Foliate Oak March 2016
The Ant Lady
By E. Amato
It started simply.
Plagued in the night by this feeling this crawling feeling she could no longer take, she trained herself – forced herself awake and to turn the light on and that’s when she realized - she realized – she wasn’t crazy at all – she was being crawled on – all night long – by ants. Lines of ant soldiers used her as a passageway at night. She jumped from her night bed and began flicking the ants off off off her – she was a bit angered, to be truthful, a bit put off by these ants. She knew they’d found ways inside, she’d had to battle them before, but this familiarity of her body her night body her sleep – this was more than she would stand.
So, the next day, she took special care to seal up all their known entrances. She went down to the hardware store and bought a caulking gun, caulk, and boric acid. She filled the holes with the boric acid, and then she used the caulking gun to seal them up. She was sure this would be the end of it. Her baseboards all had white caulking spreading out from them now, but as long as she had sealed away the ants, she was happy.
She stayed up that night, caulking gun at her side, and she watched the holes. It was a full moon. In the morning, she woke up on the floor, surprised, but then soon realized that there were no ants – no ants at all. She had done it. She and her home were safe.
A few days later, when she was busy cooking her weekly stew, she noticed an ant crossing the counter. She was disturbed – disturbed, but not fazed – it was a lone ranger who’d lost its herd. She took her index finger, and came down on it, breaking its miniscule exoskeleton. She rinsed her hand and went back to cooking.
In the bathroom, a couple of days after this, she found 2 or 3 ants wandering behind the toilet bowl as she cleaned. She was a little upset, but then, they could have come through the plumbing somehow. She’d call the building and have them take care of it. She took her finger, and like they were stray poppy seeds on a counter, compressed them and flicked them off.
That night she dreamt of a desert, a foreign desert – the kind you see in movies with sand forever. So much sand it becomes a weapon; something you can never escape. She dreamt the way the wind ripples the ridges making patterns, inescapable patterns. The geometry turning into threat. So small to begin with, this grain of sand, yet when joined with billions of its companions, it becomes immortal. The desert was just grains of sand but it was always about to overpower those who dared to cross it. There was no sandstorm in her dream, no heat stroke. Just the pervasive feeling that the landscape might rise up at any moment, and claim its ongoing victory.
In the morning, she was making her coffee when she saw it – a line of ants going right through the coffee maker. She was livid. Livid. This surely had to be from the neighbor – the guy next door whose apartment was overgrown with junk and dirt. She would see about this. There were just too many of them for her index finger, so she opened the drawer and found a little Ziploc bag, snack size. She held it open in their path and waited for them to march in, then sealed it just as they were getting confused and starting to turn around. Then she got another bag and did the same thing. She left the bags on the counter as she went next door to complain to the neighbor. He was not at home, or at least not for her. She came back and looked at the bags, uncertain of what to do.
She threw them in the freezer.
By the end of the week, she had a freezer shelf full of bags.
She went to the store to buy more Ziploc bags. She had graduated from snack size to sandwich bags by now.
She continued to fill the bags. She didn’t know where to put them, so she just began to carry them with her. She would walk around her apartment, small Ziploc bag in hand, and absent-mindedly between her fingers, she would pop pop pop each one, like the bubbles in bubble wrap. At first she didn’t even realize she was doing it, but then it became a game for her, a way of passing time. She had preferences – she did not like the tiny ones, the ones as slim as feather fronds – they did not have a good action to them. She did not like the very large ones; they were too creature-like – too animate. But there was a perfect size of ant to crunch between her fingertips. A nice medium-sized black ant made a popping sound – tiny – but she could hear it – and gave her a satisfaction.
One night a friend from out of town came to visit and invited her out for a drink. It had been a long time since she’d been out, except to go to the store. She dressed carefully – though everything she owned was essentially the same. She preferred black, crisp fabrics, pants and a shirt, but still she tried to order her hair a bit, and she put on some lipstick. Red.
As she went out the door, she grabbed her purse, her keys, and a few of her special bags.
At the bar, her friend sat with several other people. She had not been expecting this. She steeled herself for the kind of conversation people who enjoy conversation participate in. She smiled, walked forward, and hugged her friend. She found a stool and struggled up with her purse carefully in her lap. There were a lot of people here; it was noisy. The friends of her friend all seemed dynamic and excited. She sat quietly, wishing she could just talk to her friend. Tell her friend the story of the ants and her fantastic victory over them! But her friend and her friend’s friends prattled on about fashion and drama and the wars and seemed oblivious to her.
At one point her friend turned directly to her – the conversation stopped.
“You’ve been so quiet – tell me what’s going on with you?”
Everyone looked her way – everyone in the whole bar. She was suddenly tongue-tied – how could she explain – make them interested in her journey – her journey with the ants – she she well, she laughed a dizzy little laugh – the kind she’d seen in movies and she smiled and she said, “oh, me – you know I’m the same as always.” Then she laughed again. Her friend looked at her for a while, but the rest of the conversation started up again as if she’d never been there. As if she was a hole that had been suddenly caulked over, now invisible to the universe.
In retrospect, this might have been a great time to leave – make her excuses about having to get up early and go.
Instead, she reached into her bag, and, nonchalantly, pulled out one of her little Ziplocs. While everyone else chatted, she silently took her thumb and forefinger and squeezed in successive bursts. Squish, squish, squish, squish. A kind of black soup began to form in the bag. The bar was dark, her movements were tiny and repetitive, but eventually, a pair of eyes came to rest on hers. A friend of her friend’s, a beautiful young dancer, watched her. He said, “Are you hiding some chocolate from us over there? Not going to share?” She looked up sharply when she realized this was directed at her.
Ten eyes suddenly turned to her lap. “What is that?” her friend said. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” she said as she tried to put away the bag quickly. It fell on the floor. The beautiful young dancer picked it up swiftly and gracefully. He looked at it before handing it back.
“What is this? What is in here?”
She snatched at the bag.
“Oh my God – is this? Is - are those ants?”
“No, you don’t understand –“
“Are you carrying around dead ants? Why would you do that?”
As she was about to try to explain, as a barrage of words began rushing from her throat, too many at once to make a straight line of words – no possible sentences – one of her friend’s friends – one wearing a bow tie and looking very pleased with himself, began singing “Dead ant, dead ant, dead ant dead ant dead ant, dead ant dead ant…” in the tune of the Pink Panther theme song.
An ocean liner sank inside her. She couldn’t take this. She was about to cry. She looked at her friend and then ran out to the street. She would just jump in the first taxi she saw and go home. Home. She would go home. Now. She heard her friend calling after her – heard her friend’s lovely, birdlike voice, but she could not stop hearing the laughter and the singing and she kept running until she could not hear the sounds anymore.
At home, safely inside, she flung out the contents of her purse. She threw some cold water on her face. She did not know what to do next. She sat on her couch for a long time. Right in the middle of the couch, staring straight ahead.
Around her, streams of ants were filing past. This was their home now. They had paths and routes. They had infrastructure. Without her constant vigilance, there would be no room left for her.
She rose from the couch. Went to the freezer. She looked at the freezer full of little bags of carrion. She took one out. She placed it on the counter. The closest thing she could find was her morning mug. Her favorite coffee mug – the one that said I <3 Victoria, BC with a picture of a maple leaf. She loved that mug. It was perfect. She took the mug now, in passion, in defiance, and began to pummel the frozen bag of ants. She brought the mug down on the frozen mass on the counter over and over; she was trying to break it into a million tiny pieces. Shards of mug went flying all over the kitchen. Finally all that was left was the handle she was holding.
She looked down at her ant holocaust. Her work. Her art. No one understood. She did not need them to, did she? She just needed them to leave her alone. This was work she needed to do. To defend her home from the onslaught of ants that threatened to take it over. While she sometimes felt she was losing the war, what else could she do? Her home was invaded by hostile forces. If she had to spend her life defending it, well, that was what she would do. She couldn’t let down her guard or let her vigilance lapse. If she did, she’d be infested. Surely this was not crazy. This was her right as a homeowner, as an American, as a human.
She breathed a sigh of competence. She returned the ants to the freezer. She cleaned up the pieces of her favorite mug. Maybe one day she’d take another trip to Canada, take a trip and get another mug; she’d make it a quest to find the same one again. In the meantime, she would just have to do without it. Or maybe she could glue it – yes – she’d glue it back together. That would be a project. She’d go to the hardware store and ask for the best glue for the job. That would be a good thing to do.
Yes. That’s what she would do next.
“…unapologetic feminist, dulcet-toned poet, activist, film-maker, editor of Zestyverse” (LossLit)
E. Amato is a published poet, award-winning screenwriter, and establishedperformer. She has three poetry collections released by Zesty Pubs: Swimming Through Amber, 5, & Will Travel, and is a content writer for The Body Is Not an Apology.
