By Brittany Ackerman
Doc was the fattest man I’d ever seen. Dad said I needed my teeth fixed, badly, and his pal, Doc the dentist, volunteered to take me to his home office two hours north of where we lived in Illinois. He was sweating through his shirt on the drive. Chips crunched under his ass and in between the cloth seats. I wanted to throw up but I knew we didn’t have any money and dad couldn’t afford a nice dentist like the other kids at school.
On the way up north he had to stop at the Federal Penitentiary where he volunteered to clean and pull the inmates’ teeth. He refused to give them any Novocain. I stood at his flank while he propped his fat foot on the edge of the chair and pulled a man’s tooth, twisting his pliers and churning the rotted tooth inside his mouth. I felt my own mouth watering, the back of my neck sweating, my hands becoming warm and tingly with nauseous anxiety. “Ahh…ahh!” the man’s screams were muffled by the dirty instruments. Doc kept pulling, sweating, breathing heavy lethargic breaths onto the back of the inmates’ heads.
After, he took me to a diner and ordered himself a cherry pie. He slid a slice in front of me and began eating. The sugary red cherries glistened like the sheen on Doc’s forehead. The whipped cream melted off in chunks. I said I was too tired to eat, an excuse I often used at my own dinner table when I had a rough day at school and would rather stay in my room reading. He shrugged his lumpy shoulder and ate my piece.
He pulled four of my teeth, with Novocain. He gave me a set of braces with instructions on how and when to tighten them; a job for my dad that he hated because he knew it caused me so much pain. Doc’s daughter lived with him and he suggested we go to the Apple Festival. I could barely feel my face but he wanted me to go pick apples or bob for them, whatever was happening downtown.
Doc messed up my teeth though. His equipment was old and his methods were outdated. I never wanted to see a dentist again, and I didn’t until after graduate school. I was at the movies on a date and a piece of popcorn got lodged in my gums around my back molar. It hurt so bad I had to end the date early. The guy I was with took it personally, a blow to his ego because I wouldn’t go home with him after seeing Braveheart. He had snuck in that bottle of Jack Daniels for nothing. But this time I had to go to a local dentist, pay the copay, sit in the chair. An overweight woman walked in and plopped down in the swivel chair beside me. She had big red curls and a lovely smile with perfect white teeth.
“What happened, honey?” she asked, taking out her tools, clean and prepared and nothing like Doc’s.
“Popcorn” was all I could muster, the pain shooting down the nerve of my tooth and into my jaw. I pictured the nerves like cartoons, red and angry, fighting each other with electric lightening bolts.
“Don’t worry, we’ll fix you up. It happens all the time.”
After she dislodged a rather large kernel from my mouth, I thanked her and realized the dentist could actually save me. Bad dentistry was a punishment for the underprivileged, and I wondered where Doc was, if he was still alive, if he still enjoyed a piece of pie every now and then after a good extraction.
“I’ll never eat popcorn again,” I said rubbing the spot where the pain had lived for two days before I could get an appointment.
“Oh, sure you will, honey,” she laughed, her jowls bouncing, her round face lighting up in the fluorescent glow of the room. It made me think of Doc, his big cheeks chewing that cherry pie at the diner, which made me think of my dad, the way he always wanted what was best, even if it was the worst. And then I thought of the Apple Festival, all those bright red apples we picked that day and how they went to waste.
Brittany Ackerman is a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University's MFA program in Creative Writing. She recently completed a residency at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, as well as the Mont Blanc Workshop in Chamonix, France under the instruction of Alan Heathcock. She will be attending the Methow Valley Workshop this May under the leadership of Ross Gay. She is currently living in Los Angeles and working on a novel of fiction.
* * *
It Starts Here (14th/8th)
By Melissa Goode
Nate walked towards me, lit only by the television playing above the bar and low lamps behind the army of liquor bottles. If he raised his hand to fist bump, I would cry. He didn’t.
“Hey, Meg,” he said. “You want a Coke?”
He knew that I worked the overnight shift at the Marriott Hotel and would be fired if they smelled liquor on me.
He poured the drink using a soda gun. I imagined his apartment, him taking us there and pouring us each a glass of wine. I gave him three dollars and he gave me one back, as he did every time.
“It’s only a Coke,” he said.
Nate stood behind the bar, watching for a finished drink, a raised finger, a new arrival. I sat on a stool, sipped my Coke and the ice cubes clicked. He was one foot away.
At a neighborhood party earlier in the week, Nate and I talked about music—in particular, how shit it was at the party and how much better it could be. Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” came on and we both smiled.
