Foliate Oak January 2014
Sleep Comes Finally
By Pete Able
In northern New Jersey, in a city that very much wanted to be part of New York, there lived a mild mannered accountant named Spalding Montgomery. Mr. Montgomery lived alone in a modest one-bedroom apartment on the 8th floor of a fifteen year-old building. He had a washer and dryer and was generally content with his lot in life. He liked his mindless job and his impersonal coworkers. He liked his tiny apartment and its efficient kitchenette. He liked being a bachelor and the hours of solitude it allowed him. He liked the way his face looked when it was clean-shaven and his slender, swimmer’s physique. His one gripe, the one card in his hand that he would have asked the dealer to swap out, was the brain that had been given him. Due to some chemical imbalance, whether dealt him by fate or by mere biological chance, he was prone to having periods of fantastic delusions, and this proclivity made it necessary for Mr. Montgomery to be under the almost constant surveillance of a psychiatrist and his prescription pad.
At the time of the main events related in this story, Mr. Montgomery is 28, and at this point he has experienced two major delusions. The first came to him while suffering through the miseries of a shy adolescence. It started small with the subtle belief that he was more sensitive than other people, which made his emotional pain more intense. Over the span of a few weeks this minor misconception grew to such proportions that he came to believe that he was, in fact, the Second Coming of Christ. The idea took root and defied all evidence to the contrary. It went on unchecked for nearly three full days, during which time young Spalding believed it absolutely and lamented the fact that he would have to continue to suffer his whole life for the good of mankind. He rebelled against the idea, asking himself, ‘What has mankind ever done for me?’ The fact that his parents had instilled in him a staunch agnosticism, and that, he therefore didn’t believe Jesus was the son of God, never gave pause to his confused teenage mind. After awhile he simply forgot about the whole affair and continued through his high school years without ever having really identified it as a warning sign of a problem.
His second major delusion came in his last year at Rutgers University. It was nearing the end of his final semester and the due date for a final project was fast approaching. The pressure of the imminent deadline found him working deep into the nights and when he lay down to sleep his mind raced with all the perceived problems and failings of the project. He went over revisions in his head for hours until he would wake at seven after stealing only two or three hours of fitful sleep. The stress of all this unhinged something in young Mr. Montgomery, and he began to oscillate between delusions of grandeur and bouts of critical self-loathing.
Two days before the deadline he was terribly unhappy and significantly dissipated. He wasn’t seeing anyone socially and rarely attended class. He began to believe there was something seriously wrong with him. The obvious culprits of stress and overwork didn’t occur to him. Instead, in a potentially life-changing eureka moment, he hit on an answer. “I’m gay!” he proclaimed to himself excitedly. That was why he had such a hard time relating to people – he wasn’t being his true self. It was a relief to finally know the root of all his tribulation. It was so simple. There was a cut and dry answer - he had been living with a false identity. But when he thought of the logical resolution of this new realization, namely, a sexual relationship with a man, his aversion was reminiscent of how he had felt about suffering for mankind. He again cursed his fortune bitterly, but, just like his not believing in Jesus wasn’t proof enough to dissuade him from thinking he was the Second Coming, his disinclination to share that kind of intimacy with a man wasn’t proof enough to dissuade him from believing he was homosexual. Young Mr. Montgomery suffered a week of misery and confusion before, with the help of his first psychiatrist, he overcame this second mistaken epiphany. It was at this time that he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and was prescribed a daily regimen of Lamictil, an anti-psychotic, which, he was told, was a necessary precaution to stave of any future “breaks from reality.”
After graduation he enjoyed seven years of uneventful relative sanity. He went to work everyday without taking so much as one sick day. He cooked himself dinner six nights out of the week and rarely went out after work . Occasionally he went to see a movie by himself or took the train into New York to walk the busy streets, spying on the passersby, their fashions and hairstyles, catching bits of conversations. But aside from these infrequent diversions he lived his life on a straight line that ran from his apartment to his office and back.
Like this, seven years passed - seven years without an episode. But seven years was a long time. For seven years his imagination had no outlet. For seven years something was stirring in the deepest recesses of his psyche. For seven years it was peeking out only in the subconscious-ness of his dreams, which he never remembered.
His boyish good looks had hardened by now into a façade of stoic masculinity. His blond hair had lost its waviness and would have hung straight to his shoulders had he not kept it cropped short. Once upon a time he had his fair share of female admirers in the office but he always kept his relations there on a strictly professional basis. Everyone came to know this about him and they returned his indifference in kind. It was simpler, and if there was anything Mr. Montgomery strived for in life, it was simplicity. For seven years things had been the picture of simplicity, but seven years was a long time, and fantasy can find a way to reach us all in the unguarded corners.
It was a Sunday night in mid-October that Spalding Montgomery was lying in bed and sleep would not come. He rolled over, he shifted the pillow, he tried lying on his back, his side, and his belly, but still sleep eluded him. Something was keeping him up but he didn’t know what. His mind was alert but he didn’t know why. And then it started. Faintly at first, he began to hear small, tinny voices. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, he only recognized the melodic rise and fall of a speech pattern. He slowed his breathing and listened more intently. He began to pick out words here and there. It reminded Mr. Montgomery of the bits of conversation he heard when walking the streets of New York.
He sat up in bed trying to detect where the words were coming from. He held his breath but heard nothing. He brushed his covers off and swung his legs to the floor. From a kitchen cabinet he took a glass and put it to the wall with his ear pressed to the bottom. He heard nothing from his next-door neighbors’. He heard nothing from his downstairs neighbors’. The ceiling would be pointless as he was on the top floor. At a loss, he shook off the mystery, and, after drinking a glass of warm milk, returned to bed.
Within seconds of lying down, almost imperceptibly at first, the voices returned. Along with the voices he could hear other noises now, mechanical noises. Was that the rev of an engine? The honking of horns? The sound of a jackhammer breaking concrete? Mr. Montgomery began to worry that this was the start of a delusion. Through years of therapy he was conditioned to be aware of the signs. Was he having an episode? He shrugged the idea off. As an act of defiance he took the pillow from under his head and violently pulled it down over his face. For a split second he thought the noises had ceased. He experienced a surge of relief. But even before he took his next breath the noises returned. And what’s more, now they were louder.
Again Mr. Montgomery tossed and turned. Every time he got comfortable and became still the noises returned. “Why is this happening?” he questioned. “I take my meds.” he told himself. He flung his pillow to the floor in frustration. He kicked his blanket from the bed. He banged his fists against the mattress over and over and over again. “Stop! You’re not a child!” he reprimanded himself. He lay on the bed panting heavily. Once his breathing returned to normal he heard it. It was a wailing siren - a wailing siren that was unmistakably coming from inside his bed. Mr. Montgomery pressed his ear to the mattress and listened intently. In addition to the siren he heard panicked cries and blaring horns. He heard feedback come from speakers, which was followed by an announcement about an earthquake. Now Mr. Montgomery was sure he was completely and utterly out of his mind. His defected brain was telling him there were tiny people living inside his mattress.
He jumped from the bed and paced through the living room to the kitchenette. From the freezer he took a bottle of vodka. He poured a double into the glass that had most recently been used as a listening device. He gulped from the glass too eagerly and gagged, almost losing the contents of his stomach. His heart was racing. He forced down another gulp and took two deep breaths. This relaxed him. He focused on his breathing, becoming slightly more relaxed. Minutes passed. He found a carton of orange juice in his refrigerator and fixed himself a tall screwdriver. He took several sips. He could feel the effect of the alcohol now. He topped off his glass and walked warily into the living room. He watched TV awhile, not allowing himself to think anything about what had occurred in the bedroom. Gradually he sank down into the sofa, and he sailed off into oblivion and slept for a respectable five hours of undisturbed rest.
The next day at work went by like a half-remembered dream for Mr. Montgomery. Sitting behind his desk his usually intent blue eyes were glazed over in abstraction. His apparent distraction was noted but not commented on. Everyone in the office was very much his or her own boss, handling their own accounts and their own clients. That’s to say it was lucky for Mr. Montgomery that no one in the office depended on his ability to do his job, because it was seriously impaired. When he remembered his work at all he shifted between tasks with anxious furtiveness. With these spurts of nervous energy he accomplished very little, and he never kept his mind on his work for very long. He was certain the small, tinny voices were waiting for him back at his apartment. The thought was so real he began to imagine the things they would say. Pretty soon he feared the voices might even find him here, in the safety of his cubicle. At times throughout the day he actually believed there was a miniature city of tiny people living in his mattress. At these times he believed it so fully that he almost ventured to break through his “strictly professional” barrier and tell a nearby coworker. It was really amazing, after all. In fact, he actually started to, but when the man looked, a little surprised, in his direction, Mr. Montgomery lost his nerve.
After these ungrounded moments, these “breaks from reality,” he quickly identified them as such, but inevitably he soon forgot. It was a revolving door of remembering and forgetting. Every time he snapped back into his right mind, he realized it was absolutely necessary for him to leave the office immediately. He hated to do it - it would blemish his perfect attendance record. But it was imperative that he leave before his coworkers, or his boss, realized that he was mentally unsound. It would ruin his reputation, or even his career. He went to his boss’s office, knocking before he entered.
“Come in.” rang the always friendly, always positive voice of his boss.
Never having had to call out of work, Mr. Montgomery wasn’t quite sure how to begin. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Johnston.” he said shakily.
“Not at all.” he replied with a wave of his hand. “What can I do for you, Spalding?” Mr. Montgomery cringed at this familiar use of his first name.
“I’m not feeling well.” he stammered. “Would it be okay if I went home?” Mr. Montgomery was unable to look the man in the eye. He waited for an answer while gazing over at the clock on the wall. It was no more than three seconds before the reply came.
“I’m shocked, Spalding.” He smiled broadly with eyes open wide in mock disbelief. “I can’t remember you ever asking for a sick day.”
“I don’t think I ever have, sir.” he said almost apologetically, looking anywhere but the man’s face. He was afraid his eyes would betray him, that the man would be able to see the utter bewilderment in his gaze.
“In that case, I heartily approve, Spalding. And if you’re not feeling better tomorrow, just give us a call.”
Success surged blood through his heart. He thanked his boss and turned quickly to make his escape.
Mr. Montgomery froze in his tracks. What now? He had to force himself to turn around. With plain, cold fear, he met the man square in the eye for the first time during the exchange.
“Get well soon.”
Mr. Montgomery wanted nothing more than to get well soon. It was imperative he talk with his doctor.
From his office Mr. Montgomery drove straight to his psychiatrist’s office only to find the building locked. He immediately plunged back into the panic from which he had gradually risen during the car ride. His doctor was supposed to have fixed everything. He would have given him a Kolonopin to make the voices go away and make it possible to sleep. He was supposed to tell him he wasn’t crazy, and make it true. And now he wasn’t there. Now he had to spend another wakeful night in that apartment, that den of delusion. Sitting there in his car, in the parking lot, Mr. Montgomery began to make himself promises. He made several, all contingent on his survival and becoming sane again. He would get out more and be social. He would be more friendly toward his coworkers. He would be more forthright with his parents and his brother. He would join a gym. He would go to parties and out to bars and try to meet someone. He would do all of this and more, he told himself. He would embrace life instead of hiding from it. But first he must deal with the matter at hand, namely, his current, tenuous hold on reality.
Mr. Montgomery still had one last, small hope. It was a dim hope, but a hope nevertheless. He had never used it before but he had an emergency contact number for his doctor. He dialed it now.
“Hello?” came the voice at the other end.
“Dr. Welsh, it’s Spalding.” His doctor was one of the few people he used his first name with without it causing him a negative, knee-jerk reaction.
“Hi, Spalding. Is everything okay?” the doctor asked calmly.
“Well, no, I’m not really doing too good.” he stammered. “Awful, in fact. I can’t sleep. I’m hearing voices. I’m coming undone. My grasp on reality is slipping. I can feel it slipping.” Mr. Montgomery said all of this in one breath and gasped when he finally came up for air. He waited for the doctor’s reply with frantic hopelessness.
“I’m sorry to hear you’re not feeling well. Unfortunately, I’m out of town until tomorrow. Are the voices telling you to do things?” he asked with professional concern.
“No, nothing like that, but they kept me awake last night. The only way I got any sleep at all was by getting drunk.”
“I see. Well, I can see you first thing in the morning. How does 8 o’clock sound?”
Mr. Montgomery stifled an agonizing shriek. Up until then he was still clinging to the desperate hope that the doctor would change his answer and meet him today after all.
“Eight’s fine.” he said despondently.
“Okay. Then I’ll see you in the morning. Try to remember the voices aren’t real. And, Spalding, don’t drink tonight. We’ll adjust your prescriptions tomorrow.”
As he hung up the phone Mr. Montgomery felt a chill and he shuddered violently in one quick, jarring spasm.
Now he found himself in the impossible position of needing to kill time in the midst of a mania. Under normal circumstances he excelled at this, but given the feverish state of his mind many of his usual pastimes were ruled out. The idea of being out in public where people could see him was unthinkable. Even the thought of being in the dark of a movie theater, an activity he normally found comforting, was terrifying to him. The thought of being back in his apartment was equally terrifying, but in the end he saw no other options. He drove there shakily.
As soon as Mr. Montgomery arrived home he sat on the sofa and put on the TV. He hadn’t eaten lunch but he had no appetite. He sat there like one in a trance, not caring what he was watching. Like this, time went by - but hardly. Minutes felt like hours – hours were an unimaginable measure of time. Thoughts flitted through his mind like slow motion, silent helicopter blades. He felt the perceived super intelligence of the mania. He imagined he was among the top 1% of the smartest people in the world. He pictured his brain as a giant, perfectly formed diamond. Ideas crystalized into shining examples of life’s highest echelon of beauty. He felt very special indeed. It felt like divine inspiration.
Sporadically at first, but then without stop, his thoughts returned to the sounds that had emanated from his mattress the night before. He pictured the whole city – a bustling uptown under where he lay his head, a poorer downtown under where he lay his feet. He saw everything in great detail. He saw people walking the streets talking on cell phones and hailing cabs. He saw construction workers tearing up sidewalks and renovating buildings. He saw rush hour traffic and subways and buses. He imagined it all so vividly that he actually began to make plans for the miniature city. Obviously, he would become famous for making the discovery. He would give interviews and go on talk shows. He would charge people to come and witness it. Finally, he could sell it to the highest bidder.