* * *
The Poker Game
By John P. Kristofco
Peter Allen wasn’t grim, though most of the kids on Portage Street thought he was.They never saw him smile, and he always yelled at them when they cut across his yard orjumped the hedges that ran along the sidewalk the length of his property. “Don’t ever buy a house on a corner,” he told his son Alex once, shaking his head.“Worse thing I ever did.” The ten year-old nodded like he often did when his father said things that didn’t seem to matter to him, even though he was perhaps the best hedge jumper on the block, practicing his craft when his father was at work and his sisters weren’t home. They would be only too happy, he knew, to rat him out to dad. Peter Allen would burst from the side door and shake his bony fist. “Damn kids!” he’d yell, then walk his quick, stiff gait out to the hedge to make sure it wasn’t damaged, pulling and placing it back into shape.
Having a tidy hedge line, both on top and on the side, was an important matter to him.He had just this summer started to let Alex clip a small section of it, watching as he did. It would be another year before he’d let the boy trim the entire length. That was his way with so many things, orderly, one right way to do them, and he did them with precision and on schedule. He was a timekeeper after all. But he did not do them with joy, at least not as far as Alex could tell, and he countedhimself something of an expert on that subject, though he almost certainly would not havethought to call it that. His Saturdays on bicycles with friends, wiffle ball and little leaguein the summer, Charlotte Crowe sitting next to him at school all brought smiles to his face,even when he wasn’t doing them. He wasn’t sure what, if anything, did that for his dad. It wasn’t that he was grim exactly, though Mikey Richert called him that once, saidhe was the “grim keeper.” Alex felt guilty when he heard that from his friend, because hecouldn’t help but laugh. His father was, as Alex named it, “serious.” It seemed as though everything he did was important, that it somehow mattered to the world. “You know, Alex,” his mother told him once, “things were tough for your father when he was a boy.” Alex had already gained a sense for that from the two trips back to his father’s home town in Pennsylvania. “He was one of eleven children. Grandpa Allen worked in a coal mine, and hey neverhad much, so the kids had to pitch in with what they could.” Alex nodded. “Like when he picked up scrap coal from the dump and hunted ginseng in the woods.” He had heard these stories many times. Mrs. Allen nodded. “Yes, and helping to keep the garden and the chickens.” “So, that’s where his ‘do what you’re supposed to do’ came from?” Mary Allen smiled. “Yes, I suppose so.”
As far as Alex could tell, his father didn’t have friends certainly not like Alex and his sisters had. Even his mom had Eleanor Poole down the street and Mikey Richert’s mother who she talked with now and then, met with to go down to Terry-town Shopping Center. He heard her on the phone with them, heard his mother talk about them. But his father didn’t mention anybody in that way. Sure, he talked with John Zomsky across the street who cut his hair once a month, and he mentioned his boss The Paymaster at work, and there were the guys he bowled with on Friday nights, but there wasn’t a Mrs. Poole or an Irene Richert in his world. Surely, there was no Mikey Richert. Alex heard him talk about a Joey Petrok a couple times, best man at their wedding and apparently his ‘best friend.’ But Alex was almost eleven, and he had never met the man. As far as he knew, he had never been to the house.
It was a cold evening in January when Alex first heard about the poker game. “George Willis said he won’t be able to host us at his place,” he overheard his father telling his mother in the kitchen. “He said they’re having some trouble with the pipes. He asked me if we could do it.” There was silence except for the sound of dishes in the sink. “Well,” his mother finally said, “it has been a while, hasn’t it.” “George said it was about three years ago.” “Then I guess it’s our time.” “Okay, I’ll tell him at work tomorrow.” The kitchen door opened, and Alex leaned toward the television as if he was intent on the new episode of Ozzie and Harriet that Wednesday night. “Alex,” his father paused on his way to the bedroom, “get your stuff off the table downstairs and put it in the fruit cellar,” and before he the boy could respond, his dad disappeared around the corner. “Okay,” he said to the back of his dad’s leg. A moment later, his mother appeared at the kitchen door. “Alex, would you mind tidying up down the basement?” He squinted and tilted his head. “Uh,…..sure….what’s up?” Mary Allen draped the dishcloth across the stove handle. “Your dad’s having the card game here on Saturday.” That didn’t sound familiar. “Card game?” “Yeah. Dad plays cards a couple times a year with some men from work.” “I didn’t know that.” “Yep. They’ve been doing it for maybe seven-eight years now.” “How come they never have it here?” “Oh, they did a while back, when you were seven or so.” For the next two days, the house took on a sense of urgency. Alex and his sisters putaway their things from the small basement. Mary Allen mopped the linoleum floor, took downthe clotheslines, washed the old kitchen table that had been down there for as long as Alexcould remember, cleaned her old white ringer washer, and, with the help of her daughters,cleaned and ‘prettied-up’ the house’s one small bathroom. Storage boxes with their odds-and-ends were closed, stacked, made to stand in order.
Air fresheners were bought and strategically placed in corners out of sight. The only two of the six basement windows that actually worked were opened an inch or so to let in cold,fresh air. For his part, Peter Allen’s already serious countenance took on an even sharper focus.He picked up two cases of beer: one Gold Bond and the other Carlings. He bought bags of chips and pretzels, even some sour cream and onion dip, all things usually reserved for the holidays or the infrequent visits from relatives. He bought cans of mixed nuts and bags ofM&M’s. It was like a hive until Saturday when they ate dinner early, and Alex’s sisters went off to spend the evening with friends. Only Alex was unable to make the same arrangements, so he would be at home, admonished in words that allowed no room for interpretation or latitude that he was to “stay quiet and out of the way.” The plan for that was simple: watch t.v. with his mother and just go to bed by ten. It seemed a straight forward if not inspired strategy. But, like so many human designs, it did not anticipate every contingency, and when Mary fell asleep in her chair while they were watching Gunsmoke, Alex was left to his own improvisation. Below him were the voices of men he did not know except for one in the house that he helped clean, laughing, calling out, lowering the register for ‘shit’ and ‘godammit,’ sometimes sharing them as if there weren’t a ten year-old and his mother just above them.Twice he heard his father scold an offender, and Alex would hear, “sorry, Pete, okay?”to the squelched laughter of the others.
It was unlike anything he’d ever heard in their small bungalow. He thought maybeIt would wake his mother, but she was much too competent a sleeper to allow that to happen.He began to imagine what it looked like down there. It had long ago been discovered by the children in the Allen house that one could geta pretty good view of the basement from the top of the steps, especially when only the fartheraway of the two overhead lights was in use like it was tonight. He was certain that his dad would not want him to do it, that it would indeed qualify as“getting in the way,” and that there might be a debt to pay if he were detected, but the sound was too enticing, surely much more compelling that Miss Kitty’s doe-eyed looks at Marshall Dillon. Alex walked quietly into the kitchen and stood a moment at the door to the steps. The voices grew louder. He could smell the cigarettes and cigars, bottles being set back down on the table his mother had cleaned.
It was all too irresistible. He flicked off the kitchen light and opened the door slowly, quietly, just enough to peeka head through. He stretched out on the floor and looked down the stairs. There in the hazy halo around the table, six men sat, two of them facing the stairs; oneof those was his father. They sat as if they ran the world, some secret group hidden from the sun. Smoke driftedup to the single light as if it bore the burden of their lives breathed out, cleansed by lukewarmbeer pulled from cardboard cases by the wall. These men from the factory, the offices that took the days away like canceled pages from their calendars, faces, hands lined and tired, so far distant from the time they dreamt of what they might become some day, sheltered for this gauzy island’s five-hour respite. They slapped down cards and coins, chided one another, drew smoke deep into their lungs, tossed their heads back for more beer. And there among them, with a green visor on his head and his shirtsleeves neatlyrolled, Peter Allen sat with a smile on his face that Alex had never seen. It cut through thesmoke to him as if a veil had been lifted for a moment. The smile was wide, unfettered, set free if only for this time, as if the man knew his car and all the others owned by the bank sat icing in the January night, and he didn’t care. None of that mattered. For those five hours all thatmattered was that hazy circle in his basement. Alex felt his own face smile in a way it never had before. He slowly shook his head,rose, closed the door, and went back into the living room. He never forgot that evening, the night the poker game came to his house.
John P. Kristofco's poetry and short stories have been published in about two hundred different publications, including: Rattle, Slant, Cimarron Review, The Chaffin Journal, and Sierra Nevada Review. He has published two collections of poetry and is currently working on a collection of short stories, of which "The Poker Game" is one. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times.
