Thoughts on the Fly
I want to smash a fly,
end its drug-tripping,
around my desk.
I swung at it with
convinced I could kill
it with the weight of
1200 words in one place.
I hate flies.
I know scientists
could explain to me
the delicate balance
of the ecosystem
and how this winged
is in some way, crucially
related to the survival of
glaciers in Antarctica.
But all I can think
is how the bugger
has landed on my dictionary,
and is tap-dancing on it
to taunt me.
* * *
By Tai Dong Huai
The morning after Barack Obama is elected President, my adoptive dad is elated. He’s working, by his own admission, on less than three hours sleep. He stayed awake, sitting in the living room with the television volume turned low, until the final result came in. Later, after hours of commentary, a concession speech, and a victory celebration, he went up to bed but was too excited to do little more than occasionally drift off.
“It was an amazing night,” he says as he drives me to my eighth grade homeroom.
“You should take the day off,” I tell him. “You don’t look so hot."
“Are you kidding?” he says, as he reaches forward to switch on the radio. “No way I’m missing today.”
He teaches at a Catholic college where, for the past year, most of his colleagues have been telling him that an African-American can’t win. He’s insisted they’re wrong – that the country has advanced beyond that – and this is his day to puff out his chest and strut.
A page in the book of American history has been turned, a radio talk show host tells his audience. This morning we all sit proudly in the front of the bus.
We’re on Route 58, stopped at a red light, when it happens. It’s not much – hardly noticeable – but a thump and a nudge let us know that the car behind us has tapped our bumper.
“Crap,” my father mutters as he reaches for his door handle.
The other driver is out before we are. He’s a black man with white hair and he’s shaken. He wears heavy brown shoes, navy blue pants and a matching zip-up jacket with the name ‘Ralph’ stitched over the left breast pocket. “You folks, okay?” he asks.
“We’re all right,” my dad says. “What about you?”
“I was adjusting the radio,” Ralph says. “I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
My father inspects the back of our car. It’s an eight-year old Honda CRV, scarred by its share of falling bikes and windblown shopping carts, so one more dink hardly seems to matter.
“I don’t see any damage,” my father reports.
“I am really sorry about this,” Ralph says.
By now, traffic is moving around us. Some people beep, most gawk, one man on a cell phone takes his hand off the steering wheel just long enough to shoot us the finger.
“I guess we should get out of here,” my dad says.
“Probably a good idea,” Ralph agrees.
We haven’t even made it back to our cars when we hear the command. It comes over a public address system mounted on top of a slowly approaching police cruiser.
“PULL YOUR CARS OVER TO THE SIDE!”
My dad smiles, raises his hand, waves toward the police car stopped just behind Ralph’s car. “It’s all right, officer!” he calls. “No harm done!”
“PULL YOUR CARS OVER NOW!”
There’s a clearing on the side of the road, a place where I’ve seen a concession truck selling hot dogs around lunch time. We pull in, followed by Ralph, followed by the police car. The officer is out first, a muscular looking guy about my dad’s age.
“Everybody out!” he orders.
“Wait here,” my father says.
“He said ‘everybody,’” I remind him.
My father, out of the car, already has the necessary paperwork in his hand: license, registration, insurance card. Ralph, not as organized, flips through a tangled mass of odds and ends in his glove compartment.
“I said out of the car!” the officer bellows, his hand now resting on the butt of his holstered pistol.
Ralph has apparently been around enough to know to comply. He gets out of his car and hands the officer what looks like his license. “I’ve got my registration in there somewhere,” he says.
“You been drinking, have you?” the police officer asks.
“No, sir,” Ralph answers.
“It was just a little tap,” my dad tries to explain.
“I saw what it was,” the officer says as he takes my dad’s papers. “Don’t anybody move.”
With the officer in his car and out of earshot, I tell Ralph, “It’ll be fine.” But in fact, I have no idea how it’s going to be. A few minutes pass before the police officer comes back and hands my father his paperwork.
“You planning on filing an insurance claim?” he asks.
“In that case, you’re free to go.”
“What about him?” my father asks.
“I’ll take care of him.”
“I really don’t think he’s been drinking.”
“You an expert?” the officer asks.
“I’ve been on since midnight,” the officer says. “They’ve all been drinking.”
We get back into the Honda, but my father sits for a minute and stares out.
“I’m going to check your eyes,” the officer tells Ralph as they stand next to the police car.
Were only Dr. King alive to share this day... the guy on the radio says.
“Keep your head still and follow the stimulus,” the officer says as he removes a pen from his pocket and waves it in front of Ralph’s face.
If only President Lincoln was here...
“Do not move your head.”
...or Rosa Parks or Malcolm X...
“I said not to move your head!”
“Turn off the radio,” my dad says as he puts the car in gear and eases into traffic.
“I should have done something,” my father says just as we pull into the school parking lot.
I’m about to ask him what he could have possibly done. Why get himself into trouble? Except then I realize. He should have done something. Or I should have.
Somebody should have done something.
* * *
Poems by Chris Pike
Days Like These
On days like these,
when the sun hides in the clouds
and the rain falls
hour after hour,
the chaos of this city,
the traffic, the sirens, the trains,
all slip away
like smoke from a cigarette,
and all that is left
is the damp leaves under my feet
and the cool breeze flowing through
my finger tips.
On days like these,
I can be still and watch
Out my window
the sky is bleeding ash.
The flames are turning our green hills
orange and red and, soon, black.
We escape in a long line down the road.
The firefighters sit on the sidewalk,
The fire is too hot for them,
too fast for them.
“Will it burn the town?”
“I don’t know,” my mother says.
“Will it burn our house?”
“I don’t know,” my mother says.
The sky bleeds, and the hills burn.
I hope home will still be home
after the flames.
Nothing ever changes in this life.
There will always be old men
sitting on milk crates,
reading the newspaper
in the rain.
There will always be beautiful women
in high heels and dresses,
walking down the street
in the sun.