After he had pushed the idea as far as it would go he would come to his senses and remember that he didn’t believe it, and that it was all a figment of his imagination. It was like his mind was being torn in two. There was the part that believed in the city, and there was the part that didn’t, and knew it was all an absurd delusion. Unfortunately for Mr. Montgomery, that part that knew it was a delusion kept getting lost somewhere in the depths of his confusion, and the sheer, utter absurdity of the whole thing didn’t make it go away. The part of him that believed in the mattress city was quite happily mad. The part that didn’t was tormented by the drastic back and forth into and out of reality. Every time he snapped back out of the delusion he did so with an agonizing shriek. He thought of again resorting to booze but then remembered Dr. Welsh’s forbidding of it. He wished he’d been able to explain the extent of his distress to Dr. Welsh. If he had been fully apprised of the situation, the doctor might have agreed to a little emergency alcohol use. As it was, Mr. Montgomery was too afraid of being judged in the morning, so he would abstain. He would somehow get through the night sober.
After an indeterminable amount of time the sun went down and the city outside grew quiet. The sun left Mr. Montgomery under a thin blanket on the sofa in the fetal position. The only proof that he was awake or, indeed, alive, was the perspiration on his forehead and his bleary unblinking eyes. The TV still sent out its cacophony of fast prattle and canned laughter into the room, but it did not find its way into Mr. Montgomery’s consciousness. He had given up trying to fight off the delusions. His mind sailed hither and thither, to and fro, without ever landing on one substantial shore. The ship sailed with no one manning the rudder. It merely floated on and on through a dense, unyielding fog. But long ago, an hour or a year, in a moment of clarity, he had decided something. The decision seemed as if it had been with him a long, long while now, and it relaxed him. With the calm of a man who has accepted the inevitable, he rose, crossed the room, opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the balcony. Calmer still, he raised a leg over the railing. He brought the second leg over and now stood facing out toward the crisp autumn night. Finally, without so much as a flinch, or twitch, or shift of the eyes, Mr. Montgomery jumped out into the darkness and to the parking lot eight stories below.
Pete Able focused on Creative Writing while at Rutgers University. He has published a travel story on the Interac website and a short story in tsuki Magazine. He is 31 years old.
* * *
By Randall Brown
My mother pulled my hair. I had brought her the Cosmopolitan but it was the wrong month. She wasn't drunk, then. She was trying so hard not to be. I remember walking in Chicago and someone saying to his friend or partner, "It makes a huge difference whether or not your parents sacrificed their lives for you." I interrupted, "That's a fucking lot to ask." He kept walking and didn't answer. My mother pulled my hair and threw me down the stairs. My elbow broke in a place that made it never quite right. It always ached, and I always felt it there, like the phantom limb of amputees.
I should've gone to the hospital, but I didn't want anything to happen to her. I drove to the cornfield near Big Daddy's, the bar where she danced and years later they would find her, strung up in the corn on a pole like a scarecrow. They'd never find her killer. It was how the world saw her—a dancer, a drunk, a dead thing already.
So I held my arm and looked at all that buried corn. The crust of snow held a blackbird aloft. The lone figure in the field that morning, me in my car, ready to gun the engine, pull the trigger, a ton of other desires buried inside. A silent dark thing. Why not fly? The blackbird walked on its stick legs and maybe in the afternoon the world would soften, but not then. Then the world felt hard, like forgiveness.
Randall Brown teaches at Rosemont College’s MFA Program. He’s the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, and his work appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction and Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and is the founder of Matter Press.
* * *
The Buddhist and the Novelist
By Alexander Carver
“Did you feel that?” he asked in a gravelly voice that revealed a lifetime’s association with cigarettes.
I marked my place in the book I was reading with my finger. “Did I feel what?”
“The cosmic pull between us?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said examining his eyes for signs of madness.
“I think you felt it.”
When I’d looked up and saw him staring at me from a neighboring table, I'd made the mistake of smiling at him.
“It was of course inevitable that we would meet.”
“I guess so,” I said, clearing the tension out of my throat with a laugh.
“You have a pleasant sounding laugh.”
Hoping he would realize I was there to read and not to connect on a cosmic level with a stranger, I looked back down at the sentence my finger was pointing to and pretended to resume reading, forming the words on my lips the way children do to further get my message across. I was reading a book about metaphysics by Aristotle. Earlier in the week I’d had a conversation at a backyard barbeque in Venice Beach with a wilting flower child who had translated the devastation of a recent break up into metaphysical terms. Not only could I not carry on a conversation about metaphysics, and comprehend what the drugs were telling her to say, but if asked, I couldn’t provide an adequate definition of the word. I don’t like getting caught being ignorant, even in front of those who are too busy hallucinating to notice.
The destitute man continued to try and draw me into a conversation.
“I’m a Buddha,” he said.
“Really? I’ve never met a Buddhist before.”
“Not a Buddhist, a Buddha.”
“A Buddhist is trying to find his way, but I’ve already found mine, so I’m a Buddha.”
“What are you doing right now?” he asked, shifting his eyes down to my book.
“Just doing a little reading.”
I held up the book so he could see the title.
“And what do you do for a living?”
“I do a lot of things, but mostly I'm a writer.”
“Have you written a novel?”
“No. Not yet.”
“No. I knew you hadn’t.”
“How did you know I hadn’t written a novel?” I asked, taking a sip of my coffee to fortify myself against his growing intrusiveness.
“I knew because I’m a writer, too. I’m currently writing a trilogy that has several major motion picture stars attached to it. We’re going to begin filming next fall at a destination yet to be determined.”
He was definitely out of his mind, but well educated, and still armed with hope against whatever torments he was facing.
“Well, you must be very excited,” I said, allowing myself to indulge a bit in a conversation I thought might have the legs to travel in several imaginative directions.
“I don’t get excited. Excitement doesn’t exist for me.”
“No. Of course not. I don’t need excitement to enjoy life.”
As we continued to talk, I tried to study him without giving myself away. He was highly perceptive, and as on guard as a boxer in the ring, and I didn’t want him to feel threatened, and get angry, and put on an embarrassing display. The first thing I'd noticed was that one of his front teeth was encased in gold. It flashed from his mouth and drew my eyes towards it every time he spoke. I figured he must have had some money at some point in the past to be able to afford that gold tooth. His blue eyes, aflame with intensity, were further set off by patches of gray whiskers sprouting unevenly from his gaunt, deeply lined face. A sweat-stained yellow bandana with paisley designs on it was tied around his narrow head giving him an edge that helped to negate his small, bony frame. But the thing that struck me most about him were his hands. They were large and handsomely shaped with long thick fingers, the quality of which were tainted only by the black dirt underneath his fingernails. They looked like the strong, capable hands of a surgeon, and other than his blue eyes, were his most attractive physical trait. He was definitely down for the count, but there had been potential there. Potential he had most likely washed away with alcohol.
“I’m going outside to smoke a cigarette. You should join me…” he said.
I had been peacefully reading for over an hour, and the caffeine that had propelled me into the depths of the incomprehensible subject of metaphysics was beginning to wear off, and leave me feeling drained and tired. So I decided to get some air and humor this poor, lonely guy, who seemed to be trying his best to convince me that he was omnipotent, one of the fortunate ones, instead of one of the unfortunate ones. He was strange and intense, but seemed harmless.
“Sure. Why not?” I said, closing my book. “My eyes are getting tired, I could use a break.”
“There are no breaks. There is only what is happening right now. There are no breaks in time.”
I followed him to the front entrance, and as he held the door open, he looked up at me and said, “Are you ready to begin our journey?”
My startled look was not lost on him or the others inside Abbot's Habit, who had been observing our interaction through peripheral glances, and were glad they had not been the chosen ones.
We went outside and sat down on either side of a wooden table framed by the large front window. The Buddha placed a cigarette between his dried, cracked lips, lit a match, and with his surprisingly steady surgeon’s hands held the small flame to the tip. He then shook out the match and flicked it onto the sidewalk at the feet of an attractive, middle-aged woman passing by. She gave him an angry look, but didn’t dare stop to confront him. Amused, the destitute man took two casual puffs from his fresh cigarette, and then, as if suddenly remembering I was sitting across from him, turned sharply towards me, looked into my eyes, and said: “I can read your soul and I know your destiny.”
I sat up straight and pushed back my shoulders, adopting an appropriate pose for a conversation about my destiny.
“Is it good destiny or a bad destiny?”
He didn’t like my question. “There are no good or bad destinies. There is only what will be. And that is where the truth lies. And I can see the truth, your truth, waiting for you out there in the future.”
“Cool,” I said. I was beginning to realize that no matter what I said he was going to respond in a contradictory way that made me feel spiritually inferior to him.
Just then a 300-pound man, dressed in a rainbow colored cardigan, came out the door holding a steaming cup of coffee. The Buddha watched him veer off to the right along the sidewalk, heading towards the stoplight on California Avenue.
“I like your sweater!” he called out to the man.
The man turned around, but kept his legs in motion, back peddling away from us, embarrassed by the compliment and its source.
“Thank you. I like it, too,” the man said.
“Where’d you get it?” the Buddha asked, raising his voice in proportion to the growing distance between him and the man.
The man continued backing away across the street, not wanting to get pulled into a conversation with what appeared to be a homeless person.
“My wife got it in Mexico!”
“Good for her! She has excellent taste! And what do you do for a living?!”
The man was now more than twenty feet away -- still back peddling.
“I’m a producer!”
“Really?! What do you produce?!”
The Buddha quickly got to his feet.
“Oh, that’s interesting, because I’m currently writing a trilogy about…”
“I gotta go! Have a great night!” the producer yelled, turning his massive frame forward, and hurrying up the sidewalk, passed the glowing lights of the storefronts.
The Buddha moved up the sidewalk a few steps, and shouted: “Wait a minute! I’ve got three major motion picture stars attached to my movies!”
The producer disappeared around the next corner. The Buddha turned and looked at me with a flustered expression on his face, pathetic in contrast to his previously dignified, all-knowing countenance that I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Well, that was interesting,” I said.
“What was interesting about it?” he said, sitting back down at the table.
“I don’t know, I guess he didn’t feel like talking.”
“He said everything he needed to say.”
“Yes. And what he didn’t say, I already knew. More words between us would have been wasteful. I already knew all the answers to all the questions I could have asked him.”
The Buddha stared at me again. Unnerved by his glaring, hypnotic eyes, I turned away from him, and watched the cars driving past us on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Several tense moments passed with me staring at traffic and him staring at me. Finally to break the silence I got him to return to the topic of my destiny. Because even though I knew he was delusional, I was still interested to hear what predictions he might make. I’ll listen to anything a friend, stranger, or even a crazy person has to say about my life, as long as they make the future sound promising.
“So, you were about to tell me about my destiny.”
“No. I wasn’t about to tell you anything. Because if I had been about to tell you something, I would have already told it to you.”
“Okay. But I was hoping that maybe you would...”
“If you wish for me to speak now of your destiny I can do so.”
“That would be great.”
He shifted his eyes to the back of a small Latino man, fastening an apron behind his back, as he charged up the sidewalk, apparently late for work.
“You’re going to write a great novel,” the Buddha said.
Realizing the value of his forecast was somewhere below a palm reader’s, I still couldn’t help but allow myself to enjoy his prediction.
“Do you really think so?”
“I don’t think. I don’t have to think. Because I know,” he said.
I studied his face again, this time looking for signs of clairvoyance.
“Don’t you think you will?” he asked.
“Well, maybe. It’s just that I’ve never thought of myself as being destined to write the next great American novel. I write plays mostly. But, you know, if my destiny is to write novels, then, what am I going to do, that’s my destiny.”
“You will write a novel that is brilliantly conceived and heartbreakingly…(he couldn’t think of another word) and it will be the literary highlight of the century.”
At that moment, a silver Porsche screeched to a halt on the street in front of us, narrowly missing a white Prius pulling out in front of him. The angry driver honked his horn four times at the Prius. The Buddha looked at me and held up four fingers.
“Four?” I said, thinking he was still referring to my destiny and greedily hoping he meant I would write four great novels, instead of just one.
He held up four fingers again and motioned with his head towards the car that had honked its horn.
“Oh you mean that car honked its horn four times? Is that what you mean?”
He nodded his head.
“Do you see some sort of significance in that?”
“There is significance in everything.”
We turned and watched the traffic again. A few moments later, a man on a yellow racing bike pulled up to the curb in front of us. Dressed in full racing gear, he slid off his motorcycle, and walked into the pizza shop next door to the coffee house. The Buddha and I studied his racing bike for a moment. It had the number 04 painted on the side of it. He pointed at the number, turned, and looked at me.
“Four,” I said. “The number four again.”
He narrowed his eyes and nodded his head, as if this proved once and for all that he was in direct communication with the higher powers.
“It’s like metaphysics,” I said, taking advantage of a chance to use the word in a sentence, even though I wasn’t sure I was using it properly.
“It’s not like metaphysics. It is metaphysics,” he said. He paused a moment and then asked: “And what do you know about metaphysics?”
“Not too much. I’ve just started reading about it. Why? Do you know a lot about it?”
“Of course. I know everything there is to know about metaphysics.”
He extinguished his cigarette, flicked the stub into an oily puddle in the street, got to his feet, and peered down at me with his deep set, haunted eyes.
“We should leave now and begin our journey together.”
“Our journey together?”
“Do you own an automobile?”
“Is it parked close by?”
“Where is it parked?”
“Over...that way,” I said, gesturing in the opposite direction of where my car was parked.
“Well, if you’ll take me to your car, drive me to an acceptable hotel for the night, and pay for my room, we can begin our journey first thing in the morning.”
I reached across the table for my book.
“Or,” he continued, “Perhaps we can begin our journey later this evening in the hotel dining room, if you’re anxious to get started right away.”
It appeared that in his mind he was Socrates and I was Crito, one of his disciples. I had let him take it too far, believing that I believed in him and his special powers. An immediate escape was necessary.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t tonight. I've already got plans.”
“Well, luckily there’s an inexpensive hotel right up the street. It’s only a mile from here. Perhaps you can drop me off there and join me in the morning.”
“I’m sorry. I have to go right away. I have a date,” I said, looking at my watch, and getting to my feet. “But it was a great pleasure meeting you. I really enjoyed our talk.”
“Wait. Where are you going?” he said, his eyes looking panicked and deceived, the way salesman’s do when you break the line just before he can reel you into the boat.
“My girlfriend’s waiting for me,” I said, hurrying off down the sidewalk towards California Avenue.
“Hey! Wait a minute! Hold on a second! Don’t you want me to reveal the mysteries of the universe to you?!”
