Story of a Door By Mohammed Al-Rotayyan
Translated from the Arabic by Essam M. Al-Jassim
I don’t remember the past in any particular way. I don’t have a family tree which outlines my lineage, either. I don’t know from which tree I came. I barely remember the scent of the lumberjack’s fingers, who worked outlining my final lineaments. I thought I would be a chair, a cupboard, a table or a window, but I never thought I would be a door.
My good fortune made me the main door of this small rural home. At the beginning, I looked at its dwellers suspiciously. The little girl’s feet, Sara, scared me because I know she often grabs my latch violently, and makes my limbs jerk when shutting. Only the lady of the house reproaches Sara’s rude behavior, while the father keeps laughing out loud about the pampered girl’s impish act.
I feel that there is a sort of relationship beginning to sprout between me and the lady. Her touch seemed different. I feel warm and safe when she opens and shuts me. She puts some of her soft touches upon me from the inside, like hanging small artistic murals, and from the outside, she festoons me with some flowers she picks from the small garden. I always convinced myself that she puts these flowers up for me, not for the guests! How I hate boring guests and their stupid knocks. But the lady’s visitors are dear to my heart, even if their knocks are, sometimes, violent.
Years pass by and I felt more attached to this family. I witnessed the lady gets older, and Sara sloughs her childish fashion and turns into a pretty young girl.
But, on a sad and somber day, death snatched the master. Then, Sara left to pursue her college studies in a distant city. We stayed alone; me and the lady.
I observed how gradually her strength was weakening, and her body losing vigor before me. I longed impatiently for her touch opening me in the morning, though. As if this touch was a gesture of saying good morning to me. Lately, she used to have her coffee nearby me. She would draw a wooden chair and sit on the porch. How I envied the chair, and wished I had been made a chair instead of a door. I believe she thinks of Sara and her late husband. Although I get left ajar, I keep looking at her.
On winter nights, she sits in the living room reading a book. I’m excited to be near her. Despite the blizzard, rain and cold air from the outside hitting me, I sensed warmth and happiness from the inside.
During those years, I do not exactly remember, because my memory stopped around that time, some strangers kept knocking on me rather strenuously. After a series of strong blows, they opened me wide apart. There were murmurs and confused and intangible arguments. They entered the rooms of the house and began searching. A few moments passed and they left the house carrying the lady on a stretcher. She left without looking or touching me, or even saying goodbye.
Years passed and no one knocked on me or put flowers on my chest. I got older and my sound has become disturbingly annoying because of the squeaks it gives off. My joints weakened, and mites and mold wore out my limbs. Erosion crept up on me due to the loneliness and the seasonal changes.
On a cold spring morning, a lady accompanied by a young man, who is taller and younger than she’s, turned up. I can recognize her features. They approached. I know the rhythm of these paces. Once she touched me, I crumbled to the ground. The things around me thought that I had tumbled because of my rusted hinges, or because of that my joints have been gnawed. No. It’s because I perceived the soft touch. It’s the same lady’s touch. Why not hers? She was her daughter, Sara, who had come along with her young son to visit the forsaken family-home.
After a brief round throughout the house, a strong cold wind drafted. The young man gathered some strewn-about papers and threw them in the old fireplace to get some heat. He looked around, and then headed for me. He started shattering my limbs and casting them into the fire.
Essam M. Al-Jassim teaches English at Royal Commission's schools in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. He received his bachelor's degree in Foreign Languages and Education from King Faisal University.
Mohammed Al-Rotayyan is a Saudi journalist and short story writer. His writing career started since 1992 at local and regional newspapers. His published work includes a novel, What's Left of Mohammed Al-Watbban's Papers 2009, Third Attempt 2011, and Testaments 2012.
* * *
Worm Bidding By Ruth Berman
It was a dark day, spilling over into drizzle now and again. After many days of perfect blue skies with too much heat, hearts leaped at a weekend closing with clouds and cool air.
Nan summoned up the energy to fill out checks to pay bills and to write letters to assorted friends and relatives. She looked for a nice card-for-a-Bat-Mitzvah, but she seemed to have run out of anything except some gooey pastels of overly angelic children in pink. Perhaps the drugstore would have something more vivid — gold, for preference, she thought. She thumped her fist on the each of the stamps, to encourage them to stay stamped, and started for the door. "Like to go for a walk and mail some letters?" she said on the way.
"Yes," said Shelley, although she was stretched out on the sofa with a thumb in her mouth and her B'nai Bagels book in the opposite hand. She started to wriggle to amass enough momentum to stand up without using either hand.
"I want to come with!" said Gabe.
"Okay," said Nan.
"In that case I won't," said Shelley, and stopped wriggling.
"Okay," said Nan, and turned her attention to Gabe's feet. As usual, his shoes were off them. "Can you find his shoes, Ben? — and I'll take him to the potty."
Ben had been day-dreaming, watching the clouds out the window. He blinked, and she asked again. He nodded, and set about scanning. She tugged Gabe away, despite his promise that he didn't have to go. When they returned, Ben had located the shoes, one in the toy garage, and one in a heap of toy cars, not too far off. They shook the cars off and put the shoes on Gabe, one to a lacing.
Nan aimed herself at the door. "We'll start," she told Shelley, "and if you want to come, you catch us up."
"No, wait!" said Shelley.
"Daddy, can I take some money?"
"Here's a dollar," said Ben, digging in a pocket.
"Can I have a dollar for Gabie?"
"Here's a five," said Ben. "Don't spend more than two, and bring me the change."
"Can I spend three?"
That seemed to close the negotiations, or at least it was a good place to shut them down. Nan headed for the door, and the two youngsters both scrambled after.
Shelley could read walking, if not quite as easily as lying down, and at first she went along as if inside and outside were all the same, barring the shift from horizontal to vertical — thumb in mouth and head in book, with only peripheral vision to keep her pointed straight ahead. But Gabe's noises at such points of interest as joggers, bikers, dogs, squirrels, and gardens drew her attention at last, and they ran ahead and back, covering twice the ground that Nan did in the same space, under the cloudy sky.
At the mailbox, Nan tossed the letters in, and followed the youngsters into the drugstore.
Shelley snatched up a pack of bubblegum. 30¢.
Gabe admired an orange truck. $8.45. "No," said Shelley. He accepted this judgment and reached for a Frisbie. $3.75. "No," said Shelley. She haunched down by the stack and found other Frisbies at the bottom of it marked $1.98. But Gabe had abandoned that shelf and found his heart's desire, a blue car, $1.98, and the only one on the rack. He turned up a face of woe, awaiting judgment. "Yes," said Shelley adding generously, "You can have some candy, too." He picked out a bar of something with nuts. 50¢.
Nan found a gold-rimmed garden-of-Eden with deer, rabbits, peacocks, and a rather small dragon gathered peacefully by a river of life with swans out for a swim in it. This particular cousin, as she recalled, had always liked dragons, and would probably not object to the more probable animals, either. She grabbed it.
Shelley still had nothing but the bubblegum.
"Don't you like anything?" said Nan.
"Yes, but I want a lightstick." Shelley hopped up and down, kangarooing to see what was on the top shelves.
"Do you have lightsticks?" Nan asked the cashier.
"Down that aisle near the end."
Shelley looked at her assortment of pricetags, trying to work out decimal points and ¢ signs, and gave it up. "How much is it?"
Nan decided she did not need to know what a lightstick was and answered, "Close enough for jazz. Pay up, and we'll go."
Outside it was drizzling again, so lightly that the shade trees along the boulevard kept them dry, except when they had to cross streets. Even then they collected only a polkadot spattering of damp spots. They ignored it and walked as idly as before.
At the turning on to their street, Gabe stopped and pointed at a tiny heap of glop squirming on the sidewalk. "What's that?"
"An angleworm," said Nan.
"Ooh!" Gabe picked it up and walked on. The worm alternately dangled and coiled from between his thumb and forefinger.
"Yuck!" said Shelley.
"My darling worm," Gabe crooned to it, "my darling worm."
At intervals the darling worm escaped his clutch and dropped to the pavement. Each time he swept it up again.
"It wants to run away. You should let it go," said Nan. "Worms belong in the garden."
"If you run away, I'll chop you in two," Gabe admonished, and went back to crooning over it.
"We don't have a garden," Shelley said, practically.
"Any garden," said Nan.
At the front door, Ben started to let them in, but before he could unlatch the screen, Nan said, "Wait! Your son is holding an angleworm."
"Yuck!" said Shelley.
"You can't bring that in the house," said Ben.
Gabe, seeing that they were all agreed, opened his hand. The worm fell on the porch.
"Wait!" said both parents, but too late.
Already Gabe's foot had gone up and come down, squishing the worm.
"Yuck!" said Shelley, and went by him with the dignity of seniority, to head for the sofa.
He looked up at them, surprised that they seemed to want to express disapproval, just when he had been so good and biddable a boy.
Nan looked at Ben and saw that he did not have words to communicate the scruple to the kid, either. Maybe some seeds next time at the drugstore, and see what might come of that.
Gabe smiled at them angelically, bright with the joys of nature, and obedience, and a blue car. He skipped in the door and headed vrooming for the paradise of his garage.
Ruth Berman’s work has appeared in many general and literary magazines and anthologies. Her novel, Bradamant’s Quest, was published by FTL Publications of Minnesota. She was one of the contributors to Lady Poetesses from Hell (Bag Person Press Collective, Minneapolis).
* * *
Courting Jinny Flynn By Alexander Carver
Jinny Flynn is a former actress, now in her forties, who I’ve slept with three times in a span of seventeen years. Once at my apartment. Once at her apartment. And once at the waterfront home of a family she was house-sitting for in Malibu. My friend Kelli had initially set us up, predicting that we'd be a perfect match because I’m a cancer and she’s a...whatever she is. Astrological signs are about the last thing I look to when evaluating compatibility, but Jinny and I were both new to L.A., struggling to fit in, and looking for someone attractive to help us navigate the exotic new world we'd chosen. At the very least we had that in common.
So we met for a casual dinner at the Broadway Deli on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. A restaurant that has since been turned into a Foot Locker. We both ate Caesar salads with grilled shrimp on top, and drank a glass of red wine, while sitting at the bar. The wine was from Spain and tasted a bit sour, but we pretended to like it. Me: because she had selected it. Her: because she had selected it. I'd never had Spanish wine before, and I haven't had it since. During dinner the conversation that sticks out in my mind revolved around Jinny’s regrets about the setting of her childhood.
“I grew up in Iowa, but I wish I hadn’t,” she said.
“Why? You don’t like Iowa?”
“No, I love Iowa, but I’m embarrassed to tell people I grew up there.”
“Why are you embarrassed?”
“Because it’s Iowa. It’s not New York or Paris or even Detroit. You tell people you grew up in Iowa and they immediately picture you standing in a cornfield with a piece of straw in your mouth. They think you're simple-minded and uncultured.”
“Well, I've known you for all of...what? Twenty-two minutes, and I don't get that impression at all. You have a great personality. You may be a bit wholesome, but isn't that a good thing?”
After dinner we drove in separate cars back to my studio apartment in Playa del Rey, watched the episode of Seinfeld where they can’t find Kramer’s car inside the parking garage, and then had sex on my futon with a red candle burning above the TV set. Looking back, I'm impressed that I had a candle to burn, or any romantic sense at all at that point in my life. I was young and inexperienced and probably had yet to realize that women can have orgasms, too. To keep warm Jinny slept in my red plaid button down shirt, and in the morning asked if she could wear it home, promising to wash it and give it right back to me. I said “sure” and told her that it looked better on her than it did on me, while hiding my inward horror at the thought of someone other than my ex-girlfriend, Debby, walking around in that shirt.
I didn’t call Jinny that week for a second date. And I never saw that shirt again. That was in February of 1997. At the time we were both in our early twenties.
About five years later I ran into Jinny again during intermission of a performance of Othello at Santa Monica Playhouse. It was summertime and she was wearing a tight-fitting, Army green mini skirt, a white tank top, and bright orange flip-flops. A casual ensemble, which set off her tanned and toned figure. As we talked I witnessed both men and women ogling various parts of her anatomy, as they paraded by us, holding small plastic cups filled with “Two Buck Chuck”, a wine reminiscent of kerosene. The effect of which caused me to reevaluate my original opinion of Jinny's overall attractiveness. The ogling, not the cheap wine. She had added blonde highlights to her shoulder length brown hair, which came off successfully, introducing an exotic quality to her appearance, and dissolving any lingering traces of her cow-tipping past. And since the passage of time had also faded out my image as a guy who sleeps with women, promises to call them, and then doesn’t, we managed to have a pleasant conversation.
“So what do you think of the play so far?” Jinny asked.
“Well, to be honest, I'm not a big Shakespeare guy. To me watching Shakespeare is like watching a play in French or Chinese, or some other language I can’t understand. They should have a subtitle card person standing on the side of the stage for idiot's like me.”
She laughed. I'd forgotten what a great laugh she had. Or maybe I just hadn't heard it the first time we'd met. It was probably that. I probably wasn't funny that night. She was on a date with a young dud. Although we did watch Seinfeld together. She must have laughed during Seinfeld. I guess I just forgot.
“My friend Daniel's playing the clown,” I told her.
“My acting coach Christopher is Iago.”
“He's great. Very expressive with his hands... God, I can’t get over how fantastic you look,” I said, exaggerating a wide-eyed expression, and full body scan, for comic effect.
“Thanks. I've gotten into yoga.”
“Oh. That's the big thing now, isn't it?”
“It strengthens the body and the mind.”
“So how’s your acting career going?” I asked, changing the subject in order to avoid going down a holistic path.
“Not too bad. I just got a part in an indy film. I’m playing a girl who’s in love with her therapist, who’s gay, but in denial... It’s a complicated story, but pretty well executed by the writer, who's gay, and a therapist, and I guess knows what he's talking about.”
“It's a comedy?”
“No. Well, maybe...it's hard to say. The lines are very serious, but the premise is funny. It's too bad the writer can't write funnier dialogue.”
“Well, if he needs someone to punch up the script, I'd be glad to help out.”
“Oh, that's right, you're into comedy, aren't you? Okay, I'll mention it to him. Delicately. I don't want to offend him.”
“That's true. Be careful or he'll have your character killed off on page two.”
“Wait, weren't you doing stand-up comedy the last time we...?”
“Yes, I was.”
“Are you still doing that?”
“Yes, I am. I’ve actually got a gig at Bryn Mawr College in Philly next weekend. It's a school for brilliant women, and I’m a little nervous about how my ‘Knock-Knock’ jokes are gonna go over.”
I squeezed a couple more laughs out of Jinny before they flashed the houselights to let us know the second half of the play was about to begin.
“Jinny, it was great seeing you,” I said, and then repeated: “You really look fantastic,” to let her know I was interested...again.
“You look good, too. I like your glasses. You used to have rectangular frames, didn't you?”
“That's right. Wow. You have a great memory.”
“I like the round frames better. Stick with these. You'll go a lot farther in life.”
I laughed. “Okay, but if I don't, I'm gonna blame you.”
After a minty smelling hug, Jinny handed me a business card which read: Jinny Flynn, Professional Actor, and then rejoined her friends in the front row. Having put in an appearance, I pretended to go to the bathroom, and sneaked out the side door of the theater. I knew how the play ended. Everyone died. That was Shakespeare.
The next week I called Jinny for a second date. She checked her schedule for the weekend, and said she couldn't go out Friday night because she was having drinks with the director of the film, but Saturday was wide open. Hearing that made me a little jealous, but I said that Saturday was fine, and that I'd enjoyed bumping into her at the play, repeating once again how fantastic she looked, and then yelling at myself when I got off the phone for overdoing the compliments.
When Saturday night rolled around, I bought Jinny a bouquet of sunflowers at the grocery store, and with old-fashioned formality, presented them when she opened her apartment door. She sniffed the unscented flowers, took them out of the plastic wrapping, and dropped the long stems into a tall green vase she said her aunt had given her for Christmas.
After drinking a Corona at Jinny's head-shot cluttered kitchen table, we boarded my aging Jeep Wrangler and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to a popular restaurant in Manhattan Beach called Pancho’s. The restaurant is authentically Mexican in décor, and features three mariachi singers, who stand at your table and play love songs in an antagonistic fashion, the bow of the fiddle passing within inches of a gentleman's nose. It’s a fun place and the food and drinks are excellent. Jinny and I shared fish tacos and a steak burrito and drank two margaritas apiece. She ordered her's on the rocks with no salt, and I had mine blended with salt around the rim of the wide, deep glass that a goldfish could have lived in comfortably. I've since taken to ordering my margaritas on the rocks, too, having been told by a bartender that you get less alcohol when they're blended. The bulk of the conversation as we ate centered around Jinny's fascination with dissecting people’s idiosyncrasies: her mother, then President Bush, David Letterman, and those of actors and actresses in the spotlight at the time whom she revered or detested. I recall Julia Roberts taking it pretty hard on the chin that night. I don’t think I was visibly affected by it, but I did feel as if Jinny was trying to appear more knowledgeable than me about human behavior, and with what could best be categorized as knee-jerk dissent, challenged the majority of my opinions. Maybe she was still a little angry at me for bailing on her after our first date five years earlier.
“Most men want their first child to be a boy,” I said. I don’t remember how we’d gotten into that particular topic, only that the twenty-ounce drinks had led us there.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Jinny said. “Fathers usually get along better with their daughters. At least that’s the way it is in my family. And I come from a big family, so I should know.”
“Right, but my point is that I think men want to have a son first to assure the longevity of the family name, and to, you know, protect the younger kids.”
“My Dad told me that initially he didn’t want to have boys at all. He's not into sports, and he was afraid they would be, and then he wouldn't be any use to them.”
“Okay, but your Dad had a specific, personal reason for not wanting to have a son. I think most men would be pretty disappointed if they didn't have one. Maybe not your Dad, but most men. I know I would be.”
“Well, it’s all subjective anyway. Who really knows what other people want? All you can know for sure is what you want.”
“Right. Of course,” I said, bristling a bit at her successful attempt to end the conversation by saying something I couldn't dispute.
After dinner, as we were crossing Highland Avenue, heading towards the parking structure, a bearded motorcycle cop appeared out of nowhere and ticketed us for jay-walking. I kept quiet while Jinny argued with the officer, saying that we were only a few feet away from the crosswalk, and that he was being “nit-picky”. The officer remained calm, wrote out the tickets in the tinniest handwriting I’d ever seen, and then presented them to us with what Jinny later called a “cavalier grin”. He then further compounded our indignation by jay-walking across the street himself, en route to his bike.
“Hey, you just jay-walked!” Jinny yelled, her training as an actor lending her voice just the right inflection of irony.
The officer turned around, but didn’t respond.
My Dad later commented that I should have grabbed Jinny's ticket and paid both of them. It was a good point and would have been the gallant thing to do. Obviously my Dad's more gallant than his son.
With tickets in hand, we drove back to Jinny's apartment in West Chester, and slept together for the second time. Her apartment complex in the town of West Chester, a Los Angeles suburb, was seconds away from LAX, and more than occasionally a plane came whooshing over the top of the building, rattling the fixtures in her apartment. They were like little scheduled earthquakes, the embarrassment of which caused her to list the compensating benefits of living there, like a heated swimming pool, gated parking, and extremely low rent.
The next morning while Jinny was showering, and I was cooking eggs and bacon for our breakfast, I took a moment to search through her closet in the hope of finding the plaid shirt she'd borrowed from me during the previous decade. It was a favorite that had gone great with my black leather jacket...lost to another woman. The shirt was nowhere to be found. Perhaps when I’d failed to call her she’d turned it into a cleaning rag. My sister Beth told me that’s what she does with the clothes her ex-boyfriends leave behind. She said it's therapeutic using their T-Shirts, jeans, and even their underwear to wipe away household dust and grime, while dually serving to cleanse her spirit.
The following week I called Jinny twice, leaving messages on her voice mail to see if she wanted to go to a Counting Crows concert at The Wilshire. She didn’t return my calls.
A couple days ago, twelve years and two presidents since our last encounter, I spotted Jinny as she was jogging down the Venice Beach boardwalk. I was dressed in a suit and tie, having just come from a lunch meeting with my new booking agent, and must have looked ridiculous running to catch up to her. Jinny wears her hair shorter these days, and the blonde highlights have been washed out in favor of her natural color. Her face is remarkably unlined, although her eyes look less vibrantly green than I'd remembered them. Thankfully I was wearing sunglasses that prevented her from seeing the weary aspect that a recent break-up and drinking binge had brought to my eyes.
“Oh my God! Hey, Andrew!” she said, pulling her headphones down around her neck. Through the earpieces I could hear the muffled voice of Bruce Springsteen singing something from an early album.
“Hi! I’m sorry, I didn’t want to interrupt your run, but I had to say: ‘Hello’,” I said, trying to catch my breath after my sudden, impromptu sprint.
“No, I'm glad you did! How are you?”
“I‘m fine! This is crazy! It's been a hundred years!”
“Yeah, wow, look at you all dressed up, wearing a suit.”
“Well, to quote Steve Martin: 'As the face gets worse the clothes must get better.'”
She laughed her wonderful laugh.
“So are you still acting?” I asked. I’d seen her in a couple commercials over the years, playing a disillusioned housewife in one, and a sleepy-eyed school teacher in another--the products of which I can’t recall, but I’d never seen her appear on a TV show or the big screen. Clearly her dream of being a famous actress had not panned out, just as my dream of being Jerry Seinfeld had been whittled down to my current status as a road comic, who does an occasional spot in Vegas.
“No I gave up acting awhile ago,” she said. “I couldn’t get any big breaks, so I moved onto plan B and got married.”
“Oh, you’re married?”
“Divorced. He warned me that he didn't want to have kids, but I thought I'd be able to break him eventually. I was wrong.”
“Well, I'm sorry to hear that.”
“How about you? Is there a…nope, no ring on your finger either,” she said, eying my hand.
“No, I came close a couple times, but I couldn’t pull the trigger.”
“I saw you on Letterman a few years ago, you were great.”
“Thanks. Yeah, that material went over pretty well. Audiences love dog humor.”
“Do you really have a crazy dog?”
“No, I just pretend to in my act. I'm on the road so much it wouldn't be right to have one. The poor guy would grow up with abandonment issues and, well...go crazy.”
“Hey what are you doing this weekend?” she asked.
“Well, a couple things. Why, what’s going on?”
“My friend Lori and her family are going away for a week, and I'm house-sitting for them. They have this amazing place in Malibu overlooking the water.”
“Oh, great. That sounds like a nice get-a-way.”
“Yeah, and I was thinking maybe if you’re up for it, you could stop by Saturday night, and we could cook some steaks out on the grill. They have a real dog so you can work on some new material.”
I laughed, although I'm sure she could tell I was thrown by the invitation that ignored the twelve year gap in our acquaintance. Obviously she was as lonely and desperate as I was...chasing after her in a suit.
“Dinner by the ocean sounds wonderful.”
On Saturday night I rode my bike down the beach to Malibu, stopping along the way at a wine shop to pick up a favorite bottle, and, since it was on sale, a coconut cream pie. Her friend’s house is modern, spacious, comfortably furnished, and extremely livable for those in need of luxurious relaxation. The view of the ocean below, as you stand out on the deck, is glamorous at night, and rejuvenating in the dim light of the early morning hours. The moon that evening was low in the sky, and a few nights away from being full. There was a calm breeze blowing and the sound of the lapping waves on the shoreline. The cats were nowhere to be found, but their dog, Buster, an affectionate Jack Russell with a charming personality, hung out with us on the deck all night, as we cooked T-bones on the grill, and drank bottle after bottle of red wine...mine, hers, and theirs. Jinny apparently felt secure enough in her friendship with this Lori--who she told me was her sorority sister at Iowa State--to invade their wine closet and sample some of their lesser aged, but quality tasting wines. Before the night was over we had uncorked four bottles, and it felt wonderful to be drunk and holding hands with a pretty woman, as we talked, and laughed, and looked out at the ocean.