And there will always be you
trying to make it,
dirt and bugs under your feet,
with nothing to lose but yourself.
* * *
By Beth Rodriguez
Maddy touched Joshua’s back. He rolled away from her.
“Josh, honey.” She shook his shoulder gently. “You’re going to be late.”
Grumbling, her husband sat on the edge of the bed and reached for a frayed pair of jeans.
She reached for her bathrobe. “I’ll get you some breakfast,” she said, sliding her feet into a pair of worn slippers.
He made a non-committal grunt as she left the room.
Before they’d married, she’d dreamed of loving mornings together, of waking cradled in his arms. But he never turned towards her after he switched off the lamp at night. His back was a wall between them.
She pulled out a pitcher of milk and two eggs from the refrigerator. Maddy said a silent prayer of thanks that Lila hadn’t woken up yet. Not that Lila was a difficult baby. On the contrary, the six-month-old was unusually well-behaved for an infant, only rarely crying. Most of the time she gazed up from her crib with a solemn look, as if she knew something Maddy didn’t.
Joshua’s work boots clattered against the wooden floor. “Don’t have time to eat,” he said stiffly. “Have to be on site in ten minutes.”
“Oh.” Maddy was quiet. “I thought we could have breakfast together,” she finally said in a small voice, gesturing lamely at the table, which was already set for two.
He gathered his keys and yellow hard hat from the table. “Can’t be late again. Murphy about canned my ass last time.”
“Well, here.” She quickly scooped up some of the egg and slid it between two slices of bread. “At least take this.” She held it out like a child coaxing a small animal.
Joshua looked at her almost warily, before grabbing the offering and heading out the door.
“Know when you’ll be back?” she called after him.
At the car door, he shrugged. “Who knows?”
Then he was gone.
Maddy turned back towards the kitchen. She put away the extra setting and reheated her cold coffee. She pulled the Sunday newspaper, which still lay strewn on the table, towards her.
She felt a pang when she saw the ad for Piggly Wiggly. It had been two years since she’d quit. Josh had insisted she stop working after the wedding. His salary would be enough. Maddy had been tempted to argue, but stopped when she saw the cold determination in his eyes.
She still missed her old job. There was something soothing about methodically stacking cereal boxes and arranging fruits and vegetables into attractive displays. She hadn’t been much of a student, scraping by with Cs in most of her classes. But, after school, she’d been in her element at the store. She would count out change slowly for elderly Mr. Herbert or advise Mrs. Walker, a mother of six, that peanut butter was twenty-five percent off all week. Maddy had been employee of the month when she quit. Sandy, the portly manager with the gray comb-over, had been sad to see her go. Not many people stayed as long as she did. She’d been there three years, since before she’d had her driver’s license.
Maddy got up, placing her dishes in the sink. She rubbed her finger over the veiny leaves of the Swedish ivy which hung from the ceiling. Her mother had brought it by two weeks ago, as a gift for their second anniversary. The edge of the leaves had already turned brown, crinkly as aged newspaper. Her mother of all people should have known a plant was a poor choice for a gift. Sometimes Maddy forgot to water them, sometimes she didn’t add enough fertilizer. The end result was always the same. Even the third-grade class cactus had died during Maddy’s week to care for it.
A soft cry came from Lila’s room. Maddy continued watering the sad little plant. The wail repeated itself. Maddy sighed and headed towards her daughter.
The labor had been relatively short, six hours, and not as painful as Maddy had thought it would be. The attending doctor, a red-faced man with a sweaty bald spot, had beamed stupidly at her after it was over, as if she was a prize mare who’d just delivered a promising foal. Maddy had expected to feel a rush of love, a pink glow of tenderness, when the tiny bundle was handed to her. But there had been nothing.
Josh had cooed over the baby, using the same honeyed tone he used to use with Maddy herself.
He’d been shy when he asked her to homecoming dance sophomore year, almost as if he expected her to say no. She’d noticed him around school before; a tall, lanky redhead who kept to himself.
Josh had arrived at her house promptly at eight, with a long-stemmed rose for her, and one for her mother, which impressed her parents. “Such a nice young man,” her mother had murmured in her ear.
The following week, he escorted her to and from every class, his long arm wrapped tightly around her tiny waist. They talked on the phone until late at night, exchanging youthful vows of undying love. Her parents, not impressed with the grand scope of their romance, threatened to disconnect the phone.
She hardly noticed as her friends drifted away from her, tired of unreturned phone calls and skipped trips to the mall. It was enough to be Josh’s darling, his sweetheart, his “little baby doll.”
Maddy did, in fact, look like a doll. Petite, barely five feet tall, she could still buy clothes in the childrens department. Josh, at 6’ 1”, towered over her. She teased him about their difference in height, but she liked it. She felt protected by his additional inches. No one had been so protective of her, not even her parents. No other boys had taken such interest in the details of her life. Joshua always wanted to know where she would be and what she’d be doing.
No one had been surprised when he proposed to her in the spring of their senior year. They were married in a small ceremony a month after graduation, with only family and a few close friends in attendance. His parents, although not terribly well off themselves, had paid the first month’s rent on the apartment as a wedding gift. Maddy and Josh couldn’t afford a honeymoon, but it didn’t matter to her. She was happy just to be his wife.
Maddy couldn’t have guessed how quickly things would change.
He was like a child who excitedly unwraps a gift, only to toss it aside moments later, the thrill already forgotten. Maddy had been his only serious girlfriend, a situation he seemed increasingly unhappy with.
She had turned nineteen a few months after the wedding. Josh had taken her to dinner at one of the few places in town with cloth napkins. Vicki, an old friend from high school, had spotted them in the restaurant, and stopped by to say hello.
“Vicki’s looking good,” Josh had commented after she left their table. His eyes had roamed over Maddy with a faint look of disdain, letting her know she didn’t look nearly as good. Josh had glanced admiringly at Vicki’s retreating figure. “You know, you’re lucky you got me when you did. If I wasn’t mar-ried,” he added in a sing-song voice, waggling his ring finger at Maddy, “you know that girl would already have me halfway to her place.”