“Maybe some other time!” I said, turning and back peddling away from him.
“Well, could you at least give me a couple dollars, so I can get something to eat?! I haven’t eaten in two days!”
“Of course,” I said, walking back to him, and taking out my wallet.
He held out his large, capable, surgeon’s hand, and I pressed a five dollar bill into it's palm.
“Thank you…” he said, his fingers snapping closed around the money.
“You’re welcome. It was wonderful--”
“…FOR WASTING MY FUCKING TIME!” he said, getting to his feet and prancing away up the sidewalk and into the pizza shop.
Alexander Carver is a produced playwright and published writer, recently in 'Zyzzyva'.
* * *
By Jasmon Drain
How long ago these events happened doesn’t matter.
It began in a dirty hotel room. They sat together over martinis, homemade (or hotel made), mixed with inexpensive vodka and a couple of olives. A sophisticated drink. She remembered his thin yellow legs folded over the bed and his hands that were tightly closed in knuckleballs pressing firmly into the mattress. She sat in a hard white chair, a little dusty, anxiously speaking about the joys of leaving the city. Her voice was filled with so much ambition that even roaches crawling around in hopes of leftover pizza crumbs stopped, looked up, and listened enthusiastically.
Stephanie Worthington, was once a timid girl, an almost tall (five feet, seven inches), black girl from the south side of Chicago. She was curvy and had a good look, a real good look. Back home she was the Lena Horne with one of those smiles that revealed her straight white teeth. Or perhaps she was Halle Berry, with that strong jaw line and versatile hair. Stephanie had the stuff to make it somewhere.
Jacob was a lean and light black boy with square shoulders. He lived in the project building across from hers, located on Federal Street. Many people thought they were brother and sister and not boyfriend/girlfriend, considering how much they resembled one another. Already at 20, Jacob looked great in a suit. He had those slanted eyes that made him look ‘different’ from other black people. He repeatedly said that he was willing to do whatever it took to escape the projects for good.
The two traveled downtown three days ago, on the #3 Michigan Avenue Bus, were going to declare their love the cheapest way possible, and head for Iowa, or Wisconsin, or Minnesota, someplace where the cost of rent was cheap and jobs for blacks were plenty. But, when Stephanie woke in the morning to be married, the only thing she had was the scent from the bed and a black dress shirt he forgot.
The wind was blowing hard the morning he left, hard enough that it could push a small body like Stephanie’s to the side. She walked firmly along a busy downtown street in Chicago, maybe it was Jackson Street, it could have been Madison Avenue, watching the passers-by, and staring at the dark briefcases in the grips of businessmen and the snobby looks of women as they noticed her. In her opinion, the men looked important, wealthy, purposeful. She couldn’t help but notice the fact that there were no small kids around and every individual face was facing forward.
People from the projects rarely scare. But enduring the pressure of the downtown hustle while alone began to bother her. So Stephanie, unlike everyone else she was around downtown, pointed her eyes to the concrete or to the air, looking for something, touching nothing. Her face followed the quickness of cabs going by, the expensive shoes women pranced around in, and the tracings of elaborate architecture, where in Chicago, the large buildings have enough space between each that the sun is quite visible.
“Hey cute girl,” a man said, “You look lost. You know where you going?”
She nodded her head confidently, yes, a strong stiff yes, anything that would ward off someone staring her down.
Stephanie stopped at the corner, abruptly, like her pointy-toed shoes had brakes on them. She looked in the window of an inexpensive diner. There was a black man with brownish hair, wire glasses, and furry eyebrows. She immediately compared him to Jacob but thought Jacob was much better looking. There was a woman with him, a white woman, with fragile legs looking freshly shaven, neat hands, and an expensive skirt. Stephanie gazed at the two for a few moments. She stared at their non-matching hands connected on the table, tickling one another. They had soft smiles and exchanged lightly puckered kisses. The woman had a large wedding ring. Stephanie couldn’t help but get lost in its glare. She pressed her face so close to the window that her nose flattened against the glass. They saw her; she motioned upright, pretending as if nothing happened. She continued walking…
…Jacob went back to the projects. Got the first bus headed south on Michigan Avenue, early morning, a thirty-minute ride. It was cheaper than the train. He woke up at 1:30 a.m., seventy-five minutes after he and Stephanie had finished making love. She told him she loved him, and that with their looks and thin bodies their lives would be a dream. Opportunities for them would be everywhere. Jacob replied by saying he needed to call home. Said he did not like “whitefolkslife” and wanted that peaceful feeling of the projects. He missed the harshness of everyone, the phony smiles with gossip to follow, the patches where grass didn’t grow, the stink of project hallways. Three days downtown had shown him the truth. But, Stephanie climbed out of bed, got on her knees as he lay on a fluffed pillow, and explained that anywhere they went was probably better than home.
“We’re going to do something different, Jacob. Once we get out there we’ll have jobs there. We won’t be broke. We’ll have all we want.”
“I’m not broke.”
“I don’t mean money like that.”
“Money is money.”
“Always having to hustle for little money makes you end up being the dude selling water bottles next to the Dan Ryan, or pushing something worth a dollar on the EL Train.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Like I said, Money is money.” Jacob’s back was turned. He lifted his stringy body and started packing immediately. Stephanie eventually kissed him on the cheek a couple of times, solid lengthy smooches. Back in bed he went. They made passionate love again. She thought he was just getting nervous, maybe it was the jitters. It was true that he rarely went past 43rd Street. She went to sleep last night with a small grin on her face; she always felt comfortable resting on the stiff part of his chest bone. Jacob never closed his eyes and didn’t leave her a note in the morning when he left.
She woke early and called his name violently. She tossed the phone around their sleazy room. It scraped peeling paint from the wall, and she knocked over the television with the missing knobs.
At twelve noon, the time they were supposed to get married at city hall, she decided to put her dress on anyway. It was a bleached white hand me down. After fixing the ruffles along the bottom, she did makeup – mascara just the way Jacob liked. She curled her hair and puffed it a little in the back. Stephanie stood in the bathroom, admiring how beautiful she looked, wishing that she were ugly so there would have been some excuse for being in this position.
“How could he leave me like this?” she asked aloud.
Exhausted mentally, Stephanie sat on the toilet. Because, without Jacob, she would be naked; he was who believed in her, who told her over their occasional sniffs of drugs that they needed a change of environment. He was who she’d known all along, who she had planned to be with since the third grade. And, that was something special because in big cities like Chicago, you never really consider marrying the person you grew up with….
….After standing and finishing dressing, she walked down the busy street. The sounds of the horns became normal after a while. She attempted to keep her head lifted but the shadows of buildings outweighed her by twenty pounds, reminding her those she’d left on the south side.
People continued bumping into one another downtown. She was used to them dodging as if each had a contagious disease. There was no eye contact downtown, no smiles, no familiar scents, no hellos. Yet, everyone managed to take a glance at her in the white dress. She then remembered Jacob’s flexible smile, childlike, and missed him even more. He was soft and warm like sweetened oatmeal and she needed that in the new world she didn’t know. Stephanie continued walking: LaSalle Street. A man and a woman stood there holding hands, locked. She could see each finger and stared at them uncontrollably, like she was watching a confusing movie, or wondering about a large word in a novel. She just stared. The red traffic light flashed a stain on her dress as she stood at the corner. There was a payphone on the opposite side of the street. She couldn’t resist walking toward it, sliding in a quarter, and dialing.
She held the phone tight to her ear. She wanted to hear him breathe.
“Why’d you leave, Jacob?”
“I didn’t wanna’ do it like that, It’s just I’ve been thinking, I don’t wanna’ be there, I don’t wanna’ leave Chicago, I don’t wanna go anywhere.”
“So, you don’t want to be with me?”
“Steph, I wanna’ be with my family.” She could hear him straightening his body during the conversation.
“You barely even talk to your family.”
“I been thinking about changing that.”
“You always talking fast, saying a bunch a words, and sticking with none of it.”
“Not this time.”
“So you just leave me like that? We’re supposed to get married today.”
“I know – Maybe we could get married back home, Live here. We could have our family here.”
“It ain’t so bad, This is our home.”
There was a pause.
“I’m standing here in my wedding dress, Jacob.” She looked down at the ruffles making sure she was telling the truth. “I want us to live in a house, have a backyard, and some real grass that grows. You know, the stuff they say on the movies,” she paused again. “I thought you wanted the same.”
“You wanted that.”
“I guess you decided you didn’t.”
“I wanted you happy, Stephanie.”
“You sound like a cheap book read too fast.”
“You the one that wants that whitefolkslife.”
“Not having a house full of roaches doesn’t mean you’re white.”
“I’ll be just fine here.”
“You’re not thinking. Our new place will grow on you.”
“Nah, I’m thinking, I left because I needed to, and I don’t need you trying to talk me into going anywhere.”
“But, I need you with me, Jacob.” Stephanie pressed her lips to the receiver as if hers could touch his, dreaming of how damp his mouth felt, how his kisses always felt like a back massage. “We need each other.”
“I think I wanna’ be around my family, Just come back,” he paused. “Everything will be OK.”
“I can’t come back.”
“Did you spend your bus fare?”
“Nah. I just can’t.”
She could hear him continuing to speak into the phone, words leaving his mouth with the speed of a typewriter. Maybe he was even crying, yet, the computerized sound of his voice no longer had an effect. It was as neutral as the color gray. She hung up.
For the first time, she’d lost something, something that actually mattered as much as her wishes. She was as confused as any human could be and those big screen dreams seemed so much larger now, almost unattainable, as if the immortal celebrities acting in movies with flawless faces and perfect postures had become the aliens Jacob always said they were. She considered calling him back and getting on the next bus headed south, but continued walking.
The horns grew louder and the people walked by faster. Much faster. Stephanie stomped another couple of blocks, all the while hearing the payphone ring and ring in the distance. She stopped when approaching the stained wall of a building. She began analyzing the scraps of newspapers covering a homeless person as he rested.
He wore a dingy coat – although it was warm outside – and smelled like spoiled meat. He looked at her crisply through one good eye, and a fresh bloody scar closed the other. It looked as if had been damaged in a fight with a large cat. Stephanie gazed at his clothes: the missing buttons on his jacket, the ripped seams of his pockets, the looseness of his pants. She wondered if he’d experienced similar things when he was younger, if he was once hopeful and driven to do something different with his life. But the truth was that he resembled most of the over-forty men she already knew.
How could he get to this point? she thought to herself. Did he have no family either? Did no one ever believe in him? Did he lose who he thought loved him?
Stephanie stared hard enough that she could see the emptiness of his stomach through the eye. Then she felt the steel wire of polluted city air attaching her to him, connecting two people who she thought had nothing in common. She motioned to walk away but couldn’t. Stephanie then wanted to reach down to him, ask him those penetrating questions about his past. She needed reassurance that his circumstances were extreme, that they were his fault, and impossible for her.
“Can I get a dollar, sister?”
He held out his palm. Stephanie noticed the twitching of his wrist; he was weak. The paperweight of a dollar would have pulled his shoulder from its socket cleanly. His voice was so unenergetic that maybe even his vocal chords had become demoralized.
“Please, lady, do you got a dollar? I really needs something to eat.”
Stephanie didn’t answer. She just stared at him, at the scar over his eye. If she did answer, their connection would be stronger. She chased her thoughts from his filthy clothes, from being homeless or hopeless because of failed dreams, of being alone and without Jacob. But, right then, it all seemed inevitable.
She’d moved far enough to not notice the payphone any longer, but the ringing remained. Her head went back and forth: the homeless man/the phone. She couldn’t become like him. Anything but that. The speed of her thoughts became authority. She handed her entire purse to the man, including any change for the phone. With it, Stephanie had given him her keys to her home, to the small, six-building, self contained city she had within the projects. But with that, she felt neither relief nor satisfaction. She stepped to the curb, and looked back at him rummaging through the purse. He reminded her of zombies in movies looking for brains. She turned abruptly and could see the grilles of sporty cars coming. The flashing traffic lights. The focused faces on concrete. The women with great shoes. The leather briefcases.
There was one thing she didn’t give the homeless man: the bus tickets she had purchased for her and Jacob when they arrived downtown. Those were folded and tucked into her sock. She didn’t touch them, though. Didn’t even reach. On the other side of the street was the bus station. She planted her feet, outstretched her arms, closed her eyes, and wondered whether she should cross.
But she didn’t move. Nope. Not yet. Not just yet.
The character Stephanie Worthington is a metaphor, a person with the desire of escape, a representative of the Stateway Gardens Projects which were constructed on the southeast side of Chicago in early 1955 and demolished toward the end of 2007, clearing the path for “urban renewal.” Jasmon Drain would like to dedicate this story to the people who lived there.
* * *
My Father's Love
By Anne Goodwin
When I was a baby in my cradle, or so the story goes, my father gathered up his love for me and fashioned a chalice of burnished gold. He swaddled the chalice in a skein of silk shipped all the way from China and bedded it down in a drawer in his wardrobe where he used to store his cufflinks and bowties. He locked the drawer with a silver key which he dangled from a string around his neck, beneath his shirt, inches from his heart. When it was done, my father smiled, stood back and watched me grow.
I was about five when my father told me the story of the golden chalice: old enough to write my name and do up the buttons on my dress but still too young to venture to the sweet shop on my own. "May I see it?" The prospect of the chalice nestling in its silken shroud sent my body tingling from the ribbon in my hair to the buckle on my shoes. "Wait a while," said my father. "Small hands and sticky fingers could wipe away the sheen."
That summer I fell sick, and no doctor could fathom the cause or cure. My mother carried me, in sweat-stained pyjamas, into her wide iron bed. "Don't tell your father," she said, taking a tiny key from her purse. She unlocked the drawer in the mahogany wardrobe and unfurled a bundle of turquoise silk. The sun, streaming through the latticed window, bounced off the golden goblet to light up my cheeks. "You can touch it if you like," she said, but I shook my head and banished my hands beneath the quilt where they could do no harm.
As soon as I was well again, I went to visit my friend. We poured pretend tea from a plastic teapot and served it to our dolls. "When you were a baby," I said, "did your father melt down his love to make you a cup of gold?" My friend shook her pigtails. Her envy warmed my heart.
My father was a handsome man, tall and dark. He carried a brown leather briefcase and wore crisp white shirts with spotted bowties. He left for work while I was still asleep and came home long after I'd said my prayers. On Sundays, after church, he'd play cricket on the green with lots of other fathers, dressed neck to toe in white. Sometimes, I'd go along in the afternoon with my mother to hand out cucumber sandwiches and watch her pour real tea.