* * *
By JT Lachausse
Dreary stood on the roof of the Sedan and swung a shovel at the air. A routine, you could call it, a ritual she made within the past year, swinging that big black shovel at nothing, her feet denting the steel roof inward, her mouth liberating wild strings of slobber that dampened the top of her dress.
Dreary would wear only this dress for her shovel-swinging activities. It was a bright green muumuu ornamented with a great red dot at the center of its chest, an attachment made after months of saliva weakened the fabric enough to need such repair. Most nights, she possessed the energy to swing her shovel with unyielding might, her screeching and stomping commencing after dinner and concluding before bath time. A particularly good night, such as tonight, would find the jade green splotches extending down to her knees, the rivers of a map crawling forth from the ocean-dampness at her chest, splitting at the circular lava bank that was the red dot and rushing down; it would find the trenches on the roof of the Sedan to be filled like thick basins of spit, Dreary’s feet splashing it all about onto the windshield and between her toes.
From across the street, where the Pleasants would watch Dreary through their dining room window, they would tilt their heads in unapologetic interest. The street light that rose from their driveway illuminated the dark just enough so that Dreary seemed to be but a floating garment.
“Confined to her misery,” Mrs. Pleasant had said, as she usually did.
It had taken a few months for Mrs. Pleasant to find the words she wanted to say about the Dreary-shovel-swinging situation, but once she had found them, she made sure to use them daily. One of the first incantations of this phrase was, “poor thing, she will never not be miserable,” but she figured this was much too wordy for dinner talk, as dinner talk was meant to be brief; “confined to her misery,” she would say, and then take another sip of soup, or tea, which it was always soup or tea. The Pleasants understood that consistency in life was important, and as such, while they found the Dreary-shovel-swinging situation to be rather despondent and horrific, they respected her consistency.
“Mmm,” Mr. Pleasant would grumble, as he always did, and then, “what a pity.”
He found comfort with these brief beginnings, Mrs. Pleasant believed, and he too seemed to understand that consistency was important to fostering a better self, that even in conversation you must exercise restraint, and so he closed with a “where is her mother?” before taking a slurp of his oatmeal, or his coffee, which it was always oatmeal or coffee.
The Pleasants had known Dreary’s mother for many years, as she had grown up in the house across the street. Merry had always performed herself with “consummate elegance”, Mr. Pleasant would often explain to Mrs. Pleasant, and so it baffled them as to how Dreary came about. How had Merry’s child fallen so far from the landscape of human decency? Perhaps it was the father, Mrs. Pleasant would hypothesize, as Dreary had never before been seen until her father had died. Perhaps the consistency of her life had broken and now Dreary could not function as the rest of society could, although she did have her routine, and as such, she was “sorting herself out”, she was “adjusting her consistencies” Mrs. Pleasant would conclude before another spoonful of soup, or tea, which it was always one or the other, or both.
“Perhaps,” Mrs. Pleasant began, which was uncommon, as the conversation was usually made to end after her closing hypotheses, “perhaps I should see about giving the poor girl one of my old dresses.”
Mr. Pleasant looked up to his wife with a furrowed brow, his oatmeal spoon waiting in the air to be eaten from, his coffee steaming up in anticipation.
“Mmm,” Mrs. Pleasant heard him say as they both turned back to the window.
Beyond, Dreary’s garment spun around in the air, that same phantom presence as always; but there, in the reflection, Mrs. Pleasant noticed her husband’s face staring back at her, a floating head that seemed to sway with the dress, almost responding to it, the steam of his coffee rolling up the glass and curling around his face. Mrs. Pleasant reached out to the window and rubbed a forefinger at the condensation, brushing the cheek of her husband’s reflection, forming a line on the screen, and through it, she found a paralyzed green garment watching her, the sound of a shovel banging against metal.
Dreary stood atop the vehicle motionless, the shovel tumbling onto the steel and then off onto the concrete driveway. The blood and innards of a crow had erupted onto her, the beak caught in her saliva-laden hair, the feathers stuck to her dress and her face, the basins of spit mixed in with a dark, brown juice. She looked down onto her chest and found one of the crow’s eyes stuck to the center of her red dot. “What a wonder, what a wild thing to happen,” she thought. Dreary looked up into the sky, as if the crow would still be hanging there, glaring down at her like, “Hey! What’s the big idea?”, but it was gone. She looked across the street where she found one of her neighbors, Ms. Pleasant, seated at her dinner table. The woman ate by herself, always, always watching Dreary from across the road to keep her company, maybe, always talking to her behind the glass window.
Dreary crawled off of the Sedan and walked back into the house. It was time to take a bath, she said to herself, carefully walking through the front door and down her hallway, careful to not touch anything. She entered the bathroom and slipped out of her clothes. She stepped into the bath tub and turned the faucet on, the clear water flooding up and eating away at the grime on her body.
Her throat was sore from screaming and her arms were tired. She found it hard to clean herself, but now she was too exhausted to think, which was a good thing. Dreary told herself that she was done crying and so she was done crying. She told herself that the day was over and there was no reason to worry anymore, that tomorrow would bring something better for her, like her husband had always said. After she dried herself off, she watched the black water spin at the drain and disappear.
When Dreary woke up the next morning, she put on her work clothes, as usual, and stepped out the front door. In the yard across the street, Ms. Pleasant watered her flowers and looked up to greet her, as she always did.
“Morning, Merry!” she called, and Merry returned the greeting with a wave.
She stepped into her Sedan and turned on the ignition. As was always the case, she would need to clean off the windshield, and so she sprayed some water on the glass and turned on the windshield wipers. She put the vehicle in reverse and started to back out of the driveway when the Sedan jerked up in a violent reaction, the sound of a loud rupture coming from beneath the car. In the rearview mirror, Merry could see Ms. Pleasant waving her arms frantically and striding across the street.
Merry stepped out of her vehicle and found her shovel broken in half, the metal handle punctured into one of her wheels, her Sedan gradually sinking with a gentle hiss. Ms. Pleasant stepped beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, both of the women staring down at the broken shovel, the blade still stained with the gory crow remains.
“I can give you a ride to work, dear,” Ms. Pleasant said to Merry.
“I don’t think my husband would mind.”
JT Lachausse serves as the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Matador Review and is an associate editor at Hotel Amerika. His work has been featured in Quail Bell Magazine, and he has work forthcoming in Enizagam, apt, Polaris, and Praxis. Originally from Aurora Sparks, Texas, he now lives in Chicago, where he attends Columbia College for Fiction Writing.
* * *
By Brian Schulz
Macomber was irritated. He looked impatiently up the road for the bus, then at his watch. Ten past three. His back was tight, and his legs throbbed with the heavy ache they got whenever he stood still on them, waiting. And he’d been waiting for fifteen minutes. That was long enough.
If he had noticed the old man sitting on the bench, Macomber would have kept standing. But now he was seated on the splintered slats, his back square and his feet planted, beside the old man. He couldn’t get back up because the old man would know why. And, besides, his legs did hurt. He scooched, a little, toward the edge of the bench, and turned away from the old man, fixing his gaze on a sidewalk crack. He looked at his watch. Twelve past three.
The old man was crusty and weathered, but in a gentle sort of way, the way Macomber imagined men from Vermont grew old. His clothes were soiled. His raincoat was dull, tan, grease-spotted, and too small in the sleeves, and he wore a crumpled, thin-brimmed hat pulled down low over his ears. The hat looked like the fishing hat Macomber’s father used to wear but without the plastic license pinned cock-eyed in the front. Macomber had not taken to fishing; it was one of his father’s pastimes he’d not been able to fathom and, with time, had come to view with contempt. It had galled him that his father could so carelessly spend his time. It had been the same with his garden, though when he’d started to grow vegetables, Macomber could at least see a purpose. His father never kept the fish he caught.
Why do old people’s clothes never fit? Macomber wondered.
Macomber fidgeted; he uncrossed his left leg, then crossed his right leg. He straightened the crease of his pants. He glanced up the road. He looked at his watch. He turned back toward the old man. His face was dark. Deep lines creased his forehead and drew down from the corners of his closed eyes, rounding into a fold by his lips. A fringe of thin, white hair fell out from around his hat and sprouted in tufts from his ears. He had a broad, strong nose that seemed to be from another face.
Macomber thought: Will I look like that?
The old man was still and breathed slowly, deliberately. His face held a tender, unforced smile that seemed as fixed a feature as the wrinkles age had left behind. His father’s had been that kind of smile. It was disarming and soothing. Macomber’s rare girlfriends took note of his father’s smile, but Macomber had never been able to muster more than a grimace. The smile was all that remained of his father at the end, when the cancer took him.
The old man slowly opened his eyes, blinking in the soft sunlight. He turned to Macomber, meeting his wan, green eyes for just an instant, then nodded slightly. Macomber was discomfited, unsure whether the old man’s nod connoted a scold or small embrace. He looked at his watch. Twenty-one past three.