It was shortly after this that the poker nights started. Each Wednesday, Maddy was forced to retreat to the living room while Josh’s work buddies invaded her kitchen.
“This is five-star stuff after Maddy’s cooking,” Josh would say, reaching for stale Doritos. After struggling with a beer bottle cap, he’d joke that it was easier to open than his wife’s legs.
His voice would carry clearly down the hall to Maddy. She’d stuff a fist in her mouth, biting on her knuckles as she heard the laughter. Maddy would squeeze her eyes shut, willing the tears not to fall.
Josh had warmed to her again briefly when the home pregnancy test showed she was expecting. He’d spoken of playing catch with his son, and of family trips to the beach.
Yet as her waist expanded to accommodate the growing child, he’d given her a new nickname. Having long since stopped calling her his doll, his angel, or even just darling, she was now known as "the heifer." The tone was almost affectionate, almost teasing, when others were around, but the hard edge underneath let her know it was meant to hurt.
Lila fell silent as Maddy entered the room. Maddy gripped the edge of the crib and stared down at her daughter. The baby’s brow wrinkled as she gazed back at her mother. The furrowed brow and nearly bald head gave Lila a slight resemblance to her grandfather, the appearance of a world-weary little soul.
“What is it?” she snapped at the child.
Lila pursed her lips, as if about to speak. Maddy’s chest felt wet. She looked down. There were two large wet spots on the over-sized t-shirt she used as a nightgown. Maddy sighed. Of course, the little thing was hungry.
“Sorry, kid,” she mumbled apologetically, reaching down into the crib.
The baby felt awkward in her arms. Surprisingly, Joshua had been a natural as a father. Since that first day in the hospital room, where he’d cradled the infant in his arms and pressed his lips tenderly to her forehead, he seemed to instinctively know what she needed. On the rare occasions Lila woke up during the night, it was he who walked up and down the hall singing her to sleep. He changed her diapers almost cheerfully, blowing raspberries on her stomach. It was Joshua who elicited Lila’s rare smiles. Maddy felt a tightness in her chest watching the two of them, Josh’s hand caressing the small back as he whispered softly in Lila’s ear.
Mechanically, Maddy shifted the baby from her chest to her shoulder and burped Lila, patting her back a little too roughly. Continuing to balance Lila against her shoulder, Maddy moved back down the hall towards the bathroom.
An infant-sized plastic tub had been deemed an unnecessary expense, so the child was carefully bathed each day in the full-sized porcelain one that Maddy and Josh used. Maddy turned on the faucets, adjusting the knobs until the water ran lukewarm. She pulled the pink-elephant patterned onezie over her daughter’s still-soft head, and threw the used diaper into the wicker basket.
Maddy lowered Lila’s naked body into the tub and worked the soapy lather over the baby’s smooth skin. Josh would be home late tonight. The meatloaf and mashed potatoes long cold, he’d walk right past her without a word.
To Lila. He’d go straight to Lila’s room and bounce her on his knee, telling the baby about his day in a sing-song voice. He confided to Lila, not to her, his wife. Maddy would wander alone to the living room and stare at the photo of two giddy teenagers on their wedding day.
So very long ago, it seemed. Maddy felt tired suddenly, much older than twenty years.
Relax, just let go, a voice hummed in her ear. And she obeyed, loosening her grip on the small body. It slipped from her hands easily, the small head dipping below the surface like a ship’s prow. Maddy gazed steadily into her daughter’s eyes. They were a deep liquid brown, just like Josh’s. Was she mocking her, just as Josh so often did? Were those tiny lips curling into a little sneer?
Maddy smiled at her daughter as she reached for the faucets. It was the first time she’d smiled all morning.
* * *
By Joseph Belser
A paper weight with no papers underneath sat on Shannon Barkley’s desk. It was a turtle. A turtle with a fish in its mouth. Some spiritual symbol, she was told. A pen set sat next to the turtle. Other than those items, the desk was bare. A slick mahogany top reflected the light of a dim overhead lamp. Shannon’s legs sported a rash of goose bumps beneath a pair of business suit slacks. A cover in the front of this desk would be nice, she thought. Maybe tomorrow I’ll bring in my floor heater.
She had always been told that floor heaters were fire hazards, but she didn’t care. The cold deems it necessary. She turned and gazed at a cheap calendar sporting a tropical beach scene hanging from a thumbtack on the wall to her left. December 4th. Twenty-one days till Christmas.
She adjusted her glasses and pulled out a bottle of water from her bag lying next to her feet on the floor. She took a drink and screwed the cap back on. The bottle went next to the turtle paper weight making the item count on her desk three.
Her watch read 7:59 and she shook her head. Time always goes fast when you don’t want it to. A knock on her door immediately followed that thought. “Come in,” she said.
The door opened. A young man who looked fifteen, but was really twenty-six, walked in with one sheet of double bonded paper between his right thumb and forefinger. Without saying a word, he placed the sheet on the desk in front of Shannon. He nodded. Shannon put her hand up as if to thank him as well as to simultaneously shoo him away. The young man turned and walked out the door without acknowledging her.
A list of ten names stared up at her from the paper. She scanned the names and sighed, while rubbing her temples. Exhaling a couple of more times, she stood up and took her coat from hanger in the corner of her office and put it on. She jammed her hands in the coat pockets, feeling for the box of cigarettes and the lighter. After locating both, she closed her eyes for a moment. Then she walked out of her office shutting the door.
On her way to the building’s exit, the secretary, a fat middle aged man wearing a white button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, stopped her.
“Where ya going?”
Shannon’s voice was monotone. “I left something in my car,” she replied.
The secretary furrowed his brow. “Do you leave something in your car every day?” he asked.
“I’m forgetful,” she replied as she walked past him without looking back. The phone on the secretary’s desk rang and he answered it, feigning an enthusiastic tone.