When we moved to a bigger house, the mahogany wardrobe came too and the chalice, tucked up snug inside its drawer. I moved to a bigger school and found a new friend, a tomboy who preferred climbing trees and roller-skating to playing house with dolls. One day, too wet to roam outside, she took me upstairs to her room. I gazed around at the crumpled sheets and dog-eared books and jumbled toys. "When I was a baby," I said, "my father made me a golden chalice. What did your father make for you?"
The girl held out a hollowed lump of garish pottery, roughly made and chipped at the rim. With its flat base, long stem and cup without a handle, it was a crude imitation of a father's love. It froze my heart that she should have so little and I so much.
My friend tossed the goblet into the air and caught it in her hands. Laughing, she made to throw it across the room to me.
"Don't!" I cried. "If it falls it could break."
My friend narrowed her eyes and grew dimples in her cheeks. "If we smash it, he'll make me another, bigger and better and yet more beautiful."
Tears punched the backs of my eyes. "But it's your father's love! Once it's damaged you can never get it back."
"My father's love isn't locked up in this pot." She spread her hands, as if to encompass, not just that higgledy-piggledy room, but the whole world: "It's here, there, everywhere. In all I have and everything I do."
I could've slapped her, except that my parents had taught me right from wrong. So I ran all the way home to my mother and vowed I'd never have another friend.
My body was changing, tiny buds of womanhood coming into bloom on my chest. It was no longer enough to picture my father's love draped in silk in the drawer in his wardrobe; I needed to feel the heft of it in my hands. I asked politely, I bargained and I wheedled, but still my father said: "Not yet!" I raged and stormed and screamed, but he wouldn't grant me a single glimpse. He turned his back on me, rustling his newspaper until he settled on the obituary column towards the back.
One day when I was alone in the house, I took the extra key from my mother's purse and crept up to their room. The key turned smoothly in the lock and I slid open the wooden drawer. Inside it smelled of old leather and starched shirt collars from generations past. The blue-green silk lay ruffled, like the lining of a coffin, but otherwise the drawer was empty: no gold, nor even brass or copper; no goblet, nor even an egg-cup or a spoon. I searched through racks of shirts, his cricket bag and briefcase, but my father's love had gone.
I finished school and went to college, where I shared a flat with girls who liked to dance and flirt. We lived off macaroni cheese, cheap coffee and cider, and finished off our essays in the hour before dawn. Young men would knock at our door with their guitars and roll-ups, or rendezvous outside the library to escort us to the pub. There was one or two I fancied, and yet more claimed a fondness for me, but when I asked if they could prove their love they didn't have a clue. They tried to woo me with champagne suppers and bedtime gymnastics but I'd been brought up to hope for more.
The night before my graduation, my dreams oozed parental pride. I watched them watching misty-eyed as their only daughter mounted the stage in cap and gown. Yet when the Chancellor called my name and placed the scroll in my clammy hands and I scanned the rows and rows of relatives for my father's smile, I could make out nothing but the bland masks of strangers. As I stepped back down, the tassel of the mortarboard tapping my ponytail, I spotted my mother waving from the crowd. I squinted at the seat to the left of her, the seat to the right, but I couldn't see my father. Instead, resplendent on a shimmering cloth, sat the golden chalice of his love.
My student days were over, but I didn't want to settle down. I craved new sights and sounds, a life on the move. I wandered the world, taking odd jobs to pay my way. In every new country, in every new town, I'd head straight to the museum. Inside, I'd march past bandaged bodies in hieroglyphed sarcophagi. I'd bypass buttons and buckles of ancient bronze and bone. I'd boycott fig-leafed Olympians and goddesses with stumpy arms. I was seeking out the one particular artefact that would make me feel at home.
Sometimes my quest led to me to the Christian reliquary; sometimes to the regimental silver and the spoils of war. Other times I'd end my search in rooms replete with tableware and cooking pots requisitioned from the palaces of princes or the hovels of the poor. In every place I visited I could always count on finding a gilded goblet behind a pane of gleaming glass. There I'd stand, feasting on the memory of my father's love, until an attendant tapped me on the shoulder to say it was time to go.
When my mother took ill I swapped the itinerant life for an office nine-to-five. I watched my colleagues acquire mortgages and babies, but I couldn't follow suit. The mothers smelled of milk and talcum powder, and yearning without end. The fathers spoke of nappy rash and four o'clock feeds. They kept photos of their red-faced offspring beside the phones on their desks. I contrived to be on my lunch break when they brought in their infants for the others to ooh and aah.
When my mother died, I moved back home to cook and clean for my father. He was handsome still, with a shock of snowy hair, but when he went to the cricket club, it was to keep the score and not to bat or bowl. My father wasn't given to chitchat but, on winter evenings, we'd sit at the fireside in companionable proximity, or so I like to think. He still enjoyed his paper with the obituaries at the back, and I'd do the crossword or knit and purl a cosy cardigan for him or for me. Now and then we'd watch the television; he liked the odd detective drama and I was partial to the travelogues. Some evenings, he'd hobble upstairs to fetch a parcel bound in turquoise cloth, and unwrap it on his lap. I knew better then than to comment or let him know I'd noticed, but it pleased me to watch, through downcast eyes, as my father took a scrap of moleskin and polished his love.
He's dead now, and the house is mine and everything in it. His bowties and cricket whites have gone to charity but, otherwise, things are much as they were when I was a girl. My father's love stays locked in the drawer of his mahogany wardrobe, and I keep both keys close to me, hanging in the cleavage of my breasts from a string around my neck. I take out the chalice from time to time to give it a shine. But not very often. A daughter's sentiments will cling to her fingertips whether she wants them to or not, and I can't let my bitterness tarnish the sheen of my father's love.
* * *
By Matthew Hlinak
I pick up the phone, and without even a Hello, my estranged wife says, “I caught Evan masturbating today.” It’s Friday afternoon and I called in sick so I could spend the whole day watching TV unshaven and unshowered in the living room-dining room-kitchen of the studio apartment I’ve been renting since we sold the house a couple of months ago and she’d moved back in with her dad. This is the first phone call I’ve gotten all week; telemarketers don’t even have my number yet. I haven’t been sleeping well.
“What?” I cough. “He’s only eight years old.”
“It’s called precocious puberty – I looked it up on the Internet,” she says, and I’m not surprised because the woman considers herself an expert on anything she’s spent five minutes researching in cyberspace. “Anything younger than age nine could present serious physical and emotional problems.”
“Jesus. Are you sure he was, um, masturbating?”
“Charlie, please. I know what I saw. And besides, he’s even starting to grow pubic hair.” The oddly-concrete mental image created by this statement reminds me that it’s been quite some time since I’ve seen my son naked, which I worry is a sign that Claire is right that I don’t pay enough attention to him, but I’m also thinking that if I had been looking at him naked, she would’ve had me thrown in jail.
“Why don’t you take him to a doctor?” I suggest before slipping in an unconscious and unnecessary dig at her belief in the healing power of chiropractors, “An M.D.”
“I made an appointment with his pediatrician,” she responds, ignoring my barb. “But you should talk to him, too.”
“You’re right,” I say, because even though I hate her and the haughty air of authority leadening her voice as she lectures me on parenting, I know this is the kind of thing fathers are supposed to do, and I want very badly to be a good father to the son I see only every other weekend, but I have no idea what to say to Evan, and I start to imagine the sheer awkwardness of the conversation, and I remember how embarrassed I felt during my own father’s fumbling and red-faced attempt to explain the birds and the bees to me when I was ten—several years before the information would be of any use to me—a conversation made all the more awkward by the fact that I, like Evan, was rarely spoken to by the man who made me.
Evan and I have had only one serious conversation before, and it didn’t go well. Claire had instructed me to talk to him, man to man, about the split, so that we’d establish a bond even as we were being pulled apart, and she fed me lines from the coping-with-divorce books she’d been reading, lines like, “This isn’t your fault,” and, “Your mom and I still love you.” As I watched him stoically struggle to comprehend the grim news I was breaking, tears rolled down my cheeks. Evan had never seen me cry, and he’d come to view the act as one exclusive to children and frustrated, neglected mothers. He gazed up at me with terror, convinced that things must be really bad if his father, a man whose only apparent virtue was his toughness, now wept. He asked only one question: “Can I still live with Mom?” I wiped a glob of snot from my nose with the back of my hand and told him he could. I sensed Claire hovering in the doorway behind me and Evan rose to greet her. I sat hunched over on a child’s chair with my back to my wife and son, trying to staunch the flow of tears. When I finally turned around, they were gone.
“Can you come up tomorrow?”
It’s not my weekend to see Evan, but I say, "Sure,” because I know this is a pivotal moment in the history of our newly-fractured family, the point where I drive for five hours over miles of unplowed Michigan highway to be there for my son in a way only a father can. This is my chance to show my wife what a mistake she’s made, to demonstrate that I’m not a screw-up, to make her realize how she’s hurting Evan by taking him away from me.
“Good. He’ll be happy to see you.”
“Okay then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Good night, Charlie.”
“I love you,” I say out of habit and those three words push down on me so hard I wonder if they must still be true.
“Good night, Charlie,” she repeats and the line goes dead.
Matt Hlinak is the author of 'DoG' (Rooster Republic 2012) and several works of short fiction. He is a teacher and administrator at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. He holds an MFA from Northwestern University, as well as a JD from the University of Illinois. He is currently writing a fantasy novel.
* * *
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“Mr. Battlemore, this is Ashton Krankhauss of AmazonUK. We have received and verified a complaint regarding the review you posted on the philosophical treatise by Mary Midgley, titled Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay. We have also been made aware of your commercial review writing service, GettingBooksReviewed.Com. Reviews submitted using your service are a violation of Amazon policy against paid reviews. Moreover, the review in question is patently fraudulent. Henceforth your right to submit reviews of books or any other products sold by AmazonUK or AmazonUS has been revoked. Failure to comply with this order will result in the closure of your Amazon account. You may appeal this action by writing to our Newberry Headquarters, in care of the Litigation Department. Thank you.”
“Mr. Battlemore, I received your registered letter of apology regarding the ‘mix-up” surrounding the online review of my treatise on Wickedness. It is very generous of you to offer me ten free reviews of my next book, a $499 value, in exchange for a letter to Amazon exonerating your web service of culpability. However, as a moral philosopher I find your service to be morally questionable, since the reviewers you hire are paid fifteen American dollars to write a favorable review, but only half that if their conscience does not permit them to write a favorable review. One can only hope you may one day read my book on wickedness and subsequently modify your behavior to a higher moral standard.”
“Battlemore, what the fuck is going on? All of the five star reviews for Space Sluts from the Seventh Moon of Servern are gone. All’s left is a four-star review from an obvious wanker, and two one-stars from a couple of narky feminist dikes, who should probably be dating each other. I want my $999 back, or I’m posting this whole mess on YELP.”
THE NUMBER YOU HAVE REACHED IS NO LONGER IN SERVICE.
Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine. Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published twenty-three works of fiction in the OASIS Journal, Hobo Pancakes, Twisted Dreams, Thick Jam, Grim Corps, Long Story Short, Defenestration, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Fabula Argentea, The Lorelei Signal, SANDSCRIPT, and the Copperfield Review.
* * *
Just in Time for the Old Man Passing
By Kaye Linden
My father had his third heart attack one hour before I boarded the Qantas flight from LA to Sydney. I got the phone call from his new wife. “No point in coming. Your father is in the hospital and needs rest. You can’t bother him now.”
I boarded the plane in LA and ground my teeth for fifteen hours over the Pacific Ocean until we landed. The fog of jet leg wrapped around my brain while I collected my bag and crossed the familiar trail to the taxi stand, hailed a cab to my father’s house and waited for two hours at the front door with my head resting on my suitcase. A neighbor walked across the road. “Are you Mr. Stewart’s daughter?”
“Would you like to come in for tea?”
I shook my head. “Thank you but I’ll just wait here for his wife.”
Five minutes later the neighbor brought me a tray—two steaming hot scones with red jam and whipped cream and a pot of black tea with brown sugar and milk. My neck flushed red and blotchy. “So nice of you,” I said between bites of scones.
“You know, your father had a heart attack while your step mother…”
“His new wife,” I interrupted.
“Well, his new wife and he were shouting at each other. I heard her say she needed some time to settle in.”
“Oh. I guess they were referring to me.” A lump of scone stuck in my throat.
“Well dear, I wouldn’t have told you, but, I thought you should know what happened. She’s a nasty one isn’t she?”
I looked up at the old face, sallow and knotted with worry lines.
“I haven’t met her yet,” I said.
“Did she say what hospital they were going to?”
“The ambulance took them. Otherwise, I’d take you if I knew.”
“Does the wife have a cell phone?”
The neighbor shook her head. “Don’t think so. They were in an awful rush. I told her to call me if she needed me. She has my number.”
A telephone rang inside the house and she rushed inside. I wondered how I could figure out where my father had gone. A few minutes later, the neighbor ambled out, dark sunglasses and a tissue in her hand. “He’s in the ICU.”
“Which hospital?” I asked.
We stared at each other for a moment, the pavement underneath me buckling and spewing with post-flight vertigo. A creeping nausea threatened to bring the scones back up. I wanted to run away but absentmindedly finished drinking the pot of tea. Caffeine surged through my veins and strengthened my resolve. “Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
The afternoon sun hung red and ready to sink behind puffs of gray cloud. A bicycle bell buzzed from a passing bicycle and a train sounded its whistle in the distance— a mournful, haunting sound. I felt an empty pit grow within, wider and deeper.
“What is going on?” I said with more than a hint of anger in my voice.
The neighbor hung her head and looked down at the pavement. “It’s your father dear…. he’s … well… he’s…not coming home anymore.”
“Well, of course he is,” I said. “I mean, he’s an old soldier. He just keeps on going.” I smelled rain in the air, a fresh country scent, like clothes after you hang them to dry in the sun. I took a shaky breath and tears stung my eyes.
The neighbor kicked a small rock with her shoe and told me to sit down. I took two more paces towards her instead. She reached for my hand and held on too tight. I pulled my hand away.
“He’s passed on you see,” she said with a cough. “Just now…he passed away just now….”
My face twisted and moved in strange ways. I let tears roll and swallowed down a familiar taste of bile jumping into my throat, burning and running back down like acid rain. “I could have said goodbye, if I’d known where…”
“Come, I’ll take you,” she said.