“How long have you been here?” Macomber spoke to the old man.
“What time is it?” the old man answered.
“Three twenty-one, two. Three twenty two.”
“Oh, since I got here.” The old man smiled. “It’s warm today. Eh?”
Macomber hadn’t noticed. He’d been distracted by the small gusts of spring breeze that tousled his scrupulously arranged, thinning red hair. He should have worn his hat. But the old man was right; the day was pleasant, and for a brief moment Macomber felt at ease, content to sit with the old man, idling in the sun.
The bus drew up and stopped in front of the bench. With a hiss, the door opened. Macomber stood quickly and smoothed his coat. He peered into the bus. Full. How could he fit? Macomber started to squeeze onto the platform of the first step, hesitated, then turned to the old man.
“Well, come on,” Macomber beckoned the old man. "Let’s go.”
The old man’s gray eyes scanned the filmy bus windows and the tired, pressed faces behind them. He shook his head slowly, smiling. “Nope. Thanks. Go on.”
“Next bus isn’t till four.” Macomber looked at his watch, then stepped down and offered his hand to the old man.
The old man stuck out his hand. It was a big hand, liver-spotted, fingers gnarled. He took Macomber’s hand and grasped it firmly between both of his. “Last one was at two. It’s a nice day. Go on now, son.”
Macomber climbed back up onto the step, gripped the metal rail, and pulled his coat bottom in from the door. He watched as black diesel-dust settled around the old man. The old man’s serene smile shone through the cloud like his father’s had in the morning lake-mists, a fishing pole cradled in his arm. The old man waved a small wave.
Macomber pulled up his sleeve to check the time. His watch was gone.
Brian lives in north-central Massachusetts where, when not riding its country roads or wandering its woodland trails, he consults with young entrepreneurs and writes fiction and poetry. He is currently at work, with his nephew, on a middle-grade novel.
* * *
By April Vazquez
...won't leave Manolo in peace. I mean, she absolutely won't let him go. Everyone knows it's over--it's been over for more than a year--but here she is, like a case of head lice that you can't get rid of. Imagine what it took to come here, a country away from everything you're used to, following someone who doesn't even love you anymore. She just won't accept that it's over.
She thinks he'll take her back. That's her deal, to hold on so tenaciously, for so long, that eventually she'll wear him down, she'll tire him out, she'll win him back. That's why she's all sí, señora this and no, señora that, but you should've seen how she treated my mother-in-law in the past. Didn't you hear about the roses? Well, la doña was visiting them allá, en el norte, it's probably been five years ago now. My mother-in-law was helping out around the house, doing some straightening, cooking Manolo his favorite foods. You know la doña, she doesn't like to be without something to do. So one day while Manolo and Sandra were both at work, to be helpful she trimmed the rosebush and snipped the heads off the dead roses so they'd come back pretty in the spring. (Wouldn't it be awful to live in a place where everything stays dead for months? And the cold! Bone-chilling. Of course, I suppose there are other advantages--the money, you know. But when I got back home after my one visit, I absolutely kissed the soil of Mexico. I literally did! I'd never go back, not for any amount of dolares. And thank God Osvaldo is home for good this time too.)
Anyway, when Sandra got home and saw the rosebush she threw one more temper tantrum, that my mother-in-law was killing her flowers, that she was ruining everything in her house, and on and on, screaming and ranting, and la pobre doña without the faintest idea of what was being said--she knows about as much English as I do, which is cero--but guessing that it must be about her. Sandra said that if she could only put together a thousand dollars to rent herself an apartment she would've already gone. And do you know what that loco Osvaldo did? He pulled two thousand dollars out of his wallet and laid them down on the table and asked her, "Will this help?" Well, that really did get her started, that they were trying to get rid of her!
She was always jealous of la doña, you know. You know what kind of son Manolo is, calling every day, sending money regularly… pues, he's just a saint, Manolo is. And I guess Sandra wanted him all to herself. She had a pretty good run too, him keeping her up for thirteen years. And for some of that time he was supporting her daughter too. Oh yes, Tiffani's her name. She's about grown now, but she lived with them--oh, I don't know, I'd say five years, off and on. Poor thing, her mother had farmed her out to some aunt on the father's side until Manolo said she could come and live with them. But I don't think she could tolerate her mother for long at a stretch. It was the girl who called the police on Sandra.
Didn't you know? Sandra just absolutely went on a rampage, dear, it was a year ago in March. Tiffani got home from school one day and found her mother in the backyard burning Manolo's clothes in the firepit. She'd smashed every one of his truck windows with a baseball bat, broken his DVDs and cologne bottles. She had the house smelling like a perfume factory! The place was absolutely turned upside down from one end to the other. The girl took one look around, locked herself in her room, and called the police. The next morning she was on a bus back to her aunt's in Brownsville. Of course, they hauled Sandra off to a psychiatric institution.
Imagine Manolo coming home from working all day and witnessing that scene! What's that? Why, nothing, dear! They hadn't quarreled; nothing out of the ordinary at all. When Manolo left for work that morning, everything was completely normal. He has no idea to this day why she did it. But it put an end to things, at least. He'd tried to break it off before then, but she wouldn't let him. This time she had no choice.
They made some kind of a deal, though, when she was in the asylum. Someone had to sign to get her out of there, so he signed. The understanding was that she'd be looking for a new place to live… only she didn't keep up her end of the bargain. She kept working on him to take her back, to give her another chance. It was over, of course--don't think there was any of that going on; they slept in separate bedrooms. But she just wouldn't accept it.
You almost feel sorry for her. I mean, here she is, forty-five years old, and I can't imagine she was ever pretty, even in her prime. She's got nothing, no home of her own, no husband--oh no, he never married her--and no kind of relationship with her daughter . And now she's here, in Mexico! Still chasing after Manolo, and he can't stand the sight of her.
Can you keep something to yourself, dear?
Osvaldo tells me Manolo's got another woman--a good woman, Colombian, with a little boy who absolutely idolizes Manolo. And she's young enough so that he could still be a father. Sandra had had an operation, years ago, so that was impossible with her. What? No, of course he wasn't seeing the woman before! They only got together afterward, once it was over with Sandra. This is a good woman, and Manolo…well, everyone knows that Manolo's a saint.
A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez has a B.A. in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an M.A. in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. April currently lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she homeschools her daughters, reads, and writes. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Windhover, Connotation Press, and Eclectica.
* * *
A Boy and His Dog
By C.L. Bledsoe
I don’t remember why I looked outside,
but there Dad was, his beaten-down, once-black
Ford pulled over in the tall grass, up the road
toward the top of the ridge. I went to meet him,
thinking anything would be better than
the boredom inside. When I was closer, I saw
he had his snake rifle aimed at a dog running
across the far side of the valley. I knew
what he was thinking: the dog had been spooking
the cows, might incite them to hurt themselves
or at least raise worry. So he was taking the practical
solution. A rise blocked him from seeing
the boy climbing the other side of the ridge, up
from Aunt Mary Bob’s trailer, chasing
his dog that’d gotten out. And I ran,
trying to beat that crack of thunder
that travelled miles faster than I ever could.
Sailing the Seas of Carpet
I’m working when she asks if I’ll get down
on the floor to play with her. I have to get
these grades in. I’ve explained that I have to
work to make money. Also, everything will fall
asleep if I do get down there, including me.
But I do it because no one ever did for me.
She hands me a doll. I’m Anna because she
wants to be Elsa. I don’t have a preference.
They’re sisters but they’re not really sisters
but they live in the same castle that’s actually
a boat but still a castle and the carpet is the sea
and they’re both princesses. And they’re
actually sisters. But Anna is the daddy. The shoes
won’t stay on my doll. My daughter jumps up
and runs to her bedroom to make a potion to turn
them both into fairies that are mermaids but still
princesses. She’s already calling for me. I crawl
to my feet. As soon as I get settled on the floor,
she’s finished the potion, which consists of a bucket
of beads and all the little hard things I tend to step
on scattered around the floor with a few having
landed in a small bucket. Then, we run back,
well, she runs back and I limp, to the living room,
carrying the potion which means she’s spilling
beads on the carpet. I decide to crawl and scoop
as many as I can, but she’s calling for Anna
to come rescue the prince who was captured
by pirates. I remember when I was a kid,
playing war even though I wasn’t interested
in war, but I’d seen other boys doing it.
Mostly, I wanted to take everything apart
and put it back together. I’m thinking about
that deadline, the grading. She dumps beads
out and sorts through them, finds a quarter
in the potion and hands it to me. “I’m the boss,”
she says. “You work for me. Now play.”