In the middle of the night, after a bout of much improved love-making in her friend’s king-sized bed, with the photographs of a family I didn't know smiling at us, we went into the kitchen and made quick work of the coconut cream pie. In the morning, the box, left out on the kitchen table, looked like it had been attacked by seagulls. Much of what Jinny and I talked about over dinner, and later, while lying in bed, had to do with our experiences over the past two decades, surviving and succumbing to the “personalities” strewn across our paths as we tried to make a go of it in the entertainment business. Jinny told me about a Korean “right to video” filmmaker she’d worked with, who was constantly rewriting his initially tame, action-oriented script to include scenes where Jinny would appear in either her underwear or a bikini.
“And the scenes had no bearing on the plot whatsoever,” she said. “He just wanted to see as much of my body as he could. But I needed the money, and, what the hell, I was proud of my body. It's actually nice to pop that DVD in once in awhile and get a look at those perky breasts again.”
“Once when I was doing a set at The Comedy Store, some drunk guy was sitting in the front row heckling me. He was relentless, breaking up my rhythm, trying to guess the punch lines—a first class prick. Finally I looked down at him and said, ‘Hey, if you think you can do a better job up here, why don’t you give it a shot’—not thinking he would actually take me up on the offer.”
“But he did?”
“He did... Now, you have to understand, I was supposed to do twenty minutes that night, and at that point I’d only done about five. So there I was, fifteen minutes to go, and clearly he wasn’t going to let me finish my act. And of course now the audience is into it, wanting him to hop on stage and do some jokes, and so I said ‘fine’ and handed him the mic, a big “no-no” in the world of stand-up comedy. Then I sat down in his seat next to his buddies, who were wildly cheering him on. Of course this idiot had no experience on stage, and no jokes to work with, and suddenly the realization that he was standing up there on a brightly lit stage in front of an audience with nothing funny to say, hit him. I could see a look of terror come over his face. He'd had a lot to drink, but obviously not enough. It was beautiful. He stammered out some pathetic story about something that happened at the office that day and then died a horrible death. Taking my cue when the story proceeded to go nowhere, I assumed the role he’d been playing moments earlier, and I heckled him.”
Jinny laughed. “That’s great! You turned the tables on him!”
“I did. And he looked at me with this wonderful, shit-eating grin on his face, put the microphone down on the stage, and walked away. The crowd went nuts, and when I picked up the mic and held it over my head, they gave me a standing ovation.”
“That’s great. You must have felt like a God.”
“It was the single most satisfying moment of my career.”
Early the next morning to relieve our hangovers, Jinny and I went for a swim in the ocean with Buster. After our swim we enjoyed an hour of sun on the deck before I had to peddle back to Santa Monica and pack for my trip to St. Paul. When I hugged Jinny goodbye I could tell by the way she squeezed my arms that this time she was sad to see me go. The culture in Los Angeles is youth-oriented, and it can be a tough place to live for someone who's single and aging, as we both are. Our time together was just what I needed after a tough stretch and I wished I could stay there with her playing house at that oceanfront spot in paradise.
The audiences have been great here in Minnesota. But I'm looking forward to getting back home so I can see Jinny again and ask if she wants to go to Vegas next week and watch me do a set at The Sahara before they tear the old hotel down.
Alexander Carver has been published in Zyzzyva, Dark Matter, and "The Buddha and the Novelist".
* * *
Mandatory Isolation By Daniel Edwards
Learning to keep my mouth shut has been a lifelong endeavor. Probably as a small boy I was told to “keep quiet” as much as any other kid; however, the serious admonitions began when I started to get hair on my legs. My father highly valued the concept of will power and the ability to use it to my best advantage. As an adult, I deduced that he meant to use it so I wouldn’t be considered a blabbermouth and/or a fool. I steadfastly believe he could see me headed that way.
So when the dark hair started sprouting on my legs, I was given a pithy list of solid rules:
-Do not embarrass or shame your family by inappropriate declarations;
-Do not start controversial conversations;
-Keep your mouth shut ninety-nine percent of the time;
-Do not get anyone pregnant.
Number four, I found out later, was specifically connected in some way to the emergence of hair on my legs. What it had to do with being mouthy was a mystery back then.
Due to the inherent shyness epidemic among teenage boys, my unaffectedly simple, savoir-faire quotient prevented me from noticing that girls’ clothes fit differently from boys. At eighteen, when I finally got around to kissing, the dam broke and the first lesson of the subsequent, high school sex education class scared the wits out of me. On top of that, some smartass senior kid had recently convinced me that kissing and fornication were equal sins. My dad’s curt caveat connecting mouthiness and pregnancy steamrolled down the constricted halls of my sparse concentration. Consequently, I blamed my perceived sins and my impending fatherhood on my big mouth.
What had I said? What unintended no-no had I blurted out to my kissing partner? Why hadn’t I made a more concentrated effort to adhere to my father’s rules? Thanks to my depthless stupity, I hadn’t learned a thing in eighteen long years of existence.
After two weeks of subterranean guilt, I decided that I’d better propose; however, when I approached my betrothed, she beat me to the punch and informed me that she was now going steady with so-and-so and she couldn’t go out with me anymore.
Wait a minute! WAIT A MINUTE! Was this my out? Was this the loophole, the secret passage, the hidden staircase to the garden below? Finally, I got it. This is what my dad was talking about. A closed mouth is social security.
Soon my position on the learning curve dipped. The social security lasted just long enough for the cutest girl in school to smile back. By that time, though, the sex education class had taught me that kissing had nothing to do with procreation, well directly it didn’t. That revelation brought a new autonomy into my life; I could kiss all I wanted, but thanks to my dad’s teachings, I just couldn’t talk about it. A new confidence lifted me from the solitude of noncommunication into the multitude of pithy conversation. My social score rose like John Wayne’s height. Way up there.
The last thing I remembered before getting married was running my mouth and yelling from the rooftops, “I love you!” Sometimes when a young person makes an exclamatory statement, it’s due to a temporary sensation that fades as the clouds roll by. And as most young marrieds should know, some things done should not be undone without a solemn effort to keep it together. My new job as a radio announcer provided enough income for a mouthy young man to support a wife and her cats. Plural. When I said “I do,” I had no idea that sifting through cat boxes for excremental deposits was included in the deal.
Being in my twenties and about as mature I was ever going to get, my proclivity for pontification served me well as a Top Forty DJ. My radio handle became “Weird Whiskers” and described my shabby visage suitably enough for the high school crowd to dig my show every afternoon after school. I became a Dallas radio celebrity and the coolest thing since the Cowboys came to town in 1960.
If there were any prominent recording stars in town for concerts, I invited them to join me on the air previous to their performances. Back then the Rock and Roll idols were much better-behaved than the Rock stars of a few years later. An interview with a very young, million-selling recording artist shattered my placid routine and diverted my mind back to my ever-present nemesis: learning when and where to keep my mouth shut.
One of the great things about radio, as opposed to television, is that it is an audio-only medium. No one sees you except the engineer, maybe a program director, and a secretary. As the interview progressed, I glanced down at the board and happened to notice that the adolescent star had neglected to raise the zipper on his polished cotton slacks. His lavender-striped shorts were clearly visible. Printed up and down on the stripes were the words, “GO FOR IT.” Well, the kid must not be the prude that he appeared to be; I was impressed.
Forgetting all my years of effort at learning to stifle my untoward remarks, I came out with, “Hey man, that’s some cool underwear you got on.” Over the air. At five o’clock in the evening. The youth regarded me in unbelieving shock, levitated himself and shot out the studio door at warp speed. The next morning his agent telephoned the station and threatened court action. It only took fifteen minutes for me to lose my dream job and get escorted out. My wife followed suit and escorted me out the following day.
Before I retired I worked many years as a lighthouse keeper at Port Bolivar, Texas. The shifts were quite long, but satisfied my evident need for mandatory isolation. To the end, my dad remained convinced that he had failed to teach his only son to shut up.
Daniel Edwards spent over twenty years in the entertainment business as a professional musician. His published writing credits include: The Storyteller, Ideagems, and NthZine.ie
* * *
Flaggstaff Plus One By Megan Fahey
It was bad form, they said at first, to invite, of all things, a ghost to our wedding since he’d wear the same color as the bride.
Flaggstaff hated that joke.
As a kid, Asim cut his teeth on Ouija Board, but I was too afraid to tempt fate. Asim said it was nothing but a child’s fun, but what’s so fun about disrupting the spirit world, my father would say. In his youth, my father dabbled in Ouija as well, and the next thing he knew, it was the sixties, and Grandma and Grandpa’s house was collapsing with them inside, and what exactly do you think caused that, he’d say?
They lived, by the way, my grandparents.
At middle school sleepovers, while the rest of the girls cast preteen enchantments with a patchwork of manicured fingers that hovered over rivets of numbers and letters that, for me, only spelled doom, I sat in the corner with the half package of vanilla sandwich cookies thinking of poor old Grandma and Grandpa and their poor old house. I stretched my night-sized t-shirt over my knees in fear of total structural collapse, when, really, the only thing I had to be afraid of was the nerdy Indian boy in the upper class whose presence might leave his body and inhabit a Parker Brothers plastic board just for the night and just so he could embarrass me in front of all those popular girls.
Asim proposed to me on the Ouija board, and I wasn’t so afraid after that. He spelled out those words one shaky letter at a time. I’ll never be sure what possessed him to do so, but I’ll admit that I was the one who moved the planchette to “YES.” Then the earth shook. Then the doorbell rang. We hadn’t ever met anyone like Flaggstaff—living or otherwise. Despite his deadness, he was polite in all ways (he even used the doorbell) and transparent both in outward appearance and regarding politics. He was nineteen feet tall. What are you doing here, we said, in our house? He joked about the cathedral ceilings and our being democrats. Flaggstaff had the best sense of humor.
As we planned our nuptuals, my father assumed wholeheartedly the father-of-the-bride position, and as such became more staunchfully prideful by the second. But he wouldn’t budge about Flaggstaff. After weeks of careful planning and ceaseless negotiating, my father gave some ground and said that if some dead ol’ fuddy-duddy wanted to come to the wedding, well, what the Hell did he care? But, he refused—to the utmost degree—the suffering of any ghosts, banshees, demons, devils, apparitions, haunts, wraiths, shades, spooks, phantoms, phantasms, or poltergeists at his table. Flaggstaff wasn’t like that, though, we said. And Asim’s parents are traditional Hindu, we said. And he’s got to sit somewhere.
At the reception, in place of a calligraphed table number assignment placard, the sign on Flaggstaff’s table read “Spectres ONLY,” which, in fairness, is what we requested from the banquet center, but not, like they thought, as a joke. They stitched over it. Invisible plates with invisible knives, they hoorahed, Someone slaughter the fattened invisible calf! A ghost is coming to dinner, they said.
And they said it right in front of Asim’s parents, I swear to God.
But then, right there in the banquet hall, after my father and I danced to his favorite liturgical-sounding, contemporary alt-rock ballad concerned with growing old too quickly, but before the ceremonial cutting of the cake, which was simultaneously symbolic and literal, while our friends and esteemed guests busied themselves with the buffet line, Asim and I joined our gilded hands in secret and conjured up Flaggstaff together.
Most screamed. A woman on the wait staff rent her apron in twain. Aunt Rue said, “Oh, bother,” and returned briskly to a glass of champagne.
At the end of the night, though, the consensus was clear. No one can limbo like a ghost.
Megan Fahey is a first-year MFA student at West Virginia University and a recent graduate from the MA in writing at Coastal Carolina University. In addition to having some short plays produced, her fiction has been published in The Ampersand, and most recently in Allegory E-zine.
* * *
Smokes and Heat By Matthew Lewis Foster
The kids gathered for the afternoon’s tape-ball game. The driveway’s pavement boiled, cooking an egg-in-a-basket could’ve been possible. Ruby fidgeted with the ball, constructed from one-part shredded newspaper and two rolls of electrical tape. “Ripken,” she blurted, sweating from the intense southern day burning. As the leader of this motor scooter gang, proving worth was gauged in homeruns and loogie size.
“Have to bat righty,” Aaron yelled, atop the driveway’s speed bump, installed to prevent runoff from damaging the manicured lawn.
Tossing the ball, Ruby headed for home plate. The strike zone was drawn onto the garage door with sidewalk chalk.
Aaron rubbed dirt between his fingers. With his chin tucked into his shoulder, he readied his windup, spying back at second base.
“Rickey Henderson isn’t standing there,” Ruby said, extending her wiffle-ball bat, wrapped an inch thick with duct tape. “Play ball.”
The submariner delivered the sinking screwball.
Newspaper shards floated to the pavement. Ruby darted to first base, tagging the basketball pole.
The triscuit-shaped ball wobbled up Mr. Morris’s driveway. Lounging in a lawn-chair and watching the boy’s afternoon tradition, he sprung from his seat. Since Mr. Morris and his adult son had moved in last spring, rumors swirled. The old man supposedly missed the big leagues because his 102 mph fastball killed a man. The league forced him out, fearing perceptions of bad publicity. The kids, naive to anyone different, never corroborated the made-up half-truth.
Ruby, with cap tucked under her armpit, meandered up the drive. “Can we get our ball back?”
“I done told you kids. Keep that ball outta my yard.”
“We ain’t mean no harm,” she said.
“That son of mine took my smokes. Saying they ain’t good for me. Go over yonder to that there mini-mart, get me some smokes. Then y’all can have this ball back.” Mr. Morris reached into his pocket and pulled out a $10 bill. “Benson & Hedges Gold.” He waved the folded bill. “Better see some change.”
The kids huddled. “Remember what your mom did when you dropped the f-bomb.”
“My fingers are still raw from wa-r-shing dishes, clothes, cars, the vinyl siding, the shed, the driveway, my grandma’s cat, my sister’s doll house, —”
“We got no more tape. I don’t get allowance until Friday,” Aaron said.
“I ain’t doing it,” Ruby demanded. Her mom’s disappointment after the f-word incident would be nothing compared to cigarettes. She cried for hours after that slipped.
“You yellower?” Aaron asked.
Ruby started middle school at the end of summer. Reputations weighed in the balance. If 8th graders heard of this cowardliness, her fate would be crushed. Maybe she could use that. Getting the cigarettes cemented a new status. If the eighth-grader heard about it, maybe they let her hang. “Lets go,” Ruby said, mentally preparing for the short scooter ride.
Arriving at the mini-mart’s front window, they strategized. “Tracy is working today. She’ll never believe us,” Aaron said.
Entering the store, Ruby, gathering her courage, bee-lined for the baseball cards at the register. “This old man across the street asked us to buy him cigarettes. He gave us this,” Ruby said, revealing the $10 bill.
“No way little one.”
“Please, I ain’t telling no story. Benson and Hedges Gold.”
Tracy looked around the empty store. “Those are old man cigarettes. But NO.”
Ruby’s plan clearly had holes. She conjured tears. Tracy was so rad. She shared her tales of cruising from the movie theater to the Dog’n Suds in her boyfriend’s Firebird. “Please. We’re play’n ball —“
“Sell you cigarettes? A week ago, you put mine out. I listened to your 11-year-old rant about the perils of smoking.”
Tears fell onto the counter’s ‘Must be 18 years old’ placemat.
“Geeez. Stop.” Reaching up, she pulled the pack from the bins and plopped it down. “For the rest of the summer, you take out the overnight trash. 6 a.m. every day or I tell your mom.”
The fried bologna smell invoked dry heaves. “Fine.” Stealing her sister’s nose clips was easier than leaving without the cigarettes.
“I better not find out you smoked these.”
Sprinting out the door, they stumbled back onto their scooters and zoomed to finish the game.
Mr. Morris was tapping his cane as Ruby pulled into the driveway. The gold pack poked out of her cut-off jean shorts. “Damn, you got ’em.” The garage door lifted. A Cadillac rolled passed.
Ruby searched for the Aaron, no doubt hiding in her garage.
“Son, you’re home early. I caught this girl smoking. Give ’n her a talking at.”
The son, Tony, inspected the unopened pack and pointed at the front door. “Inside, you-old-geezer.” The six-foot frame knelt to Ruby’s level. “Did you buy these cigarettes?”
“Yes, sir.” Ruby pulled the $8.25 out of her pocket, the bills extending beyond her clenched palm.
Tony looked back at Mr. Morris, cursing low-volume obscenities. He turned his attention back to Ruby. “I shouldn’t have to tell you smoking is bad. You’re mom says your smart. Get good grades.”
“I’ve never smoked. Ever.”
“Do I need to talk with your folks?”
“Please, we … we just wanted our ball back,” Ruby said, pointing at the lawn chair. She started to release the dirty money.
“Buy yourself some baseball cards.”
Matthew grew up in a suburban community in Northeastern Arkansas. He loved baseball and science fiction. With hunger in his belly, science won. After traveling the world, he returned to his Southern roots, now living in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
* * *
The Followers By Cheryl Anne Gardner
Heard the bells in the distance as rain fell hard on the clothesline, revealing strange cast off patterns in the tatty fabric you’d left to whip in the wind. Withered bone to dark skies held, an afternoon wilted upon your skin.
You’d won the raffle.
Touched the hollow.
The fear lasting, and ugly, a veil of drizzle clouding your eyes, and your breath -- swollen -- fleeing -- I suspect -- the lies you’d told, the lies I’d assumed were true. No one spoke of it after that day.
A misfortune, they’d said.
Whispered never to your face.
Eyes wander the streets, away from yours now. Your lot, they’d said as your name was pulled from that rusted iron box. You’ll dig the holes tomorrow even though you won’t have the strength to finish it. I’ll dig again the next day until you do. We’ll dig in the darkness and no one will help because it’s your lot. To dig them under. We’ll do this until he comes, netted in shadow, to take them all away to soil sown unseen. You’ll get to keep what remains, scorched into dry earth, and I’ll tend to that earth alone, weary and blistered from the rot and the heat, because that’s my lot. . .
Until the bells toll again,
Until the rain comes,
Until flowers grow frail in the empty spaces.
Cheryl Anne Gardner is a hopeless dark romantic, lives in a haunted house, and often channels the spirits of Poe, Kafka, and de Sade. When she isn’t writing, she likes to chase marbles on a glass floor, eat lint, play with sharp objects, and make taxidermy dioramas with dead flies.
* * *
Last Furlough, March 1966 By Cecil R. Geary
We travelled by bus from Fort Polk to the railroad depot at Shreveport, Louisiana. There were twenty of us in dress greens and saucer caps. We had just completed basic training and were on our first leave from the Army. Out on the platform, the conductor directed us to the rear of the train and the civilians to the front. We had an entire car to ourselves and everyone had a bottle. I was killing the pain with a pint of cheap vodka.
For a while, the drinking and camaraderie provided a diversion from the long journey, but then the loud talk, endless arguments and intermittent outbursts of laughter began to shred my nerves. The vodka tasted like lighter fluid and the odor of freshly starched uniforms was giving me a headache. I handed the pint to the Puerto Rican, Cosmos, who was shooting craps with three other GIs on the floor in the aisle way, and told him I was going to the lounge car. He shoved the bottle in his pocket, asked me to loan him ten dollars and promised to double my money by the time I returned. I fished a five and five ones out of my wallet and handed them to him. He tossed two ones on the floor to fade the shooter and lost on the first roll. Such was our luck.
When I got to the lounge car, I found it packed with well-dressed men and women. They were standing in small groups, smoking cigarettes, sipping drinks and chattering like a bunch of geese. The stench of tobacco and perfume permeated every cubic centimeter of air. Along one side of the lounge was a row of leather booths occupied by singles and couples. At the far end was a horseshoe bar tended by an elderly black man immaculately attired in red vest, white shirt, and bowtie. He moved agilely inside the horseshoe trying to meet the demands of the clamoring hoard. I pushed my way to the bar, squeezed in between two of the suits and ordered a beer.
The bartender set a bottle of beer in front of me. I laid a dollar on the bar. He pushed it back.
“The first drink is on the house for servicemen,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. I wondered if he would be as generous if he knew how many of us were on the train.
The beer was ice cold and wonderful, a refreshing change from the vodka. I finished it and was about to order another when this tall skinny fellow with a big beak nosed in next to me. He was wearing a checkered jacket, fisheye tie, and porkpie hat shoved back on his noggin exposing a remarkably sloping forehead. He looked like a character from the funny papers. A burning cigarette dangled between his fingers. The bartender asked him what he wanted to drink.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and grilled onions,” he demanded.
“The buffet is closed sir,” said the bartender. “All I have is alcoholic beverages and soft drinks.”
“Make it a rib eye sandwich then, medium rare.”
“As I said sir, the buffet is closed.”
“Well give me a platter of chitlins.”
“Sir, we do not serve chitterlings on the train.”
He ignored the bartender and looked over at me. “What burg are you bound for General?”
“Chicago and I’m not a General.”
“Chicago, great town, best barbecue in the country on the south side. Army, is it? Nice uniform. They clean you boys up real good. I like to see a fellow doing his part for the country. Too many punks out on the streets stealing hubcaps these days. Teach you to be a man in the Army.” He pushed an ashtray between us and tapped his cigarette on the edge knocking off the ash. The ashtray reeked of stale tobacco and scorched paper.
“You’ve been in the military, then?” I said, nudging the ashtray back towards him.
“No, Four F, crushed knee. High school football. First-string quarterback. I wouldn’t be much use on the battlefield.” He gripped the ashtray between his thumb and forefinger and moved it in small circles on the surface of the bar.
“That’s probably a good thing,” I said.”
“What are you, some kind of wise ass?”
“No, I’m just minding my business enjoying a beer.”
“So you’re from Chi Town.”
“I’m traveling that direction.”
“You’ll have to change trains in Kansas City. That’s the end of the line for this cattle wagon.”
“Yes, I know.” I stared straight ahead at an imaginary spot on the wall behind the bar.
”You got a long wait in Kansas City. The Chicago train doesn’t leave ‘til tomorrow morning. Rode it many times. Ends at LaSalle Street Station. Got a bar there called the Bomb Shelter, right outside the station under the street. Hard to find unless you know where to look. You go down a couple dozen steps to get to it. Long narrow place, no tables just a bar. Fifty cents for a shot and a beer. Prices never change. Been bombed there a dozen times. Mention the name, Zibo Scravanich. They’ll either set you up or throw you out.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Got any plans while you’re in Kansas City?”
“Read War and Peace.”
“That’s a good one.”
“Have you read War and Peace?”
“Not in a long time. I keep a busy schedule.”
“What do you do?”
“Sells, stocks, bonds, you name it.”
“Sounds like a dream job.”
“You’ve got the dream job. Where’s them chitlins, bartend’?” The bartender ignored him. “How about sharing a platter of chitlins?”
“I don’t eat chitlins.”
“You know, a smart fellow like you could do all right in Kansas City. I know places where you can make a few bucks and pick up some quality leg.”
“I’m not interested.”
“I thought you were a smart fellow, peruses big books and all that.”
“Smart enough not to waste time talking to you.”
He stared hard at me and twisted his mouth around as if he wanted to say something. Instead, he yelled at the bartender to bring him a short whisky. The bartender brought over a shot glass and a bottle, but held off pouring the whisky until Pork Pie laid a dollar on the bar. The bartender took the dollar and filled the shot glass to the brim. Pork Pie snatched up the glass slopping whisky over the edge, turned to me and said, “Well, here’s to the Army. You kill a few gooks for me when you get over there.” He drank the whisky in one swallow, slammed the glass down on the bar, thumped himself on the chest and walked away.
My face was on fire. I could feel my fists balling up. I had endured nine weeks of harassment from a diabolical drill sergeant. I should be savoring this respite rather than letting some jackass get to me. How easy hatred comes to me, how palliative and uncomplicated.
The bartender laid his hand on my arm and placed a fresh bottle of beer in front of me.
I was on my third beer, thinking I should go back to my seat, when this short, round-faced fellow in a grey flannel suit comes over to the bar and orders a Bloody Mary. The bartender poured vodka, tomato juice and a couple of drops of pepper sauce into a shaker of crushed ice, shook it vigorously and poured it into a glass. He set the drink and a saltshaker in front of the newcomer. The man added salt, sipped the drink and glanced around the lounge. He looked over at me and asked if I would have a drink with him. I had had my quota of the obnoxious for the evening, but this one was buying, so I said, “Sure.”
“Would you care for beer or something stronger?”
“Beer’s fine with me.” I had been in the lounge an hour and had yet to pay for a drink. There are some benefits to the uniform.