The cold wind hit her face as she exited the building. A dark sky loomed over her with the vague promise that it would produce a hazy shade of gray in about an hour. She shivered as she approached her car, a red Acura. A fresh scratch made by the jagged edge of a key ran horizontally across the driver’s door.
She got in the car and turned the key in the ignition.
Two and half minutes later she pulled into a vacant parking lot adjacent to a vacant office building. Two signs with phone numbers decorated the building. They both read:
She got out of the car and produced the pack of cigarettes and the lighter. The car continued to run. She popped a cigarette in her mouth and flicked the lighter. While hunching over and turning her back to the wind, she lit the cigarette. She inhaled and the stale smoke entered her lungs. After a couple of more drags, she closed her eyes and felt a rush of endorphins flood her head. The fire continued to burn the tobacco as she strolled around the parking lot.
After five minutes, her cigarette was at its end and her cheeks were red. Her teeth rattled together. Her thoughts centered on the cold. The car heater would feel extra good now that it had warmed up.
She had the car door halfway open when the first name on the list flashed in her mind’s eye. Gary Rader. She climbed in the car and shut the door. She reached under the seat. The cold bottle stung her hand for a moment and then she gripped it. The golden rum sloshed back and forth in the bottle as she screwed off the cap.
She kept the bottle of rum in one hand and flipped the latch of the glove compartment with the other. Inside was an assortment of scrunched up pieces of paper. Sitting with the mess was different bottle: a small orange one that had been filled by a pharmacist. She put the bottle of rum between her legs and squeezed it with her thighs. She then opened the prescription bottle and placed two small yellow pills on her tongue.
When she had capped the prescription bottle, she threw it back into the glove compartment and snapped it shut.
Her cell phone rang. No ring tone. Just two impersonal beeps. Grimacing, she dry swallowed the yellow tablets and opened the phone. “Human Resources, this is Shannon,” she answered.
“Shannon, where the hell are you?” demanded the man on the other end.
“I had to run a quick errand.”
The man laughed. “Are you ready to wield the ax?”
“Of course I am,” said Shannon. “What kind of question is that?” Her voice was sharp and strong.
“You get back here or I’ll fire you,” he said.
“You don’t have the balls to do that,” replied Shannon. “That’s why you hired me. Because you don’t have the balls.”
The man on the other end laughed. “I guess you’re right. I guess you have the best job security out of anyone in the company.”
“Well, that’s stating the obvious,” said Shannon grinning. She snapped the phone shut. Always have the last word and make it strong, she thought.
She burst into tears.
Gary Rader. Single father. Two kids.
She unscrewed the bottle of rum, put it to her lips and tilted her head backward. The bitter taste caused her to pause before swallowing hard. She put the cap back on and placed it back underneath the seat. A couple of snow flurries blew past her windshield. She put the car in gear and turned on the windshield wipers as well as the radio.
A deep voice from the radio sounded throughout the car. “While the unemployment rate stands at ten percent in the U.S., the Obama administration remains optimistic citing fewer jobs were lost in the month of November than expected,” it said.
She twisted the knob of the radio back off, reached for the bottle of rum underneath the seat and took another drink as she changed lanes.
When she pulled the red Acura back into the company lot, she went for the glove compartment one more time. The orange prescription bottle went into the left pocket of her slacks. A breath mint went into her mouth. Eye drops went into her eyes. Fresh makeup went on her face. And then she headed toward the building.
Gary Rader was waiting. He was thin, balding and sported grayish stubble on his face. He stood next to the stenciled letters on her door that read:
She squinted at him. His eyes were wide. His hands were behind his back. And his mouth turned upward in a nervous grin.
Shannon answered his grin with a frown. “Come in,” she said.
They walked into the office. “Have a seat,” said Shannon, as she sat down behind her desk. He took the lone chair sitting in front of her.
She never took her eyes off of Gary Rader. “Mr. Rader,” she said. “I’ll get right to the point.”
Gary Rader’s face dropped and his shoulders sagged.
“We’re going to let you go,” said Shannon. “Management wants you gone for good by the end of the day. Your production has been down.” Her words flew out of her mouth like machine gun bullets.
Gary Rader sat motionless. His head was still down, avoiding eye contact with her.
Shannon continued to squint.
“Thank you,” said Rader. “I knew it was coming. You always know it’s coming when they schedule a meeting with you.”
“That’s right,” said Shannon. “Have a nice day.”
“Can I count on a recommendation?” asked Rader.
“Send Mr. Gage a request by mail,” replied Shannon. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
“Of course,” said Rader.
He turned around and exited the office.
When the door closed and Rader’s silhouette was out of sight, Shannon laid her head on the desk. Tears welled in her eyes and she fought them off. One down, nine to go. The next name on the list was Ben Natus. Better get yourself together, she thought. Ben Natus will be coming soon.
The pills rattled in her pocket as she shifted her legs. She took the orange bottle out, popped off the white cap and eyed the bottle of water sitting next to the turtle on her desk. She placed the pill on her tongue and took a long drink.
* * *
The Bee and the Urinal
By Daniel W. Davis
There was a bee on the urinal, and Scott couldn't take a piss.
He dried up instantly. All the way to the bathroom he'd been willing his bladder to hold just a moment longer, just another second or two. He'd even unzipped his jeans and whipped his thing out as soon as he was through the bathroom door--
And saw the bee.
It was crawling around the top of the urinal, aimless, lazy. It stopped momentarily, noticing his presence. In that brief moment of hesitation, Scott could see the bee flying at his face, or worse his dick, stinger ready, eminent death be damned. He could feel the stinger going in, just like the last time he was stung, the pain and swelling and crying. He'd only been eight at the time, and it had been four full years, but the sensation came back in a flash, his fist clenched around his dick, and for a moment he didn't need the bee to sting him, he was doing a damn good job of hurting himself.
Then he saw that the bee had resumed its wandering, but he didn't relax.