CL Bledsoe is the author of a dozen books, most recently the poetry collection Riceland and the novel Man of Clay. He lives in northern Virginia with his daughter.
* * *
By Kendra Craighead
My hands shattered into sharp edges
that made my mother afraid to hold me. Instead
she found a flat piece without much weight to it and snatched it up.
She spoke to its reflection saying,
“There is so much of me in you. I know exactly what you’re going through.”
But before I could stop her, she dropped the jagged glass and it splintered
beside the rest of me on the floor.
Over the years I put myself back together, sweeping and gluing until
I was almost whole, save for the pieces I never found.
An eye rolling across the marble, a leg limping alone down
the stairs, some fingers inching like worms
to find me again: My mirror heart is beating under a bed collecting dust.
I waited the rest of my life
for someone to come along
who wouldn’t be afraid to bleed.
Kendra Craighead is a senior student at the University of La Verne in La Verne, CA. She is studying journalism and creative writing with an emphasis in poetry, with aspirations of becoming a published fiction novelist. Kendra enjoys reading graphic novels, fiction, non-fiction, as well as practicing photography and experimenting with poetry.
"[w]hole" was written originally as a prose poem piece, and in many ways Kendra still reads it that way, but however the readers intemperate the poem is entirely up to them, and that to Kendra is what makes poetry so beautiful. "[w]hole" is for anyone who can relate to fragility and the strength it takes to rebuild oneself in the aftermath of an emotional catastrophe.
* * *
By Douglas Currier
When the dog died, he didn’t know what he’d lost.
The months afterward taught him: the silent
comings home, the mornings speaking now,
only to himself. He still speaks to others as if
she were still alive, as if he still has a dog.
Banished from the pet aisle, the backyard, he found
the forgotten tennis ball, faded florescent green,
in the corner beneath the little table
that collects old newspapers.
the flat, red leash and two squeaky toys
– elephant and turtle – in his sock drawer.
He hates the storms she would have hated,
sharp noises, the shitty little neighbor kids
she knew to bark at. One has to be taught
loss, taught to miss these things.
I spend this week looking for signs – the lost luggage,
the losing lottery ticket, the lack of work, my lapsing
obsessions. Autumn is the time of omens – birds
flying south, squirrels hiding acorns from next door
in the empty flowerpots on the back deck, leaves
falling on their hidden schedule. Do leaves know
when they will fall? Or are they like us – is dropping
a sort of surprise? I fear I have turned color.
I would like to think
that they would know
what I want – but then,
when have they?
Conversations so often
misunderstood, time spent
for naught. There are things
about each other that we
don’t want to hear, disregard
in the confusion of living
as if we will never die or
need the sort of extreme
decisions now even hard
to make for myself.
I charge you now, family.
When I am not me, nor will
be ever the same – no plugs,
no tubes, no liquids, no foods
– please no inordinate expense.
Douglas K Currier is a former college professor who has published in the past in Laurel Review, Dominion Review, The Café Review, Black River Review, Fish Stories, Mockingbird, Writer-To-Writer, Mangrove, Lake Region Review, and Ibis Review to name a few. His work appears in the anthology, Onion River: Six Vermont Poets. Daniel Lusk, ed. Winooski, VT. Book Rack, 1997. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.
* * *
Meditation on a Sun-porch in Maine
By Seth Jani
We disappear, and are bound to our passage
Like hoists in the bulwark of death.
With no eternity to speak of
There are only fruits carefully arranged
On a plate in summer.
There is only the gestures of trees
In ambient light as the sun goes down.
When I think of the body
Under the shelter of dirt In a New England cemetery
I think not of resurrection
But the exquisite delicacy of each day.
The porcelain of time that cracks
And reforms in unexpected jolts.
The near unbearable perfection
Of sitting next to you on a sun-porch in Maine
After a summer of traveling, and the mantra
Spoken softly and intently in the heart:
This too will pass, this too will pass.
Seth Jani currently resides in Seattle, WA and is the founder of Seven CirclePress. His work has been published widely in such places as The Coe Review, The Hamilton Stone Review, Hawai`i Pacific Review, Gingerbread House and Gravel. More about him and his work can be found at www.sethjani.com.
* * *
By Laurle Kolp
Knocking my coffee
it sloshes on the kitchen table
and burns my hand, burns like
The power plant’s on strike.
…blah, blah, blah...
disturbed by your worried voice,
my father’s drone all those years ago
back in high school— a snooty private school
where kids my age wore Ralph Lauren Polo’s
and sported brand new cars at 16— “bankruptcy”
perception branding me different. Less than.
…go bankrupt, how we’ll stay afloat,
our savings nonexistent, you blab.
My eyes rest on the red checkered
Better Homes & Gardens cookbook
Mom handed down to me
when we married. When I pull
it off the shelf, a recipe falls out,
“Gravy” written on top with shaky hand,
my great-grandmother’s hand-
writing, a recipe used most nights
during the Great Depression.
Growing up with eleven siblings,
my grandfather living on bread and gravy
used to say it didn’t matter because
he knew he was loved. I take your
hand and tell you we’ll be fine.
the navy blue velvet void
I am sitting here with your book again
evening glimmers at my window
the moon looms white and the sky has no holes
… and I think suddenly
if you died…
the helicoptered rise and
fall of whirling flight
in this cruel wind’s seven thirty skyline
would swallow me whole—
I cannot watch the birds fly south.
Laurie Kolp is the author of Upon the Blue Couch and Hello, It's Your Mother. Her poems have appeared in Concho River Review, Scissors & Spackle, Pirene’s Fountain, and more. She lives in Southeast Texas with her husband, three children and two dogs.
* * *
By Michelle McMillan-Holifield
Their demure necks, ribboned in cornflower
blue, dampened from crisp white
to buttery yellow. Geese-bedecked dish
towels that hung in the windows of my mother’s
kitchen for over a decade. Eventually my father
asked if it was time they bought new curtains.
When we talk, my father and I, we talk about
my mother. Some new task she’s set before him,
some meal she refused him so he had a spam
sandwich. He can’t finish a sentence for himself—
she finds the words he wants.
I chide: you’re going to have to put your . . .
Foot down, he agrees. Once in my teens
I told my mother to shut up. She shut up.
Her controlled decorum not defeat,
but wisdom that the memory of her silence
would one day be worse than any beating.
Last week, we found those dish towels
in a feeble-bodied box in the attic. She hung
them up, folds feathering over the sill.
I whispered to my father: what about those. . .
Geese? he finished. Oh, I guess they’re . . .
Where they belong, she agreed from the other room.
Michelle McMillan-Holifield studied poetry at Delta State University in the Mississippi Delta. Her work has been included in or is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry Review, Deep South Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Found Poetry Review, poemmemoirstory, A Quiet Courage, Red Savina Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Windhover among others.
* * *
By D. W. Moody
just like others we had lived in
for the weeks or months
we’d managed to stay
the motel room was cramped
with the six of us
brothers, sisters, mother all crammed into one room
barren of privacy
in spring the heavy rains came
the parking lot disappearing under a small pond
my younger brother often climbing out
the shallow window
to play freely
in the dirty water
in winter we’d run out into the snow
in our shorts and nothing else
racing past the other boys
our bare feet and hands numb
as we’d climb up a hill of ice
pushing to reach the top
to be king of the mountain
when we first moved in
full of discolored green tiles
covering the floor
lining the walls
every evening we stood on that harsh cold surface
until the night
amidst his tears and screams
the tiles fell
showering my younger brother with debris
D. W. Moody grew up between California and the Midwest. He lived on the streets, hitchhiked around the country, and held a variety of jobs in Kansas and Southern California until settling into life as a librarian. As a new father, life is busy juggling the demands of work and being a committed parent: He writes when he can.
* * *
By Mark Murphy
In a room, not far from here, a human infant cries
its little heart out.
How could anyone resent its howls,
as mother goes to comfort?
Sometimes, it takes the infants voice, to remind us
of our own anxieties,
given, as we are,
to selfish pleasures
with its consequences, far beyond reckoning.
Now the infant wails, shattering any peace
we might have found,
a constant reminder of our own children
that were still-born, miscarried,
never to be:
Sapho! Anaïs! Marina!
The battles are lost and many,
but the war is seldom over for very long.
So we listen intently at our doors,
over the telephone, worlds obscured by life and death.
Mark A. Murphy’s first full length collection, Night-watch Man & Muse was published in November 2013 from Salmon Poetry (Eire).
* * *
A Night at Charlie's Place
By Robin Wright
Upstairs, a balcony snuggles above blue, red, and gold lights
that scintillate across the stage and dance floor,
above a globe light made of jig-saw-puzzle glass.
Later, people will be dancing in synchronized motion under those lights,
like glitter come to life, bodies leaning into one another,
heads nodding thanks to the band for a few less moments of loneliness.