When the bartender returned with the drinks, my benefactor tasted his, then turned to me all glassy eyed and said, “I envy you.”
My immediate thought was the fellow was either drunk or stupid. I was a couple of months away from shipping out to Southeast Asia where in all likelihood I would get my ass shot off, and he envies me.
“Why is that?”
“You’re serving your country. That is something to be proud of in my book.”
I wondered what book he had been reading.
“If I were younger, I would be right there with you.”
I thought to myself, that’s because you’re an idiot, but said, “I would have preferred to remain a civilian.”
“I’m sure, but you answered the call.”
“So you think we’re doing the right thing over there?”
“I don’t know how I feel about it, but I believe in this country.”
Great! First a loudmouthed bigot and now a true believer, I sure was attracting them tonight.
“So, what do you do for a living?” I asked.
“I sell farm equipment, tractors, combines, mowers. My store is outside Leesville near Fort Polk. I assume that’s where you’re coming from.”
“Yeah, I just finished basic training.”
“Where do you go next?”
“I have fourteen days leave and then it’s back to Polk for advanced infantry training. Where are you heading?”
“I’m on my way to an agricultural convention in Chicago. Do you know Chicago?”
“I get up there sometimes. I stay about twenty miles south in Calumet City. Where are you squatting in Chicago?”
“The Hilton on Michigan Avenue.”
“Nice place to flop, way beyond my budget.”
“Is it far from McCormack Place?”
“It’s a hike. I’d take a cab.”
“I’ll remember that. I’ve never been to Chicago. If there’s anything you could recommend, things to see and do, I’ll be there several days and I don’t want to sit around my hotel room every night.”
“If you’re looking for girls…”
“No, I was thinking of places with live music or shows, but no strip shows. I don’t go in for that sort of thing.”
“Well, there’s some jazz and blues clubs up on the north side. If you're interested in rock or country, there’s plenty of that just about everywhere. You’ve got to be careful though, some of those places can get rough.”
“What’s Calumet City like?”
“A couple of streets of bars and strip joints. The rest is residential. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you go in for the dated and seedy.”
”Have another on me,” he said, and motioned to the bartender.
“Name’s Bernard Lee Appleton,” he said, holding out his right hand. “Everyone calls me Lee.”
I shook his hand and said, “Hayward.”
“What did you do before you joined the Army?”
“I didn’t join, I was drafted. I worked at a steel mill in East Chicago.”
“There’s a booth opened up. You want to take a seat?”
“Yeah,” I said. I had been up since five that morning and my legs were starting to feel like rubber.
We took our drinks over to the empty booth. I pushed aside the overflowing ashtray and dirty glasses left by the previous occupants and glanced out the window. It was like staring into the void.
Lee rambled on about the convention. “There’s plenty of new manufacturers these days and the Japanese have entered the market. For my money, the best equipment is made right here in the USA. I won’t have any of that foreign junk in my store.”
I was barely listening. I thought about the card I had from Tasha, a few lines scribbled in her sloppy handwriting informing me she was back in Alabama with her old man. She closed with, ‘Maybe we can meet in Birmingham when you get leave.’ There was no return address, no phone number, just a postmark, Abbeville, Alabama. On the reverse was a picture of three white guys in narrow brimmed hats and bib overalls sitting on a bench in front of a courthouse, the U.S. Flag and the Stars and Bars flying from the flagpole behind them. I could almost smell the sweat and chewing tobacco.
“I’m sorry. I must be boring you with my shop talk,” said Lee.
“Not at all, I was just thinking about Birmingham.”
“Someone said it’s a place I should visit.”
“I don’t know why,” said Lee. “It’s just a dreary city full of factories and rail yards.”
The dirty mills and stinking oil refineries of East Chicago flashed across my mind. I could not imagine any place drearier than that.
“Is your family in Calumet City?” Lee continued.
“Just a cousin. I’ve got an apartment above his club. My folks live in California.
“Nice place, great weather. You’re not married then?”
“No.” Water trickled down the window in long thin rivulets like translucent strands of hair.
“What about yourself?”
“I’ve got a wife and three daughters. They wanted to come along, but it wasn’t in the budget.”
“Do you miss them?”
“Yes, but it’s good to get away. You know what they say.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking how quickly things can get complicated.
“How did you feel when you got that draft notice?”
“Elated. It’s not every day you get a letter from the President starting with ‘Congratulations, you have been selected.’ It makes you think you’ve either won a prize or you’re about to be euthanized.”
“That’s very funny,” said Lee.”
“Yeah, I should go on stage.”
“I tried to join the Navy during WW 2,” he continued. “I failed the physical. They found a hole in my heart, probably from rheumatic fever when I was a child. I thought about the Army, but then I met Susan.”
“My wife. We’ve been together over twenty years.”
The bartender yelled last call. Pork Pie and several of the suits rushed to the bar.
“Will you have another?” Lee asked.
“Thanks, but I want to get some sleep before Kansas City.”
Lee leaned over and placed his hand on my knee, “Why don’t we team up in Chicago and have some fun. We can hit some of those jazz clubs you were telling me about.”
I swept his hand off my knee and stood up. “Thanks for the drinks.” I left him sitting there with his mouth agape and pushed my way out of the lounge. I had had enough of these reptiles.
I reached the GI car and pushed through the double doors. Some of the fellows were sleeping. Others were chain smoking cigarettes and sucking on liquor bottles. Freddy Fuscaldo, the 17 year-old who had lied about his age to enlist, was gazing out the window. I wondered what he saw out there. The craps game was still in progress. I stepped over the shooters to get to my place.
Cosmos was asleep with his head against the window, his feet in their military socks propped on my seat. I shoved his feet aside and sat down. He moved his legs around and let his feet hang over the armrest in the faces of the craps players.
“So you’re back,” he said. “Did you make any important contacts?”
“Yeah, a loudmouthed bigot and an old fag.”
“For that you leave me to these vultures? They picked us clean, amigo.” He turned his face into the seatback and was immediately unconscious. The vodka had done its work.
I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes. The shouts of the craps shooters rattled in my skull like bursts from automatic weapons. Everything about this war was wrong and I was wrong for it. My life might be a mess, but I never wanted to kill anyone. It seemed absurd that a bunch of politicians could send me off to a war that defied logic.
I jerked upright and opened my eyes. My head was throbbing and my insides were trembling. My comrades lay all around me. A narrow band of light illuminated the frozen masks of their faces.
Cecil (Rick) Geary is a retired social worker who resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana with his wife, Karen and dog, Sarge. He has previously published stories in Foliate Oak, The Abiko Annual, and Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Mr. Geary is the founder of Children’s Sanctuary, Inc. a treatment foster care agency in Indiana and Ohio. He divides his time between traveling and writing. He is presently working on a collection of short stories set in Grayson County, Kentucky.
* * *
Cheap By Clive Aaron Gill
Bill and Maxine sat opposite each other at the round, kitchen table in their five-bedroom house in Carlsbad, California eating TV dinners bought at the Dollar Store.
Bill watched Maxine chew then he stared out the wide, front window at the palm trees and rolling ocean waves. “What would you like for Mother’s Day?”
Maxine recalled the skeletal images of her siblings with sad, dull eyes and sunken cheeks. She remembered hunger pangs not allowing her to sleep; eating loads of wild berries that resulted in the runs; waiting anxiously for food at a town-sponsored Independence Day picnic.
“I have a ‘two-fer’ coupon for George’s Burgers,” she said. “Buy one meal plus two drinks and the second meal is free.”
Bill thought, I remember times when Mother, my brother and I were always hungry. Mother had to take us to a convent for orphans. I’ll never forget the day she left us with three nuns wearing black dresses, white collars and white bibs. He said, “How about a nice restaurant?”
“George’s Burgers is just fine,” she replied, pursing her lips over her broad mouth. She sighed impatiently and blew strands of black-dyed hair from her face. “I checked into prices for a three week cruise from Barcelona to France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Croatia. The ‘two-fer’ is $19,799 for a room with two beds and a private verandah. If we book six months in advance we’ll get a twenty percent discount. Do you think we can afford it?” she asked, biting her lower lip.
Bill stretched his thick neck from side to side. “With our retirement incomes and my job we can come up with the money.”
“You should give up your job.”
“You’re getting too friendly with that young flirt,” Maxine said, glaring with wide eyes at his pear-shaped body. “Must you hug each other every day?”
“I give hugs to the other drivers.”
“I don’t trust her!” said Maxine, banging her fist on the table. Her facial veins grew large.
Silence filled the room.
Maxine drew a long breath and turned her head sideways momentarily. “I’ll email Antonio and Dolores.”
“The nice old couple from Barcelona we met on our last cruise. I’ll ask them if they can let us know of a reasonable hotel near them for a couple of nights before this cruise starts.”
“O.K.,” Bill said, stroking his pointed chin.
“After they reply that we should stay in their home, I’ll tell them we plan to extend our stay to a week.”
“We’ll feel freer in a hotel.”
“Don’t argue! Staying with them will not be a problem.”
Bill wiped his bald, shiny head. He studied her severe eyes, like someone who examines his reflection in a mirror, and shrugged. “Remember the time I changed my order from salad to steak and lobster, when Mark said he was gonna pay?”
Maxine slapped the table. “You’re so cheap!”
Bill laughed and gave a satisfied sigh.
Maxine sniffed, tapped her thin fingers, made fish-lips and slowly revealed a crooked smile.
Clive Aaron Gill’s short stories have appeared in Pens on Fire, Every Day Fiction, espresso stories, Short Humour, Postcard Shorts, Indiana Voice Journal, The Screech Owl, Linguistic Erosion, Wilderness House Literary Review, Gravel Literary Journal, Shark Reef literary magazine, Larks Fiction Magazine and in 6 Tales magazine.
* * *
The Numbness Within By Philip Goldberg
Birthdays mean nothing to me.
Been years since I last celebrated one. My 34th, I remember it like I recall the first time I had sex, and the last. Whatever. Today marks my birthday. All 43 years of my life rolled into one day on the calendar: a mere 24 hours. Birthday blues? Call it that if you must. To me, it’s more than that. Much more.
I gaze out the bug-splattered windshield of my parked Impala, circa 2003. Before me, the low-built apartment complex spreads out, a vista of faded red brick, single-paned windows and fiberglass entry doors. Summer leaves’ shadows dapple the façade, twitching in the gentle breeze. Sitting behind the steering wheel, I ponder how shadows play an important part in my life. The ones I see and the ones I don’t.
With hesitation, I exit my car. The door’s squeak assaults my ears. I need to oil the hinges. I’ll get to it… eventually. My eyes lock on the empty parking space where Bill Hammer’s pickup truck used to cast its own shadow. I swallow hard and recall that red Silverado with its chrome rimmed wheels and extra cabin space. Every free moment, he tinkered under the hood, checked the tire pressure, gave it the kind of tender loving care usually reserved for another human being. I’d be lying if I said that it hadn’t weirded me out. Yet at the time he seemed like a good neighbor, someone you shared a six-pack with, talked NASCAR, groused over stresses of the job, and escaped family pressures. He listened well, advised little and rarely clouded the air with his own personal storms.
I needed that. I liked that.
But that was then.
I enter my four-room cave. Been here for years, since before the birthday celebrations ceased. Dusty light bleeds through open slats of window blinds. Stale cigarette smoke chokes the air. A pack a day man I am. “Green eggs and ham, I do not like them, Sam I am,” I quote. My daughter when she was young loved that rhyming stuff that doctor guy wrote. Somehow the line has stuck with me.
Fighting the urge for a smoke, I march to the fridge and grab a cold can of beer. One bad habit trumps another. Popping the tab, I rain brew down my throat, soaking my tongue, my gullet, my soul. Oh, how good it feels. One of the few things that still does.
Plopping into the recliner across from the wall-mounted television—the only furnishings left in the room—I let loose a long sigh, almost a yelp. No one greets me. No dogs, no cats, no humans. Not a soul has in years. Allison, my wife, and I split up about a year after I had stopped celebrating my birthday.
Edgy, I run my hand across the faux leather arm of the chair. It feels like the slipcovers that used to wrap the sofa and chairs in my parents’ living room. Adhesive to bare skin, I still feel the sting of peeling from it. At its memory, I squirm. Thank good ol’ Jesus I’m wearing a shirt. Albeit a sweaty shirt but who cares? No stick. No sting.
Leaning back, I rerun my day of checking bedside charts at St. Mary’s Hospital and recording them into an iPad I carry. Bullshit work. But it’s a job. After not working for two years, an eight-hour shift feels good (something else that still feels good).
Pride disappeared months after being shelved at the tool plant. No, my job didn’t get outsourced. I fucked up, took too many days off. At first, everyone understood. Hell, they even encouraged me to take time off. But like aspirin for a hangover, good intentions wear off faster than you’d like, or need.
I finish the beer and crush the can, knowing full well that it was more than the days off that canned me. Not doing what was asked of me at times didn’t help, or did talking back at other times and sulking most of the time. With all this going down, they sent me to see a shrink. Now talking to a shrink is just more aspirin. Add Lexapro and Celexa, which I took whenever I felt. Guess that’s why the meds failed. The ax came down on me soon after. At this, I smirk. Smirking is my new smile. I dig that. Think I’ll have those five words engraved on my tombstone.
Thirsting for another beer, seeking the company of that frosty can chilling my hand, I go get not one, but all remaining five in my fridge. I pop my second beer and it rushes down my throat. My tongue wipes foam from my lips. “Bull’s-eye,” I say satisfied. With cans in hands I pace the living room. A million watts of images stream and voices hum through my head.
Jessie, my 15-year old daughter, is chief among them: Her curious eyes, her emotive lips. Violently I shake my head. Images break apart like poor television reception. Voices grow garbled. As soon as I stop shaking my head, her face returns before me. It always does. It stares at me. It mesmerizes me.
The back of my neck grows hot, sweaty. My mouth grows dry. I consume more beer, which douses my increasing urge for a smoke.
Everything feels as if it occurred yesterday. Close. Smothering. I gulp some air. A fly buzzes me. I swat at it. Damn bug flies off. I stare at the front door. Years later I still see Jessie there, posing as teenage girls do, in her bright summer dress. Her smile added wattage to the room’s light. It electrified me, illuminated my soul. I smiled back, spirited and warm. No smirking then.
"Eleven” my wife shouted from the kitchen. Begrudgingly my daughter nodded, her eyes pleading with me. “Can’t hear you,” my wife barked. I raised my eyebrows at my daughter. She widened her eyes in return. “Yes,” she said. A slight huff blew the word through her lips. “Later,” she whispered to me and then danced out the front door on her way to her friend, Amanda’s house.
What could I have done? Nothing. How could I have prevented it? Doubtful I could have. What had I missed? So much. Can you spell g-u-i-l-t?
I claim another beer.
The day after Jessie disappeared, Allison and I sat across from two cops. As one took notes, the other stared at us as if gauging whether or not we were telling the truth. I held my wife’s hand, cold and damp. Occasionally, I looked in her eyes. They appeared vacant at times. Other times they appeared fearful, as she mumbled: “It can’t be.” “This is not happening.” Or “God help us.”
Within days, Allison started playing the “if only” game. “If only I’d done this,” she exclaimed. Or, “If only you’d said that,” she accused. Of course, I lacked answers, which fused her anger. Who would have had any? Soon she widened the gap between us. Whenever I tried to cope with her, or soothe her, she protested: “Leave me alone.” Or whenever I tried to embrace her, she shook me off like a flea, snapping: “Back off. I need space.” Eventually I gave up.
Tired of pacing, I sit. The fly buzzes me again. Where did it come from? Probably entered with me. It lands on the top of my beer can. Is that bug lapping up some brew? I shake the can, and watch it take flight, whizzing about the air like some giddy stunt pilot. “Happy birthday,” I mutter, hoisting the can toward it in a mock toast. My party guest, I muse. My past is my gift, boxed, papered and bowed. My smirk returns. The fly lands on the wall of moving shadows. I blink a few times, trying to banish the shadows, the fly from the wall. It doesn’t work. They mock me by their presence, by their movement. Frustration overflows, and I hurl the beer can at them. It hits the wall with a wet thud. Suds spray the wall and leave their stain, joining the others caused by various thrown beers and liquors. The fly buzzes off, its tiny body chilled by the splattered beer.
The cold room iced my skin. Goosebumps erupted along exposed flesh as I stared at Jessie’s lifeless body laid out on the metal table. Her skin was the color of classroom chalk. Her electrifying stare permanently switched off. In the fluorescent glare, the bruises around her neck, wrists and ankles appeared luminescent. Touching her hand, it felt colder than the room. As I noticed that my daughter’s right ear lobe had been severed, my wife crumbled against me, whimpering, crying. At that moment I inhaled the thought that there was no god.
As I exhale and lean forward in my faux leather armchair, I remember that we called Jessie, “God’s Gift” as we’d had trouble conceiving before her. Not long after the “miracle birth” of our daughter, Allison developed cysts in her ovaries. The surgery removed the cysts as well as her ovaries, ending any future births. I sit back, experiencing a succession of small tremors quiver through my body, and recall how we discussed adoption but decided against it. So it was just the three of us.
Overwhelmed, I bury my face in my free hand.
We buried Jessie in a small plot on the outskirts of town. For me, the day was too sunny. The birds chirped too much. The breeze seemed too gentle. The priest sounded too pleasant. Among graveside guests, Allison and I stood close. I felt numb. To rid myself of this lack of feeling, I placed my hand in hers. But all this accomplished was a greater numbness. After all, who was I fooling? We had grown so far apart.
I place a new can between my thighs, holding it close, tight as I mourn my marriage. Fragile structures, I know; the union between two humans had little chance of surviving the death, the murder of a child. If not for Bill Hammer’s ear at the time, I would have done worse. He came by often, drinking with me, smoking with me, staying with me when no one else would.
So my surprise was deadening when I arrived home from my old job late one afternoon to discover police going in and out of Hammer’s place. Some exited carrying boxes. Some came out toting bags. One walked out holding his computer. A few swarmed his beloved pickup, carefully dusting the doors and inside the cab, going through the glove compartment, searching under the seats.
Betrayal didn’t describe what I felt. Anger was too kind. I wanted to find that bastard and do what he had done to Jessie. But could I? Would I? The numb feeling within me might have prevented my retaliation. It mattered little as he’d already been taken into custody. Sure I felt like one of those damn fools who tell reporters: “Nothing like that ever happened around here”, or “He seemed like an okay guy,” or “He did what!” His sympathetic ear, his compassionate face was all bullshit: a psycho’s mask, a mirrored reflection of what I needed. Turned out that good ol’ Bill had committed more crimes than just this one. Guess that was the reason why he offered so little of himself as we chugged beers, smoked cigs, talked sports.
The beer struggles down my throat. I swear the shadows stop dancing on the wall, and the fly hangs frozen in the air. Probably the alcohol, but I take it as a moment of silence, stillness, nature’s way of apologizing for creating a monster like him.
The next time I laid eyes on that prick was at the trial. By this time, Allison and I had separated, but we sat together in the courtroom, even held hands at times. We appeared stuck to the backs of our bench as if it had been slip-covered. Even when the prosecutor introduced as evidence a cigar box filled with Hammer’s trophies, and the urge to leap from my seat surged through me, I stayed put. The numbness within, which had been growing inside me since that night more than a year ago, which I’d felt the day they arrested him and the morning of the burial, kept me in my place.
A jury of his peers nailed Hammer, took them less than three hours. The prick was gone for good. Heard that prisoners don’t take kindly to child rapists, teen murderers. Hopefully, he has suffered for his sins at their hands. He had better.
As the light bleeding into the room grows golden, I know darkness will soon take charge. My pain will ooze out only seeping back with the new dawn. I squirm in my chair as a thought occurs: you bury bodies. You never bury pain.
How could I ever again celebrate the day of my birth in the shadow of Jessie’s death? No way. “Never,” I protest, wanting to chuck another beer against the wall but don’t. Instead I stand, beer in hand, and walk to the window. Why am I still living here? Guess people think I’m nuts, a stubborn prick, or both. Let them believe what they want. The numbness prevents me. The fear of leaving this place and losing the last physical connection I have to Jessie alive keeps me here. Craving a cigarette, I know I’ll smoke soon. For now, I pull up the blinds and peer out. The fly lands on the window, crawls across the streaky, grimy glass. I have to clean the panes. One day I will. In the distance, I spy some kids playing in the small playground beyond the parking lot. Their happy screams scratch my ears. I imagine blood flowing out of them. I shut my eyes and the sick image disappears. Turning, I face the wall. The shadows darken. In a short time they will cover the wall, cover everything. They always do.
Soon my 43rd birthday will be history.
I walk to the door, open it, but the fly doesn’t depart. So I shut it. The fly ascends into the air and lands on my arm. Staring at the insect, I decide not to swat it. The fly walks along my arm and remains there.
A smile creases my face. It lingers there for a few moments. Only the fly with all his eyes witnesses it. Long enough, I decide. A wide smirk replaces it and remains planted on my face for quite a while.
It’s time for that smoke.
Over 35 of Philip Goldberg's short stories have appeared in both literary and small press publications including Straylight, Avalon Literary Review, Riding Light Review, The Write Place at the Write Time, and Foliate Oak. Three of his stories have appeared in “Best of” collections and one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
* * *
The Book of Perennials By R F Grant
There it lay, the notebook, concealed behind the antique Kit-Cat clock upon the shelf. The clock itself was broken—a drunken brawl he had with a stranger last summer. From the dust-ridden shelf, it grinned at me. Its dilated eyes seemed to follow my hand reaching behind it, enamored. I know what you’re doing, it said with a Cheshire grin. Conniving girls shouldn’t nose around. But it was the only thing he’d hidden. The only thing he’d closeted all these years. I sought it out of curiosity. Not because I’d loved him, but because he’d worn his heart on his sleeve. Objectified, this was his only secret. The only contrast to his candid nature. Allotted deep within its pages were pressed flowers. One for each of them. Harper—a cobalt-eyed southerner he’d met last spring. For her, he chose a Bluebell. For Zoe, a Dahlia. That one dyed her hair black. Treated her skin like a canvas, sleeves tattooed without an inch of natural skin. Orange-hazel eyes and a tongue so sharp you could flint fire off it. And then, me. He chose a Camellia for me, if that tells you anything. They’re symmetrical, like the Vitruvian Man.
I removed the notebook from its shelf. Dropped it on the middle of his desk. Turned the porcelain cat around on the shelf so it wouldn’t leer at me. Humorous, it facing the corner like that. A dunce-capped child. Now who’s the guilty one? I muttered playfully. Dust billowed out from beneath the cover as it opened. I coughed, squinted. Glanced across the title page. Therein rested his name; Alan Kissinger.
The pressed flower on the first page was an amaryllis. Bright crimson and white, speckled with red. A flashing, golden middle. Fresh as the day he’d glued it. The female associated had the name Darya, written in Persian and English. Her photograph could stun a stoic. Eyes of intrigue, outlined in black—a gaze that could freeze fire. Though she wore a hijab, it rested only lightly on a bun circling the back of her head. Raven-black hair, thick like a butter-braid. Painted nails too—unorthodox from what I know of that society. A rebel woman, perhaps. A mosque rested behind her, robin-blue scripture garnishing the walls. The flower and photo were laid out so perfectly, you could tell Alan had loved this woman. A hand-written paragraph below only affirmed my intuition.
August 12th, 2003—we dined beneath a starry sky shattered with fireworks that night. It was Eid Al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. I believe to this day a peculiar joy in her was unshelled. One otherwise subdued—a freedom of sorts. Though we did not make love, I felt our spirits had treasured one another out of the same ecstasy. Her eyes made love to me within themselves. Darya revealed more in her silence than even the most talkative Westerner. It remains cause for nostalgia. Not her. Not her body. Only her presence. The way she carried herself. My words cannot warrant.”
I scanned onward, turning the page onto another chapter of Alan’s life. This time, a lily-white edelweiss graced the page like a fresh breath of air. I touched its petals, softer than linens. A newborn rabbit’s coat. It lay seamlessly across the page, as if by the hand of a pianist. Sloane, the name associated.