It wasn't a big bee; small, slightly larger than your average sweat bee. He'd seen several others like it around the school playground; there was probably a nest somewhere, a colony or whatever you called it. They generally weren't hard to avoid, and weren't very aggressive either; you stayed out of their way, and they stayed out of yours, and if your paths ever crossed then you just stopped what you were doing. It was about respect, Scott's father had said once, but Scott knew the truth: it was about fear. Respect didn't have a thing to do with it.
They weren't aggressive on the playgrounds, but Scott had never seen one in the bathroom before. Especially not just a few inches away from his exposed dick. There was no respect there, either. That was pure, unadulterated terror.
He could've wondered what would compel a bee to crawl across an elementary school urinal; he could've wondered how long the bee had been there, if it had been in the room that morning when he was in there. He could've wondered a whole bunch of things, all of them worth pondering, but his mind froze like his bladder. All he could think of was a memory—a little boy in the backyard, curious and oblivious, poking his hand into a patch of flowers and feeling the worst pain of his young life.
Slowly, Scott backed away from the urinal. He poked his dick back in his pants and zipped up, not watching and not caring if he caught himself in his zipper. He only turned around at the bathroom door, and then it was just for a second—to kick the door open and dart out of the bathroom, a quick glance over the shoulder to ensure that the bee wasn't following him.
He went back to class and sat down at his desk. About halfway through the algebra lecture he wet him himself, and casually crossed his legs so no one would notice until later.
* * *
The Preacher's House
By Matt Lavin
Drummond looked like a man in the aftermath of a head-on collision. No blood, no bruise, no break of bone, just the blank visage of abrupt metallic concussion. More accurately, he looked like the passenger of a crash who, upon confronting the trauma of what had just occurred, sits immobile on the curb, replaying the incident in his mind. When Ellen first caught sight of her husband planted at the bar of the Finnegan’s, cradling himself in whirring paralysis, she positioned herself awkwardly in the doorway. His oily brown hair was mussed, his eyes were bloodshot, and the light hit him in a way that made him seem a stranger. She watched him sit and stare and drink, until he acknowledged her.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s just …”
“I know, Drum.”
Ellen went over the day’s events. She and Drummond had driven their friend and neighbor Mary Palmer to the arraignment, expecting the judge to accept formal charges against her husband, Pastor John Palmer, for domestic abuse. They bore witness when the judge postured, said his hands were tied, lamented his required role, and dismissed the case, citing a lack of physical evidence as the decisive variable.
They had stood with Mary at the doorway to the women’s shelter on Granger Street, waiting patiently for her to take the first step toward the door. Peering inward, Drummond volunteered to get gas for the car, promising to return before Ellen had finished helping Mary get settled. But he had not returned, and Ellen had waited, and she had grumbled, and she had lingered, for hours it seemed, before setting out on foot—and she had found him here, not two blocks from the courthouse.
Ellen listened to the drone of the bar, trying to match the surrounding sounds of exclamation with their progenitors. It was not an overly crowded night, maybe ten couples sitting and tables and another half a dozen at the bar, but the sound loop in the place seemed out of synch with the picture. Finnegan’s was one of the better bars in town, which meant that it offered more than three beers on tap, and the bathrooms were regularly cleaned. An old song was coming through on the jukebox—she remembered the tune but not the name. She could see that Paul, a veteran bartender, was seeing to another customer, mouthing the lyrics in dramatized elation. His oversized, untucked, short sleeved collared shirt bounced off his hefty arms and shoulders; the dim light of the room refracted off his bald head like a flickering candle.
Ellen let out a solitary laugh. “Who sings this song?”
“This is Jackson Browne, Call it a Loan,” Drummond said. “Paul seems to like it.”
Drummond always knew the singers’ names. As the moment’s levity faded, Ellen put one hand on the backrest of the stool next to him. It was one of those soft vinyl ones, dark red cushion on a stainless steel pole. It looked inviting, but she did not sit, and he did not look back at her.
“They play the same station in here all the time,” Drummond said. “The same songs, over again. Nothing changes.”
Ellen pried Drummond’s long-emptied drink from his grip and slid it away from him. She peered into the empty pint glass as if it were a periscope that could show her all the things beyond her line of sight. What panic had been coursing through him, in that moment on Granger Street, to flee like that? She pressed her thumb hard against the muscle tissue on the top of his hand, as if to say to him that his deepest fears were false: he was good, he was strong, he had done his part. She looked around the room and noticed Tom and Jenna Stevenson, a younger couple who also attended Pastor John’s church. They were toasting something, smiling, showed no signs of noticing anyone else in the bar.
“Drum,” Ellen said. “Every family within ten miles is going to know what he did. It’s not jail time, but he won’t go unpunished.”
Ellen thought about Mary’s blank expression when the judge dismissed the case, the look of a woman burrowing in. She wanted to tell Drummond he was mistaken, that they had made a difference last night when Mary appeared at Ellen’s doorstep late the night before, crying, heaving, retching, and reenacting a near-epileptic pantomime version of the incident. They had helped her call the police, helped today.
Yet she could picture Mary at the women’s shelter, trying in vain to sleep, shaking, shivering, emptying out, and she knew too well the kind of satisfaction her husband would want. She imagined Drummond driving to the preacher’s house in a fit of volcanic rage, standing on the man’s lawn in the middle of the night, and shouting for the criminal to emerge and answer for his sins. Was this the impulse coursing through him, a man who was often reluctant to roll through a stop sign, or drive above the speed limit? Or was it Ellen? Did some part of her wish that God would visit upon Pastor John the rage of a thousand vengeances? Tenfold retribution for a hypocrite.
Paul came around to Ellen, still standing, and Drummond, still deteriorating. The bartender was now mouthing the words to a song Ellen had never heard before. He made a circle in the air with his outstretched finger and, continuing to lip-synch, produced a facial expression that said concisely, “What can I get you?”
She leaned forward, waved at the darkest beer they had on tap, and moved her pointing hand like a windshield wiper from the coaster in front of Drummond to the spot in front of her where a drink would go. As she seeped into a slouch, the stool cushion gave against her lower back, cradling her.