I find a table in back of the twilight room,
order a shot of tequila, and hope this really is his last performance
with the young singer he thought he was in love with.
The only patrons are tired men lounging on stools
with well-settled grooves, sucking mugs of Bud from Charlie’s tap.
Marlboro Reds are within easy reach, and I wonder
how many years, marriages, and beers they consumed
before their choices made them weary.
Band members filter in for a sound check,
and the lead singer pours out lyrics of Love Shack through
bumble-bee buzzes and pig-squeal feedback. Nothing to do but
stop, adjust, try again. The man I still love
grabs a Gibson that looks like it’s been dipped in an oil slick and breaks
out a lead on Power of Love. His fingers press and slide the strings;
his back arches under the weight of notes. The sounds ring through, rise
to share space with wafting smoke. I down the shot and wait.
Robin Wright has had poems published in various literary journals, most recently in Amarillo Bay. Two of her poems were recently published in the University of Southern Indiana’s 50th anniversary anthology, Time Present, Time Past. She has also co-written two novels with Maryanne Burkhard under the name B. W. Wrighthard.
* * *
The Man from The Railway
By GJ Hart
Dunbar feels the nerve twitch and squeezes his jaw. The painkillers have turned his stomach and his dentist is on Safari.
As he instructs his driver to stop he sees a sheet hanging above the shop's entrance. It is filthy and scrawled in red with the words, 'FUCK OFF'. He lowers his head and moans.
Dunbar's boss is not happy. Dunbar’s boss is never happy. Dunbar’s boss lives in a district on the edge of town that Dunbar and his family visit at weekends and feel like tourists.
Dunbar ignores his boss; he considers his record solid: in four months he has closed every shop but one. He passes windows blanked out with white paint and shivers with well-being.
He stops outside the Deli and checks his pocket. He sees movement inside and wishes he was somewhere else, somewhere dark; sophisticating his pain with single malt.
He smooths his hair with shaking hands and enters. The shop is busy. As he walks toward the counter, Adriana and her daughters see him and fall silent.
Dunbar inhales bay leaf and pig's blood and considers showing them the photographs of his children he keeps in his wallet. But as he stands, folding his coat, he catches the daughter's eye and decides against it.
Secretly, Dunbar adores the place. It is, he concedes sadly, the last place to take a tooth ache.
In one corner, a costume cart swoons with freshly baked Bolo de Ferradura. Strings of Farinheira hang from ceiling beams and a huge Presunto reclines beneath glass, like an absurd homage to the taste of death. Dunbar's mouth waters, rehydrating the pain in his mouth.
Adriana removes her apron and leads him through beads to an office at the back. As he takes the letter from his inside pocket, Dunbar calculates they must be directly beneath the tracks.
Adriana grabs the envelope, tears it open and reads the four short lines. "This means nothing, " she says. "I told you, if you don't take the money, the lawyers will. Now it's too late. It's already sold." Adriana Spits at his feet "Thirty years. Thirty years!" she says, grabbing his arms. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do."
Her daughters appear in the doorway screaming words he doesn't understand. Adriana takes the letter and stuffs it in her mouth. The 4.20 thunders above them, heading to the edges of town. The room vibrates and the nerve in his tooth begins to spasm. Dunbar pushes his way out and hurries toward his car. He needs more pills, but has forgotten how many he's taken. As he slides across leather, he wonders whether, if he takes more, he will overdose.
GJ Hart currently lives and works in Brixton, London and is published or upcoming in The Harpoon Review, The Legendary, The Eunoia Review, Scrutiny Journal, Yellow Mama, Near To The Knuckle, Spelk Fiction, Schlock Magazine (UK), Horror Within Magazine, Three Minute Plastic, Literally Stories, Fiction on the Web, Shirley lit mag, The Unbroken Journal, The Pygmy Giant, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Drabble, The Squawk Back, 521 Magazine, Visual Verse, Fewer Than 500 Magazine and others.
* * *
By JB Mulligan
The cows had eyes like Dan's sister when he scared her, as wide as Betty's mouth when he jumped out from behind a door or a dresser and yelled, “Boo.” Dan would laugh, and sometimes she would laugh, and sometimes she would cry, and their mother would make Dan go get a stick from the Beating Bush in the front yard.
The cows wandered down the road from the farm to the one of the slaughterhouses in Brooklyn, lowing contentedly from time to time – or they seemed content to him – so big and scary until you realized how placid they were. He and one other boy would herd them to the pen before the big brown building, ten cents each cow per day, and Dan's mother let him keep one dime each week, and Dan was sure that the money would build up over time and he would be able to spend his adult years fishing.
His adult years had other plans. These included some jobs that were honest, and some time spent in France, during which Betty's mouth opened one wide last time under the Atlantic water, and Dan's father, distant and cold as he was, stopped a little while after that, and Dan's Mom said he had never been the same after Betty died.
As near as Dan could tell, the day Betty drowned might have been the same day that, over in France, Dan looked into Richie Black's wide eyes as they looked around for salvation, and then went suddenly blank. Dan shot an enemy soldier later that day and he always believed, in his heart, that the soldier he killed was the one who killed his friend. It didn't have to be that way, and wasn't even all that likely to be, but Dan was sure, and wished that he had seen the man's eyes go wide and search and go out like a candle.
Dan came home and went to work as if things were normal. Nothing was normal while Over There shook Dan awake with the sweats at night and made dawn seem as far away as home. But maybe that was normal.
Dan joined the army of the unemployed, and begged and stole and did jobs that were not so honest, and one day a falling man missed Dan by about five feet when he hit the sidewalk, and everyone asked for Jesus except for the fallen man, whose wide eyes asked for nothing. Dan blinked and said he was OK and went to a possible job.
One day when he was old, wife passed, kids moved away – good kids, but with lives of their own that smiled up bright-eyed from photographs in the mail – Dan walked to where (he thought) the slaughterhouses had been, and there were stores and houses, and he grinned trying to figure out how much had changed. He got careless and stepped out into the street, and a taxi ran over his foot, and the cab screeched to a halt, and the cabbie stuck his head out the window to cuss Dan out, then drove away. A young boy, wide eyed and trembling, asked Dan if he was all right and Dan nodded, not quite sure how he would sound out loud. The young man walked with him for a minute or two and seemed satisfied that Dan was in fact OK, and wandered off, and Dan wandered home, chuckling contentedly from time to time. His foot hurt a bit, but that was easy. The world seemed a little more visible and bright for a while.
JB Mulligan has had poems and stories in several hundred magazines over the past 40 years, has had two chapbooks published: The Stations of the Cross and THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS, and two e-books, The City Of Now And Then, and A Book of Psalms (a loose translation from the Bible). He has appeared in several anthologies, among them, Inside/Out: A Gathering Of Poets; The Irreal Reader (Cafe Irreal); and multiple volumes of Reflections on a Blue Planet.
* * *
By Man O'Neal
They always told Lulu to reach for the stars. They told her to wait for a summer night when it was even and warm and she could go outside in her nightgown. “You can do it Lulu” They always said. “You can reach one if you try.” So she walked down her front porch, barefooted and small, and stretched her little arm into the plum-colored sky. They always told her that stars had secret spots like the silence under her bed. She used to play down there and pretend she was in love. She would hum wordless songs while tying dust bunnies into her hair, fantasizing that they were poinsettias left by her admirer under the floorboards. Lulu loved the spaces beneath her bed, so if they were anything like that, she very much wanted the stars. She wanted to inch her tiny fingertips into their cradles. She wanted to scoop out the happiness that she heard was waiting in the nooks. So she rose up on her toes and stretched so hard that her eyes shut tight and her lips pursed together until midnight.
Straining and trying and hoping and wanting she went on and on as the owls watched from the branches. She reached with all of her seven years. But Lulu was just so young. Her shoulder began to ache as did her feet and her heart. She grew tired and sad and lonely and cold. And she became discouraged as wishing ones do, then fell with a huff to sit on the lawn all alone. “I wanted a star” she sighed to herself, as she brushed her hand along the grass and tried not to cry. She ran it back and forth in slow, gentle motions. And the tips of the blades tickled her palms. She giggled a little, then she did it some more. She started to imagine that it was a kitten, a big green one whose big green head she lived upon. Then she shot up and ran across the world to find one of the ears. She ran past her neighbor’s house and along the empty street. She hopped fences and crossed backyards with great excitement and a smile.
At the end of town, towering in the dark of one o’clock, she found it; a giant kitten’s ear glinting in the blackness. It rose from the earth in a great, humongous mountain – going up and up and disappearing into the clouds. Winks of green grass peeked through the night like the fibers of very fine hairs. It even twitched when she gave it a poke, causing little tremors to quiver beneath her feet, and a sudden breeze to come rolling through her hair. Lulu jumped into it and climbed. She panted and laughed inwardly for what she had discovered. Her nightgown got dirty as did her cheeks.