At the hospital I navigated stares and guards blocking my way, receptionists whispering into phones. “Let me see my father,” I shouted at anyone who would listen.
A security guard led me upstairs to the tenth floor where a nurse took me to the room but stood in front of the door. “You just missed his passing,” she said with downcast eyes. “We’re not supposed to let anyone in……” I pushed past her into the room where my father’s frailty lay covered to the shoulders with a blanket. He felt feverish to the touch, but there remained a bristling energy that fooled me into thinking he was still alive. “Dad?”
The new wife shook her head. “He’s gone. Too late.” Her eyes appeared dry and she backed away from the bed.
“You stupid old man,” I said to my father. “I wanted to come last month but you said the timing was wrong. Couldn’t you have waited for me?”
I placed my head on his chest and felt a sudden surge of sadness.
My father’s chest fluttered and heaved up, and then down into a long, long sigh... I jumped back and there was the old bugger’s smile, frozen to his dead face.
Kaye Linden has an MFA in fiction writing, is past editor and short fiction editor of the Bacopa Literary Review, current assistant editor for Soundings Review and short fiction teacher at Santa Fe College in Gainesville. Her forty tale magic realism collection about Australia, "Tales from Ma's Watering Hole," is for sale on all store fronts. Kaye was nominated in 2011 for a Pushcart prize. Her many stories have been published in multiple journals including, but not limited to, The Raven Chronicles, Six Minute Stories, The Linnets Wings, Soundings Review, Bacopa Literary Review, the spring 2012 editions of the Feathered Flounder, Shangri-La Shack and Drunk Monkeys anthology #2. Currently, Kaye is studying the difficult art of haiku and writing her second story collection.
* * *
Color and Girlfriends
By Benjamin Ludwig
In autumn and in dying light the father walked past rows of birches burned to ochre, brightness aged past glory, almost brown in spots. He was on his way to the field. Every stir of air made leaves fall, and in the stillness between the stirs, more leaves detached themselves, piling like paper boats on paper boats.
He saw the colors of the trees and of the grass begin to turn as the sun sank. From yellow-brown to rose. Magenta. Color that was drowned in day revealed in daylight’s wake. His shadow like a mast in the middle of it, long and growing longer toward the mountains. Man or mast, man on mast; he stretched his arms to sail the tide. With his shadow-self he sought to reach across it.
Then light and color faded under him. At once he fell from where he’d been suspended. Thus evening came, rushing to swallow everything, drowning him with sober darkness.
You can't blame them -- the family -- for not being too interested in her. She's as temporary as the weather, something that arrived in the wake of his latest storm. Unwelcome, even as I am unnoticed. Her presence interrupts the regular flow of the household. The girlfriend blows in and right away puts herself in all the wrong places, like a dragonfly stuck under the windshield wiper, or a leaf caught on the siding of the house. If the family considers her at all it's only to entertain what a mess the future might be if he decides to keep her. If he tried to keep anyone. Sometimes I feel like a worried mother. We know him too well, and we can see the mess that would ensue. Change is not welcome, when it comes to our oldest.
So when he's ready to let this one go, she'll hopefully blow away with the rest of the front, all gust and wind because she never had any shape of her own. And how could she? Life is what you make of it, it's said. By you I mean they, the family. Sometimes you (again, they) need a little fresh air in the room, but no one should expect daffodils on the table every time she opens the door and breezes in, though that's exactly what this new girlfriend seems to always get.
And of course she's here again today. She, who should be faceless and unidentified but who I've come to recognize. She's always where everyone is going before they get there themselves, it seems. She displaces everyone in turn. First me from my spot in front of the door, which is pretty much automatic and not really noticeable or worth mentioning. Then the youngest from his spot in the dining room: he must move so that she might sit beside her prince. Next the mother from her spot on the couch. Then our oldest girl from her spot at the kitchen table where everyone sits after supper to talk. All of this is done without anyone saying anything about it, pretending not to notice. Being polite, they call it. Finally she moves the stack of magazines from the piano bench because, you know, she plays.
It's at this point that I get up from the carpet and leave the room. I have no ear for music, certainly not for jazz, which is what the family calls the sound that tip-toes and pounces from beneath the girlfriend's fingers. I don’t like music at all. It doesn't move me.
I'm on my way through the kitchen to push open the screen door when the girlfriend starts singing. Singing as she plays, that is. The family is speechless. To me the notes from the piano are simply noise, hammers striking strings, but her voice is a voice; and since I have a voice of my own, something inside me is struck. Something in my gut resonates like a string, a living, twitching fiber.
I pause halfway across the linoleum. No one is there to tell me to stay but the truth is that I couldn't leave now if I wanted to. My own voice pushes up into my throat, past my lips, and suddenly I'm singing along with her. With the girlfriend. I can't help it. Eyes half-closed, head back, lips pursed, I sing the long notes, leaning into them. I break sharply when she punctuates the rhythm with her words, then let loose again with my own personal torrent, a veritable gale of sentiment. The string inside me has been plucked and thumbed, and plucked and plucked again. It reverberates and resounds. My voice and the girlfriend's each become a breath, a breeze added to the storm-song that lifts us both. In this way I begin to better learn my place in relation to hers. In this way I learn where she belongs, even if she doesn't know yet herself.
When it's over I stop and turn around to see the family in the doorway, staring. Then suddenly they're laughing and patting my sides. Ruffling my ears. It's all good and makes me happy, if not a little unworthy. But I’m starting to wonder about this girlfriend. If she comes back on a different day we might sing again. We could be singing partners, she and I together. I'll wait by the door for her. I'll listen at the window for the sound of slowing tires, for the sound of the door opening and the accompanying rush of air, the whiff of flower perfume and spring that's only waiting to fill the space she and I dug out together.
A middle school language arts teacher, Benjamin Ludwig live in Barrington, New Hampshire. His published work includes many pieces of short fiction published in small literary magazines, and a spelling text for students. Also, a collection of his short stories was a semifinalist for the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award. That same collection has since been requested by University of Alaska Press.
* * *
The Other Side of Time
By G. D. McFetridge
Both a psychiatrist and a psychologist informed me that I was suffering from bi-polar disorder. Back in the old days, they called it manic-depressive but I think they changed it to bi-polar to make it sound less demeaning, less stigmatizing and more politically correct. Say, maybe they should call people who are bi-polar serenity challenged. Because I guarantee when you’re flying in the manic phase there ain’t much serenity between your ears. There’s a lot of energy and you don’t need more sleep than a couple hours a night. Great ideas zoom around inside your head. Like fantastic fireworks inside a tornado. I’ll talk your head off when I’m on a high. But then, during the worst of the depression part, the world is pointless and bleak and darker than a shadow on Pluto. Feeling like a neon sign missing so many letters I can’t make sense of it.
The shrink gave me my first pills a decade ago. But I wouldn’t take the fricking medicine unless they practically forced it down my throat. It was just as bad as being in the depressive phase. And anyway—I like the manic phase. At least for the first several weeks, sometimes even longer. Like being a high-voltage rock star on coke. I have charisma when I’m manic. I could talk you into almost anything because I’m so enthused about it myself.
The psychologist tried to do behavioral/cognitive therapy on me. He was a true believer. Although I don’t know how he managed to get the state to pay him for his services. Even though he fine-tuned his strategy over the months, it never worked. Not efficacious. There were new studies and updates in the medical journals. But hey, I’ll tell you what, when a manic is on a fast and hot roll, cognitive therapy ain’t going to do squat diddly.
The thought that follows the activating event is going too fast to get intervened on, plus who can concentrate when you’re flying at light speed. Plus all that talking therapy went in my left ear and flew out the right. In the end, I figured it this way: Dude. Just say it out loud—I’m one crazy gaggle of geese and that’s that.
There’s no cure for what I got and the medicine turns me into a zombie. Maybe with enough time my illness will burn itself out. Or maybe I’ll get even crazier. Hang myself or something. Like being pond scum with eyeballs. Bi-polar folks have it tough plummeting down from the manic high to the lowest depths. The realm of futility and linear time out of control. Trapped in the abyss with the existential void and the hopelessness of being in nothingness.
I know about this. You can believe I know. But I won’t let fear run my life.
It all started in my late twenties. Although I remember when I was a kid, my dad used to say, “Slow down, Gordon. You’re too jacked-up.” So the foundation was set early on. Hell, when my mom was pregnant with me she was a chain smoker, drank coffee by the pot, took Valiums and was on her way to being an alcoholic. Once out of the womb the first thing I experienced, aside from the doctor cutting off the end my pecker, was nasty drug withdrawal. Cold-ass turkey. Maybe having too many chemicals in the womb made me bi-polar. The shrink said it’s genetic. Who knows for sure? Probably nobody except God and God ain’t talking.
Not knowing any better, I figured my first major manic attack was halfway between benediction and a revelation. Hoo-ah! The spirit was upon me! That is until about a month later when the cops came around. But then once the cop problem resolved itself—me doing 35 days and paying a fine—I met Deesha Rose Green. What a great name. She’s mixed race, ebony hair, flashing dark eyes, wild like a gypsy, untamable, promiscuous, slender and gorgeous. Magnetic. Details about how we met? Too complicated.
The pivotal factor at the time was that she was probably bipolar, too, but for reasons unknown I didn’t really see it. Maybe I was blinded by the total package. If you see my point.
Within a couple weeks after we met, I was rolling on my hypo-manic mode, not crazy but feeling like I was ten feet tall and had important plans. Always have plans when you’re on the way up. Yes, yes. So I drained my back account (I work construction and make good money), cashed my last check and we blew town for San Francisco. I had a Dodge van so we didn’t have to spend money on motels. It was about a 1,400-mile drive. Deesha had pills, Vicodins and Ritalin, so we were feeling fine the entire way. Plus I was taking nips off a 200-millileter vodka bottle. Deesha didn’t drink but she didn’t mind me drinking. I could handle it. No DUIs.
I paid for almost everything. She supplied the pills and of course her sweet patch of hairs, which was to my limited way of looking at things back then the perfect deal. Symbiotic … right? I know big words, lots of them. I may be nutty as hell but I ain’t stupid. In fact the shrink tested my brain and told me I had an IQ of 147. Which is way up there on the bell curve. He said I could be college material if I could stay on an even keel. Even keel? Yeah right, me and republicans and Jesus and family values and all the little niceties that accompany the good life. White-picket fences and retirement plans. Boring! Popeye is my main man. I am what I am. The existentialists took it another step: I am what I’m becoming.
God said I am that I am. Or something along those lines.
Back to Deesha. Maybe the reason I didn’t figure out she was a manic was because she was taking Ritalin, which is what they give hyperactive kids. And I know that sounds paradoxical but somehow the Ritalin kept her in what I call the upper-middle zone. Flying pretty high but not high enough to melt your wings. Like old Icarus. Greek mythology. See? I know some shit, more than you likely think.
So by the time we made Reno, Nevada, she started rationing the Ritalin. Just one pill with my morning jolt of fog-lifter coffee.
“Can’t you get more pills?” I wanted to know.
“No baby, I don’t have a script. I bought these from my neighbor whose kid gets it but she don’t give the kid the pills and sells them to me instead.”
“So we’ll find a walk-in clinic and you tell them you’re on vacation and lost your pills and need a refill to tide you over. Just pretend you got ADD.”
“Attention Deficit Disorder.”
“But I’m twenty-seven, I’m too old.”
“No. Adults have it too, not just kids. Trust me.”
“Do you trust me, baby?”
“Of course I do.”
So … after we’d settled in a motel—we needed hot showers and some television time—we found a clinic. Forty-five bucks and you walk in without an appointment. Deesha looked nervous. I told her to take a Vicodin or two. She took three. I waited in the van hoping she’d be cool enough to pull it off. I’d given her a list of things to say, symptom sort of stuff, things I’d read about on the internet. Seemed like it took an hour before I saw her come out the front door. She waved a piece of paper at me. Score!
“Only sixty, baby, a month’s worth. He wasn’t a doctor. He was a PA. What’s a PA?”
“Physician Assistant. They pay some chump a quarter of what they pay a real doc and that’s why you can walk in for only forty-five bucks.”
“How do you know so much?”
“Brains sweetie, I got brains. Give me a couple, I’m dragging.”
“I need these more than you. You get two a day for four days, then it’s back to one.” She winked at me and stroked the back of my neck. We drove back to the motel, stopping first for a pack of Kools for Deesha and a bottle of vodka for me. Vicodin, Ritalin, vodka. Heaven. I’m sure you can guess what we did after we got good and high.
But then I felt it. Felt it when I couldn’t get to sleep even though I’d polished off nearly a pint of vodka, felt it at three in the morning when I was starting to bounce inside myself. Oh, shit, I’m heading out of the middle zone into the stratosphere. What I’d come to figure out later is that although Ritalin somehow kept Deesha evened out, it was sending me into a manic major high. But here’s the catch. It’s like telling a faulty computer to analyze what the problem is that’s making it faulty. It’s like the observer is the observed and so I knew I was taking off but I didn’t see it in the same terms I would see it once I’d crashed. I know it’s tough to get it unless you’re like me or any other true manic. It comes on you like a spell. Part of you fears what’s coming but the bigger part of you says: Oh yeah baby! Let’s blast off!
From Reno we drove into central east California and hit a highway called 395 and Deesha was studying the road map. “Let’s take a short cut and go up to Yosemite. The turnoff should be south a ways.”
“First we got to hit another clinic. Where’s the nearest town big enough to have one?”
She traced her finger along the map and said, “Bishop looks pretty big.”
When we arrived we started looking for a walk-in clinic, but we couldn’t find one until Deesha finally spotted a doctor’s office that had a sign saying walk-ins welcome. Turned out they expected a hundred dollar administrative fee on top of the seventy-five they wanted for the appointment. Fricking rip-off goddamned doctors. So I got out the map. We needed a bigger town, and there it was a ways north on 395. Mammoth Lakes. And by God and by Jesus they had one. Sixty bucks and walk right in and there were only two people in the waiting room. Deesha went inside and did her dog and pony show but the nurse wasn’t keen on handing out a script.
“These are a class-II drug and I’ll need to verify this with your regular doctor. Do you have the telephone or fax number?”
Deesha is street smart as hell and she says, “I’m actually from Canada. I’m visiting my cousin and we’re going to Yosemite. Canada has public healthcare and I see a different doctor every time I go into the clinic and so I can’t really remember which doctor said I was ADD.”