* * *
By David Schatman
I can see the nervous eyes of the young woman standing inside, in front of the machine, as she glances back at the sound of my approach. She shifts slightly to the side, blocking the view of the keypad, as if I could decipher her PIN from outside the door.
The night is hot and muggy, the sky overcast, threatening to burst the humid air with one of those torrential summer downpours. The block of stores is set back from the street, and most of the light from the few working streetlights is absorbed by the large maple trees. Cars whizzing by at 40 or 50 miles per hour would not notice you if it was noontime and sunny and you were screaming bloody murder.
I hesitate, wondering if it is less threatening to wait outside the glass door or buzz myself in. I decide on the latter, stepping to the side near the deposit envelopes and other supplies. Fearful of what I might see, the woman scoots a little closer to the screen. She glances back and I avert my eyes, caught watching her as if there is something else to look at in this cramped, little space.
I cannot help noticing she is an attractive woman. She is dressed in a short skirt and silk blouse, and I find myself staring at her from behind. When the money comes out of the slot, she bends over; hiking up her skirt and revealing nicely tanned thighs. She is clearly nervous as she holds the money close to her, out of my sight, and counts the bills. I want to tell her not to worry. I am not going to assault her or take her money. In fact, I would like to strike up a conversation, offer to take her out for a drink, but I realize it would be inappropriate and would only frighten her.
Her wallet is sitting on the front ledge of the machine along with her car keys, checkbook, pen and cell phone. As surreptitiously as possible, she stuffs the bills in her wallet, goes to pick up her other belongings, but accidentally knocks her car keys off the ledge. Without thinking, I bend over to pick them up. When I straighten up and make eye contact, she looks scared. Simply trying to be polite, it did not occur to me that with her newly acquired cash, she might feel compromised in this small, locked space with a strange man holding her car keys.
I open my mouth to say something innocuous like “here they are,” but she quickly takes them from my hand, turns, says a strained “thanks” and hurries out the door. I am still wondering if I look like a scary person as I see her furtively glance back, making sure I am not following her.
I calculate how much cash I will need for a short business trip tomorrow and punch in 350.00. Then I hear a car pull up next to mine. Glancing back, I see a large man emerge from the car. He must be over six feet tall, wide, like a football player, with broad shoulders and a shaved head. He is wearing baggy cut-offs, like the kids wear, hanging down well below his knees, and a black, sleeveless, muscle tee. The car is an old Ford with the front fender drooping almost to the ground and gray putty spots pretending to hide body damage. He slams the door and approaches the ATM.
I wonder whether the man is going to enter the ATM or wait outside. If he comes inside, I will be trapped in this small space where no one can hear me scream. I would rather he wait outside, even though he would then be standing right by the door where I have to exit. At least I could try to run or yell loud enough that someone might hear me.
Checking or savings flashes on the screen as I hear the buzz that allows him entry into the ATM. I press checking. He does not walk off to the side but stands right behind me, towering over me. I picture him smashing my head against the steel machine. Why do I feel this way? He is probably just an ordinary guy. I have no reason to be afraid of this man, except his car and dress scream poverty. Poverty does not mean danger, I tell myself, but I am so anxious I can hear my heart beat.
The $350 comes out of the machine. Normally, I would count it to make sure the machine dispensed the right amount of money. However, I do not want to count so much cash in front of this stranger. I remove the wad of bills from the slot, quickly fold them in half and place them in my pocket. I collect my keys, my cell phone, my pen, my receipt, all of which are balancing on the thin ledge at the front of the machine. For the first time, I remember the young woman from a few moments before. Don’t drop your keys and have to bend over, I tell myself.
I turn around and squeeze past this much larger man, avoiding eye contact. Through the glass door, I see it is dark and quiet, and there are no other people in the parking lot. I can barely spot the headlights of passing cars on the parkway, and none of their occupants could possibly see me in this dark corner. As I reach for the door, a large hand grabs my shoulder from behind. “Hold it there,” a deep voice stops me in my tracks. My muscles tense. My heart pounds. I imagine the police finding me the next morning in a small pool of blood. “You forgot your card,” he says, handing it to me with a smile.
* * *
Poems by Carla Martin Wood
When birds feel winter stirring in their bones
they come to me
for seed and suet and grain
bits of berries, fruit, peanut butter
pressed in pine cones
hung with bright ribbon
having no more children of my own
birds must do
too cold to sit out on my porch
it becomes an avian restaurant
dishes hanging, seeds scattered
things filter down
chickadees and finches on the feeders
cardinals and jays upon the floor
I’ll clean it up come spring
but not before I’ve left enough
string and feathers, yarn and twigs
to help with April nesting
and why this brings me joy
I’ll never know
I do not watch them
draw my blinds
and let them live in peace
in some small comfort
I never made up ten restricting rules
with corollaries and threats
of eternal roasting on a spit
if they fail to straighten up and fly right
Nor do I peek into their nests
to ascertain if one has strayed
and found another’s mate more pleasing
Nor do I ask for a tenth
of whatever wage a sparrow earns
or require that I be honoured
on certain days of the week
Nor do I demand confessions
and weigh their happy wings
with heavy hearts
nor yet prefer a redbird to a blue
I do not know when one has fallen prey
to prowling cats
or when a boy steals bright blue eggs
to show at school
(though I would stop him
if I could)
Wren to oriole
they go their way unfettered
I go mine
without a thought
except that I fed something
And yet, the chirping, twittered, trilling songs
that wakened me this morning
are hymns beyond the ken
of any god.