“She withheld a pure soul,” the entry read. “I always see her as enveloped in light, walking through a field just after the sun had risen. Dream-like. A flower you couldn’t pick. Silvery, ash-blonde hair. Bright, hazel eyes. Achromatic skin, a touch of frost. Words whispered from her lips, yet pierced you, though she never spoke ill to anyone.”
Onward I read. A pressed flower came with each name. A journal entry, short or long. I wondered where I could find them. Rather, where I could find something more. A clue towards the lives they led. I read to the very last page. There, at bottom, I found a single line.
It was written by the hand of another, not by Kissinger. The letters were curly and childish, dissimilar to his audacious scribble. They formed an address: 8821 Fleurbaix, Nord-Pas-de-calais, France. A day of contemplation followed. I soon made a decision to discover the place in person.
Several weeks later, I found myself an hour’s drive from Fleurbaix. A short hop on a plane landed me in Paris, a day’s drive north of my destination. I rented a car, drove southward, and came upon a little house just as the day dispersed into dusk. Behind it spread a leviathan garden, this being the most prominent feature. It was Monet-like, and gave the home character. I imagined its caretaker—someone with a horticultural obsession. Someone who’d devoted their life to botany, to floriculture. Soon, I gathered enough courage to approach and knock.
The little child which opened the door I can only describe as ethereal. She had blue eyes tinted with so much white, they appeared as stained glass of an Alice-blue quality. You could see through them, beyond them, as if into the clouds of a faraway place. I immediately felt drawn to her, like a clairsentient’s first time in a cathedral. Shyly, we locked eyes for several seconds before I snapped into reality. I asked where her parents were.
“I don’t live with my parents,” she said.
“Who do you live with then, dear?”
“The man with gray eyes.”
An odd description, though the girl seemed mature for her age.
“Can you bring him to the door?”
“He’s in a wheelchair. He doesn’t like moving around too much,” she said. She opened the screen door and walked past, her buckled shoes pitter-pattering across the flagstone. “—I’ll take you to him. He likes to sit in the garden.”
We sauntered around the left side of the house, facing a tall gate. She released the latch and let me walk through first. This was when I got a good look at the garden. Flourishing, I’d never seen one like it. I almost couldn’t bring myself to walk forward. Though magnificent, it felt natural, not something out of a gardening show. It had a soul.
“What’s wrong?” the girl asked me.
“Nothing,” I replied, proceeding forth.
Around a curvature smothered with flowers, I saw him. He seemed entranced by the forest which bordered the private acre only a quarter-mile away. A bulbous covered his entire complexion, steel wool both in texture and hue. When I walked around to his front, however, I noticed something else. The man was blind. Traces were still left within his irises—eyes of a swirling tempest, muddied and murky. Curdled milk and clay.
The little girl tapped him on his shoulder. He flinched out of his hypnosis.
“Grandpa, there’s a visitor.”
His brows rose, head swiveling.
“H-hi,” I stammered.
“May I ask your name?”
“Kass. I’ve come from England.”
He smiled—one so gentle, anyone could’ve missed it.
“I figured you’d show up. Someday.”
“You’ve been expecting me?”
“I suppose I have,” he replied. “Have a look around.”
Bright white anemones. Drooping Irises. Flowery marigolds. Star-like orchids and veined petunias. They clustered around us in the thousands, their fragrance of a subtle potpourri, though not overpowering. Plump, little bees wobbled between us, pollen sprinkled from their coats and drifting off into the sunlight. I sneezed. The little girl laughed, palm covering her mouth.
“Did you bring the pocketbook?” the man asked.
“Yes,” I said, not surprised. I removed it and handed it to him.
“Still looks intact,” he said. “What do you think of it?”
“Admittedly, I’m curious.”
He nodded and wheeled away from me. I followed.
“Every flower in Kissinger’s notebook is in this garden,” he continued. “Go ahead, name someone.”
“The edelweiss patch is over there, in the corner. White as untouched snow.”
“The amaryllises are right next to us, actually.”
I lowered my gaze leftward, the crimson and white pouring into my eyes.
“Every flower,” he repeated.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he gathered a deep breath, exhaling the country air. I began to perspire, sunlight glaring across my forehead.
“Before he passed, how did you come to know Alan?”
“I was a foreign exchange student in Sicily,” I said. “Met him there. He was a young man travelling the world, blowing his parent’s trust fund.”
The man chuckled.
“Sounds like Alan. Always had responsibilities to run away from, and too much money to boot.”
“You knew him well?”
"All too well. I was his Godfather—caretaker, butler, all of it. I had a few roles when it came to helping his family. They’d supported me. Before Alan died, he put me in his will, so long as I kept his promise of living here in France and taking care of this property,” he explained. “He admired it here. Could’ve afforded a mansion and he fell in love with a 1600 square-foot cottage.”
“Perhaps it’s the garden.”
“Yes,” he said. “The garden. His bank of essences.”
“Bank of essences?”
"That’s what he called it. A storing place for souls. Like a living locket with many photos.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked, squinting into the marshmallow clouds. I raised a flat hand to shade my eyes. At this point, the little girl ran up to me. She handed me a Camellia.
“How did you—”
She laughed again and skipped away. I glanced at the flower--my flower. Perfectly white with a hint of pink. Like a single, rosy drop from a pipette into a bucket of white, mixed together and poured across the petals. The Fibonacci spiral, I thought, observing it. I spun it between my fingers. Paragon in form. Rather unlike me from my point of view. Perhaps it’s how Alan saw me, however. Maybe it’s why I was here.
“A storing place for souls,” the blind man repeated, breaking my train of thought. He sighed. “Alan had issues with nostalgia, you see. With memories.”
“I never knew that about him.”
“He hid it well. He was talented with façades. He grew this garden out of his own pigheadedness. To retain memories of those who’d deeply affected him during his life.”
“A flower for each of them,” I said.
“A flower for each of them. Even for you. He wanted to remember things exactly how they were. We may forget minute details about things, but we always remember their essence.”
The man’s gray eyes rolled around in his head, twitching with thought and spoken word. Gobs of clay in bowls of milk. A beautiful mind behind them, I thought. Children playing with clay, creating forms from the imagination. Gray dirt under fingernails—the man was given the blind road in life, his character built from it.
"Did Alan struggle with dreams?” I continued. “Remembering them, I mean?”
“Yes. Anything dealing with impermanence. A part of Alan never really grew up. Guess it’s true for any of us.”
"What does it all mean, though?”
"Hm?” he said, twisting to face me.
“Now that he’s gone, what does it mean? Doesn’t really have meaning anymore, does it?”
He thought about it, sinking back into his wheelchair.
“I suppose it’s how you look at it. Alan created it. He ordained the chosen living to continue it. To anyone, it could be just a garden. A mechanistic collection of flora without meaning described by science. Passersby would see it all the same. But you and I know that’s simply not true—” he said. Pausing, he winked. Not at me, but at something behind me, beyond me. “—you and I have been let in on the Great Secret, haven’t we? His secret. That withstanding, I suppose you can choose the meaning of it all for yourself.”
At that very moment, the little girl tapped me on my hamstring. I jumped, startled she’d crept behind me. I looked down at her and smiled. I’d been lost in a very deep sort of contemplation towards the man’s descriptions. For just a moment, the world around me had faded. I gazed back at the panorama encircling us; the bright white anemones, drooping irises and flowery marigolds. The star-like orchids and veined petunias. The known edelweiss, amaryllises and camellias. Even the familiar, cliché roses. The lavender hyacinths and petunias. Somehow, they merged into one another. A singularity of color. A mosaic of souls reformed. Feathers plucked from the superlative, amended into the dream-catcher. Cells spindling from the one into the many, only to return again. The myriad blended. Smeared forms upon the canvas of Māyā, only to eventually paint the transcendental. I admired the blind man. Simply, ever so faintly, he nodded at my silence as if he understood.
“Care for tea?” he asked—a tone suggestive of the plainest event in the world. I laughed and replied, “I would.”
I followed him inside, slipping the notebook back into my right pocket. As I helped the man in the wheelchair remove the chamomile from its shelf, I had a last, lingering thought; No amount of riches in the world could buy this notebook from me. Not for the rest of my life.
A published author of fiction and poetry, R. F. Grant's stories emphasize the strength of the human spirit, explore ethical paradoxes, and are oftentimes about the nature of reality. Mr. Grant has been published in the Cold Mountain Review, Gravel Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, The Mountain Gazette, and was a top 10 fiction finalist in the 2014 TIFERET: A Journal of Spiritual Literature's International Writing Contest. For more information, visit.
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Evolutionarily Speaking By Ana Maria Ventura
I run the hills of Huddart Park, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I like the occasional fallen branch that lies crossways on the path, another obstacle to climb over or duck under. I like the changing texture of earth under my soles—the points of rocks, stabbing, the crunch of twigs, snapping, the squelch of mud, collapsing. There is the darkness of the forest; even on the brightest day, the sun cannot overpower the shade of branches, leaf-coated, a thousand arms and ten thousand fingers crisscrossed over a lonely cavern. I like the rise in elevation: trails emerge gradually from beneath the trees into sunlight, and sky, until the peak of the trail finally overlooks the Pacific. I can run for hours without seeing another person; my steady breath is rarely interrupted by the courtesy, “Hi,” and my muscles pump until they reach that inevitable wobbly stage, as though there is gelatin inside my skin instead of my body’s complex system of woven fibers.
It interests me, the musculoskeletal system, so I would like to be a structural integrationist. “Of course you would,” my father said when I mentioned this in a meeting with my English teacher. “A structural integrationist. I don’t even know what that is.”
“But you don’t have to settle,” Ms. Handler said. “You could be anything. You could go to a good school.” Her fingers rubbed the thin edges of my transcript; dry skin, dry paper, an audible verification of my scholarly potential. “But not if you fail English. You can write the poem or take a zero.”
“I’m just not creative,” I said. I tried not to look at my dad’s face, the tired disappointment manifested in wrinkles around his eyes.
“You could write a villanelle. A haiku. Anything,” she bargained. “There are different kinds of poetry.”
My own poetry is a run on a November morning and it begins like molasses. The cold in my bones makes everything stiff, but a half-mile in there is rhythm. Each pair of steps creates meter, each mile a stanza, and by the fourth, the cadence of my body rolls in iambs--da-DUM, da-DUM—and it feels like I’ve never done anything but run.
When I said this, Ms. Handler replied, “I get it, but, running doesn’t meet the parameters of the assignment.”
My father didn’t get it, doesn’t ever get me, so he just shook his head and explained, “This is because your mother was a hippie.”
But I don’t know anything about that. What I do know is that my father is an East Coast man—he’d like me to go to U Penn, because even though he’s not Ivy League educated, he’s not without dreams for his one progeny.
Mr. Owens, who is Ivy League educated—Columbia—and only twenty-three, also told me I could go to a good school. He used to be my anatomy teacher, and somehow that made it mean more, because he knew—the beauty of our bones sheathed in muscles, in tendons, in ligaments beneath our skin. He is a runner.
He used to coach cross-country, and ran with the team every day. He said once, in class, that evolutionarily speaking, our bodies were made to run long distances. The bones in our toes, the spring of our ligaments, these things, “weren’t created,” he said, his pen tracing the soleus muscle on the overhead transparency, “by some mastermind with a plan. We evolved. We adapted.” After school, when everyone else had gone, he spun his pen between his fingers, under, over, under, over, the metacarpal bones rising and falling in waves. “I love anatomy, the way everything in our bodies works together. It’s a perfect machine.” He told me that he started running in college; he was worried about his final exams—so many bones—and running helped him remember all 206. When his girlfriend left him for another man, running helped him forget. When it was over, he just kept on running.
I don’t know where he runs now that he’s not out with the cross-country team, but sometimes I imagine he’s here, on a parallel trail or around the next corner. “Hey, you,” he might say, just like he used to on cold afternoons in the empty bio lab, one dimple punctuating his cheek. “Run with me,” he might say. But he doesn’t. Because there is nothing here but elevation, vegetation, isolation.
The trails today are dry, and cold. If I could, I would take my shoes off to feel pure dirt against my callused skin, even though I know how my dad would feel about that. But the smooth parts of the trail never stay that way. There are always rocks ahead, tree branches, or pebbled streams to slow me down. In the meantime, there are footprints, hundreds of them, to speed me up. Miles of ghost runners, sprinting before me, their proof carried away with each strike of my feet against the earth. They were here, then one step and poof—they’re gone. The footprints could belong to anyone: a dry cleaner, a cardiologist, Mr. Owens, my mother.
So I chase the ghost runners. I push myself until I feel my breath burn in my throat, for my heart to pulse all way down to my fingertips. With every step, there is another tiny tear in my muscles, another sliver of welcome pain for my tomorrow-morning quadriceps. I could outrun gravity at this pace and still never find whatever—or whomever—it is I am looking for. This, I think, is poetry.
“Just like your mother,” my dad always tells me, “always running.”
I’d like to argue that we’re different, but I don’t really know. I rack my brain for details—the one brown patch in her blue-gray eyes, the lambskin coat she wore in winter—but all that surfaces are parts of pictures, fragments from the very few photographs I have of her. I chase memories that could be real or dreamed, memories I’m sure will solidify around the next corner, if only I run faster.
But then it’s over. The trail ends abruptly in the smooth, sane pavement of the parking lot. I can feel the crust of salt on my forehead, beads of sweat pooling at the base of my back. My lungs are raw, heaving, and my sated heart thumps, slowing and emptying, back to normalcy.
Ana Maria Ventura is a fiction writer living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Instant City, Boston Literary, and Bang Out: A Quick and Dirty Reading Series and its publication. She is a teacher of creative writing, a writer of fiction, and a runner of marathons.
* * *
Going Home By Christopher Volk
The grain turned to honey as the sun churned its yellowed hair. Low in the sky, it burned the land brown, changing the earth to chaff, dust tossed.
He walked down the narrow gravel road leading up to the house. Time had shortened his stride. Age showed beneath his fingernails. Like the rings in an old tree.
Faded overalls and a straw hat were his only companions as the sun sank deeper. Gravel crunching under his boots, he watched as a breeze rolled across the swaying grain. Ripples in a lake. The sun nearly low enough to ride as a great glowing ship, set sail for distant shores.
The house was a small one. Only one story, and yet with so many empty rooms, dusty, white paint peeling along the window frames, exposing dark red wood, it lay in the midst of ever-stretching fields like a chunk of broken chalk. It had a little porch, pressed against the door, a short railing hemming in barely enough space for a chair. Still, it was his home. And had been for sixty years. A family home. Passed down from father to son to father to son to father.
He came up the front steps and to the door. He took the doorknob in his hand, already cool despite the bristling day, and slowly clicked it open. It was always left unlocked. The house was planted along the side of a narrow road that kissed both horizons, shimmering away in either direction into nothingness and melting grain.
And, as the years sifted by, there was nothing inside his home that he considered particularly worth protecting.
As he entered, he looked into the kitchen, hopeful, but turned slowly away, heading to the dining room. He passed an old organ, carved smoothly like chocolate out of cherry wood, with keys uncovered and beaming-white in the faltering light. Instead of skimming them with his fingertips, he simply passed with his fingers a couple inches above the keys and shut his eyes for a moment. Light felt its way into the house from a few wide windows, since the lamps remained unlit, and caught dust stirred into the air by his passing fingers. It swam, coasting from the surface of the keys.
The dining room was small, like the rest of the house, but it seemed wide, and as empty as a vacuum, as he eased himself into a chair at the bare dinner table. There was too much space. Pictures hung, lonely, on the walls. The only furniture being the table and chair. He recalled when the table had been much longer, broader, challenging the walls to cave out. As the seasons passed, grain yearly lit and snuffed like a row of advent candles, the table grew smaller and smaller. Chairs surrendered to dust in the barn. He wondered in how many cases grief could be measured in square feet. Two was his answer.
He understood that.
As he sat quietly, breathing in deeply the rich musk of worn hardwood floor and the fresh earth rubbed into his overalls, the sun pierced the horizon and spilled itself across the fields. Gold to crimson. The table’s polished surface painted a deep, warm red. As each minute passed, the cherry-light grew deeper and deeper. And he knew that he had to get moving—there were things which still needed to be done before the light failed entirely.
He rose, sighing, creaking, from the table and pushed the chair in after himself. He walked through the halls of the house one last time, stepping into each of the rooms, standing for a moment, and then checking to ensure the lights were out, shutting each door carefully, and locking it. He went through his house in this fashion. Before he came to the front door, he paused at a row of four photographs hung on the wall. Small portraits that could fit in the palm of a hand. Each one, he slid from its hook, smiled at for a moment, straining his old eyes in the fading light, and then slipped into his deep overalls’ pocket, patting the pocket each time to ensure that they were protected.
By this time, the house was doused in the blood-light of the setting sun and he could feel it warm on the back of his neck as he approached the front door, filling in from the West windows. He let the door drift closed after him, its own weight carrying it, and then turned a small greying key in its lock. A bolt shifting into place.
He could still distinctly remember when, many decades in the past, before he stopped attending the town church twenty miles West, he would lock up the house and herd his wife and three kids to his small red pickup, just as the sun began to climb the horizon, shoes slick with fresh dew by the time they had entered the church’s doors. He would sit with his family in the third pew back from the front. He would wear his one suit. The suit that now hung wrinkled in a wardrobe. He hated that suit. What it later entailed.
He began again on the gravel driveway. A large red barn towered in the opposite field across the road.
He had once enjoyed spending his Sunday within the doors of a church. The cross led down the aisle. The rigid pews. The hymnals that smelled of musty October leaves. He was too old now.
Bones sore and joints tattered, he couldn’t kneel down no more. Head bowed, palms held upwards, as an elderly man sidled over to place a piece of bread, with shaking hand, upon his tongue. He was too tired.
The world pooled in orange and crimson, he could still sense the setting sun resting on his neck.
He was too old. His hands were too unsteady to guide the cup to his lips. His voice too much like dried corn husks to match the hymnal’s spidery-ink etchings.
Pushing through waist deep grain, after crossing the road, pavement cooling, he stepped into a wide clearing of flattened dirt surrounding the barn. He approached its side and hefted a huge door, puffing as it screeched on its rails. The barn was a mess. Boxes stacked haphazardly in every corner, junk hanging off hooks, and the main floor covered in bits and pieces of scrap metal, as if seven cars had been stripped and beaten down. A small metal crate sat on its own off to the side. He crossed the barn’s floor, crackling straw, and gripped the crate, staggering as he pulled it up. He set it outside the barn, but, before shutting the barn’s doors, he walked to the center of the barn and gazed at the piles of boxes. Each box stenciled with a fading phrase, detailing the contents. It was in his wife’s handwriting. A rusting kid’s tricycle hung from a hook in the wall. Three Spelling Bee trophies pointed out like spearheads from an open box. The trumpet almost half buried behind the boxes caught his eye and his gaze dwelled on it longest of all. It was always easier to consider the bright kid than it was the man. There was also an empty, cobwebbed water dish labeled with Bartley in black.
He needed rest. He couldn’t dig through those boxes; he would emerge half-covered in dust and smelling of stale cardboard.
Closing the barn door was more difficult than opening it. It got jammed and he had to wiggle it and then shove it even harder, as if he was trying to roll some enormous stone. It eventually shifted and gasped closed. He stooped, lifted the crate, and then rounded the barn, circling it to the other side.
The sun having nearly disappeared, the air cool, the light steadily growing dimmer, the moon stood out bright in a thin, blue sky that was pinpricked with a few stars sparking to life.
He set the crate at his feet on the opposite side of the barn, beside five red canisters of fuel, the barn blocking even more of the sun’s last rays. The wheat in the fields grew heavy as shadows breathed deeper and darker. He regarded the sky.
It was vast.
The wide, open field that extended in every direction was consumed by the largeness of the sky. Feeling as if the barn or the grain or the house or the road or he could at any moment be sucked into the giant, deepening hole above his head, he strained his eyes to make out more stars. One by one, they materialized. Lending substance to the heavens.
Then, he walked to it.
It stood tall and slender and sliver and gleaming. Born.
He placed his palm against its side. The metal was warm. Like the glazed crust of freshly baked bread that’s been pulled from the oven.
It was time. He stood by the rocket.
And said a quiet Goodbye
Christopher Volk studies English Literature and Writing, as well as Theology, at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. He writes short stories and is hoping to start work on a novel soon.
* * *
Sugar-Plum Road By Vivian Zenari
“What do you think of a country where you can pick up sugar-plums along the road?” Margot asked Sandra suddenly.
Sandra said, “Sugar-plums aren’t plants.”
Sandra and her roommate Margot were sitting together under the crab-apple tree in their drug dealer’s backyard. They were waiting for him to come home so they could score some heroin.
Sandra wore a red hoodie with the word “Electric” in white script across the front and a pair of grey yoga pants. Her legs stretched out in front of her. She flicked her ankles forward and backward so that her pink flip-flops slapped against the bottoms of her naked feet in a steady rhythm.
Margot sat cross-legged, her small hands on her kneecaps with the palms turned upwards as though she were meditating. She wore black: a black hoodie, black jeans and black high-tops. The hood was pulled over her head.
Margot and Sandra hadn’t had a conversation since their fight that morning over the missing bottle of perfume. Margot had run into her bedroom, slammed the door, and stayed there. Since neither of them was working, they didn’t have anywhere to go anyway, so Sandra watched MTV and waited it out in the living room. At two o’clock, Margot came out of her bedroom and muttered, “Let’s go see Buzz.”
Above Buzz’s backyard, the sky was full of grey clouds. Yellow leaves were falling from the apple tree. Every two minutes or so, another leaf detached itself from a branch and pinwheeled to the ground. The leaves fell on the deadfall crab-apples on the dying lawn.
“Is that a fact?” Margot said. “How the fuck do you know that?”
Sandra narrowed her eyes. “Do you have to be so rude?”
Margot grunted. She picked up a crab-apple and squeezed it. It crumpled in her fist. She picked up another crab-apple and squeezed it. This one remained firm. Margot continued in a quieter voice. “It’s from a story I read when I was a kid. It’s the first line of the story.”
A sidewalk led from the backyard through a gate at the side of the house and out to the front. Sandra stared at the gate as though she was expecting something to come through it into the backyard. “What’s the story about?”
“It was about Dutch kids,” Margot said. “That’s all I remember.”
A bus rolled past the front of the house with a hydraulic sigh. Farther away, a car alarm went off. A leaf fluttered down and landed on Margot’s knee.
“Why do you think you can remember the first sentence?” Sandra asked.
Margot shrugged. “I guess I read the story a lot when I was a kid. We didn’t have a lot of books. Sometimes it pops into my head.”
“Why did you think about that sentence right now?”
"Don’t know,” Margot said. “Bored, I guess.” She picked up the leaf on her knee with her index finger and thumb and tossed it up in the air. “How do you know what sugar plums are?” The leaf fluttered down and landed on the ground on top of a crab-apple.
“I made sugar plums when I was a kid,” Sandra said.
“Oh, yeah?” Margot said. “I never even seen one of the sons of bitches.” She looked at Sandra full in the face for the first time. “What do they look like?”
“They’re round and covered with sugar.”
“And they’re made of plums?”
“No. They’re made of nuts and dried fruit of different kinds.”
“That sounds gross,” Margot said. “I hate dried fruit.”
"They tasted pretty good,” Sandra said.
“I can’t believe it,” Margot said. “All those years, and now I find out that’s what they are.” She leaned away from Sandra. “That’s what they think is all the shit in Dutchland or whatever,” she muttered. “They dream about dried fruit.”
A car drove down the street in front of the house, out of sight. Veils of sunlight fell through the gaps in the clouds. A dog barked.
Sandra brushed her long black bangs from her eyes. “I used to make them with my granna,” she said. “Every Christmas, we used to make them.”
"So is your granna Dutch or something?”
“No,” Sandra said. “She’s dead now.”
Margot leaned her head back against the tree trunk. She stayed that way for many minutes. After a while Margot groaned. “God, when is Buzz going to get here?”
Sandra didn’t answer. She stared at the kneecaps of her outstretched legs. The roof of Buzz’s house glowed orange. The sun was setting. Sandra shielded her eyes from the light.
Margot shook her head from side to side. “What the fuck,” she said. “What the fuck.”