“We can’t honor Canadian prescriptions anyway, so you’ll have to make an appointment and see the doctor and then he can give you prescription if he feels it is necessary. He’ll be here tomorrow from noon until six. See the receptionist and we’ll get you in for tomorrow.”
“But then I have to pay for another visit and we’ll have to pay for a motel.”
“Sorry, but that’s the best I can do.”
Damn. Sixty bucks right up the flume. So we drove to Yosemite, which cost another twenty, but the vacationing hordes invading from the cities and hinterlands had taken all the campgrounds unless of course you had a reservation. So we drove all the way to Modesto and got a cheap motel just before midnight. What a day. Desha relented and let me have an extra Ritalin. What a piece of work she is, I mean it. She’s cool. And Yosemite was a sight to see, especially Half Dome and one of the high waterfalls. Deesha being a big city girl all her life was talking a mile a minute and flying around inside the van like a mongoose on steroids.
Guess maybe it was worth it after all.
The next day we got lucky and found a walk-in in a Mexican part of town and Deesha got us another sixty pills and we were on our way to Frisco. San Fran. “The City,” as the locals call it. The snobby bastards give you a look if you say Frisco. Go figure.
That night we slept in the van to save money, in a rich neighborhood not far from the yacht harbor. Parked in a place where we wouldn’t call attention to ourselves, although my van is clean and looks good so it didn’t stand out too bad from the other cars. I had to drink almost a pint of vodka so I could sleep for a couple hours. I needed something to put the brakes on but the idea of going to a walk-in and getting anti-manic pills didn’t appeal to me. The fricking drugs turn me into a walking zombie. The only other thing that would help slow me down a little is Valium, about thirty or forty milligrams a day, but the docs are real stingy on handing out sedatives. The only other thing is the big H, but I knew if I went there—hey, forget the hard part about having to score—it’d be trouble in the long run and plus I didn’t want to see Deesha get a taste for the shit. It’d be the end of her. I have a feeling she’s one of those types that tries heroin a couple times and then she’s on for the entire cruise. You know, the cruise ship leaves the dock and you’re going with it. Bad news. Like walking into slippery quicksand on a pair of skinny stilts. But hell. The other way of looking at it would be that my ship left the dock a long time ago and I’ve been on that wild cruise ever since.
Because you see what genius really means is a person who can see the future. A genius brings something into the present that up until that time only existed in the future. Like E=MC². Even though nobody understood that at the turn of the 20th century, I guarantee that somewhere in the future someone other than Einstein figured out the exact same thing.
What Einstein’s mind did was to know the future and then bring that knowledge back to the present. Like if I went back in a time machine to 200,000 years ago and showed a bunch of Neanderthals how to make fire, hell, they’d have made me head shaman or chief, and as word spread every Neanderthal in Europe would have known me as a genius, the man who made fire! It’s all about perspective. Linear time is just one way of looking at things. Maybe time is all in the same spot at the same time. Geniuses are the only ones that can see past the illusion of now. Some kind of quantum physics thing.
But I digress. I digress a lot when I’m flying out there at the edges. What can I say? Like I said, the cruise ship left the dock a long time ago and I’ve been riding that sonofabitch ever since. Hoo-ah!
I can’t sit still. Nope. Too much electricity flying through my head. The city looks like a tangle of steel and concrete woven together in a weird pattern, emerald blades and strings of lights sparkling and blinking and people scurrying around like patterns of blurred motion.
Red lights—Green lights—Yellow lights. The moments caught in a vortex of linear time and me watching sewer pipes spit out sapphires and rubies and mud.
I looked at Deesha. She lit up a Kool and blew a jet of smoke into the air.
“Fuck time,” I said. “I got to get out of this. What say we head to Chinatown? Maybe we find what I need.”
“Sure, baby, let’s go to Chinatown.”
G. D. McFetridge writes from his wilderness home in Montana's Sapphire Mountains. His fiction and essays are published across America, in Canada, Ireland and the U.K. -- The Lampeter Review at the Univ. of Wales, and last June my story "Ruby Lake" was published by Confrontation at the Univ. of Long Island, NY. And in March 2014 my story "Little Man" comes out in The Long Story, in Massachusetts.
* * *
By Mike Pinches
We were racing to the hospital but there wasn’t any real emergency. At least I didn’t think there was. Eric was driving, his hands gripping the steering wheel as if he were trying to strangle the life from it. He was leaning forward with his eyes fixed on the street, trying to retain his focus but that was difficult with Drew in the back seat rambling incoherently. We had volunteered to take him in. Well, Eric volunteered and then deputized me. Frankly, I wanted nothing to do with this.
Eric’s car was growling south on County Ave through the rain and cold April air. When he pulled the car around a bend, my right shoulder slammed into his passenger window and a small amount of adrenaline stung my gut. When the road straightened again, I questioned his need for driving 60 miles-per-hour down a two-lane road. It’s not as if Drew was going to die suddenly from schizophrenia or bi-polar or whatever the hell he had. Eric didn’t move or blink or do anything other than exactly what he was doing the second before I asked the question. He was aggressively ignoring me. There was a raving lunatic in his car. That was reason enough to rush anywhere.
Drew was sitting in the middle of the back seat. His arms straightened before him and his hands grasping the headrests of the driver and passenger seats. When I turned to look at him, he pulled closer to me so that he was only a few inches from my face, about the same distance two people would be if there were talking at a concert. Before I turned around, he was raving about a restaurant in China that he claimed to have eaten at last month. When our eyes met, he ceased his Chinese restaurant story and starting whaling about his real estate business. He opened his griping in what appeared to be mid-thought. “I have leased properties in Newark and East Orange. We’re having a big meeting tomorrow morning with the insurance carrier about the limiting of fiduciary liability program and how it’s going to cut into our excess capacity!”
I smiled, not because his insanity was funny, I smiled because it was so goddamn impressive. If I didn’t know that he was a man who lived off $140 a month in county welfare and sometimes sat in his own shit for days at a time, I might be inclined to believe him. “What properties are you talking about?” I asked to see how far he had developed this back-story.
He ignored my questions. “This is bullshit! Commercial real estate is hemorrhaging right now and they’re undercutting my leverage because I turned my back on the CCIM deal.”
“You turned your back on the CCIM deal?” Eric’s head flinched to the right and he ordered me to “knock it off.” He was right. I was making light of something he dealt with much more regularly than I did. I was being an asshole. But then again, what was I supposed to be doing? Asking him questions to drill down to the core of his problems? Was I supposed to cure him on our 15-minute drive to the emergency room?
“My credit is dynamite and they’re trying to lock in some bullshit rate on me.” He was laughing now, “But they can’t do that because 15 percent of the properties in the county are vacant. That’s not in line with global standards. Hell, that’s not even in line with regional standards.” He sat back in his seat and wiped his nose with the backside of his wrist and forearm. “Sometimes I get so pissed off at them it’s just like…” He reached down to pull something from his waistband but emerged only with an empty hand in the shape of a gun. He held his index and middle fingers up to my face, struck the hammer down with his thumb and whispered, “Pow.”
It was Saturday night. The road was busy and the assholes making left turns were killing us. The novelty of Drew’s blather had quickly faded and had become downright irritating. I was feeling nauseous and I was fairly sure that Drew’s delirious commentary was aiding the sickness that was slowly scaling its’ way from my gut up my throat. This is why Eric volunteered to drive.
Drew started asking me questions. He wanted to know my thoughts on whatever he was lecturing me about. I turned around, said, “I don’t know” and tuned him out. He pestered me, though, and within seconds, I wanted nothing more than to order him to shut the fuck up. It wouldn’t do any good though. I’m fairly certain Eric had done that plenty of times and look where it got him.
We were his two remaining friends who hadn’t completely cut him off. Though, in all fairness, Drew was already in my recycle bin, I just never emptied it. Eric kept regular contact with him like a real friend, whereas I saw Drew as little more than the protagonist in a litany of nonsensical anecdotes. Eric told me everything. He told me about the abundance of drugs flowing through his blood, about the prostitutes he was calling to his apartment, the fistfights he was getting into and about the time he pulled a knife on his uncle. I knew he had gone crazy. I could see it in his eyes whenever I bumped into him. I watched him fade from our group into the arms of greasy drug addicts with shoulder length hair who lived in basement apartments. No one tried to stop him. Why would we? He was a grown man and we were all busy with our own lives. There was no time for salvation.
None of these issues were a real concern to me, even the whole pulling a knife on his uncle episode. Drew was in the review mirror and anyone who was stupid enough to be around him deserved what they got. Eric was stupid. He and Drew were never even that close. Yet, he was the first one Drew’s dad called whenever there was an episode. The most recent call came two nights ago. Drew was stalking a local cop whom he accused of spying on him and was seen running circles around the cop’s house in the middle of the night. He ripped his shirt off and challenged the cop to come out and face him. No one was home, though, which was lucky because Drew had a gun, a real one.
I had no idea how this was going to work but I guess it was our only option. Lord knows I wasn’t going to put up with his shit and by the looks of it, Eric already went over the ledge. A mad dash to the psych ward seemed much easier than months of interventions and babysitting. We let him hit bottom and now we can just throw him in a padded room and let the professionals take care of him. With Drew out of sight, we could go back to watching football on Sundays and arguing about the best routes to take to avoid rush hour traffic. He’ll come out in a while and he’ll be fixed. Problem solved.
When we arrived at the hospital, Eric stopped at the emergency room entrance, “Alright, take him in. I have to park the car. I’ll meet you in there.” Before I could ask Eric what the fuck he was talking about, Drew pounced from his seat, “Is this where the party’s at?” He threw open the back door and jumped from the car. I followed him, slammed the car door and watched Eric disappear into the maze of cars.
When I turned, Drew was simultaneously dancing and walking to the entrance. I suppose I was grateful that I didn’t have to drag him in. He stopped just a few feet from the sliding glass doors and stared at the motion monitor above the doorframe, “Open up, bitch!” The doors opened, just as he had commanded them to, and we walked through.
We sidestepped around a man laying in a gurney, his face covered in dried blood as if he was wearing war paint, and approached the intake desk. When I glanced over at Drew though, I noticed something different. His hands were to his side and his back straightened. He walked in measured steps and his eyes remain focused ahead of him. It was as if he was mocking a normal person.
I skipped the formalities when we reached the desk, “My friend here needs help. He’s having psychiatric issues. We need a doctor to take a look at him.” She was a young, Hispanic woman with curly black hair. She looked up at us without raising her head and asked for more specifics. Drew cleared his throat and rested his hands on the desk. “I apologize, Jackie.” He read her nametag. “But my friends are trying to pull some kind of prank on me. They told me that a friend of ours was in a car accident and that we were visiting him. But, when we pull up, they start egging me on. Telling me to act crazy, just for fun, to see if I could trick you guys to admitting me.”
I stepped to my left and turned to face him. He was being serious. There was no irony in his voice, no restrained laughter escaping from his mouth in minuscule cackles. He had evaded his senility. “What the fuck are you doing, Drew?”
Drew glanced at me and looked back at Jackie, “Look, I want nothing to do with this prank. I don’t even have decent health insurance. I’m on Medicaid for God’s sake.”
Jackie sighed and lifted her head to say something but I interjected, “You’re fucking crazy, Drew. And you’re going to hurt someone. What the fuck are you doing?”
Jackie jumped in, “Alright, stop talking.” She pointed her finger at me and barked, “You!” The depth of her voice rattled me, “Go sit over there.” She pointed to a row of lime green plastic chairs in the waiting area. She then pointed at Drew, “You, come with me.” Jackie circled around the desk and shuffled across the waiting area. Drew followed her, his hands at his side, never looking back, and they disappeared behind a pair of beige doors that led to the emergency room.
Eric arrived shortly thereafter and sat next to me, “What’s going on?”
I shook my head, “I have no fucking idea.”
Thirty minutes later the beige doors swung open and Drew emerged with a doctor by his side. Drew’s hands were in his pockets, he was shrugging his shoulders, and nodding as the doctor spoke. Once the doctor ceased talking, they faced each other and shook hands. The doctor vanished behind the beige doors and drew faced us with a menacing smile.
We both stood from our seats and waited for him to say something. He stepped close, stretched his arms out and placed his hands on our shoulders. He huddled us closer and leaned in “I guess I have to keep my eye on you guys now.” His hands dropped off our shoulders and he reached down to his waistband and pulled out his “gun.” He brought the barrel to his mouth and with one quick puff, blew the smoke into our faces.
Mike Pinches was born and raised in New Jersey. A graduate of Emerson College, Mike now works for an agency that provides services to disabled children and adults. His previous short works have been published in The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine.
* * *
The Third Leroy
By Ian Sands
The woman spent her late twenties and early thirties living with a string of boyfriends but since then it had just been her and Leroy, her wiry orange tabby, inside the little tan house with brown trim. It wasn’t that she could not find male companionship – she was, after all, a handsome enough woman with straw blonde hair and blue eyes, if a little chubby and an on-again, off-again chain smoker. At a certain point, she simply didn’t see the need for it. Leroy had indeed been the first male she could sleep with and put up with, and even though, she had never thought of herself as a “cat person,” she found it to be a pretty successful cohabitation. Leroy’s need for affection made her feel valued, and she happily provided him with a belly rub every few days. Over time, she even warmed to his habit of chasing after the loose strings on her clothes.
When Leroy died two weeks after his 14th birthday, the woman put a framed photo of her dead cat on the antique olive green table up against the wall in the hallway off the bedroom. She had not thought to keep photos of Leroy around when he was alive – but now that he was not there and would never be again, she felt like it was something that needed to be done.
She was not taking his absence particularly well, becoming distraught nearly every time she awoke in the night to find an empty space between her fleshy, pale legs -- a space she left open for her late cat out of habit.
She began reading material on the Internet for ways to cope with death, and eventually found an article entitled “How To Get Over A Pet’s Death In Five Steps.” The first few steps, she realized, she had unknowingly already taken. The fourth (“Tell your friends about how you feel”), she thought to be hogwash. But the fifth (“Think about getting a new pet”) had some merit, she concluded.
In fact, the more she thought about it, the more it seemed to her a good idea. And so, she began emailing people who were selling cats on Craigslist. She eventually set up an appointment with a man with thinning red hair who lived in a sea green house that was filled with tabbies and smelled like a giant litter box.
In the living room, she counted 12 tabbies of all shapes and sizes – fat, lean, muscular, bottom heavy, shorthaired, longhaired. In the end, she opted for a three-year-old cat that reminded her of her Leroy, albeit with a bit more of a paunch in the belly area. When she got him home, the lady decided to name him Leroy in honor of her first feline friend.