Deep in the sugar-blossomed orchard
spring catches in the throat of each bloom
pink with nectar promises
heavy with buzz of bees
dreaming honey-laden fruit to come
this ancient cherry tree
beckons with shade
a dusty wanderer who
turns from roadside Jiffy Mart
leaves billboard clutter
and afternoon sales calls behind
climbs the paint-peeled fence
that separates this holy of holies
from hum and drum of market-
to lie beneath the timeless flutter
of branch and bower and bee
to relish vague, familiar longings
for childhood’s stolen cherry-
* * *
Walking on Seafloor in Iceland
By Nancy Penrose
Iceland is an island that nudges the Arctic Circle and is set within the sapphire blues of the North Atlantic Ocean. Iceland is tall blondes with Viking genes, all-night pub crawls in Reykjavík, the music of Björk, hand-knit wool sweaters, smoked lamb and dried cod. Iceland is a financial meltdown in 2008. Beneath these clichés that are truths is the land: a banquet of geology.
We traveled to Iceland, writer and photographer, to feast upon the island's volcanoes and geysers, ice caps and shorelines, hot springs and headlands. We went to walk on seafloor that has recently emerged at the surface of the planet, to observe for ourselves some of Earth's newest scenery.
Iceland sits where two great tectonic plates — pieces of the hard outer shell of the planet —are spreading away from each other. The North American plate pulls west; the Eurasian plate pulls east. Here, between the shifting plates, molten rock — magma —oozes out and solidifies into Iceland, sometimes with the drama of an erupting volcano or a house-crumbling earthquake.
The island sits at the northern end of the 6,000-mile-long Mid Atlantic Ridge, a chain of underwater volcanoes that stretches from the Arctic to the Antarctic. The Ridge is part of an Earth-circling system of spreading plates and
mountain ranges mostly hidden beneath the oceans.
But Iceland is also the child of another geological phenomena: a hot spot. Here a plume of magma rises from a fixed source very deep within the Earth and multiplies the volume of molten rock emerging from the suture between the
plates. Iceland is the only place on the Mid Atlantic Ridge that rises to break the surface of the sea.
The results of all this geology can be as cataclysmic as they are beautiful; we moved through landscapes shaped and shaken by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions since the island's birth 25 million years ago. And although we traveled no more than 60 miles from Reykjavík, we discovered volumes of Earth writing born from deep below, edited at the surface by wind and by water in all its forms.
* * *
The Transcription, The Visit, Opus 110, Party Favors, Small World
By Gary Glauber
When the call comes, the eager writer smiles:
a short deadline challenge to be met.
Seems the man is being held against his will
in some foreign prison. No impassioned pleas
from Amnesty International have been able
to effect change; petitions and global outrage
go unheeded. There have been hints of
unspeakable acts of torture, tactics to wash
a brain spanking clean, exploring how much
pain it takes to wound deep to the soul,
sway and compel in the name of self-preservation.
Boldly, the voice on the line explains, he has resisted.
Of course, there is more. While hanging tough,
the man managed to scribble out thoughts
on the few pieces of anything resembling paper
available to him. Somehow these scrawled notes
were smuggled out and forwarded to the publisher,
who now eagerly awaits a quick turnaround. The
job is to type up the jottings, so that they may be
printed, distributed, rushed to the marketplace,
and sold to those who know and respect all this man
has come to stand for. The package is sent by
messenger delivery, and the writer signs for it.
He opens the manila folder and gets to work.
He is buoyed by expectation, hoping to find
somewhere amid these incredibly tiny writings
gems of true wisdom, some clear insights imparted,
perhaps a clue to the meaning of life itself that reflection
has illuminated, yet in all these thousands of words that
darken these few pages, there is not only an absence of
epiphany and enlightenment, but an entire vacuum of ideas,
a void of reason replaced with the senseless ravings of a
madman. These scrawled ramblings reflect a mind collapsed
under great duress, someone fallen prey to the situation
surrounding him, convinced now that such trite incoherencies
are what life is about, grocery lists elevated to commandments.
Who can say, he ponders, whether the commonplace is in fact
the truest poetry imaginable, and what gets said in passing holds
the key to our very existence? Perhaps some catalytic code exists
that can decipher such pointless remarks into spun golden wisdom,
the verities long desired and ever sought. Yet as he looks down
at what’s transcribed here, there is doubt and disappointment,
pages of pabulum that read like a combination of public restroom
graffiti and overheard mumblings from Bedlam inmates, a sad
compendium of what is left where a great mind once resided,
now a shell crumbled under pressures of torture, incarceration,
and more. The writer calculates hours, adding charges to the
pages presented, for a job that offered insight of a different order.
He remembers himself here
those many years ago,
that central lane where elms had stood
ere the Dutch disease laid them low.
Before these fancier buildings
sprouted up like weeds,
that spiffy new science center,
the gym with its long rows
of treadmills with TV attachments
and rock wall climbing feature.
My gym smelled of old sweat, he thinks,
a dimly lighted track oval that
encircled an ancient basketball court.
He remembers that very same flagpole
where he met the girl he so desired
on that impossibly cold winter day
when she managed the mean feat
of rejecting him and still making him
feel incredibly good about it.
Now he has a beautiful wife
and a son on the verge of matriculation
at a place of higher learning.
They are with him, shuttled along
with several other parents and children
on this late autumn mid-day’s tour.
The co-eds seem prettier, the campus
picture postcard tidy and
each corner turned releases a flood
of quiescent memories that remain
invisible, undetected by others.
As they walk through the humanities hall,
he steals a glance at the placard
of faculty office listings,
searching for familiar names.
He recognizes one, a professor who
started here his freshman year,
now a senior department member
on the verge of retirement.
He knows his son has no real interest,
that this would be a safety school at best
in spite of the attractive students,
yet he has consented to come along
on this exercise in paternal nostalgia,
an early holiday gift from son to dad.
The tour guide stops her backward walk
and pauses from her canned talk
that covers salient points of interest
to field any random parent/student questions.
A host of queries pops into his head,
but not a single one gets voiced.
He wants to know where the time has gone,
how life can present this ironic turn of cycle,
how history can in fact repeat itself.
Instead, he listens to some concerned mom’s
question about laundry facilities in the dorms
and then shuffles quietly along,
just another nameless visitor,
a stranger in what once was a very familiar land.
pins down a center of memory,
a household command,
the wind through the tulip tree,
the reflex of putting that lipstick on.