The clouds spread themselves thin in the sky and covered the darkening sky. The light on the roof faded. A tepid breeze rose up with a hiss of leaves.
Margot dropped the crab-apple from her right hand. “Some stupid book someone bought sometime from Goodwill with bingo money.” She curled her left hand into a fist and punched her left thigh.
In the near distance, a rising growl of traffic signalled the beginning of rush hour. Sandra tilted her head towards the sound. “People going home,” she said quietly. She sniffed.
Margot shivered. She buried her head deeper in her hood. “I can’t believe it.” She shifted out of her lotus position and pulled her knees to her chest. She let her shoulder touch Sandra’s shoulder.
Vivian Zenari's work has appeared in The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, On Spec, QWERTY, and Curaggia: Writing by Women of Italian Descent. She lives, works, and writes in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
* * *
Searching for a Metaphor By Chase D. Cartwright
I was going to church when the leaves had changed. They were no longer the impenetrable wall of green. No, now they were the striking orange and red that set fire to the lake beneath them.
I had mistakenly remembered that church started at 8 a.m. when it actually started at 8:30; and with a thirty minute drive home, I decided to walk through the park and admire the leaves before attending my service. The air stung my lungs with its cold breeze which kept most other park patrons inside and left me in my solitary contemplation. Walking into the tree line, I disappeared from the world watching the smoke pulse from my lips into the cold morning air.
The fallen leaves cracked under the clacking of my square leather church shoes. The birds echoed in the air and the branches scratched against each other in the beautiful polyphonic orchestra. I came to the first fork in the walkway and I thought about Robert Frost and his road less traveled. The paths in front of me were both identically paved and covered in crushed brown leaves, and as much as I would have loved the beauty of finding the path less traveled, I did not find any such sublime metaphor. Instead, I simply chose the path that led to the lake (I always enjoyed watching the perfectly still water –like glass—before the wind picked up and disturbed the reflections.
Ahead of me, was an old boat dock that was breaking and sagged almost underwater in the middle. The mold stained boards creaked under my wait as I took a seat at the end of the dock. This particular park is in the middle of the city, but somehow the lake’s perimeter blocks out the noise of the interstate and the smell of the dog food plant across town. No, in this exact spot, the world disappeared. It was silent here. All you could see was the withering lilly pads and the squirrels scurrying across the fields.
My phone assured me that I didn’t lose myself too much. The neon screen read 8:10 –plenty of time to get back in time for mass. So I moved on and returned to the paved walkway admiring the long grass and folded flowers.
There was an older woman walking her dog. She struck me odd as she was somehow unperturbed by the cold weather like some kind of fearless traveler. Does she think the same about me, I wonder. I passed her with my typical ‘hello’ and moved my head down to avoid any further conversation. She returned the favor with her ‘good morning’ and kept moving down the pavement.
The pavement bended and in front of me stood wall of tress enveloping the walkway and blocking sight from any further steps. I had walked these paths many times, but this was somehow different. It felt like I had been here for my entire life. Like this was the only place I knew; that anything away from this walkway was false and just a projection on a screen that I had been watching for my whole life. I moved into the shadows of the trees again and knew that around this curve in the road the trees cleared and revealed the entirety of the lake and overlooked the prairie fields. I checked my phone: 8:15. Time to walk back and go to church.
I pivoted around and walked along the asphalt with a hurried gait and my head down watching my feet with my hands in my pockets as they had gone numb long ago. I saw the woman I had crossed earlier. She must have assumed that I was lost since I was walking back the same path that I had come, but I did not know how to correct her so I tried avoiding any comments.
To no avail, she noticed me and said, “You’re going to miss the prettiest part.” I responded, “Moses never reached the promised land either.” She didn’t laugh.
Chase Cartwright is currently a graduate student at Argosy University where he studies forensic psychology. He works at a group home and volunteers for a local literary journal called The Whistling Shade. He has previously been published by The Ashford Review and The Popular Culture Review.
* * *
Latchkey Kid By Aileen Godat
I'm eleven years old. My world is very small. What little extra I want or need I have to steal. Nobody's on my side. The burden of abuse and fear, coupled with the inability to learn in school, sends me free falling through adolescence. I slip through the cracks. I like it here. I find solitude and peace in the shadows. Like the other kids who have gone underground out of necessity, I look for comfort and fulfillment in all the wrong places. I gravitate toward the unsupervised, the overlooked; kids whose mothers work all day or whose parents just don't care.
I find Mandy Tetaroni. Mandy lives on Forty-eighth Street in the fifth court, as we call the inner yards of the red brick buildings that line the entire block. When the time is right, after everyone is settled at their jobs and in school, we make our way out of our hiding places. Emerging from under steps, between buildings, and subway platforms.
I walk slowly down Queens Boulevard along the tall retaining wall of Calvary Cemetery. I feel lost. I'm not in my body, yet still alive. It’s a frozen gust that slaps me back to self-awareness.
“It's cold.” I half think, half say aloud.
The angry wind hits my bare legs, sending my plaid, pleated skirt swirling up to reveal my white panties. I left the house with wet hair this morning, now the mousy brown ends are icy strands.
The grey stone embankment stretches uninterrupted nine long city blocks. I imagine that each boulder in the wall is absorbing my pain and I stop to lean against its wet, cold body for support. The cemetery wall has tears. We weep together. By the time I reach the end, the water from yesterday's puddles seeps through the holes in my saddle shoes and soaks my thin, white ankle socks.
I'm overwhelmed with anger, I've been pushed out, shamed, blamed for sins I never committed; humiliated, I've been targeted by the abusers and made to endure their attentions. I've been hit and forced to hit back, my teeth are rotting and I imagine I will become toothless like my father. Where other children are comforted and understood, supported and protected, I am not. Instead I'm criticized and rejected.
I scream out until my chest aches. My voice is drowned out by the busy stream of traffic along the boulevard. In that moment a motorist sees me, in the next, they’re gone. They’re gone, and that comforts me and enables me to vent without the danger of dismissal or worse.
My eyes burn. Tears freeze to my cheeks.
I'm almost to Mandy's now, where I will meet up with the five or six kids whose names never penetrate my psyche, but seem important to me now. Kids who never shared their stories, whose mothers I never met.
The hallway door lock is broken. I enter and climb the dark flights of stairs to the third floor. I ring the doorbell. It’s harsh and loud. I hold my breath. I know I'm doing something wrong. Mandy answers the door, lets me in and we wait. When the others arrive we pool the money we earlier stole from the pockets and purses of our parents, tally it and send the newest among us to the candy store on the corner of Fifty-eighth Street and Queens Boulevard. I took my turn once, and hated it. I wonder if some kids are more disposed to the task than others.
The same man is always behind the counter. He knows what we want. A rectangular box containing the dozen tubes of airplane glue that we will use to pacify our despair. Along with the glue he supplies us with number two brown paper bags. Just the right size to fit snuggly over our little noses and mouths.
Once the rosy-cheeked boy returns, the next step is simple. Fold the bag down twice, empty the tubes of sticky-fumed substance into the bottom, lift to face, inhale. The effect is instant, a strong vibration that starts in my ears, and grows into a numbing roar. The awful metallic taste lessening in offense with every breath. The buzz is deep and consuming, gripping my every sense, promising to hold me tight and not let go. We sit huffing glue like babies on an artificial feeder, sucking for our lives. The painful reality is that the glue dries up.
I desperately reach over and take the bag of the kid next to me. It goes unnoticed for a moment then causes a slow moving hum of conflict. Barely coherent, we take from each other, then reclaim our bags until there is nothing left.
The last time I subjected my brain and body to huffing I had what I later learned is called delirium tremens known as the DTs. The buzzing vibration that overtakes my reality reaches its peak, the wall before my eyes melts like in a horror movie, every type of insect, rat, snake, and bat comes through the apartment wall, while it drips goo and dissolves before my eyes. I'm overwhelmed with fear and leave before settling back to normalcy. Walking back along my weeping wall, I think about the dead and their souls held in by the huge smooth stones. I wonder how many were kids. How many died with a small number two bag covering their despair. I'm alive and walking home, thinking of how I might maneuver my reentry into the chaos that is my family. Harsh, unforgiving, hurtful, abusive, it is predictable and for a moment I feel a morsel of comfort in the familiar. I will have to find a new group of kids to cut school with a new apartment to close myself up in and new less frightening poisons to deaden and deny my failing childhood.
Born in Queens, New York, Aileen Godat is a full time childcare provider in Taos, New Mexico. At age sixteen she recognized she was illiterate and taught herslef to read and write. By twenty-seven she became a Montessori preschool teacher and has since dedicated her life to the growth and nurture of children for the past thirty-three years.
* * *
Where Dogs Fart By Cindy Matthews
My mood is sour after three flights from Toronto, Ontario to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. I’m so famished I can eat a cake tin. On 50th we find the highly touted Gold Range Bistro. It’s past the lunch rush. Our server, who is between fifty and seventy, greets us with a grunt. She says, “Sit where you like,” while still eyeballing her soap opera on a tiny portable TV hanging above the bar. During commercials, she chums with a burly, bald guy sitting near the cash register. She refills his coffee cup to the brim. The stir-fry my husband, John, and I share is fresh and edible. Our requests for more water are ignored.
After the meal, I read my fortune out loud. “Travel is food for the soul.” I let out a little laugh. John has to remind the server to make out a bill for us. I slide a few quarters under my plate.
Before we leave the bistro, I adjust the suspenders holding my flannel-lined jeans. I tighten the laces of my good-to-minus-forty boots. My balaclava, still soaked with moist breath, smells like rotten teeth. The sidewalk outside the bistro has a metre-thick build-up of ice and crimson splotches are embedded in it.
John says, “Hell of a big order of fries someone dumped here.”
It’s clearly blood from a brawl, I think.
“We should have asked the waitress if the auroras are still going,” I say into a gust of wind.
“Like she’d care,” John says.
Later that evening we prepare for our dogsled-aurora ride. I read online that the night temperature is expected to be -40 and colder if the wind picks up. I debate how many more clothes I should wear. Just dress in layers, my logical brain argues. Within seconds I curse the pair of long johns that have already crept up my butt crack. The double-layer of socks feels like casts.
“You’ll need snow pants, you know,” John says.
I scoff at that. I tug on a t-shirt, a wool pullover, a dickey, and then the parka. I adjust the lined pants. My arms poke like branches from my body. I pull a balaclava over my head and adjust it over my face so only my eyes are showing. My hat is fur-lined and has ear flaps. I tug on wool socks and boots before pulling on finger gloves and insulated mittens. I glance over at the snow pants I’ve left abandoned on the corner of the bed. I am as ready as I can be.
Once seated in the tour van, I can’t breathe. The over-zealous heater makes me nauseous. I try to open a window but can’t manage because of all the clothes I’m wearing. By the time we arrive at the sledding place, I feel a great urge to strip off every bit of clothing I’ve got on.
I lean against a chain link fence where the secured sled dogs yip in anticipation. Our female musher gives me and the other tourists the once-over. She instructs us to wait in a shed while she hooks the dogs up to the gang line. Lined pants, insulated rubber boots, and mittens hang from the walls, ready for rental by unprepared tourists. Arrogance washes over me since I am satisfied I know how to dress for the conditions.
The dogs lurch, waiting for the ‘Go’ command. John, a nurse from Vancouver, a couple of others, and I slide into the sled. Our musher presses each person’s legs around the body of the person in front. I notice that my calves hurt when the musher exerts her weight against them. Within minutes, we’re off. The air soon snaps with dog flatulence. Ice crystals form on my lashes and cold bites my eyeballs.
Our musher shouts, “Duck,” as the sled slithers under naked tree branches. We sail along the hard pack at a rapid clip. I lean against John’s chest to escape the frigid air slapping my eyebrows, the only part of my face exposed to the frigid air. The sled lifts and soars. When it crashes to the icy track below, it lands with a thud, only to rise again toward the star-flecked sky above.
Within minutes, we slither to a stop. We step from the sled’s clutch and glue our eyes on the sky. Still too early. Black as velvet. The night sky is clear and the only ambient light is from a wisp of new moon and tourist cell phones. We enter an uninsulated cabin. The musher ignites paper and wood inside a rusty oil barrel. We soon sip warm cocoa and chew ginger cookies. We redress and step outside so Japanese tourists can take their turn by the barrel. We overhear that a young married couple intends to copulate in the cabin once the auroras begin. They desire a luck-filled baby.
After a few minutes outside, the cold soon penetrates the thick soles of my boots and swallows my legs. Our group soon requests another turn by the barrel. Once inside, our musher says, “Strip off your socks.” Mine are damp with sweat. After I manage to peel the socks off, I sandwich my stiff, icy toes with my fingers.
“My toes are sweating. How can that be?” I whisper-yell to no one in particular. My frozen jaw chatters with each word I utter.
Our musher sits on a lounge chair in the farthest corner from the barrel. The straps of her overalls lay folded along the upper part of her muscular arms. Her eyes are half-closed as she listens to the oohs and ahhs coming from her sled-tourists.
She says, “I see the auroras all the time. Nothing special.”
I feel crushed by her casual indifference.
Within minutes, she says, “Now. Come outside, everyone.”
From behind gnarly tree silhouettes, threads of green light finger the sky. I tighten the drawstrings on my parka hood and recline on the frozen lake to wait for the show. Cold gnaws my spine while delicate bands of green and pink light kiss my eyes. I squeal with delight. My husband adjusts his tripod and starts clicking. I twist my head in order to take in the whole sky in one glance. My mouth hangs open in awe. Strips of light arch to form a chain from one end of the horizon to the other. God puffs on the auroras causing them to lengthen, dance, and undulate. Aurora curtains open and swirl to music playing in my head. And, then, as fast as they form, they cease.
“Five more minutes, then back in the sled. We must return,” says the musher. “It is late.”
Whoa, no more turns at the barrel, I think.
My feet and lower legs throb to the knees. The boots are cinder-blocks as I trudge to the sled and awaiting dogs. My lungs snap with the cold. The Vancouver nurse nestles against my awaiting thighs which are so icy-cold they’re now blazing. Within moments, we begin to weave in and out of black spruce. The only sounds are the whine of the sled’s runners gliding on hard pack interspersed with the soft jingle of the dogs’ collars.
“Look, there and there and there,” says my husband from his position behind me. His arm jabs past my face and I can feel the rough fabric of his sleeve snagging against my balaclava-covered cheeks. “Auroras. Best ones yet.”
I curl into my chest, stuff my mittened hands into my arm pits, and pray my husband doesn’t figure out I’ve squeezed my frozen eyes shut. It’s hard to care when my attention is drawn to my imminent death.
All at once the sled grinds to a stop. “Everyone out,” says the musher. Even her seasoned cheeks are flushed with the minus temperatures and wind chill. She quickly leans down, extends a mittened hand and releases us from the clutch of the sled. I don’t recall the trip from the van to my bed. I suspect I floated; I am that close to becoming an angel. Back at the bed and breakfast, I’m too exhausted to check my feet for blackened toes. I cocoon in a pile of blankets and shiver myself to sleep.
In my dream-filled night I run naked through woods as dark as velvet. Our musher is chasing me. Harnessed dogs bark but their voices are mute. A giant’s face glows from the sky. It’s the server from the bistro. Her face is so deeply creased I’m fearful her wrinkles will swallow me. She extends lime green fingers and I hesitate before grabbing on. She caresses my frozen body before releasing it skyward.
The next morning, someone drags a water delivery hose in the snow past my window of the bed and breakfast. The rasping sound of the hose draws me awake and I feel buzzed to discover I’m actually alive.
Cindy Matthews has worked as a chamber maid, potato peeler, data entry operator, teacher, and vice-principal of special education programs. She writes, paints, and instructs online courses for teachers in Bruce County, Ontario, Canada. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Story and Picture, The Bohemyth, Severine Literary Journal, Pure Slush, Ascent Aspirations, The Belle Journal, Tincture Journal, Steel Chisel, Rural Voice, Ricochet Magazine, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Gamblers Mag, and Rhubarb Magazine. She is a frequent book reviewer for Prick of the Spindle and Professionally Speaking. Her creative non-fiction piece, 'Nothing by Mouth', was shortlisted in the 2014 Event Magazine Non-Fiction Contest.
* * *
On Not-Skiing By Nick Mancuso
I do not ski.
I never have, and shy of a three hour lesson when I was fourteen at Powder Ridge in Southington, in which I learned absolutely nothing, I still to this day don’t. I had no idea what a ski vacation was. The word vacation alone makes me think of sunglasses and palm trees and drinking entirely too much rum at seventeen years old. My definition of vacation is something I’ve associated through my own experiences with family vacations, weeks spent in the Caribbean, or the Bahamas, long silent days by turquoise waters tearing through pulpy novels.
When my partner of six years, Lisa, came home from work one day excitedly waving a raffle-won, embossed gift certificate for a two-night stay at a luxury ski resort in Deer Valley, Utah, I, a non-skier, albeit someone who relishes such luxurious things, (especially ones that have explicitly the word luxury in their titles) begged to go. Upon assuming we were going together (perhaps incorrectly) I realized that my attendance on this trip was hardly assured, she politely and sweetly told me she’d let me know. I eventually discovered that due to my lack of interest in skiing, I was only one of many competitors to go with her to Utah for this stay.
There are a myriad of reasons as to why I don’t ski. Firstly, there are the chairlifts. I have a mild (read: extreme) fear of heights. If I’m not contained in something, like a balcony with a railing, or a hefty roller coaster harness, where I’m strapped in and spot-checked by a hungover teenager at an amusement park, I’m positively riddled with fear. I suddenly get dizzy, or imagine, vividly, falling from the height. Once, I rode a chairlift, during the aforementioned three-hour-ski-lesson-when-I-was-fourteen and the lift stopped with a grinding halt, and our chair swung there, suspended eighty feet up, swaying with the breeze, as I, with twenty pounds of polycarbonate carbon fiber hanging off my dangling feet, was paralyzed with fear for the ninety seconds until it continued moving.
I ended up hurtling down the mountain beside the instructor who just kept yelling “Make pizza not French fries!” and I yelled in return “SEND FOR HELP!” I’m sure it doesn’t necessitate me saying this directly, but I also am the most physically uncoordinated a human can be. It took me three full summers to learn how to balance to ride a bicycle, and even the most casual of ice skating eludes me. I also don’t like that the word ski is one letter away from being the word “skin,” something I can only imagine in this context is in verb form. Didn’t Sonny Bono die skiing?
My disinterest in skiing aside, Lisa, being the wonderful partner she is, happily informed me a few hours later that she would love if I came with her, and suggested I spend the weekend writing in the resort while she took to the slopes. I, overjoyed, imagined myself in the lap of luxury, eating gourmet meals and being on (to paraphrase a song my undergrad roommate sung often) “a twenty-four-hour champagne diet.” I did not, prior to arriving at the hotel understand how equally important the word “ski” was to the phrase “luxury ski resort.” Also, I should note, that before the five hour flight and the hour long drive to the airport, I truly did not know how much skiing meant to Lisa.
When we met, in college, poverty stricken, forced to drink vodka so cheap it could stand in for rubbing-alcohol, she mentioned she liked skiing and I nodded along, thinking that was a thing people said but didn’t really mean, like, I like the outdoors, and I voted for Mitt Romney. Little did I know, her lack of skiing in undergrad was a direct result of our abject student poverty. Six years later, during the eight hours of transit together from Boston to Utah, Lisa extolled how much she loved skiing, recanted great skiing trips she took with her family, all over northern New Hampshire and Maine. She explained how in her family, as soon as a baby could walk, they would put them on skis. For a brief while, my mind was besieged with images of two-year olds in onesies, barely walking, toddling, skidding down the side of a mountain, goggles askew.
Driving from Salt Lake City airport to the hotel, we ascended a mountain, my ears popping three times as we drove, and discovered this enormous complex nestled in the crux of two peaks, overlooking the valley for miles. Upon arriving at the resort, in the lobby I spotted a positively enormous pile of slender bags, containing, yes you guessed it, skis. There had to be fifteen or twenty pairs.
I hadn’t any idea that ski-culture was a thing. I’m astonished that people have whole shops and dedicated channels and specialty magazines about skiing. Okay, strike that last one, there are specialty magazines for everything, ergo the existence of Miniature Donkey Magazine.
The more Lisa explained, the more I began to see the differences in our upbringings. Her family, were ski people. They savored the winter, took ski vacations, opened the windows during the snow to take long breaths, enjoying the “crispness” of the air. My family, we were different, we were swim people. We took vacations to tropical destinations, we wore sunglasses and got suntans, drank mojitos and rode jet-skis. We’d sit out in the sun all day, rising from our lounges to change position and even our tans.
Ski people are a different breed altogether. At lunch at the hotel, I first noticed them, duck-footed in their ski boots, their steps wide, their ankles immobilized. They all walked like zombies, snowsuits half-off, their snow pants making whooshing sounds against each other as they passed in the pub at the resort. They chattered about equipment, nodded and cheersed over local beer so bad you can tell Utah was a dry state until 1996. In their commonality they have a lexicon all their own, things I didn’t realize meant things aside from their dictionary definition. For example, moguls: not mighty industry leaders, instead; smallish bumps to ski over. A black diamond is not a dark-colored blood diamond, instead the hardest ski-trail. A binding is not the spine of a book, instead the clasp mechanism for their boots. My personal favorite; runs, not in this case a synonym for diarrhea, and apparently are a trip down a mountain, not to a waiting toilet.
Ski people are different though. Conversing in this common language is a universalizing thing we swim people don’t have. Oh sure, we can explain a preference for breast-stroke over butterfly, but that about taps out our conversation on the topic of swimming. Everyone can know how to swim to survive, but not everyone can ski.
In a resort of the size it was, as Lisa went out for her ‘runs,’ not-skiing gave me an opportunity to explore the magnitude of this compound, discover the outdoor pool, and sit to have coffee on the balcony of our room while I heard the skiing masses whoosh by. There was an unspoken recognition between us non-skiers, those left behind. The bond was incomparable to the intra-skier relationship, much less camaraderie. In the lounge overlooking the valley, I passed a man sitting by the fire with a laptop, his lower leg casted in white and up on the coffee table. We exchanged a nod, as if to recognize that we were both not out on the slopes. I wanted to sit down with him and talk, find out how he broke his leg (realistically probably from skiing) build our own commonality in non-skiing. Maybe we could make fun of the passing skiers. We didn’t.
Utah is strange. Smoking is, apparently, still a thing here. The airport has smoking sections, and I even watched someone light up a cigarette in the lobby of the hotel. The state seems obsessed with bees, everything seems mildly bee-themed, from the “Buzz” coffee shops to the beehive symbols on the highway signs. I don’t understand why. They ask at restaurants if you’d like a wine list instead of just bringing it with the menu, and how many are in your Valentine’s Day dinner reservation, as if for some reason, it’s for more than two.
Beyond the borders of the ski mountains, there isn’t a lot in Utah, and Park City is a lot smaller than I thought, the downtown area is one street, a quarter of a mile long. In the windows beyond the coffee shop where we had lunch, skiers clomp, lead-footed in helmets, carrying skis by.
Things are much further apart here.
We drove twenty miles to a German themed steak-house one night. We crossed back through the dark valley, the night so thick the mountains blocked the stars. There aren’t a lot of trees in the valley, it’s almost like a desert. Up in the mountains, there are these vast forests of birch and pine trees that slope down the valleys.
The third day we were there, I went for a walk early in the morning, my biological clock still two hours ahead. The sun had just started to come up, sneaking from behind a faraway mountain and the valley was bright, I could see for miles, a low fog clung around the mountain tops. I walked a bit down the mountain road as the sun came up over the valley. I was out there alone, with the mountains and the sun, and my breath frosting a cloud.
Maybe I don’t understand skiing. Maybe I can’t.