And when she got to the top and made her way over the peak, she saw a boy her age, sitting in silence, just as dirty as she. He was in long sleeve blueberry pajamas with big marble buttons of beige. “Who are you?” Lulu asked. He told her that his name was Lu, just Lu, and that he had grown tired of reaching for the stars. She sat next to him, and together, they dangled their feet off the edge as they watched the setting of the moon. They could see everything. They were so high that, if they tried again, they might
have reached a star.
But they didn’t bother. Instead they looked into the distance at the lights and the lives twinkling along the land. They saw the black, unending sheet of a sleeping planet, the glittering dots left by those that called it home, and all the wisping swirls of the clouds that passed softly by their knees. All the while they stroked the furs of the big kitten’s ear. When they looked out to their right, they could see the delicate streaks of whiskers fading off into the horizon. And if they peered straight ahead, they could even glimpse the lining of a pastel pink nose over the curvature of the globe. They were the only ones who knew. And this is how Lulu and Lu learned forever how to love close things, and how to listen for the purring of the grass.Five
Man O'Neal isn't fond of bios. He does't quite understand them. He just wants to share his work. But if you must know, I can tell you that he has three dogs and two of them are dead.
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Five Prose Poems by Daniel Romo
The trouble with lightning bolts is the burn. Deceptive jolts humming like flirty increments of singe. The current courses: the body begs for more. To be an electric vessel is akin to be believed in. Washed with the broken wings of fireflies, the antithesis of torn wings of butterflies, ill-equipped vs. ripped. The sky is nothing... and then it is something... We began as caution, at best, and following ultraviolet fissures progressed to the promise of a thunderstorm that was good enough for us. No dream is complete without a little rain. The same nightmare over and over again actually signifies change. My fear of the dark made me more of a man, but I don't mind flooding your arms with my tears. There's healing in your body; buoyancy in comfort and trust. The flashing light enables us to see our steps as we challenge this lifetime's forecast. I look at my charred skin, our clasped fingers, and determine, there is no blast I'm unable to handle.
I hug you hard like disregarding the well-being of your bones. Tears stream down my cheeks, swept up by stubble. An overflowing pond, barren far too long. I hide feelings because I've never learned to disregard self-chiding. I worry I'll weigh you down with my sorrow, but you promise your slight frame can withstand my bulky weight. You know I hurt, even when my words haven't yet been formed. Lips pressed together like the birth of a secret. And before I tell you, you already know the effect my Dad's stroke has had on me. You also understand the strong man you hold is still the aching boy bullied by poor body image. I drop my head and sob, as if your shoulder was the most absorbent bone in the world.
I brush the nail polish on as if each of your fingers accuses me of a different betrayal and my apology consists of offering a pretty coat. Providing a manicure that mimics the hope and verisimilitude of fresh paint. I tread on cuticles that could give at any minute but will not drown in my conscience because I have done nothing wrong. Everything you told me not to repeat remains everything you told me not to repeat. There’s a splendor, a wholeness, to the life of a secret. Yet my hands remain shaky reminders that in time, I will also have to confide in you. Because my bruises are buried in bruises calcified to bone. I will ring your doorbell when I pick you up for our next date. Tell you how beautiful you look then hand you a bouquet of white roses hidden from one hand behind my back. While you read the card, I will pull out a shovel from the other hand and pray you’ll continue to map out the blueprint to our
future. Any treasure map worth exploring contains more than just a red X and sand.
Conductors all across the country wave their arms like flapping wings, vigorously practicing for a flight that'll never happen. Scripted patterns to maximize sound. You get dizzy and I get worried and we spin like a frantic concerto. Swaying side to side like a couple caught in a conundrum we can't decipher because neither of us is leading. I worry when your equilibrium runs too hot or cold (and when I lose my cool) and I'm sure you're thinking chill... Leaders of the most prestigious philharmonics have the most challenging names to pronounce. Barenboim. Gergiev. Furtwängler. You dislike confrontation, but we will fight these quizzical spells together. We wrap our arms around each other and hold tight, like a cramming session for every test in life that we will face.
A boy writes a novel about a comet, but it's really about a girl. He hides his love inside a celestial being teasing the sky because he can't decide if symbolism is stronger than life. If art frames a portrait prettier than the actual model. A painter admires his work but wonders how no one noticed that he missed a spot. A microscopic fleck embedded in the flesh just below his model’s left nostril. He hides his face in shame, but his fans just think he's moody. What appears to be poetic license is actually a beauty mark in reverse. What looks like symbolism is often satire. What if stripes are simply apologies censoring the world?
Daniel Romo is the author of When Kerosene’s Involved (Mojave River Press, 2014) and Romancing Gravity (Silver Birch Press, 2013). His poetry and photography can be found in The Los Angeles Review, Gargoyle, MiPOesias, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and is Co-founder/Editor at Wherewithal Literary Journal. He lives in Long Beach, CA and bleeds Dodger Blue… A lot. You can find more about him here.
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The Private Records of Flora Walters
By Zach Witt
Flora kept her diary under the top left corner of her mattress, the one closest to the wall, for extra safety. She figured that the written warning, “The Private Records of Flora Walters” would dissuade those with a sense of honor, and that the small lock would serve to keep out those less morally upright, but that it didn’t hurt to keep the diary itself hidden. Less temptation and more safety overall. She knew about temptation, and had a surprising amount of empathy about it for such a young girl. The details of her thoughts and feeling on the matter were well documented on pages 44 to 49 of her diary, in the subsection headed “Feelings”. According to the text, she first consciously experienced empathy while observing the family dog, Roman, attempt to clamber onto the couch.
Roman was an ancient dog, old when Flora was born, mercifully passed some years back, but at the time he was still quietly making a go of it, accepting limitations the way only dogs and saints could. It took him three or four tries each time to get up there, and when he missed, usually clipping the coffee table in the process, Roman sat for a moment and collected himself, readying for another attempt. Flora actively felt the frustration that Roman must be undergoing, the confusion and single-mindedness needed to keep at it. She learned in that moment that people could experience a portion of what other things felt.
It wasn’t until some years later, cataloging this memory in her diary that she realized the immensity of this sensation, how multi-faceted and dangerous it was. Naturally, her next entry (pages 50-52) dealt with insight, and how it wasn’t always the great thing grown-ups pretended it was. Flora spent a great deal of time working on her findings, eschewing more typical, childish pursuits. Frankly, she found them a bore, as they served only to distract, giving no greater insight as to her purpose here, instead calmly obsessing over why she was born Flora Walters and not George Washington or Cleopatra or not at all.
When Roman the dog died, she didn’t weep, didn’t cling to her mother or ask for a new puppy. Flora watched the family, looking for clues. They acted differently than the last time something died, when the policeman came to the door about her brother. With Roman, her mother didn’t cry, or take off work, or spend the day drinking grown-up drinks that made her sleep. Her father didn’t yell like he had at the policeman, telling him that no, he was wrong, it couldn’t be his son, that he had made a mistake, calling the man lots of bad words, and then, when he had gone, sitting in the armchair in the corner, looking like the wax figures that Flora had seen at the museum on their class trip.
When the dog died, her mother just packed up the dog bed in the corner, and put Roman’s dishes in the kitchen cabinet. Her father dug a hole out back, underneath the big yellow bush Flora knew wasn’t theirs, because it was called “For Cynthia”. No long talks from her parents either, just a sympathetic hug here and there, telling her it would be ok in the hollow voices they used now.
Flora had gone back and added pages, folded loose-leaf from her school binder, to the section on Death (pages 4-26, and addendum pages 1-4). There were Big Deaths and Little Deaths. This was important to know. Robby was a Big Death, one that made time slow down, or maybe stop all the way, and turned people into different, paler versions of themselves. Flora had sections on good things too. Friends Being Nice, (pages 60-61), Birthday Wishes, (page 73), Relief, (pages 77-78, chiefly detailing her feelings about a substitute teacher in Mr. Wynn’s class the day of a poorly studied for exam), but the older she got the more she came to realize that happy feelings didn’t need as much analysis, were easier to understand on the surface, and probably didn’t hold as many surprises as the sad ones.
Flora began to get discouraged in her research; too many things were good and bad at the same time, or too big to find the right words for. New entries became rare. When it came time to move, years later, when Mom had decided that she’d rather be on her own, and Dad couldn’t see the point of living in a big house with only two people, the diary was little more than a familiar lump in the bed. Flora encountered it with mild teenage disdain, like a treasured childhood blanket or kindergarten drawing, blue line at top for sky, green line at bottom for earth, triangle on square for house, four stick people for family.