The two got on swimmingly. The second Leroy was a darling little thing – always following her around and possessing the most unsettling meow the lady had ever heard, one that never ceased to crack her up. After reading about how a pet and its owner often looked alike the more time they spent together, she started seeing a resemblance between herself and the second Leroy. Both had a small belly that they were not looking to get ride of anytime soon; both possessed raspy vocals that made people uncomfortable. When his fourth birthday came around, the woman bought him a mouse toy, and happily placed a framed photo of the new Leroy beside the one of the first Leroy on the olive green table in the hallway.
A few weeks later, the second Leroy became very sick after he ate a chocolate bar that the woman left on her dining table. He had seemed okay for a few days following the incident, but by the fourth day he began to vomit every half hour. Seeing him so ill made her ill, and she began vomiting as well. Later at the emergency care wing, the veterinarian had pronounced Leroy with life-threatening pancreatitis, and advised that he be put down. She waited by his side until the pentobarbital set in.
The lady took the second Leroy’s death even worse than she did the first. She found herself breaking down in public places – at the library, in the supermarket – and having to be consoled by perfect strangers. Remembering how replacing the first Leroy had helped her cope, she decided she would get another cat as soon as possible.
This time she knew exactly what she wanted. She scoured the Craigslist ads for tabby cats with paunch bellies -- but every time the woman went to look at one in person, something was off. The cat was too skinny, or too shy, or possessed a voice too much like honey.
After three weeks of searching, she finally found him at a shelter forty minutes from her house. A meow like a mechanical saw, an adorable little belly she could not wait to squeeze, and an absolute dear to everyone who picked him up. The cat had come with an especially odd name – Brazenheart – one she changed almost immediately.
Things went okay for a while – she secretly loved that whenever the UPS guy came to the door, the third Leroy’s meow would cause him to do an almost unseen little jump in place as he waited for a signature. Much like the second Leroy, the third Leroy had a knack for scaling tall structures, and she enjoyed that commonality as well.
The only issue was that that her new cat seemed to have a real attachment to his previous name. In fact, he never came when the woman called him.
She figured his behavior would pass, but five months went by and he remained firmly and irrevocably Brazenheart.
She knew it a trivial thing to stew over, but the woman soon found herself wincing whenever she had to utter the dreaded B word. The wince eventually became anger, and anger evolved after some time into hatred.
Preparing to retire to bed one night, the woman ordered Leroy to join her from some other part of the house. She still enjoyed having something warm and furry between her feet while drifting off to sleep.
"Leroy! Leroy! Come to bed. Now."
"Leroy!" she spoke again, this time louder, with more urgency.
“Oh for goodness sake! Brazenheart!” she finally said.
Brazenheart sauntered into the room.
“You are a stubborn little shit, aren’t you?”
Later that night, while the woman slept, there was a sound.
It sounded like the dull thud of metal colliding against wood.
The woman gathered up her ill-prepared body parts and crawled out of bed in order to investigate, turning on the lamp attached to the wall. Walking out into the hallway, she discovered two framed photos lying face down on the olive green wooden table. The first showed the original Leroy at around 10 years old lying supine on the porch, sunlight pouring onto him. The next was an image of the 2nd Leroy just having scaled the top of the refrigerator, his eyes nearly the size of plums.
The next day the woman drove Brazenheart back to the shelter where she had originally found him.
“I would like to return this cat,” she told the young man with the dreadlocks at the front desk.
“May I ask why?” asked the man politely.
“This cat will not respond to the name I have given him.”
The man shook his head while avoiding eye contact with the woman.
“We can’t take him back for that reason.”
"I'm not asking for my money back. I would just like to return this cat!"
"We cannot take an animal back for that reason," the man repeated, with a slight bit of edge in his voice now.
When she got home, the woman threw out all her cat food and put Brazenheart out on the front lawn of the house. Brazenheart sat very still in the spot where she left him for some time. Eventually he leapt up onto a brick wall that ran the length of the front of the house, one that at its highest point afforded him a pretty good view of the woman’s bedroom. The woman's tiny blue eyes observed him through an upturned slat of the dark gray window blinds until they did not.
Two years pass, and Brazenheart grows adept at fending for himself. He subsists off of the rabbits he discovers make their home in the thick vegetation beside the lady’s house. In winter, he takes shelter under the house. Every so often he climbs up to the top of the brick wall and stares into the bedroom.
One particularly drab February morning, Brazenheart is settled on his perch, when he notices a pair of eyes foreign to him peeking at him through a missing slat in the window blinds. They are brown and much bigger than the ones he's used to.
“Auntie! Auntie! There’s a cat outside your window!” shrieks a little girl’s voice.
With this, Brazenheart can hear slippered feet swishing their way across the hardwood of the bedroom floor in his direction.
And then suddenly the blinds fling up, and he finds himself face to face with his former owner.
“Hmm…it must be a neighborhood cat,” utters the woman, her voice resembling a creaky doorframe.
“The people in this neighborhood just let those wretched things have the run of the place.”
Ian Sands lives in northern California where he works in special education. He used to be a journalist at the Boston Phoenix, but now he only writes in his spare time when his wife is away. So, for him, writing is a little like a mistress, you could say. As a lover, though, his wife is far superior.
* * *
By Wayne Scheer
Boyd Loggins felt like a kid the day before Christmas. He was trying to be good, but it seemed like the universe was in cahoots to cause him grief.
Driving home from his first night at the Wagon Wheel in eighteen months, he realized how much he had missed these curvy, country roads. It had been raining most of the evening and everything smelled like it had just been washed clean. He kept his windows rolled down and let the rain spray his bare arm.
His radio didn't work, so he beat a rhythm on his steering wheel to the swoosh tada swoosh tada of the wipers. Squinting through the streaked windshield, he tried focusing on the winding road ahead. He drove slower than he once did, imagining someone watching what a careful driver he'd become.
All night he drank nothing but Coke, proud that he resisted the temptation to even taste a beer. Most of his old friends treated him as if he were wired with explosives, but he had expected that.
It took some prodding to get Tammy Lucas to dance with him. He had almost forgotten how good a woman smelled.
"So what's it like being locked up?" she asked.
At least she wasn't afraid of him. He thought carefully about what to say, afraid of saying the wrong thing. After a few moments, he realized he was still staring.
“Aw, it was all right. But I sure don't want to go there again.” He wanted to tell her about the doctors. Especially the young one with long hair who talked to him about enrolling at the junior college in September. Again, he realized he wasn't saying anything, just staring into her gray eyes. He had known Tammy most of his life, but he never knew the color of her eyes.
"What did you miss most?" she asked. The way she pulled back a little made it clear she was growing uncomfortable.
That's when he kissed her. He put his hands in back of her head and planted a good one.
"I sure missed that," he said. But she pushed away and ran back to her friends. They told Big Roy behind the bar and Big Roy grabbed his baseball bat and asked Boyd to leave.
He wanted to explain but decided he'd do better to just walk away, like the doctors had told him. At one time, he would have popped Big Roy in his fat face and told everyone to kiss his ass, maybe dropped trou for good measure.
But his meds had him in a kind of daze and it was too much trouble to fight through the fog.
He continued driving home, tapping out the rhythm of the wipers, thinking about going to college. Imagine that? Me in college. Maybe Tammy and the others wouldn't treat me like I was from another planet.
Just then, his tires felt like they slid from under him on the slick asphalt. His truck spun around 360 degrees, stopping just over the double yellow line. “Hoo-wee,” he shouted, but before he could ease his pick-up back into the correct lane, Sheriff Conroy's patrol car barreled around the curve and plowed into Boyd, head on. Their front ends locked, like two elks in combat.
The sheriff's first words as he squeezed out of his car were, "Boyd Loggins, you sorry ass drunken sonuvabitch. You goin to jail this time. No more that rehab shit for you."
"Merry Christmas," Boyd mumbled, through thickened fog.
The sheriff wasn't in a holiday frame of mind.
Wayne Scheer, a past contributor to Foliate Oak, has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He's published numerous stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories, available here. A short film has also been produced based on his short story, "Zen and the Art of House Painting." Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife.
* * *
Poems by Dennis Braden
Three Poems Against the Night
Night breathes heavily from the phone lines
A shade of cloud lowers
Behind it the moon removes her feather boa
the star over her left eye
Her stockings fall to the ground
The embarrassed trees close over her breasts like fans
The night unbuckles itself and lies down
Moonlight sags from the eaves
like flesh on an old woman’s arm
The night turns away and gets dressed
leaves a few holes on the table She peels
her face from the windows behind her
and scrapes it against the streets all night
but it will not come clean
In a cave two angels
cobbling shoes for the moving of light
The Nature Show
Bankrupt the tulips
have taken down their signs
have spent the last
of their money
on the future of sod
It is summer
and I have only now
remembered spring preceded it
Soon the leaves
will be jumping from the windows
and the government
will be closing all the green banks
Dennis Braden holds a Master’s Degree in Literature from the Colorado University at Boulder. A first chapbook collection of poems, In Things Completed, has been published by Konglomerati Press. His work has appeared in anthologies as well as the Bellingham Review, Dacotah Territory, Caveat Lector, Confrontation, Star*Line, The Chattahoochee Review, Forum, and others. He has been awarded a writing residency by the Edward F. Albee Foundation. He has worked as a playwright, and is presently completing a novel and another collection of poems.
* * *
Poems by Ryan Frisinger
Is anyone out there?
The words echo…
but only in the head of the last child to leave home.
There are no mountains here, not even hills to speak of.
The horizon drips of method, order, constancy--
much like those who look on it from their porch swings
night after night after night.
Motionless sky laid atop telephone poles and once-red barns
stacked upon endless farmer’s field.
No sparkling streams teeming with fish or playing children,
just a river of rainwater speeding through
the ditch alongside the highway in the front yard--
and only for one month out of the year.
The asphalt pathway, taken mostly by semi-trucks
with out-of-state license plates, tries in vain to connect
the cluster of several-generation households
to the outside world.
Hope visits only in color form,
and like the alien rainfall,
sticks around but for an instant
in the slow and steady crawl of time.
Green shoots and sprouts turn to worthless golden corn stalks overnight,
as the watering stops and the sun dries.
Fields, gardens, and scorched yards alike sport matching yellow dress.
Those who tend them don’t dare wear anything so flashy.
While the feature-less landscape would never grace a postcard or travel brochure,
the wildlife is plentiful--
their numbers outdoing the proud tally on the humble population sign.
Three, four, sometimes a handful of beasts per yard--
hounds and mutts chained, like their owners, to this place.
The ground around their food and water bowls rendered barren and fallow
from a constant and steady pacing.
Nowhere to go, but in circles.
Their freedom, dictated by the number of rusty metal links,
the feet of frayed rope or old clothesline,
leads them up to--
but not over--
wooden fence lines.
The soil on the other side rendered barren and fallow
from a constant and steady pacing.
Nowhere to go, but in circles.
Music Like Life
Rock n’ roll in the city
leads to sex in a strange bedroom,
leads to lullabyes and changed tunes,
leads to middle-school jazz band in the suburbs,
leads to a class song and packed auditorium.
A march, a fanfare, a recessional.
Silver clinking on glass
leads to whispered nursery rhymes, shouted camp songs,
leads to golden oldies and books on tape,
leads to easy listening in the waiting room.
A march, a fanfare, a recessional.
The fat lady’s sung.
Ryan Frisinger is a singer-songwriter, whose music has been featured in such television shows as America’s Next Top Model and The Real World. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. He lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his more-talented wife and couldn’t-care-less cat.
* * *
Poems by Dave Gregg
One Day in L.A.
Locals enjoy bragging about an encounter
between Bukowski, poet avant-garde
and Breakfast at Tiffany’s A. Hepburn
stylish grace and beauty epitomized
collided with scandal and nefarious
in front of a midtown liquor store
a locale Bukowski was intimate with
Audrey searching for an upscale spa
Bukowski recognized her instantly
who would not know Funny Face?
she was undone by his appearance
it rarely failed to startle the sober
he addressed her as “Miss Hepburn”
and offered her his last cigarette
the year was 1992 and nearly over
they would soon run out of autumns
He told her he composed great love poetry
the actress laughed and softly smiled
“I fear I never knew many of those,”
opening her car door Audrey paused
asked what he thought love was about
“Relentless acceptance” was his quick reply
that’s what happened when the actress
met the wisest man in the entire world
The use of a former girlfriends’ name
In my poem prompts the wife to ask
“Why?” I shrug and hear “Why her?”
followed by “Why her and not me?”
the poem works better with the name
which is true but truth’s a bitter pill
conversation sours like day old cream
the sex is not as sweet and soon there
is no sex she whispers the damn poem
in her sleep then the poem is published
the entire world now asks “Why her?”
I think it can’t get worse until one night
I get a call a voice who asks “Why me?”
a poem is
or entry to
and no wait
Dave Gregg resides in the state of Missouri, is well over 50 and keeps house with a dog who reads Simic, Bukowski and on occasion, depending on the mood, Neruda.
* * *
The Geography of Marriage
By Adam Hughes
My new wife and I are separated
by four hundred miles, several rivers,
and uncountable ridges, rises, hills,
mountains, all slowly declining
in their broccoli-topped beauty.
For three months and eleven days our marriage
has been one of driving through
the fog-filled valley of the Ohio and the lumbering
Blue Ridge. I flipped my car one night,
asleep at the wheel outside Ronceverte.
Separation nearly killed me. Four more months
and my growing familiarity with central
West Virginia radio stations will come to an end.
Distance is best measured in mountain
peaks and bridges. I’ll see her again in forty-three
barges and a few more inches of moon.
Adam Hughes is the author of Petrichor (NYQ Books, 2010) and Uttering the Holy (NYQ Books, 2012). He was born in 1982 in Lancaster, Ohio. He still resides there with his wife and daughter, working as a pastor.
* * *
By Mary Ellen Shaughan
The day of my mother’s funeral was bright and sunny,
a perfect spring day, if it weren’t for this.
Mother rested for an hour or more,
not at the center of the party
where she always wanted to be,
but out in one corner of the foyer,
where family and friends in the drab clothes
of mourning walked past and greeted her.
‘Pearl looks good,
like she’ll wake up and invite us all to dinner,’ they said.
How would I know?
I refused to look;
this shell was not my mother,
no matter what anyone said.
Finally, as had been her pattern all my life,
she went on ahead,
down the church’s center aisle to the front row,
me following grudgingly, dragging my feet,
wishing I were somewhere else.