Maybe people were right, maybe Lisa should have brought someone else, someone who can appreciate the majesty of this, enjoy the rush downhill ‘carving’ through the ‘powder.’ Maybe this was wasted on me. Maybe my quiet moment on the morning mountain was just a tiny piece of what it means to ski. Maybe, just maybe, watching the skiers relish their post-slopes awful beer, maybe their toasts and their camaraderie made me feel a little left out of their shared satisfaction of a day truly conquered. The human achievement urge is so powerful, that these bold (or stupid) people braved a rickety chairlift, to the top of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, and slid gracefully down it, claiming it as their own, their blades carving their mark into this titan of nature, this elemental component of topography. Back, even before dark, they slayed their day, did the impossible, had an experience unlike any other. They were (however clichéd) on top of the world. It’s the same achievement as climbing mountains, or sailing across the sea, “You skied Deer Valley? Impressive!” It was another badge of success that Lisa could pin to her cluttered sash like a girl scout, alongside local mountains, Gunstock, Okemo, Sunday River, and Pawtuckaway, this one would make a fine centerpiece.
A trip like this for people like us is rare. We’re young, we don’t make a lot of money. A chance to ski one of the most prime mountains in the world may never come again, and I’m glad Lisa got the chance to do it.
We’re on our nighttime flight back to Boston now. My reading light is casting a narrow pillar of yellow light onto my lap as Lisa snoozes beside me, blissfully exhausted. As she slept contentedly, I thought about how happy she looked when she came back from the slopes at the end of the day, how breathless, excited, and rosy cheeked after a day of prime skiing.
Maybe I don’t understand skiing, but the jealousy I felt for her surprised even myself.
Nick Mancuso earned his Bachelor of Arts in Literary & Cultural Studies from Bryant University, and his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. Despite being a Connecticut native, he presently lives in and is learning to love Boston, Massachusetts. His work has been published in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, The Rhode Island Small Business Journal and The Garbanzo Literary Journal.
* * *
Coals Still Burning
By William Pomeroy
One morning just before Christmas, my mother could not find her groceries.
She had carried in several bags then answered a phone call.
A few minutes later, she went to retrieve the balance.
They were gone.
It did not trouble her greatly: “Maybe someone needed them more.”
But we started locking our doors that night.
Our neighborhood always had been safe and comfortable: retirees with small plots near the river, borderline picturesque homes.
Our house was tan with green shutters and a white picket fence. When, months beforehand, an electrical fire destroyed our backyard woodshed, Mom had constructed a large one-room suite to fulfill her dream of a bed and breakfast. The waterfront view was enchanting until a giant, gray, prefabricated building appeared between and swallowed the open lot.
My older sisters implored Mom to be cautious, less than naïve enough to leave open her car—but it was Christmas. We lost ourselves in company, savoring rare treats that descried our collective love individually.
Swept away in Utopian peace by giving and receiving, we convinced ourselves that danger had passed. The crime was freakish, but isolated.
A thick snow fell on December 27 while my father and I hunted the creek beyond his farmhouse. Mallards, black ducks, scaup and Canadas poured in, visibility low, not detecting snow piled on backs of decoys. I crashed into the river sporadically to dip them, but there was hardly time between volleys to drink our thermos of hot chocolate. Scalding barrels warmed our hands as falling white powder hid their dark-gray smoke. And their burning stench alloyed the air while empty shells multiplied.
After carrying double handfuls of birds into the plywood shed and looping cord around their purple-tinted black and chrome green, bulging heads, slinging them over a crossbeam to age, I sat before the woodstove, devouring smoked salmon and homemade cinnamon rolls. Full and happily tired, I washed away the cold sweat of melting snow in a hot shower.
Thoughts of destruction were nowhere close.
The following night (December 28), my sister Josie’s roommate was visiting so we decided to see a film: the latest “all-star comedy.”
I sat comfortably among three very different looking women: my mother, brunette, Josie, blonde, and Michela, olive skinned.
Having been raised essentially by three mothers, my sister Eliza (the eldest) included, this company was familiar—and I needed attention, since I had lost recently, to another, my first serious girlfriend.
The film was amusing: we laughed, happy for the occasion, sharing playful looks and popcorn.
About halfway through, Josie signaled she would return.
I watched her disappear near the entrance.
Moments later, she came running down the aisle with our father and Wayne, Mom’s former boyfriend, on either side.
“Our house burned down.”
We kept silent as her statement fell.
Around us the crowd erupted in laughter.
Hands over her face, Mom declared: “I can’t take it.”
Outside, I excused myself and walked into a nearby alley.
Once beyond sight, I bashed my hand on a metal dumpster, splitting it open, and vomited on the pavement.
Dad and Wayne waited for me. Next to each other stood my real father and one who lately had, to some extent, assumed his role.
Joined though incensed by their experience with Mom—resentful towards this connection—both men had acquired in minutes the look of days without sleep. Their sunken, dark eyes burned a hole in me: wretchedly sympathetic.
I rode with Dad while Wayne drove the girls. It seemed less awkward. Somehow those worries entered my head.
Dad tried hard to council me, bestowing examples of prior hardship: encouraging words. They swirled the cab in his truck, desperately clinging to empty space.
His intentions were moving, but as I started allowing them, a sickening thought entered: my great-grandfather’s gun was in the house. Dad gave it to me, his only son, as a fourth-generation present.
It was my coming of age.
Our road teemed with police cars, their blue lights frantic. Against coal black sky, blankets of light gray drifted. Streams of people dispersed before me, likely shouting reports and orders—but I heard nothing. Time passed slowly as though lost to death. I felt myself hover like smoke.
As I neared the house, our neighbor ran to inform me the police removed my gun.
It was intact.
But unfortunately, I did not gather myself before seeing our home.
It was a jagged collection of embers decomposing. A few smoking beams remained upright. In horror I beheld a withered skeleton.
How did my sanctuary, where friends felt more at home than anywhere, the core warmth in my life, safest of places, just incinerate? Why did this happen? What am I going to do?
Alone I pondered these questions. No one can give us the strength we need. But I was scarcely a legal adult: when my great-grandfather promised I would “learn to truly feel, and truly see.”
All I had were quandaries pounding my brain like a hideous chant, rubble to sift, and the clothes on my back.
In our neighbor’s living room I sat with Mom, Josie and Michela.
We devoured pizza on paper plates.
Staring past each other, we barely wiped our mouths.
People called incessantly, offering beds, most confirming the rumor: “victimized” by curiosity. My ears rang hearing, “Is it really true?”
Eliza and Chris (my brother-in-law) were rushing down from Baltimore—but we concealed that Beau, our black and white cat, was missing.
Fire fighters were skimming the rubble and spotlighting trees. While pursuers assured us cats stay close, we prayed Beau would come running.
But time elapsed, drawing Eliza near—so Mom and Josie decided to walk the neighborhood calling his name.
After they left, a policeman and deputy fire marshal came forward, asking if I had been last to exit our home.
“Yes, but my sister Josie was on the steps.”
They said thanks and departed, appearing satisfied.
Moments later, these civil servants resurfaced to casually request a written statement.
“Would you mind sitting in our car? Everything is there already.”
In the backseat of their Crown Victoria I projected honesty. Believing they wanted details, I jotted down my routine of checking kitchen appliances, the back door, windows and lights before locking and closing the front door behind me. As I filled a page with sloppy, adolescent handwriting, the deputy fire marshal complained about “the wife and kids” to his partner in the driver’s seat, about whom I remember nothing except his police uniform and sips from a Dunkin Donuts cup with militant regularity.
But this deputy I recall loathsomely clear. He wore unmarked black and thick glasses. His precisely trimmed, brown mustache and stout cheeks drooping past his neckline like a bulldog spewed aloof entitlement.
I should have noticed long before his cavalier indifference.
He snatched the clipboard and greedily read my statement, glasses rebounding light from a streetlamp; then—“just a formality”—he carefully Mirandized.
“Tell me what really happened.”
“I already have. Twice.”
“I know you’re hiding something.”
“No, I told you everything. Why would I have something to hide?”
“We have your gun in the trunk. If you don’t tell me, you won’t get it back. Don’t start pissing me off.”
Why is he doing this? Why am I being targeted? My age? Having long hair and a beard? Could I resemble an arsonist?
I reeled in shock, watching the attack, and briefly wondered if someone else was under scrutiny.
It sank in gradually, slow cooking hatred. His cynical, drooping face and lifeless stare inflamed my skin while I repeated details like a broken record.
There is little more infuriating, I had learned, than being forced to protest innocence during tragedy.
But the deputy kept threatening and, facing me, contorted in his seat, making violent gestures, striking air, he paused to offer me a doughnut.
I could barely answer “No.”
His flippant courtesy in the midst of accusation was grotesque.
So when he started inventing facts, “You left separately, ten minutes after your family”—I boiled over.
“That’s it. I have cooperated fully. You took my property to ransom a confession. Every resident of this block will confirm I left beside my sister…. Don’t tell me when and how I traveled. You were not here. Clearly you were at Dunkin Donuts. My name is on the deed. Get off this property…. I’m sending Wayne for my gun. Hand it over and, unless you want your badges gone for this heinous shit, this fucking joke of an investigation, drive away immediately. Leave us alone!”
I was not close to ready, but for months I would have to survive.
After a sleepless night on Wayne’s pullout couch, I found myself where, yesterday, our house existed. Still in soot-covered jeans and a Christmas sweater, I stood before the wreck, my breath heaving shallow in rawboned air.
Eliza and Chris were piling residue as Mom spoke with insurance agents and Josie drove home Michela. Hers was a short, baneful visit. And I wondered how insurance talks remained specific: all but my gun had been lost.
Exhausted, I glanced at harried sky above decay then offered help.
I could no longer watch suspended motion flailing like a silent film.
Every waterlogged slab felt heavy while clearing the living room floor near our hearth. Casting aside broken glass, shards of metal, ripped tarpaper; as rancid water bled on scorched foundation, I heard my cries to awake from this nightmare ignored—lost in backwards draft spiraling up the fireplace.
It was torched as charcoal, yet above the brick our pendulum clock, black with gold hands and lettering, lay slumped against the corner of a dislodged wall. Longingly I reached for another surviving good—but its edges and facing had melted in gluttonous heat—eight minutes after our departure.
Gazing at boils and sharpened points, my hands nearly their color like a gloveless chimney sweep, I stared at paralyzed hands on this melted clock—until I remembered:
“Police said a neighbor called at five of seven?”
“I think so” Mom replied, still negotiating.
“We left at quarter of seven.”
“That deputy fire marshal swore I left ten minutes after you, accusing me of the crime…. Not only had our fire been reported, this clock melted at 6:53…. Those bastards were stupider than I thought.”
Mom and Eliza were outraged, demanding I “shut up” before insurance agents grew suspicious and threatened our claim.
Eliza approached, resembling Mom but smaller, her blue eyes perplexed. She informed me Dad was coming: I would take a break and help gather oysters.
I stood outside wondering: How could they? No one else sat in that car.
Apparently interrogation scars were just disruptive.
This was not how I planned to escape.
But the river was calming, tranquil on the surface though roiled beneath. In harsh light its churned depths glowed faintly: what heaven could summon in raucous December.
A low tide exposed pearl-white, translucent edges of worthy oysters. I snatched them greedily with metal tongs and filled buckets caked in mud as my wooden skiff glided through seething current.
Speaking rarely but powerfully there, Dad let nature heal—which, on his farm, never had failed.
Nothing would banish my anger—but as I stopped to rest and breathed deeply, I realized it had quieted.
Staring at nothing, into horizon, light waning, I greeted the river: a world apart, that primal awareness: salt in my lungs, slowly purifying.
As we shucked oysters, Dad’s radio played Neil Young performing “Old Man.” Rashly I had disregarded this song, thinking it overrated: people rarely like greatness.
But I felt raw enough to listen. While opening chords rang, Dad said “I loved this long before I was twenty-four.” Now I would.
The pain in his voice, channeled with clenched fists through subtle poetry, confessed in ethereal vocals, was riveting. I knew Young had truly suffered (rare in artists today), but it was understated: not proclaimed or hidden. Revealing experience for its own sake, he laid bare the “mileage” of volatile life at twenty-four.
This is how it would feel, I thought—and felt understood.
In no hurry to visit debris, I stayed on Dad’s farm, fitfully sleeping a few hours.
Images of smoldering ash plagued me, along with questions: Who or what caused the fire? How did it start and progress so quickly? Where was our cat?
Answers evaded as I writhed under blankets: mentally back in our rotting home, sensing peril.
The next morning, I waded through swollen chunks of former decoration: couch springs, broken portrait frames, iron candle fixtures blackened. Now I recognized goods that once absorbed our surrounding happiness.
Footsteps heavy, I moved like a Dickens specter through gray air filling charred outlines: a funeral march for lost childhood.
The kitchen was littered. I resolved to clear more black waste.
A terrible scream pierced unquiet stillness. I lunged toward our backyard.
Eliza was in the old utility room, hunched forward, staggering to avoid a fall into rubble. I caught her first, gripping above her elbows.
Two more screams rang while I clutched her: irregular explosions, devastating like a gun being emptied, variations of “No!”
Then a similar, anguished word escaped her twisted body.
It was the name Beau.
His legs and tail sprawled beneath sheets of fallen ceiling.
A Cause and Origin man later explained: Beau ran once the fire started, but collapsed near the back door from smoke inhalation. Housing then crashed on his body, shielding Beau partially from ravenous flames.
Our cat was dead.
I threw my arms around Eliza, holding my last strength against what broke her.
As ruins spun around us, black shards hanging like smiling teeth, we clung to each other and quieted vertigo.
A friend rolled Beau into a piece of carpet then carried him away. His singed tail protruded like that of a rabid fox.
Eliza withdrew and thanked me, wiping her eyes.
Timidly she looked up and said: “This is so unfair.”
It was the kindest I had seen her.
Hours later, I received a message: Beau was in the ground.
William Pomeroy lives in Greenwich Village and teaches English in Harlem. He taught ethics and poetry in a medium security prison while completing his philosophy degree. His writing has appeared in Art Times, Embodied Effigies, RPD Society, Glide and Maryland Hunting Quarterly.
* * *
lunch with my 101-year-old aunt By Jan Ball
I can smell the medicinal odor of her
gangrenous leg rotting under the white
restaurant tablecloth as she comments
in a loud, deaf voice on various family
members-litanyesque-looking up from
her liver and onions for an Ora Pro Nobis
response but we merely smile over our
own perfectly boned dover sole with capers
as she tells us that her sister’s tenant farmer
in Arkansas is not paying his rent regularly
then relates matter-of-factly that my cousin,
Christina, died, the only one who used to
rescue my sister and me from the slobbery
kisses of my uncles who passed around Jim
Beam downstairs as they watched wrestling
on tv in Chicago’s poor Polish Ghetto when
we visited my Polish grandparents as children.
According to my aunt, Christina’s alcoholic
brother had his foot surgically removed, too.
I look around for a waiter who might
know the heimlich maneuver in case
Aunt chokes on the bacon slices she is
gobbling from her diminishing lunch,
but I only see a thin young man with
an earring like Johnny Depp wears
in Pirates of the Caribean who is pouring
iced water into glasses fogged with moisture
and I can’t imagine him squeezing Aunt from
behind until she expectorates the bacon rind
that might get stuck in her throat. Other elderly
people who are scattered around the room like
Las Vegas gamblers lift forkfuls of mashed
potatoes to their lips with Parkinson hands
or leave red lipstick smudges on strawberry
martinis and next month we will see them
Jan Ball has had 186 poems published in various literary journals like Atlanta Review, Connecticut Review and Nimrod in the U.S., England, Canada and India. Her two chapbooks: accompanying spouse (2011) and Chapter of Faults (2014) are available on Amazon.
* * *
Sterile Memories, Tourist Class and Therapy By Gary Beck
I visited the houses
where I used to live
for many years
in New York City.
I did not know
there were so many.
I stood before each building
found no sign,
that I was there.
Nostalgia didn’t possess me
but I wondered
how I lived somewhere
and not a trace remained
to mark my passing.
Where I once loved, mourned,
paced confining walls,
burned with the passions
of a young, obsessed man,,
all is evaporated
as if it never was.
where once I dreamed
of a wondrous life.
I hope they dream.
Now I fear
we may be trapped
in the consuming cycle
of the ravenous city
that tolerates some
for a while,
devours many ruthlessly.
The crush of motion
a quick subtraction
of illusions of safety.
As America declines,
roots of empire
from a hostile world,
to the staggering land,
burdened with Euros
they must dispense
to welcoming shopkeepers
eager to serve
the new money,
making some of us wonder
if tourists flocked
to declining Rome,
lusting to acquire
Distortions of reality,
since the invention
that explains more confusingly
then witch doctors of old,
where patients expected
since there was generally
with a monopoly
and the dissatisfied
couldn’t take their business
or risk future denial
of necessary treatment.
Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director, and as an art dealer when he couldn’t make a living in theater. He has 7 published chapbooks and 2 others accepted for publication. His poetry collections include: Days of Destruction (Skive Press), Expectations (Rogue Scholars Press). Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways (Winter Goose Publishing). Perceptions and Displays will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His novels include: Extreme Change (Cogwheel Press) Acts of Defiance (Artema Press). His short story collection, A Glimpse of Youth (Sweatshoppe Publications). His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines. He currently lives in New York City.
* * *
Dancers By Ginger Beck
Late one night we wandered
into a crowded bar
filled with Spanish dancers.
We were the only white people
and you pulled me onto the dance floor
among the whirl of skirts and
nimble footwork of strangers.
Neither of us knew how to Salsa,
but we twisted our hips
and grinned like cats,
eyes squinting and laughing like
madness under the neon lights,
making up steps
as we went along.
You spun me around
and pulled me close
over and over.
You would kiss me,
push me back,
catch my hands,
spin me around
and pull me back
to kiss you again.
I thought I had never seen
a better dancer than you.
I’d never seen better dancers
Ginger Beck is a high school English teacher transplanted from small town Arkansas to Little Rock. When not teaching, she sings and promotes for a country band, takes photos, and dreams about becoming an astronaut.
* * *
A Violet Rain By Lana Bella
A violet-haunted rain
tumbled down the trickling boughs and leafy bulge,
of the violet tree;
There, an old man knelt, cowering by the gnarly roots
at the bark's edge where a spider web
strung wrinkly and wet.
Thirty years had come to pass and still,
he heard her screams in all his dreams:
at times distantly, like muffled sounds trapped
in a lidded glass bottle,
as if it was fished out and clogged of black water
from being interred beneath a floating bed of horsetail reeds;
while other times, her keen tempest's howl depleted whole his sanity,
parching him from the inside out like a desert
spanning over miles without sheltered trees or fresh drinks;
then of late, it has constantly been a down-trodden rain coasting this violet tree
by the millpond's shore,
where plum-hued petals scattered upon a basin swirling of red;
in failed swigs of shallow gasps,
she fumbled for the cotton hem of his plaid button-down shirt
and always caught the marshy waste
of the dark,
vainly keeping steady upon the last loose scaffolds of her life as it
hung across the vacant air;
he watched her weak thrashing in numb silence,
falling, gurgling, submerging deep into
ever so casually,
he flicked away a dull pang of shame as it sloshed, danced, rippled, then at last
sunk softly beneath the silent water along with
the final breaths bleeding out of her scarlet-painted nails.
Here again under the violet rain,
that water-logged throaty voice and the few remnants of mortality
staggered on prawn-like legs with rawboned hands,
reaching out to muffle the paralysis
that had started to press backwards into his tongue and down his throat,
giving birth to his own strangulation.
Lana Bella has a diverse work of poetry and flash fiction published and forthcoming with Anak Sastra, Atlas Poetica, Bewildering Stories, Beyond Imagination, Buck-Off Magazine, Calliope Magazine, Eunoia Review, Cecil's Writers' Magazine, Deltona Howl, Earl of Plaid Lit, Family Travel Haiku, First Literary Review-East, Five Willows Literary Review, Foliate Oak Literary, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Global Poetry, Ken*Again, Kind Of A Hurricane Press, Marco Polo Arts Literary, Nature Writing, New Plains Review, Poetry Pacific, The Commonline Journal, The Higgs Weldon, The Voices Project, War Anthology: We Go On, Thought Notebook, Undertow Tanka Review, Wordpool Press, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Featured Artist with Quail Bell Magazine. She resides on some distant isle with her novelist husband and two frolicsome imps.
* * *
Thing for Redheads By Nathan Blan
No money for a drink
in the bus stop shelter
cross the street
no one else
comes in to sit
the bench is mine alone
and I am shielded
from the wind
no one I know
has yet passed
no one who looked
as though they would give
me some change
or even a bone
if I asked
but it will happen
if I can
and then I see it
long hair caught
on the barbs of a sharp wind
as pretty as the tail fin
of a goldfish
I could watch
swimming in its bowl
if I tap on the glass
it would frighten her
I could follow her
a few blocks
and watch her hair
being fondled by the wind
but the best thing for me
is to stay here
in the shelter
Nathan Blan lives in Kentucky. He enjoys Sudoku puzzles, comic books, and noise rock albums.
* * *
Poems by Alan Catlin
Late Self-Portrait as Hunchback of Notre Dame
His face is bloated from
an excess of alcohol and desire,
all seven sins, on a downcast
afternoon. Work cannot
alleviate the pain of wanting
what isn’t there. He adds
the missing details only
he can see: the hump on his back,
a hissing harelip lisp, a swollen growth
on his neck. His lone good eye
follows you wherever you go.
Silent fields of
untended grass, wild
flowers and butterflies;
a brief rest between
the manic touch
of madness, of broad,
fatal brushstrokes, crows
above a field of wheat.
Too Drunk to Walk, Sober Enough to Drive
After the four course, tip-included
meal, the splits of cheap champagne
toasts, the well drink, call brands extra,
open bar. After the chicken dancing,
Macarena contests, hokey pokey
marathons. After serious make out
sessions with perpetual bride to be,
off again-on again girlfriend, office
whore. After slamming the door to
the included-in-the-package room
for the duration of the night. After
stumbling half-dressed, with flip flops
instead of shoes, fumbling car keys,
sliding on treacherous-not-salted
sidewalk ice, too drunk to walk
but sober enough to drive. After
crawling on all fours to the vehicle,
the scraping of a few square inches
of windshield ice and climbing up
behind the wheel and wondering aloud
when this already turned on, motherfucking
vehicle is ever going to start. After
finally negotiating blind no left turn, left
turn, and the closing of one eye to better
locate and reduce the divergence of
double yellow lines in early AM sleet
freezing rain, now fully engaged for
the ole bump and grind involving parked
cars, stationery poles, road signs, picket
fences. Nothing deters him. Not curbs,
road flares, emergency lights, not nor men
with fire hoses hosing a smoking car,
nor waving men in yellow slickers and
side arms. The whole scene lit up for him
like a giant pinball machine, only the final
score waiting to be rung up on the tote board,
waiting to be finalized.
Alan Catlin has been publishing on diverse subjects ranging from ekphrastic poems to meditations on the ongoing world of bar wars. His latest full length books include, Alien Nation, Books of the Dead: a memoir with poetry and The Effects of Sunlight in the Fog.
* * *
The Jungle Inhabitants By Kaitlyn Davis
I noticed the jungle inhabitants
Then I saw them
They fling themselves
From the trees
To the ground
Like dead leaves
Choosing to fall.
Not one's cast aside.
From amidst the branches
I hear their
Their words never slide
Through the air.
Not one disappears.
Spend their days
Shifting the jungle
Into darker darkness.
Not one escapes.
that the Inhabitants
They stay together
No one ever leaves.
This jungle of theirs
I can not remember
When it has not.
Perhaps the sun
Slipped between the trees
And passed along
No sunlight appears now.
I used to cry
That’s gone now.
I’m used to the
Its shadows are
Not one disappears.
These jungle inhabitants
In a way
Nothing has before.
Perhaps my mind
By the darkness,
I heard whispers
Of a glistening waterfall
And giant blooms
That soar to the sky.
Perhaps such beauties
Perhaps lovely things
A question lingers.
No one answers me.
I noticed the jungle inhabitants
Then I saw them
There are no jungle inhabitants.
There’s only me.
Kaitlyn Davis grew up in North Carolina. She is currently a junior in college, studying vocal music education at East Carolina University. Kaitlyn has always loved writing and is now seeking to publish some of her work.
* * *
Dementia, the Savior By B. Diehl
“I’m really glad we decided to do this.
Look at her! She’s just as she’s always been: loving.”
That was all I could say when you,
sitting there at the breakfast table in your Mickey Mouse pj’s,
considerately offered me a bite of your napkin.