The key was long gone, but Flora found the lock easy enough to break, one swift “Crack!” against the corner of her bedside table. She flipped through the pages, noticing the writing becoming more legible and adult as time passed, eventually tapering off to angry scribbles and blank pages. Flora grabbed a nearby pen, and carefully added a short note to the bottom of the last page. She closed the diary, sprung lock swinging on one busted hinge, and tossed “The Private Records of Flora Walters” into a nearby cardboard box, where it landed with a soft, unassuming thump.
Zach Witt lives in the woods of Northern Virginia. He spends most of his time reading and writing and scribbling odd little figures. Sometimes, he has a mustache. There is almost always a cat around. He likes lemon, and peppermint, and would probably be your friend, at least for a little while.
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With This Ring
By Ginger Beck
She stood in the small dining room, crowded by the hand-me-down dining table that mocked her by its classic, grown-up style. Everything in this house was false.
It was her lunch hour. She’d come home yet again to find him sitting in the living room with a friend in the living room, high on drugs she knew nothing about. The week before, she’d found acid – within reach of the baby - in the clear outside wrapper of a Marlboro light pack in his pants pockets and thought it was cigarette ashes. She found out differently when he scrambled through the trash looking for it the same day.
The fissure inside her had been growing for nearly two years finally broke. Everything was red, and all she wanted was to go home. This house that she’d tried so hard to make pleasant, to make comfortable for the baby, and for him, was never home.
She grabbed the nearest weapon, a paperback copy of Delores Claiborne by Stephen King, and hurled it at him, she screamed at him that she was leaving and never coming back. He laughed and told her to get the fuck out.
Running to the car, she grabbed her chunky cellular phone. It cost a pretty penny to make a long distance call, but she would have given every cent to call who she needed. Daddy was in Arkansas, an hour away. He told her not to worry, and told her what she’d needed to hear for months: “I’m on my way.”
She drove like a madwoman to the babysitter’s house. It was naptime and the children were laying on pallets and in playpens in the quiet, dark house. She scanned the room and found the baby, picking her up gently so as not to startle her.
After putting the car seat in the car and heading back to work, she sat in the office holding her daughter tightly, tears burning her face as she waited for the phone to ring. Her co-workers comforted her and patted her and covered the front desk.
Less than an hour passed and her father called, “Meet me at your house. We’re almost there.”
At the house, the look on her husband’s face was worth the worry. Her massive father and matching brother darkened the doorway and terrified him in his haze of smoke.
“Don’t start any trouble and everything will go smoothly, you hear me, son?” her father commanded. Her husband nodded, bloodshot eyes wide and darting between the huge men. She ran to the baby’s room to throw clothes and diapers in a suitcase, grabbed garbage sacks and threw what little of her own clothes she had into them. Her brother manhandled the new couch she’d worked hard to purchase, her first and only nice and new furniture she had ever bought, and hauled it outside to strap it to the top of his Jeep Grand Cherokee. It was sort of comical really, hauling a couch on top of a Jeep. She felt giggles of hysteria starting to bubble but forced them back when her husband called to her, begging for a second chance: He didn’t mean it. He would change. He would quit everything: the lying, the women, the drugs, the drinking.
But she had broken. Where before there was sadness and hurt and dreams for their future, there was now only blackness. She was hollow, and that empty space was filling quickly with strength, hope, and elation. It was over.
Her 1992 Honda Civic was loaded with what she could fit, including the baby and the Rottweiler. As she drove behind her father and brother down the neighborhood street, her heart raced with euphoria.
Leaving Mississippi, they crossed the river. Since childhood she had been over the two lane bridge between states countless times, yet this time felt like the first. Halfway across the steel giant, the currents of the Mississippi churning beneath, she felt the last chains of the past few years leave her. She dared to grin.
With her right hand, she twisted the cheap gold band off the fourth finger of her left and
threw the tarnished symbol of unity out the window and into the river.
Ginger Beck is a writer and English teacher in Little Rock. She advocates for at-risk youth, sings in a band, and is obsessed with dinosaurs and space. She lives with her boyfriend Michael and their 12-year-old poodle now that her 18-year-old daughter has left for college. Her most recent work appears in The Molotov Cocktail, Silver Birch Press, Red Savina Review, Blue Lyra Review, Intrinsick, and Pithead Chapel, among others. Twitter & Insta: @highfiveg
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By Robert Penick
This morning I wake up with only a bit of trouble in my heart. The refrigerator hums in the kitchen and all else is silent. The reading lamp ignites and the second-hand recliner tilts back as the curtain rises on the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Hummus and wheat chips lay to my right. Through the window to my left shines Lord Buckley’s Hallelujah! morning and all the bright things God can muster. I write down a five letter answer for “type of cat,” knowing it is wrong, then smile. A cup of green tea awaits me in the microwave, when next I rise.
Outside I see an indignant sparrow pecking furiously through the February lawn and think of Stammerman, over on Hoock Avenue with his finches, cardinals and blue jays. The bird seed strewn on his back deck and the elegant art of mercy being practiced all over the world at this instant. I remember Kelly and his service dog, years ago, leading one another around the Seneca Park walking track, neither of them in a particular hurry and both of them content to still be alive. And I know later this afternoon Mark Anthony Mulligan, 400-pound mad black saint of the Highlands, will be napping at his bus stop, occasionally waking to cast huge magnificent eyes and smiles upon passerby.
I understand these people, the birds, and how we all try to outdistance time, cruelty, mortality and malaise. The way we attempt goodness in any size: A Dixie cup bird feeder, stale bread strewn for squirrels, a handshake dollar for sidewalk saints.
We give, hope, extend our wings for flight. Each in our own way.
The work of Robert L. Penick has appeared in over 100 different literary journals, including the Hudson Review, North American Review, and The Antietam Review. He lives in Louisville, KY with his free-range box turtle, Sheldon.
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By Tatiana Ryckman
I don’t love apple butter, but other people do. They drive from all over the heart-shaped state I’m from to stop in shitty towns like the one I grew up in to eat it. But I remember apple butter only for its infinite ability to disappoint through its total dissimilarity to actual butter. People carted themselves into my town or one neighboring and settled into the plastic booth seat of an Amish restaurant with little unironic jars of jams and spreads sitting atop each wooden table. I was fooled repeatedly by these jars. Mislead and made to believe in the pure Amish goodness of them. The peanut-butter mixed with honey was delicious. The homemade strawberry jam was excellent. But apple butter, that mysterious black paste, couldn’t be trusted. Yet I kept coming back for the butter of it, every time failing the weird self-assigned test of goodness, of Amish-ability-ness.
At that time I went through phases of wanting to belong in that monochromatic world, to prove that I could live happily without electricity and multicolored clothes and thereby avoid all life obstacles—as if that short list covered the gamut of human suffering. I would be smarter and nicer if I were Amish, but I held at the same time the distinct belief that they lived in too different a world; just a few hills and winding roads away, but distinctly inaccessible to the likes of me. It was as if they could see with their acetic wisdom the blackness of my child’s heart through my light pink dress.
And sometimes, in the grocery store, I would see their carts loaded—not with the high fiber cereal and vegetables that I was forced to eat, and that I’d expected and decided was what they wanted and deserved, no—they had Lucky Charms and Doritos. I was blindsided with a misdirected jealousy. I was not allowed to have Lucky Charms or Doritos. I had electricity and they had apple butter—we each had our own unique pleasures and I couldn’t find room for this dietary spilling over into my secular existence. Were my luxuries responsible for my lack of sugary cereals? Had the Amish earned them by riding horse-drawn buggies? I searched their grocery store carts and jars of preserves for the place where we might intersect, but couldn’t find it. I never considered that it might be our humanness, our fallibility, our mortality. It’s easy to blame that oversight on a child’s lack of perspective, but there’s no guarantee I could stomach apple butter any better today.
Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of the chapbook Twenty-Something and Assistant Editor at Sunnyoutside Press. Her work has been published with Tin House, Everyday Genius, and Hobart.
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SCENE & SAID
By Lois Bassen and Mike Stanko
Lois Bassen is a book reviewer [poetry/fiction] for The Rumpus & others, a published author, prize-winning playwright, and Fiction Editor for Prick of the Spindle.
Mike Stanko is a lifelong Long Islander who began painting and showing his work over 20 years ago. His paintings have been exhibited throughout the tri-state area, including shows at the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton and the Empire State Building in New York City. He has been interviewed numerous times on TV and has donated his artwork to many causes over the years such as Breast Cancer walks, Art for ALS, and The Waterkeeper Alliance. He's been commissioned to do album covers for Caroline Doctorow, and Dan's Papers in East Hampton featured him in an Aug. '13 cover story.
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