Mary Ellen Shaughan is a native Iowan who now calls Western Massachusetts home. She admits that she often views life through a kaleidoscope, which results in unusual observations. Her poetry has appeared in Foliate Oak, Long Story Short, Still Crazy, and other journals.
* * *
Poems by Jake Sheff
Sending the Alphabet to the Back of the Line
Childhood is plural for away,
China’s clay soldiers are shooting you with BBs.
Childhood is 1536 and King Henry’s clemency,
The death-bird whistling a Baltic melody.
Childhood is memory’s monstrosity
That thrives because it is deaf.
Oedipus Rex disdained the moon at its apogee,
Appealed daily to his legislature:
“Outlaw it being anything but new! My eye-
Sockets bleed in moonlight, soak my PJs,
Because I can see again as a child, okay?”
What John Smith sought was the rattlesnake’s fontanelle;
1608: “My nostrils imply a new Bethlehem,
But at noon the settlers appear to me…mannequins.”
Some dough boys were virgins; with gusto
They died in poppy fields and kissed Calliope’s
Fingers, whose signature shot the air with curlicues.
Aquinas denied his cicatrix, as did Belthazar –
“To credit father’s brand with our success!”
The end of childhood is the rainbow’s unity
Of hostile, verisimilar illusions. (re: Howard Hughes.)
The end of childhood is a flashflood of gravy,
Or for some, an old, nude harpy crying, “You! You!”
The start of childhood is always tardy; not sex,
But a staggering of Who, What, When, Where and Why,
Like pawns. The start of childhood is the end of easy.
Beauty is what the mind can wrestle with but never pin
The man of the house rewinds the future,
He plays cat and mouse with shale and
Voluptuous death and in dreams he’s a
Tired little boy.
The woman of the house has painted
Their lives the color that God perceives
As red, and her odor can send God
Down Memory Lane.
The baby of the house will grow
Her own orchard, where Father and
Mother are not themselves, but rows
Of columns to clouds.
The dog of the house has rituals;
He forgives a cruel master because
His ancestors tell him “Good boy”
Is an angel’s bone.
The cat of the house has built cathedrals
Of lies that he only tells mice in a sort
Of benediction; the cat duly mourns the
A new physician like myself becomes
Abstract, my outline fades and
Poetry prolongs my lifespan but
In the wrong direction.
My wife at 32 is sewing quilts that
Capture light voraciously as fronds
And give it up as fuel for death
Chasing our dreams.
My daughter at 18 months initiates
Plants and animals into her club by
Composing the texture and taste of a
Cornelius, our cat, persuasively lays
On my lap, gently as a sword sliding
Through ribs, with a piercing love
My guilt thrives on.
Dashi the doubtless, our dog, nose-
Bumps my hand, a gesture like your
Mother being young so you’re never
Lost in thought.
Emma the emissary is a memory
Freed from the self, our cat that
Dutifully zig-zags about the room to
Guide the present.
Copper, our Copernicus: dog born
With one deformed ear, survivor of
Torture, whose pain is the poem
Recited by spring.
For Ben Shimon, a friend I met in high school
You were the adverb God prescribed to “Being,”
Embezzling the breath of tropics, drinking
Fermented rain with pop-stars while they’re kinking
Their fame and fallopian tubes for you. And “Bane”
Is how your name’s pronounced in quasi-cliques
By pseudo-citizens of Cool; “He ekes
Himself, it isn’t fair!” “Hizo bien”
Is what you hope they’ll say in heaven; “Soy…
¿Cómo se dice lost?” Go punch the cantor
In his rapacious Kaddish. Loose your plantar
Fasciitis on his Hebrew. “Sui
Generis: Epitaph of far too many,”
You heard Westminster Abbey say, its tinny
Lament: apology; you’re like the Sioux.
Jake Sheff is a captain in the USAF currently training as a pediatrics physician. He's married with a baby daughter and several rescue pets. His poems have been published widely online and in print, including at Pirene's Fountain and Danse Macabre. His first chapbook, Looting Versailles, was recently released by Alabaster Leaves Publishing.
* * *
She Had Known Me Forever
By Michele Whitney
The big, burly campus pastor frowned at me as he shifted his weight in his chair. He crossed his fingers over his large belly and listened intently. He was uncomfortable. Not much to say. One tear slowly fell from my right eye as I told him my story. He stared at me, and his eyes were like ice. Now I felt uncomfortable. I looked down at my knees and gripped the arms of my chair as if I were holding on for dear life.
My sister was murdered.
Our session was over. The pastor quoted a few bible scriptures and told me that if I ever needed to talk again, to let him know.
My story had shaken him. I doubt he ever had anyone in his office that had a family member murdered. At that time, gun violence had not profoundly affected the small college town of DeKalb, Illinois. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with murder or guns. Perhaps the white campus pastor had never had a black person in his office at all before.
Going to see this pastor had not been my idea. My mother had heard the sorrow and hopelessness in my voice as I told her through guilty tears that I did not want to live. I had been a horrible sister, right up until the unexpected end. My mom’s words of comfort were “God’s will be done.” But she also thought that I needed to talk to someone. So it was either a pastor or a shrink.
My first stop was the shrink. I couldn’t afford a real psychiatrist, so I decided to talk to a counselor on campus. A “psychologist.” But the psychologist heard my story and immediately wanted to put me on antidepressants. I wasn’t ready for that. After all, I was still basically a kid; first year away at college. I just needed to talk things out. So my next stop was the pastor. Didn’t go so well. Who was next?
I didn’t know many people on campus, and I didn’t make friends easily. My white college roommate was either drunk or high most of the time. Most of the students in my school and in my dorm had come from small towns and led very sheltered lives. Many white kids confessed to never meeting or “dealing with” black people before. I was a mystery to them and they were a mystery to me.
It seemed as though the girls’ biggest worry was sorority rush week. And, the guys’ biggest worry was “rushing” the girls. How could any of them relate to me? Many of the people I met during that year were nice, but who could I really talk to about my pain?
The weekend it happened, my family had planned to take a trip out to the school and spend the weekend with me. The first semester had been tough, and I was homesick. I was making decent grades, but my social life was…well, I had no social life. I wanted to spend some time with people who loved me. It was the last weekend of February. I was so excited to show them around campus and to have them see what I was doing and how I was living. The plan had been for them to make the 45-minute drive from Chicago to the school early Saturday morning and stay until Sunday.
The phone rang early that Saturday morning, and I jumped nervously from my bottom bunk and answered it. Heart racing, I said hello. It was my mom. Surely she was about to tell me that she and my dad were on their way. Instead, she calmly told me that my sister had been shot in the head. She went on to say, “The doctor says she’s basically a vegetable. I don’t think I want her to live that way. I have to make the decision.”
I hung up the phone and lay down in my bed on my left side. My roommate awoke from a drunken stupor, leaned over the top bunk, and asked me what happened. I told her that my sister had been shot in the head. I think she may have said something like That sucks and then rolled over and went back to sleep.
I lay there in shock. One tear fell from my right eye and streamed across my nose. I must be having a bad dream. My parents are supposed to be here with me right now, and we are supposed to be having a grand time. Oh, that’s right, my mom said that she’s not dead yet. Perhaps she will be okay. Maybe the doctors don’t know what they’re talking about; maybe the machines could keep her alive.
I lay there for what felt like minutes, but a few hours passed, and the phone rang again. It was my mom.
“She’s gone. Your father’s on his way to pick you up.”
* * *
When I came back to campus after having attended my sister’s funeral, a girl who lived on my floor in my dorm said to me, “I haven’t seen you in a while. Where have you been?”
“My sister died. I was at her funeral,” I replied.
She replied, “Oh.” Then her eyes perked up. “So, how was it?”
I paused for a moment. Did I just tell this girl that I had been to a party or a funeral? How was it? How do you think it was? I heard talk of how the undertaker had to cover up the gunshot wound on my sister’s head. They still don’t know who killed her. I heard my mom asking God, why do people have to die. I saw my sister who had once been so full of life being lowered in the ground. Tears, tears, and more tears. It was the most devastating experience of my life.
How was it? I looked up at the girl who had asked me this and only responded, “It was sad.”
A better question would have been, How was I? I wanted to die. Crazy thoughts flooded my head. I had an enormous fear of death, but there were times I thought of suicide. I feared sudden death. I feared being shot. Nothing was certain anymore. Not even tomorrow. My sister was dead at thirty-four years of age, and I was eighteen. Life was not long.
I didn’t need a shrink or a disinterested pastor. I needed a friend.
* * *
Over the next few years, I never truly connected with anyone. There were a few friends or acquaintances that came and went. I felt so much grief over losing my sister and so much shame about her manner of death. It was just too difficult to let new people into my heart.
One of the first things people ask when getting to know you is about your family. Any brothers? Sisters? I would usually say, Yes I had a sister, but she died. Then the person would ask, Can I ask what happened? To which I would respond, She was murdered. After that, I would prepare for an icy response. What a way to “kill” the spirit of getting to know someone. I guess I could have lied, but the reality is that I wanted to tell someone. A friend. I wanted to say the words that not only had my sister died, but that she had been murdered. A gunshot to the head. I wanted to tell the whole story and share my pain with someone who was not afraid of it.
* * *
After what seemed like an eternity, my senior year in college finally arrived. A year earlier, I had taken a job as a resident assistant (RA) in my college dorm. My job was to manage a floor of about fifty freshman girls. It may not have been the best job choice for a person who was isolated and withdrawn, but the job paid free room and board, and I got my own room. Although the job required me to be interactive and social with the residents, I spent as much time as I could get away with in my room. If I didn’t have to answer the door, I didn’t answer it.
Other than avoiding my residents, I spent a lot of time alone because no one really connected with me anymore. And I must admit that I never reached out. This was the late ’90s. There were no Facebook or Twitter updates to let everyone know how crappy I was feeling. And the truth is that it’s much easier to update a status to say I’m lonely, sad, and depressed, than to actually pick up a phone and say it to someone. So I didn’t do it.
Resident assistants were required to check into the dorms a week earlier than the regular students so that we could meet the other RAs, have training and mandatory fun. I actually liked this time because I could be on the floor alone before all the crazy girls arrived with their loud music and fighting. One afternoon after RA training was over, I sat in my room watching TV. The halls were quiet. I dreaded thinking about the violation of peace that would happen in a few days. The alone time was nice. It’s so much easier to be alone. Yes, being alone was what I thought I needed.
But then there was a knock on the door…
Startled, I answered it, and there stood the tallest girl I had ever seen in my life. She had pale skin, freckles, and the longest dark brown ringlets, which crowned her head and fell as long as her torso.
I had seen her in passing in some of our mandatory fun activities, but the only thing I really knew about her was her name. Vanessa. As she stood in front of me, I looked at her with concern. Was there something wrong? Did she need to borrow something? But then she said, “Hey, what are you doing? It’s so quiet here, can I hang out with you for a while?”
Hang out? With me?
Confused, I said, “Sure.”
I stepped away from the door, and she and her fluffy slippers shuffled in slowly as if she had known me forever. She plopped down in a chair, and I sat across from her on my bed. The TV played in the background as Vanessa began to talk. She started asking me questions. She wanted to know about my interests, how long I had been an RA. Then she started talking about family. She told me she had one sister and one brother, and they all lived with her dad in Chicago. I thought to myself, Here we go. Here comes the big question.
So, do you have any brothers and sisters?
I paused. Should I lie? Should I only partially tell the truth? Should I ask her to leave? But for some strange reason, I felt safe.
“I had a sister, but she died… My sister died.”
Great. I knew what was coming next.
Vanessa asked directly, “How did she die?”
Again, should I lie?
I lowered my eyes, and my voice broke as I said, “She was murdered.”
Her response wasn’t a gasp; no shock, no disgust, and most importantly, no pity, just an “Oh.”
There goes my new friend.
I looked down at my knees. I wanted to disappear.
She said, “Damn. My mom died. She was sick. But murder, I cannot even imagine.”
Her mom died.
“I’m sorry your mom died.”
It turned out, Vanessa’s mom had died in the same year my sister was murdered. Her mom had battled a long illness, and Vanessa had been her mom’s caregiver and emotional support for her dad and her younger siblings. I could not imagine Vanessa’s loss. I relied on my mom for everything.
We sat there for a few moments in our mutual pain. Neither one of us moving. We were connected through loss. This was the friend I had been waiting for. This person knew my pain without me having to say anything. I wanted to ask her, What took you so long?
We talked for a little while more, and Vanessa got up to go back to her room. I wondered if we were going to hang out again. Before she left my room, she looked over her shoulder, her long hair hanging down over her shoulders, and she said lightly, “Hey, wanna go shopping tomorrow?”
My friend. Somewhere, my sister and her mom were smiling.
Born and raised in Chicago, Michele Whitney received her BS in marketing from Northern Illinois University and her MBA from Keller Graduate School of Management. She is now a PhD candidate for public service leadership at Capella University with a dissertation topic on the human-animal bond. Her writing has been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, r.kv.ry Quarterly Literary Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times and other venues.
* * *
Art by Richard Ong
Richard Ong's painted artwork, stories, poetry and photos have appeared in several issues of bewilderingstories.com, yesterdaysmagazette.com and The Blotter Magazine. One of these stories has been republished in print as part of an anthology titled, “Toys Remembered.” (compiled and edited by Madonna Dries Christensen). He is also an executive producer of a promotional movie short, “A.R.C. Angel: Kalina,” nominated for Best Guerilla Film Short at the 2013 Action on Film Festival at Monrovia, California.
Art by Louise Phillips
Louis Phillips' work has appeared in many publications –including Rialto, English Journal, Paterson Literary Review, Northwest Review, etc. For Random House, he edited The Random House Treasury Of Light Verse and Best Loved Poems Of The American People. His books include: Krazy Kat Rag (Light Imprints), R.I.P. (Livingston Press), Bulkington (Hollow Spring Press), The Time,The Hour, The Solitariness Of The Place (Livingston Press), and many others.
Photography by Manik Sharma
Manik Sharma is not really an photographer. He prefers to thread words and has appeared in The Bitter Oleander,Splash of Red,The Camel Saloon, and South by Southeast. However, he does like to hold the lens once in a while.
Photography by Lita Sorenson
Lita Sorensen is photographer and writer who has spent the last ten years living in the high desert region of Northern Arizona. Sorensen's photographic images have been purchased by collectors and business in both the Phoenix and Sedona, Arizona areas.