“I don’t know if today is the right day”
was your granddaughter’s response ––
watching you stir your coffee with a peppershaker.
“It’s the perfect day, sis. … Come on, Nana,” I said,
helping you to your feet and leading you out
to the patio. “I know what you need.”
As far back as I can remember, that patio
has been your spot: a birdwatcher’s heaven.
Cardinals bathing in tap water,
robins belting out your favorite song,
woodpeckers hammering away at that
stone-dead pear tree, proving to you
that there is life after death:
this –– all of this –– has always been
the light that protected you,
warding off the darkness to a coma of fear.
Needless to say, things have changed.
But when my sister tapped me on the shoulder,
suggesting, for the second time,
that it “wasn't the right day,”
somehow, your words made more sense to me than hers:
“Oh, look at the monkey!
Oh! Look [at] that elephant [in] her nest.
Do you think she [has] enough pineapples to feed [her] babies?”
It will always be a mystery to me ––
whether you've simply been a fanatic for the birds,
or if you've idolized their strength to rebel against gravity.
Either way, Nana, I can assure you of this:
there is no longer anything beneath you;
there is no longer any need for you to rise.
You have no remembrance of your
maxed out credit cards or your best friend’s funeral.
You have no awareness of the wars or corrupt governments.
(Let's face it: sorrow can't get through a knobless, locked door.)
Just this morning, I read in the paper that three little girls were found ––
naked, bloody, and bruised ––
in an abandoned warehouse just a few miles south of here.
But I bet you don’t know about that.
Just this morning, I read in the paper that the Holy Ghost
has been trapped in the trunk of Hitler’s Mercedes-Benz since 1939.
But I bet you don’t know about that, either.
Look at the monkey, Nana. Look at the elephant.
They know that you have pried yourself
loose from the death-grip of a cancerous knowing.
They know this; they fear this. Can you smell their jealousy?
Can you hear their prayers on the nights you still dream in color?
Compared to you, Nana, the birds are enslaved.
Your jailed mind has made bail.
And I couldn't possibly be happier for you.
B. Diehl is a twenty-four-year-old poet from Phillipsburg, NJ. He is currently working on his first collection of poems, Zeller’s Alley, a book which he aims to have published by the end of 2016...even if that means self-publishing.
* * *
When I Asked My General Manager if I Could Start Training as a Soup Bar Attendant By Crystal Lane Swift Ferguson
His response was, “Your height is my only concern.”
“Come with me,” I said. There was so much strength in my voice that I hardly recognized it as my own.
He followed me to the kitchen of the Souplantation. On a shelf, just to the right of the row of kettles, about five inches above my head were four stacks of cylindrical soup containers. The clean, heavy, metal vats were stacked eight to ten high.
I positioned myself just below the shelf, heaved my weight from the center of my foot to the ball, to the toes. I rocked forward, caught the edge of the bottom vat with my right hand, pulled it about an inch over the ledge, and propelled the pile down toward my shoulder and awaiting left hand, while simultaneously spinning to catch myself on my slippery Doc Martins (of course I hadn’t worn my recommended Shoes for Crews that day) and set the pile on the waist-high counter behind me. I couldn’t hide the streams of sweat cascading down my forehead, cheeks, and dripping down onto my once crisp, clean white Oxford.
My General Manager, Lance, flashed a teasing grin, then handed me a step stool. “Or you could always just use this.”
Crystal Lane Swift “CLS” Ferguson, PhD is a communication professor at Mt. San Antonio College and California State University, Northridge and a Mary Kay Sales Director. She loves the Souplantation! Her poetry collection, God Bless Paul is out on Rosedog Books. She has a dog, Sadie, with her husband, Rich Ferguson.
* * *
While You Were Asleep, Traveling Toward the Dark, and Roadkill Song By Jerry McGinley
While You Were Asleep
Your cat Clancy caught a mouse and drowned it in his water dish.
A snowplow cleared our alley but sheared off the neighbor’s mailbox.
The TV flashed Breaking News—a gay man plans to play pro football.
An ash tree fell in the woods beside the house, and no one heard it.
Russia invaded Crimea, and I located Crimea in the atlas.
Blaring rescue sirens raced out to a rollover on the Interstate.
I finished that book by the writer who just won the Nobel Prize.
Three young raccoons set off the security light in our back yard.
I am sure I heard bassoon music, but it must’ve been the wind.
A voice in the vacant room upstairs kept whispering, “Salir! Salir!”
Cumulus clouds swooshed like witches in front of the full moon.
I swear I saw the shadow of a man hanging in our neighbor’s tree.
Darkness changes reality. Darkness swallows lone men’s sanity.
The world is different at three in the morning. So few people know.
Traveling Toward the Dark
(Apologies to William Stafford)
First day of March—on a morning flight
from Arizona, I listen to the relentless drone
of engines and breathe stagnant pressurized air.
Behind me two people cackle endlessly
about flipping real estate in Boston. I do not care.
My neck hurts and I squirm from side
to side to find relief. Most passengers snooze,
or try to, play video solitaire, or stare at watches.
I doze briefly and dream I’m riding on the back
of a flying white deer, fists gripping dense fur,
racing through pine trees swathed with blood.
My wife, whose neck aches too, has read ninety pages
of Little Bee while I skim two poems in Smoke’s Way.
I think about pioneers on westbound wagon trains
who understood every river current, every blade
of Big Bluestem grass, every spike of purple-pink
Prairie Blazingstar, every waterhole where Bison wallowed,
every bracken bush, every valley hiding Apaches or deer.
Pioneers, who ate real food at night—venison, beans,
corn mush, wild berries—no pretzels or warm ginger ale.
Outside my small window, thirty-five thousand feet below,
just dull brown rocks and bare earth, randomly intersected
by empty roads, occasionally dotted by two-horse towns.
We travel at incredible speed, now—but totally miss the journey.
We were brothers once
half a million years ago.
We gathered hickory nuts,
wild berries, chicory roots.
We slept in damp mossy caves,
heated by our own flesh and fur.
Fire was still too strange,
saved for suns and stars.
But I messed up my Karma,
and evolved backward
through simpler forms.
You moved on, stood upright.
Tonight your headlights
caught my feral yellow eyes.
I froze in the icy brightness
of your unnatural glare.
Tomorrow crows will come
to ingest and transport my
chi to another place, someday
perhaps, our paths will cross again.
Founder and editor of LAKE CITY POETS Magazine, Jerry McGinley has recently appeared in Shotgun Honey Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, Flash Fiction Magazine, Screech Owl Literary Magazine, Burningwood Literary Journal, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, and Yellow Mama Magazine.
* * *
Poems by Eira Needham
A Date With Grandpa
Time was tucked
between a cream Damask
and gaudy gingham table cloth,
second drawer down in her sideboard.
Old Dulais Valley Calendar, 1986
Relics of my homeland;
black and white prints.
Seven Sisters Colliery, 1912
spans the front cover.
My grandfather grafted here,
Dressed in Sunday best,
with 1950's waves, the Ladies' choir
smiles across the back cover.
Two faces, lightly circled;
my mother’s recognition
of Aunty Hilda and Cousin Sue.
I scan the past in bands and choirs
until November spreads
The Dulais Male Voice Choir, 1910
I squint at the countenance
with a ballpoint halo
enclosing Dad, faintly written.
My dear Grandpa;
the alien invaded his kidneys
when he was fifty two
and I was a child.
At dusk she slumps with the sun
struggling to solve her puzzle,
the flush of excitement
wanes with the moon.
His eyes avoid her gaze.
Words are locked inside;
she cannot find the key.
Thrust into a tempest
branches are buffeted
until she collapses, broken.
Yet, deep roots support her.
Peering though brume
she sees a smile, hears humming.
Stretching to grasp the core,
she's enveloped by warmth
as the sun rises.
Eira Needham is a retired teacher living in Birmingham with her husband and Dalmatian Max. She keeps leopard geckos and corn snakes as pets which have been known to slither into a poem or two. Recent publications are in Voices from the Web 2015, Poppy Road Review and Miller's Pond.
* * *
On Dagobah, Kaitlin, & Marita By Erin Redfern
Obi-wan’s in the Hoth system
doing his spectral thing, and Luke,
eager to please, avid for destiny,
will come. Numbered my days
in peace among the gnarltrees.
As the swamp slugs drag
their bodies through the mud,
obeying rude electrical impulse,
appetitive, dumb, so Skywalker
noses his chartless way toward
my sanctuary. Pointless the staged parry
and feint required to train this aspirant,
this dull hope, this rube.
I’ve enlisted in a different war, here.
I track the jubba bird; I scout the sleen.
I read as they were meant to be read
the raveling of these bines and webs,
trace their rank developments,
follow the hum of mandibles and wings
until this whole glottal marsh
swallows and sings our singular forms.
This is the true aspiration.
Skywalker’s fate, finally,
will not change a thing on Dagobah:
will not diminish the biding dark
or curb the bogwing’s flight.
It will not silence the patter of roots
on the roof, dispel this fenny reek,
or swab the film that coats my aging sight.
Dawn comes, hoary and discreet,
turning the walls of my hut
into a ghostly swamp egg,
and I, Yoda, the greying yolk,
revolve inside like a reluctant thought.
His arrival returns me to the plot.
His fate, his fortitude, his pluck
will crack me open. It is my calling.
It is the old longing. It is
If a casserole, surprise layer of potato chips.
If a potato chip, able to hold a disproportionate amount of salsa.
If a proportion, as divine as that of the leaf, the nautilus, the curling edges of grief.
If a nautilus, one that whirls the dark deep with its own jet propulsion.
If a jet, one that hasn’t been built yet.
If a building, a rambling house with a secret attic, short staircases, alcoves stashed with
essentials: driftwood, rocks picked up on solitary walks, sentences strung like necklaces
from their hooks.
If a rock, not a geode, but one in which the quartzy veins have traveled up to the surface,
following their own mineral argument.
If a traveler, one with a soft-sided suitcase.
If a suitcase, one that floats when the ship goes down, sustaining its owner until the Coast Guard
If a ship, one with dark flags from the lands you have seen.
If a place, the city you can hear when you’re in the deep end, the city on the other side of the
grate, the grate to which the key has not been made.
If a key, the one that fits its own lock
She’d rather be at a pool party:
I can see the turquoise dream behind her eyes,
their floating gaze corralled by serious
amounts of kohl liner. Earlier today
she sailed through the lunch break,
her mouth a bright toy turning
in every flirtatious breeze. Now faded
by an afternoon’s exposure to problem sets
and student-led discussion groups,
it drifts and bumps against her chin.
Frankenstein sits on the desk between us,
a heavy goose that won’t lay. She sighs.
The brief mascara flicker when she understands
the age at which its author bedded her father’s
friend and brought her creature to life
can’t save this one stillborn afternoon.
An early twilight approaches; she and I
pick our way across Walton’s Eurasian tundra,
featureless as the front of this overblown
Norton edition. (Do we really need one more
khaki cover, one more perplexing introduction
to stall the cumbersome caravan
before it rolls out?) My rucksack’s
stuffed with rations; hers displays its slack
like a flag of surrender, the canvas tongue
flapping with the sound sandals make
smacking the warm surface of a wet pool deck.
I’ll throw her a Slim Jim. She’ll sigh
again. Anytime, anywhere, anyway,
she’d rather be at a pool party.
A San Jose, California native, Erin Redfern serves on the board of the Poetry Center San Jose and as an editor for the 2015 issue of its print publication, Caesura. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Zyzzyva, Scapegoat Review, Mud Season Review and Compose.
* * *
We Love in Vain By Madeleine Richey
Lovers listen quietly,
Heads bent on downy pillows,
Eyes wide with amazement,
Enraptured with love’s sweet taste.
But years pass quietly,
Passion fades into useless dust,
We sigh and whisper our goodbyes
Tasting life not sweet but bitter now.
Old letters sit in locked up boxes,
Crumbling pages gathering dust,
Pictures yellowed, luster forgotten,
Memories to be burned on winter days.
And so we pass in death’s dark shadow,
Tainted by the love we waste,
Our whispered passion, lust, and roses,
Now burnt to ashy black remains.
Young love forsaken, cast aside,
Parting words sharp and tasting sour,
Last touch a hard and cold embrace,
Surrendered in futile search for better days.
Old and lonely, marked by time,
Hearts broken now, they barely beat,
Wrinkled fingers stained with salty tears,
Dead lovers buried beneath our feet.
If we love, is it in vain?
Madeleine Richey is a young writer who has won a national American Voices medal, traveled to Uganda as a missioner, and writes stories to show others what she sees in the beauty and sorrow of being human.
* * *
K from noon to midnight and Untitled By Sander Scott Riley
K from noon to midnight
you can search for me
but I will not be there
not found in chiseled muscles
unseen below the oblique
in between the folds of a flower
identity lost in thrust
rising above sweaty shoulder blades
into the air ducts
hear others in others
called me little and done
there will be another into the broiler
slow spin to desecration
slapping and exchanging
how did you know that I was a smoker?
I thought I chewed that gum pretty hard
yes, I can do that
but I have never really done it like that
always a nervous twitch
something to not speak of again
all 28 of them know
morning is just a ruse
who forgets a pen and notebook?
spin a six and pass two pay days
career path back then starts now
soon I will be the one that looks at me
the clarity is written on the board
who will not be back
or is just wasting everyone’s time
paid in creased bills from copy paper
they called him The Jab
never saw so many veins on display
liftoff and then crashing down
regular on this day
apologizing for each end
still cannot figure out the shaking
siren here to make it all better
regret the tattoos that did not make sense
laugh at jokes and nod with a smile
watch him leave and not look back
I don’t want to be a machine
nine in this shift
all with problems that are easy
but so lost in being honest
balcony seems a world apart
let me show you my two girls
yes, I know I need to be careful
thanks for being so considerate
and not letting my hair get messy
drive so fast when you need to get away
I am no longer an I
I am no longer an I
I am no longer an I
I am no longer an I
I am no longer an I
I am no longer an I
I am no longer an I
I am no longer an I
I am no longer am I
I am no longer am I
I am no longer am I
called so many names
none of which are my own
only remembered for a day or two
still here, all you nameless ones
walk in and smile
then leave me behind
I understand, I do not pity you
search for me and you will find
we sit in nonchalance, our skin falls off calcium deficient bones
cigarette sticks of melancholy consumed over and over again
the twenties screamed, the thirties whimpered
mattresses held so many fluids, longings, memories, regrets
this street was so populated with brand names and swagger
now it just sits there with a name on both ends
no reputation, no half-utterances of what used to be
money moved back up north, mistresses retired and set up tanning bed businesses
they stare from in between the neon letters and credit card stickers
out into empty spaces as their illegitimate children grind down parking curbs
flick off passerby and curse using tongues that are sanded dry
refusing to come inside for a bottled water
not until a larger screen television is put up in the waiting room
cut, release, show, prove
we do not care about the next generation
since we are still trying to hold onto the title
Sander Scott Riley lives, writes, paints, and films all over Florida. Follow Sander on Twitter and Vimeo.
* * *
Of The Possible Locations For Him To Be Falling In Love, One Summer in Chicago, and A Day in an Ant's Life By Dawn Robinson
Of The Possible Locations For Him To Be Falling In Love
bridges felt shyly along land masses until their land names were known
It was for strength that they were united, and drying himself off of the
lick he had received in the confines of his gestation
he let the night air dry his neck and the lottery take his numbers and face
them To him on blank white balls
He let the women exchange places with each other without knowing him except to
know that he had Blue eyes and he
allowed them to lean on him while they were sleeping in a cheap hotel
although he was only a basic lithograph representing one comfortable object
in a transient scene
He sprawled and reined himself at the boundaries of the North American continent in a
blue consideration and met children politely at the shore and never burdened their
thinking with a shadow of his desperate stretches
Only when he passed beneath bridges there it was above,
the dry-footed tact only possible with bridges
One Summer in Chicago
The wind in Chicago is equally partial to the chess-pieces on the Lakeside board
and to the corridors of buildings.
A magnolia got lost in Chicago and the little blossom was passed hand-to-hand
while the rooftops groaned against the weight of people who wanted to view the moon
The Museum Of Natural History ruffled its protective shoulders around the lonely
stuffed Mastadon, who extended his glassy look of entreaty at Me
bumping on a lead behind my own family structure: parents equally at pits dug by instinct
Fire indicated as a means for the headlong push
into private viewing cages set with glass for all of our
magnolia-fingered refugees and our moon viewers to groan under the weight of
whether we chose corridors or chess-pieces in the daytime
whether or not the wind proved partial to the evolution of you or of me
A Day in an Ant’s Life
Our Industry is well-reputed, as is our cohesive thinking, but did you know that we hold in our midst a serum, which, when painted on a brother’s back, marks him for termination? Termination is merely a heap, upon it the empty ones are thrown when we must go on without them. You may imagine the importance of preciseness, in this type of designation, that it is a matter of great gravity to wield such a serum in the ant colony. Traditionally, the dead ant would effortlessly produce it, leaving others to perform only the ceremony of the allotted task, that is, dispensing with the body. However it may stick in your memory that Science took an interest in our collective doings. Some time ago a group of learned men sought out our death’s secretion for use in their experiments. They painted willy-nilly, painting us that day as if Jackson Pollock or any other artist you’d care to name had thrown his muse among us, alternately crying out for the End Of Everything and the Uselessness Of Meaning, and other grand themes.
Yet we are simply ants, and must go on from days like this, days of intervention.
And in every life there are these days.
Though perhaps you would be wise in the study of your own lives, to examine how you have been governed, by those who would wield death’s paint in the ordering of colonies and institutions.
Dawn Robinson lives in Northern California, land of many oak trees. She enjoys tutoring in English, and mentions Grushenka's onion, from "The Brother's Karamazov," whenever possible. She enjoys reading December Magazine.
* * *
Winter From Below By Jason Sturner
Oak leaves tremble in the wind,
drip with a recent rain.
They turn orange and fall
to know winter from below.
I know winter from above.
My place at the window,
coffee in hand
as thoughts rise and take shape.
I’ve seen a million leaves shine and die.
Seen them shake in storms
and fall from crowns.
From this I have gathered insight:
At any given moment, a man trembles,
a child shines. Women bend in storms.
They’ll all go orange inside
to know winter from below.
I too will fade:
tremble with a lifetime of storms
as I float leaf-like
into the hands of winter.
Jason Sturner was born in Chicago. In addition to writer, he is also a naturalist and botanist. His work has appeared in such publications as Blind Man’s Rainbow, Liquid Imagination, and Sein und Werden, among others. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains. Website:
* * *
Poetry by Harlan Wheeler
BELOW THE DRIFT
My tribe of muscles begins to flex in a small
mile or two, hostile feet resemble
misguided hardships. Escaping the buzz of
I drift below, where brown is brown and
green is everything.
Enter the sky through soil, for the forest is
nothing but a swell of graves. as dancing
insects skins soar upon a breeze.
After stumbling over impossible trails, I
sprawl upon an aggressive ground of moss,
beyond the secret gullet of catgut green.
I explode into spongy darkness, sink below
below the knees, below the turtles and
coyotes that didn’t obey.
Slipping like a silverfish with new memories
whirring, cocooning, thoughts…a bee
I drift and silt, silence a symphony as the
sun fades, misguided and awkward, from
time to time they fall from the sky, crashing
like locusts hitting power lines.
I hear only the rasp and cough of the black
devil perched near me, drooling and
choking, not willing to give up his sacred
branches, screaming too fast, too dark, no
CLAUDINE ON THE TRAIL
The day I learned of women, I let my true self
dream: Perfection of limb and skin, legs bent at
the knees. Gray eyes in the moon light. We shift
our weight and the forest opens wide, inhaling
the colors one by one. Tongue tucked in mouth,
our footsteps in the thistle, whirling our passion,
skin cradling skin. I remember how to touch as
the cindered sweat rolls off the rusty leaves. We
start with a note that moves mouth to mouth,
anatomy of grace, speaking with eyes. Legs
silken over bone, twisted hands tremble.
Crows unfold themselves from their wooded
fences, they break into summer much too fast.
Until we are left with how things could fit, lust
falling out of our backpacks, we are pushing
back against the swells of this reality. We hold
together tightly as if it will matter, as if it will
matter into something that we can name. Naked
knees burn like a bonfire of leaves on an autumn
day again and again, undone, unkempt, overrun
with weeds. Our undressed sheets of music fall
to the forest floor singing “Yes, yes” and
underneath my yes another yes and another,
until I lock you in my eagle’s heart.
Harlan James Wheeler, Jr. is the author of 4 books of non-fiction, including The Gratitude Journey; from Jellyfish to Bigfoot. His poetry has appeared in Dead Flowers, Black Heart, A Poetry Rag, Dark Matter, Gravel, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Great Weather for Media, and many more.
* * *
Two Poems by Daniel von der Embse
Return to Dust
Days of rain bring out tender grass
bathing all in green cast
birds drunken by wormy pickups
do their victory dance
Soaking awakens long buried plasm
from muck carried on paws
and in the right angle of my boot heel
caked solid until dry settles in
Days of sun warm our backsides
grateful to be hung outside
where the gradual air restores us
gone from the mud and back to dust
The House Where Artists Lived
Stairs go straight up
sixty-five of them, in stone
opening on neglected rooms
light begging to be let in
Strange shapes on the floor
and the smell of oils and old fires
remind of the warmth that once lived here
gone now but for the body heat
of birds that reside up in the rafters
giving the place a constant muttering
of little moans, reminding of children
bundled in their beds sharing stories
and secrets after lights out before sleep
It is in this place we drop our bags
brush away the dust
and feel completely at home
Daniel von der Embse was born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio, educated in Catholic schools, and graduated from Ashland University with a B.A. degree in Theatre. He began writing poetry after a four-decade career as a copywriter for advertising agencies in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City. His poems appear The Missing Slate, Across The Margin, Harpoon Review, Decanto, Poetry Pacific, and Poetry Quarterly.
* * *
The Great Sleep, Snow's Wake, and Robert Browning By Lana Bella
The Great Sleep
If I had only known you would forever be an open memoir that would forever haunt my bed…
While the outside world hovers just beyond the gated white fence to which the swallows stretch their orchid wings, vines of scarlet Bougainvillea hug terra-cotta walls in vivid clusters of papery bracts, and the rustling bells of beaded wind chimes toss about echoing of sweet lullabies. Yet here I am again, lost roaming this lonely house and kept vigil with the whims of yesterdays within these cold concrete bars. The familiar essence of you once more alights and courses through the wisp veil of air puts to flight misting my mental plate glass; its crawling tides clutch at the frayed strands of my senses and over and over again, threaten to pull me into its deep. The afternoon sun winds its way between the tears of the half-drawn shutters, casting jagged rays of copper and gold upon the strewn paperbacks and aged magazines on the tabletop, and the lamp that lit my corner bed is turned low. While the quiet earth recedes from me, I force myself to hold back the remembrance of your ashen face from seeping itself into my mind, and of the rawboned body of a suffering man and those sad green eyes. Like the time before and the time before that, I would heave myself from our strange empty bed, follow you out into the narrow corridor, down the long dark spiraling stairway, to where your body lies upon the tiles of cold pale stones beside the dying hearth. You half-turn then, eyes fractionally masked, possessively taking hold of the fluttering wisps of my hair, and breathing me in.
Even now, as I'm four days, six months and two years already gone after your death, the pale scent of your cologne lingers on our champagne satiny sheets; the gossamer ribbon of your presence caresses still the fine bones of my cheeks, hums that intimate merry breath on my paly lips, raking its lithe fangs over the hollow curve of my neck, sloping upon the gentle rise of my breasts, as it dipping lower forming a sandy fist around the marked blue veins of my upturned wrist; and there at the edge of my once fine-spun fingertips, twirling while beads of sweat take their solitary hunt from the top of my unfurled midnight curls then down earthward to the delicate fan of these honey-shaded toes. Everything stirs where the ache of nostalgia dissolves into a rousing requiem, where the farewell lays its everlasting pulse on the seawall of my shell, and where my mournful fingertips shift through the fine grains of sand.