He is held fast by any of these aural triggers,
even the long afternoon practice sessions,
soothing showers of deft glissando,
never getting all the notes quite right,
but a strange comfort in the repetition.
He knows now
that all time signatures are irregular.
No professional studio can capture
what his mind conveys here,
when a weekend return
becomes a concert hall of echoes,
a long program of le fugue reminiscence.
The dress color’s faded,
the spirit seems wrung over
by too many lost battles.
So she feigns indifference,
stays off by herself,
quietly praying to a darker god.
He finds her genuflecting,
drawn by the intensity,
overcome by the blue eyes.
This is her fiery tagline,
the very same one she rues,
the shellacked surface
of apathy as polite disclaimer,
hiding a host of telling cracks.
The night is polished
with stars reflecting secrets,
and shiny individual scars,
each with a frightening
yet compelling narrative
saying this world’s a cruel place
and here’s the hard proof.
He cannot escape the smile,
the whippoorwill’s sad call,
this endless patch of night.
We were at the Floridian,
enthusiastic kids in tow,
hoping the buddy system
might assist us through
the heat wave, the long lines,
and the next gift shop.
We were in another world,
dreaming of international espionage,
not just negotiating a character breakfast,
but the fate of all humankind:
importance, relevance, esprit de corps.
We were monitored round the clock.
Paying far too much for way too little,
yet slowly eroding, caving in
to the overseer’s relentless wishes,
seeing eye-to-eye in a friendly corporate way.
Buying those mouse ears
seemed a good idea at the time,
but a week later,
skin itchy and tan fading,
back in the cubicle’s tenuous solitude,
menial obligations and spreadsheets galore,
we open our eyes as if emerging from a coma,
and wonder, “What were we thinking?”
* * *
By Mary Callahan
A moldy lemon burst through the split black garbage bag as it hit the ground.
I stepped back a few feet. “Ewww, gross!”
“Hey, anytime you want to trade places with me, just say the word!” My sister Ann yelled from inside the dumpster, where she was standing hip-deep in garbage.
It was eleven at night and summer clung to our clothes. Linda, Ann, and I were emptying the huge restaurant dumpster. We owed money to the garbage company, and they had stopped picking up the restaurant’s trash. The three-week-old trash had turned sour, ripe with the smell of decay.
Ann and Linda were older, already in high school. It was their job to shovel the trash out of the deep dumpster, while I hauled the bags to the curb, careful not to leave too many in one place. We didn’t know exactly what would happen if we got caught at our garbage re-homing; we just knew we didn’t want to get caught.
Our restaurant was closing. Bankrupt, Tom said. Our fault. He said that too. Even I knew the problem: too many bills and not enough customers. Tom went daily to the local bars to drum up business. He was doing his part; all we had to do was everything else. I thought of the nights he would bring in ten drunken barflies just at closing time and let them order for free. “They’ll come back, and bring friends, you’ll see,” he said. They never did. Well, never sober, and during regular business hours.
It wasn’t that the food wasn’t good. We sold homemade soup, hand-cut French fries, thick hamburgers that ran with juice at the first bite. The local fast food chains sold a dried-up piece of shoe leather for thirty cents. We were outmatched.
Linda and I carried the last two bags to the curb. I would swear there were at least fifty extra bags lining the street that night. We were sweaty and tired, hair in messy ponytails and clothes so dirty I wasn’t sure they would be worth the wash. Ann’s shoes and pants would have been a total loss except she had thought to wear a garbage bag on each leg fastened with rubber bands. I thought of the time Ann had worked in the restaurant for twelve hours. Lasagna was on special that night, and she made my mom promise to save her a piece, but when a customer asked for the lasagna, it had to go. The customers came first. We gave up a lot for the restaurant. It would all pay off eventually, we thought.
At the end, Mom got a night job as a hostess at a local diner to put more cash into the restaurant. That didn’t help for long. We had to sell off everything, all the appliances and fixtures, even the new Vulcan oven. All the long days sacrificed to the family restaurant for nothing. All that was left was garbage.
* * *
By Daniel Clausen
As a foster kid living in a foster home, then part of a family, and then back to the foster home, I find things loud, nasty, and obnoxious for a good portion of my life. The fact that my first home has nicely painted walls and my foster mother goes to church changes very little. The noise surrounds me. I run around with scraped knees, not knowing how they appeared, smack other boys on the back of the head, get into fights, and then start crying uncontrollably. This sense of loneliness washes over me—I shake, shudder, and throw my senses out of orbit. More than anything, though, I fear the uncertainty of tomorrow.
Maybe it’s in response to this feeling of uncertainty that I find myself trying to rip a public phone off the wall. The two kids who are there with me just stare in amazement. I grab the phone tight, put my feet up against the wall, and pull for my very life. I’m a scrawny kid just out of elementary school, but persistence pays off and I finally get the sucker off the wall. I sneak the phone several blocks into a nearby community’s fenced-off pool, where I chuck it in. The other kids look at each other nervously before running back to their homes. I feel a sense of triumph, of accomplishment. But this is only momentary, and soon I find myself looking for something else that needs breaking. One week it’s rocks through windows, another it might be fireworks in mailboxes. I walk back to my nicely painted home in the suburbs and the noise only gets louder.
Even today, the tremors of my youth have the power to shake me. In the middle of the night, or in my classes, when I’m on the train, or even when I’m talking to people, I get these strange fits. It starts off with a small noise in the center of my brain, it spreads, and soon it’s coursing through every neuron. The noise engulfs me and it takes every bit of willpower to stop myself from running in circles, pulling my hair and teeth out, dirtying up my clothes, and then doing an obscene dance for the nearest onlooker. The ghosts of the past don’t go away, and in the window of the train, I see my younger self staring at me. He wonders what to make of the person he sees. The fact that I’m wearing a suit might surprise him.
For the moment, I wear a suit and a tie. I have a nice apartment and a stable job. But my younger self tells me that this too might need breaking soon.
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