Some says that we forget too soon the things we thought we could never forget, and any word of grace and comfort will eventually leave our heart indifferent and all emotion unstirred. Then why am I ill-fated to cling to this state of despair, endlessly hoping, waiting, longing to catch the husky timbre of your voice, and to feel again the lean muscles shifted beneath your flawlessly tailored cloth. But instead, it's always the same relics that be ever present with me, the grim outline of encroaching overgrowth a dark still mass which threatened to swallow the churchyard whole. That high-wrought iron gate of the burial ground thinly veiled in mist, nameless figures tread on dampen ground in solemn black shawls and rain-overcoats. And before long the heavy echo of your coffin as it's being lowered into the soft-dug mound, blooms after blooms a never-ending flash of brilliant white spiraled down, down with hypnotic speed through the damp June air. Then just as suddenly a soft breeze goes sailing past, startling me out from the deep reverie; all my brooding thoughts, secrets kept and sealed silence climb out with me from the grave, frantically tearing through the clawing spaces between rotting dirt and sweltering air, and in paralyzing haste, rushing back into the airless chamber, where they weigh me down upon your beloved writing chair in the drawing room that still permeates of death's sickly balm and cloying incense. My bare skin rises in an alloy of the day's gold ashes and your scented silver scotch; I bathe in rings of smoky yellow and gray afternoon while hope falls softly from my hands and rust of time clings to the haggard bones. Shakily I touch a raw finger to the trail of wet tears, giving leave to the lurking musical notes of some unearthly vignette to ease me into a half-sleep, while patiently listening, hovering, waiting. Always waiting for the sound of your footsteps, to step out from the depth of stirring shadows behind the quartered shades.
The biting chill of mid-winter had marooned a heaviness on this gathering universe, and rhythmically turned it into an evening of restless ghosts. The air was frosty and carried that callous bite of rawness in it when the wind rose and picked up with it a stagnant cold. The crisp scent of moist snow-fused pines surged upward and drifted over from the neighboring grounds, made aglow by the brilliant gold of the moon; their shadows stood boldly behind in sharp, tapering silhouettes, gave way to the impression that a silent army hovered perpetually, and ever so in stealth silence, kept armed.
After a steep climb from beneath a deep depression away at the inlet of the cavern, I lingered there, under the lined overgrowth, buried ankle-deep within what seemed like a mountain of virgin white. My left index finger cautiously stretched toward the edge of a jutting limb, poising just above the chalky tips, toying with the tiny droplets of the dew upon the bed of irregular shaped snowflakes. Then out of the thin air with speed at full tilt, a burst of red-tailed hawks and sooty ravens swooped downward from some aloft hanging branches, leaving a great flurry of pale silver in their wake. The discarded crystals scattered all around, buffeted by the wind, spun side to side as they tumbled then at once, sank to the drenched terrain throughout.
For a moment, everything was silent. I stood there heedlessly caved-in, conspicuously lost as to seem utterly posed, deeply unnerved by the otherworldly ambiance. With a large gulp of air dragged in and racked up in my lungs, I fell backward to the snow-veiled earth, where I sensed the ground sloping away beneath my back, uneven and powdery, and where I was found some time much later, staring upward in stock-still silence at the wild blue yonder above me. The distant moon was glowing a saffron-red, gave way to a mosaic slate-gray of the midnight sky a fluid pane of plexi-glass, sharply cutting in two, the jarring realm of the living from the muffled world of the dead.
She could not say with any conviction what had turned her love affair into something altogether else, and so gravely out of reach in its current state of ruin. Those sweet bygone days tore alongside her as she broke away, from what she did not know, but whatever it was, it had chased her out alone into the desolate grounds of fate; tumbling and half-falling, retracing memories of and plunging back into the forgotten years. In the recent days, it seemed she could always make out unmistakably the memories of bliss in naiveté, and anguish in wisdom, all engraved upon her waning spirit. The wretched self and her other more able-bodied being, both past and present, were slight in their bearing, and yet, the faint mingling of whispering, sighing and weeping, became the constant noise which accompanied her as they rattled upon the fragile hinges on her soul.
The familiar arrival of the after light fluttered by, trailed inward from under the entryway like the rattling tail of autumn smoke, made ominously bright by the hanging kerosene lamp burning ever so softly beside the dusty wooden chair left on to light its way. She breathed in the crisp November dusk, mixed with the sharp pain of the unforgiving tides from the hovering affairs of her recent life. Her gloveless fingers had grown numbed with cold, smoothed along the aged writing chair set away from the curved stairway; the lustrous inky strands had since came loose of the ivory comb and tousled down upon her shoulders in disarray; those amber eyes have lost their dazzling brilliance, now flashed instead of anger and pain, then all at once hurled themselves across the stained teal tiles and directed up, brought to a standstill by the steadfast gaze which reflected back from the looking glass on the dressing vanity against the corner wall, and under the gold-colored lamp they appeared unflinchingly bright with unshed tears.
It felt like the whole world had moved on, herself breathed still but not living, abandoning her in a nostalgic and derelict past she'd never again visit. Just as suddenly, a startling sob escaped her lips, conceding that any consoling word of insight already came too late, as if out of whimsy, each and every crafted word had wittingly lodged themselves deep within her catatonic consciousness, idled away under its dark recess while slithered to the bottom-most among the overlays of time, where they at long last, mingled with the other muffled and unspoken thoughts which had lain dormant in hush suspension. The artless illusion of her innocence, made haste by the weight of neglect, had her swiftly sped downward to a maddening void of guilt and torment; and there, was where she stood at sea, on the verge of coming to be a lost beauty, no longer a misspent and simple youth yet holding on to traces of the girl she had been. How hauntingly sad and mad and bad it was, but then how it was sweet, this gravity of regret. And how utterly sad to realize it's too good to leave, and sadder still, too bad to stay.
**Robert Browning was written with the poet’s famous quote in mind: How sad and bad and mad it was. But then, how it was sweet.
Lana Bella has a diverse work of poetry and flash fiction published and forthcoming with Anak Sastra, Atlas Poetica, Bewildering Stories, Calliope Magazine, Eunoia Review, Cecil's Writers' Magazine, Deltona Howl, Earl of Plaid Lit, Family Travel Haiku, First Literary Review-East, Foliate Oak Literary, Global Poetry, Ken*Again, Nature Writing, The Commonline Journal, The Higgs Weldon, The Voices Project, War Anthology: We Go On, Thought Notebook, Undertow Tanka Review, Wordpool Press, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Featured Artist with Quail Bell Magazine.She resides on some distant isle with her novelist husband and two frolicsome imps.
* * *
Vessels By Lindsay Brand
A midsize apartment with blue walls. Many porthole windows to the outside where the January wind brushes past.
He spoons cereal from the bowl to his mouth. Captain Crunch. The television runs in the background flashing SpongeBob Squarepants.
She plops down at the other end of the sofa. "I feel like you don't care about me anymore."
The pineapple dwelling place of the honorable sponge man looks appealing despite its inhospitable, spiny nature.
"Why did you marry me if you didn't want to talk to me?"
A chill passes through his spine. He feels like this has happened before. He opens his mouth to respond to tell her he loves her and wants to tell her everything that has happened. That she has nothing to worry about. That watching Spongebob on the chilly leather couch with her is the best part of the day. But the words catch in his throat and bubble up incomprehensibly.
He can see the scales of love shedding from her eyes. His sugared milk dives over the side of the bowl as he lurches forward.
"Are you going to clean that up or am I going to have to do it?"
He sets the porcelain caldron on the coffee table by the National Geographic and goes to look for a sponge in the sink that will never soak up all the discord uttered already so early on a Saturday morning.
He presses it to the floor as she settles into a recliner across the room by the glass of the balcony door. Then he tries words again feeling like a goldfish miming to another in a separate tank.
Lindsay Brand lives in Saint Charles, Missouri and teaches English. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, eating mint chocolate chip ice cream, and secretly being an optimist. She has published previously in The Monarch Review as well as The Mid Rivers Review.
* * *
$2.17 By Karen Burton
She plowed through the daily list. Always, there were thinning clothes to mend, dust to displace. Always. Brenda no longer moved with agility, but she pushed through arthritis to arrive each night knowing that chores were done, and her small apartment was ready to face the morning.
This morning presented to Brenda with a promise. She straightened and laid each dollar bill against the white Formica and counted. She hummed as she laid the coins in their proper order. Quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. She counted. Eight dollars and seventy-one cents. She placed the money back into her coin purse, carefully closing the zipper that was pulling away from one edge. Monday was the best day; today was Monday.
She climbed the bus steps deliberately. Once, she had mistepped and fallen onto the sidewalk, spraining an ankle.
“Careful there,” Frank said, “don’t want you fallin’ backwards again.” He always said that.
“I’m watchin’ my feet, “ she said.
“Goin’ to 5th and Main?” he asked.
“Yup,” she said. She always went to 5th and Main.
Brenda flicked the specks from her bus seat without inspection. She gazed out the window at boarded windows and falling signs. She remembered the names and faces of each person who had vacated the neighborhood. She closed her eyes against the emptiness, and allowed the bus to gently rock her to sleep.
“Brenda,” Frank said, “wake up.”
She stood and smiled, “Guess I dozed off there. See ya in a bit.”
“Careful there,” Frank said as she stepped onto the sidewalk. She smiled at him and wondered when the wrinkles had carved so deeply into his face. He closed the doors and pulled away.
The towering glass beckoned her, tickling her old bones. Was it excitement? She couldn’t say, for she had ceased to consider such things. Instead, she stepped into the world of cast-offs and tax breaks that had become her playground. She began to wander through racks of sweaters and shirts, pants and skirts. She glanced at purses that had attended the theater, at dresses that had waltzed at weddings. She made her way down the center aisle to the shelves standing between the scratched coffee tables and the mismatched dishes.
For here, standing on display, were items that had been donated over the weekend, waiting to be sorted. She scanned the chipped paint, the worn threads. Gently, she touched the fine cracks in cast off china. Finally, her eyes came to rest upon a stuffed kitten, gray striped and yellow-eyed. She picked it up and stroked its fake fur to be rewarded with a battery-induced purr. She closed her eyes and thought of Buttons, the tabby who had slept on her childhood pillow.
Brenda walked to the register.
“Find something new today, Miss Brenda?” Heather asked. She always asked that. "That's $2.17."
Brenda pulled out her coin purse. She laid two dollar bills on the counter, two pennies, one dime, one nickel. “I did," she said, "it’s a good day.”
Karen Burton received her Masters of Fine Arts degree in Writing from Lindenwood University. Currently, she teaches creative writing and religious studies while pursuing her quest for the funny, the quirky, and the unusual.
* * *
Chapter Nine By Brechin Frost
I wrote “Chapter Nine” at the top of the page and looked down at the words in my neat, practiced handwriting. They were foreign to me and strange as though I hadn’t written them, as though they were a mysterious language I couldn’t comprehend. For a moment I lost all words and my pen left behind only a black liquid ink dot on the page. I took a deep breath and tried to remember English and as I began to understand “Chapter Nine” again, it remained distant as though I were looking at it through a haze.
“Chapter Nine,” I said aloud.
The words formed and came out of my mouth, in my voice, and yet I didn’t know them. I wrote the two words again and then again and then several times in a row, each time my handwriting becoming increasingly difficult to read.
My mind went blank. I couldn’t think of anything. I could comprehend nothing and when I looked at the page filled with these two words, they were markings as meaningless as hieroglyphs in lost ruins of a forgotten civilization. A sense of panic permeated the emptiness of my mind.
“What comes next?” I asked the air.
Something needed to follow these two words, hundreds or thousands of words came after them but they were unclear, undecided, and unwritten. A vague sense of what they should be came to me and I saw for a moment the scene before my eyes and as it became vivid the words disappeared.
I pulled the sheet from the notebook and crumbled it up, crushing all the chapter nines I had written, and then threw them in the trash.
I picked up my pen once more. Set the sharp tip to the page and formed the letters that had come back to me. The shape of the letters were familiar to my hands again and so at the top of the page I wrote, “Chapter Nine,” and then stared at it.
“Chapter Nine,” I said aloud once again as though it might set me in the right direction but it only sent me backwards and the scene disappeared.
The longer I looked at the blue lines and the pink margin of the page, the further the scene drifted and soon the music and the colour vanished and the people, the people I had become acquainted with and then knew intimately within the span of months became strangers again and I couldn’t remember their names or faces.
I forgot the way good words taste when you say them and the bitterness of poor words when you choose the wrong ones. Nothing remained but the page and the panic and the shame – the shame that comes when your dignity as a writer is lost. Staring at the blankness – the empty page, the author’s Alzheimer’s. All is lost.
“Chapter Nine” on the top of the page, a chapter as vacant as the stare I gave it. I turned from the page and went to my bed, fell onto it, and pulled the covers over my head. I closed my eyes, fell asleep, and I dreamed.
Wolf-toothed nines chased me across the thirty-two blue streets until I fell off the world and tumbled through the ghosts of chapters one through eight. The characters reached out to touch me, pulling at my clothes and begging me to resurrect them in the next chapter.
“Save us,” they said.
At the end of every chapter the characters cease to exist or exist only in the ether, a fog of the mind, the indeterminate timelessness between the end of one and the beginning of the next. I travelled like Dante through the Inferno of my scenes, the blood and tears splashing me and staining me. The violence, the sex, the language, the honesty and the lies confronted me and beat against me like pistons of a revving engine until I became the blood and tears I had created.
I woke up inspired and went to my desk. I picked up my pen and struck a line beneath “Chapter Nine” and with rushed handwriting I wrote the words that were needed and breathed life into the chapter and the characters and the setting once more. My hand cramped but I continued and my writing took on a tired and shaking quality. I placed the last piece of punctuation on the page and took a breath. It felt like the first breath of air I had taken in hours. My back and head ached, sweat soaked through my clothes and my heart beat at a ferocious pace like I had finished a footrace.
I gathered the pages, they felt heavy in my tired hands and I tapped them like playing cards against my desk until they all stood straight and in a neat stack. Then I placed the pages inside of a tan folder with the word “Novel” written across it in thick black permanent marker and looked away.
With my pen in my hand once more, I set it to the page and I wrote at the top of it, “Chapter Ten” and then I stared at it.
“Chapter Ten,” I said aloud.
And my mind went blank.
Brechin Frost lives in Ontario, Canada. He works as an editor and essay consultant, helping university and college students. Though most of his time is devoted to completing his first novel, he finds time to play his ukulele – playing some of the best punk songs of the last 40 years.
* * *
Freeze-Dried Fruit By Corissa Gay
I hated coming home.
Especially on Friday nights, when the house was dark, the heat was turned on way too high, and everything felt suffocating.
I dumped my coat and bag on the island stool and started counting down the minutes until I could drive back to school as, like clockwork, my stocking-clad feet carried me up the stairs.
I had vowed there wouldn’t be a repeat of last year, and I was going to see that through, goddammit.
I could see the light from Remy’s bedroom lapping at the hall carpet. Plastering on my smile, I knocked. The latch had broken years ago, so as soon as my knuckle connected with the wood, the door fell open.
I still waited for Remy’s meek, “come in.”
"Hey.” I greeted, leaning against the door jamb. “How was your day?”
“Boring. I hate school.” She replied, not even turning away from her desk to look at me.
“Right.” I sighed, venturing further into the room. I sat on the edge of her bed, and watched her face as she stared at the screen of her laptop. “Where’s Mom?”
“She went to see Nana.”
I nodded and picked at the hem of my shirt where the material had started to fray. I hated when she backed me into conversational dead ends.
“You don’t have to come home every weekend.” Remy finally turned to look at me.
I tried to soften my strained smile into an expression that seemed welcoming and warm. “I know I don’t have to.”
She turned away again, the suggestion of a scowl on her face. “Allow me to rephrase: I don’t want you to come home every weekend. Stay at school, make out with your stupid boyfriend. See if I care.”
Even though Remy had always resented my openness—and I expected her to shut me down time and time again—it never hurt any less. She had this magical ability to make me feel guilty for reaching out to her: a sister-exclusive superpower.
I started to bite at my cuticles. “Just because you don’t care, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t.” I countered, nibbling away.
But I had already lost her. “Whatever.”
I sat in silence for several, awkward moments. Despite knowing it would be counterproductive, in my sudden anger I hurled the worst possible question at her.
“Did you eat today?”
“God, Cath.” Remy clutched her hair by the roots, her elbows meeting her desk with a painful sounding thunk. “Get the fuck out of my room.”
“Not until you answer my question.” I defiantly crossed my arms over my chest and sat up straighter.
“Yeah, I ate today.” She rolled her eyes, trying to play it off. Remy always tugged at the hair ties she kept on her wrist when she was lying.
“You’re lying.” I accused, pointedly glancing at her nervous fidgeting.
“Whatever. Mom made lasagna. I’m going to have some after I finish this paper. Which I will be able to do once you’ve left me alone.” I watched her deliberately remove her left hand away from her wrist.
I wanted to believe her, but I didn’t. Our mom was all too eager to listen to Remy when she insisted she was okay. Mom didn’t want the ladies from her book club finding out, so she was more than happy to ignore everything. But okay people don’t live off of freeze-dried fruit and water for several weeks until they faint in the middle of the SATs.
I wanted to say as much, to get Remy to look me in the eye and talk to me about what was going on. But we didn’t share in our family. We compartmentalized and we pretended.
“You promise you’re okay?” I asked instead of speaking my mind.
Remy’s smile was as fake as the one I had walked into the room with.
“Good.” I nodded. “I’m going to go watch some TV. Join me when you’re done?”
“Sounds fun.” Remy nodded before turning back to her computer.
I paused at the door, though, staring at the back of her head bent in concentration. I wished I could will her into talking.
Maybe someday she would be brave enough to share her truth with me.
Until she was ready to hear it, I would keep my support locked away but ready.
Until then, I hated coming home.
Corissa Gay is a Kent State graduate working as a writer for a search engine optimization company. She is passionate about writing, editing, cats, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Corissa's writing has been featured in the Kent State magazine, Luna Negra, and she is a regular contributor to Alexandra Magazine.
* * *
Fearless By Matt Hlinak
The man chased after his three-year-old daughter as she splashed in the lake. “Stay close to me,” he warned. A plastic crown perched atop her head. She laughed as a wave nearly knocked her over. She didn’t worry about drowning. She didn’t worry about E. coli in the water. She didn’t worry about a family history of pancreatic cancer. She didn’t worry about one day sleeping with some guy who didn’t care about her. She didn’t worry about terrorism, global warming or meteors.
“You’re my prince, Daddy,” she said with a grin, and the man didn’t worry about anything either.
Matt Hlinak is the author of DoG (Rooster Republic 2012), as well as several essays and short stories. He holds an MFA from Northwestern University and a law degree from the University of Illinois. He is an administrator and teacher at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago.
* * *
When The Rain Stops By Beth Mead
Kayleigh whined for weeks that she wanted a haircut. Soon, I said. After I get paid. After I finish cleaning out the garage. I’m so tired. Next week, when the rain stops. Soon. She started scratching the back of her head and behind her ears, like a puppy, while watching TV, while doing homework at the kitchen table. Stop that, I said. I could tell she was trying to get under my skin, to punish me for putting her off. I did that, I knew. Put her off. It really itches, she said. It’s the cold weather, I told her, the dry heat in the house. I believed that. Stop acting like such a teenager, I said. Of course, of course, when I finally took her to the salon, the stylist called me over. I can’t cut her hair with evidence of live lice, she said, giving me that look, that combination of judgment and pity. Kayleigh’s body was small, collapsed in on itself in the chair, head down, eyes closed. Her hand went up to scratch her head, stopped, and fell back to her lap. Thank you, I said, and took Kayleigh’s hand, held it as we walked out the door, as we walked to the car. I hadn’t held her hand like that since she was a little girl, when she was fragile in a different way, easy to protect. When getting through each day didn’t make me so tired. I started the car and then looked at her, kept looking until she looked back. Don’t worry, I said. I’m going to take care of you.
Beth Mead’s work has appeared in Cuivre River VI, Fiction Weekly, and elsewhere. She won the Jim Haba Poetry Award and was an Honorable Mention in the River Styx MicroFiction contest.
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Why By Danielle Rosh
Splashing and Jumping around James had on his father's rain boots. James was alone out in the street playing in dirty puddles due to the previous night's rainfall. His mother called for him to come inside and get ready for school. James pretended like he didn't hear her and continued to mess around outside. Mary, his mother, ran out of the house to go get him. James goofily tried to run away in his over-sized boots, but they were too big and he tripped over himself. Mary scolded him for wearing boots that did not belong to him and told him to get inside and get dressed so that he would not miss the bus.
Making faces and laughing, James stood in front of the mirror, with shaving cream covering his jaw line and cheeks, attempting to shave his face with a women's razor. There wasn't much on his face to shave, but it made him feel mature so he did it anyways. He nicked his face a couple times and was bleeding in multiple spots. No one was ever there to teach him. He heard someone open the front door so he quickly washed all of the shaving cream off his face, put the razor back in its drawer, ran to the family room, and plopped on the couch in front of the TV. He heard his mom's sweet voice with yet another unfamiliar deep voice echoing through the house.
Standing in front of the window drinking a cup of coffee, he watched the most precious and beautiful thing he's ever seen run around the front yard. He found himself constantly smiling while around this little ball of energy. He never could understand, now more than ever, how a father would not want to stay around.
Danielle Rosh is a seventeen year old writer from the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Other than writing stories and poems, Danielle spends her time at school and at rowing practice.
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Laundry Day By Emily J Vieweg
I am folding another blue work shirt, another pair of brown work pants, and another pair of black work socks. A pale orange tank comes next - doll-sized. Her face was robin's egg blue when we said hello. Clammy, cold lips were pursed in a perpetual state of kiss. The pink parasol dress was a gift from my sister, it was right to bury her in it. I had pushed for twelve hours, and even though we knew the outcome, my son insisted on being there, to say hello and goodbye in the same breath. She was a perfect three-pound doll for my son to gently stroke with his four-year-old fingertips. "Like Silkey, mommy." 'Silkey' was his sleepy time teddy bear - eyes closed and soft to the touch to fight away the bad dreams. Softer than the well-worn Bon Jovi tee shirt next on the pile.
Emily J. Vieweg was born and raised outside St. Louis, MO and is currently working towards her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction. Emily also dabbles in playwriting and enjoys participating in theatre whenever she can. Future plans include pursuing a Master of Arts in English Composition and College Teaching Certificate.
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War Reminders by John Fredricks
John Fredricks is a freelance photographer currently based in the Los Angeles area. Lord willing, he hopes to impact his generation through a visual medium, and put the spotlight on subjects around the world. He is available for projects in any location and looks forward to getting his boots dirty in the storytelling process.
Baby by Brad Garber
Brad lives in the Great Northwest. His photographs have been featured in the Seattle Erotic Arts Festival in 2011 and 2012, onto the front cover of the Summer 2011 edition of N: The Magazine of Naturist Living, onto the front cover of Vine Leaves 2014 Anthology, and in Gravel Magazine.
Travel Photography: Greece and China by Tianli Kilpatrick
Tianli Kilpatrick is a student at Allegheny College studying English Creative Writing and Psychology. She splits her free time between horseback riding, and snorkeling/SCUBA diving.
Nature Landscapes by Mark Kosinki
Mark Kosinski is a landscape\nature photographer located in central Florida. He has worked for the Walt Disney company in Florida as a photographer, produced images for a non-profit organization as well as a local artist. He is currently working on a personal project involving state and national parks in Florida.
Visual Art by Leonard Kogan
Leonard Kogan lives and works in Baltimore, MD. Leonard’s work is currently exhibited at Jordan Faye Contemporary in Baltimore. Leonard’s works have been shown in Herzliya Museum, the Andy Warhol Factory in New York, the Nexus Project Gallery in New York, at the museum of Yanko-Dada in Israel, the Sputnik Gallery in Brooklyn and others. Leonard’s art has been featured in a number of literary and art magazines, often contributing to the covers. A publication in the Little Patuxent Review issue of “Doubt” features Leonard’s recent works and an interview with the artist.
Michael, Forever King of Pop by Paul Williams
Paul Anthony Williams has a degree in art and has been in many exhibits in central New York. Currently he sells portraits from his home studio in Utica, New York.