“It just got better,” Nate said.
“Are we too young for this?”
“Probably,” he said. “We could dance to it. Old style. Me leading. Want to?”
Before I could answer, an older black woman, Shirley, came over, took his arm, and said, “Nate. You need to meet Angela. Excuse us, Meg”.
She drew him towards a black woman in the corner who was so beautiful, she had to be famous. Nate glanced back over his shoulder at me and I smiled, my face burning, go, go on. She is stunning. Have babies.
I left the party and walked back to my apartment—a box above the CleanSuds Laundromat on 14th Street. A blind man crossed the street with his white cane and the traffic stopped for him. My heart did too for at least a few seconds.
The Laundromat was still open at ten o’clock. It smelled of detergent and was warm with machines washing and drying. I went to bed, still clothed. The gentle rumble and hum was soothing and I floated away as if in a little boat.
I was drinking my perfect Coke, when Nate said to me, “Did you want to—?”
“What?” I said.
What? Go to the rooftop of the Met? Get lost with me in Central Park? Catch a train on the subway and stand pressed against each other even though we don’t have to? Even though the train is almost empty at five AM?
“Did you want to get some food?” Nate said.
People ate burgers further down the bar.
“I’ve already eaten.”
He smiled. “I meant another time. Not here. Not now.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yes. Yes.”
Four o’clock, Saturday afternoon at Chelsea Markets. We were meeting up and I should have remembered it would be like this, crowded with too many people. I faced the fluorescent pink waterfall, wanting to slow dive into it. Someone touched my back and I spun around.
“Breathe,” Nate said.
“Three people have already asked me for directions.”
“You’re a white girl. You’re approachable. It’s your cross,” he said. He smiled. “Did you want to eat?”
Walking down 14th Street, approaching Eighth Avenue, a black couple moved slowly before us.
The man shouted, “I got nowhere to go. I got nothin’ to do.”
“Jesus,” Nate murmured. “I hate that shit.”
I gripped his upper arm—it was stiff, unyielding and I let go. As we passed the couple, Nate took my hand. The man behind us yelled and, although I couldn’t hear what he said, I knew it was derogatory and it was aimed at us.
“This whole fucking country needs to change,” Nate said, quietly.
He looked over at me as if from far away, but he didn’t say, it won’t change, it never will. All of that immense history bore down on us and it was still going while my hand was enclosed in his.
I raised his hand and kissed his palm. Shock travelled all the way down his arm—it was electric—I tapped a current in him.
We walked down the street until we reached my apartment—it was automatic, as if we were led there. It was even tinier with two people inside. The twin bed pushed against a wall with a sash window above the bed, and a single chair at the desk.
“There is really nowhere to sit,” I said.
He said nothing.
The room was warm. I shoved open the window and that toasty, laundry smell wafted up to us, delicious, like something we could eat.
We drank vodka. It was all I had. We stood beside each other, leaning against the desk. He radiated heat. He took up the whole room, the whole building, the entire city. I switched on the stereo and it played “If I Needed You”. I wasn’t able to stop playing that song since the party and forgot it was on repeat.
I went to change it, but he said, “Meg. Don’t,” and smiled over his glass at me and it was gradual as if we had all day. Downstairs, from a subterranean depth, the machines whirred and rumbled, over and over.
“How long do we have?” Nate said, and closed his eyes. “That sounded bad.”
I shrugged. “We both have to work. I start at nine tonight.”
“Seven,” he said. It was almost five. “Work is only around the corner for me.”
Tonight I would fly to Midtown, all the way down Eighth Avenue, either beneath it on the A train or three feet above the earth. I drank the vodka, I didn’t sip it, and fire tore through me all the way down. Nate laughed. I put the glass on the desk and it could have been the crack of a starter pistol. Now.
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, Litro Magazine, New World Writing, Cleaver Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Pithead Chapel, Gravel, and Jellyfish Review among others. She lives in Australia. You can find her at her personal website here and at her Twitter
* * *
By Dina Greenberg
Lacey’s headlights slide their chalky gaze along the ridgeline, the bristlecone pines slashing raggedy arms through the dark like runaways. She downshifts, slowing the truck just enough, as the bull elk emerges from the mist as if to dare her. So close, tilting his head even higher. Ice crystals glimmer on the bull’s felted antlers, his eyes wide and drilling straight through Lacey’s.
She skids and the brakes hold this time. Not like last autumn, when she’d chickened out—both feet stomping on the pedal—but rolled anyway and woke up in the ER, Austin and his father sulking in the hallway. Perhaps she’d imagined Austin, bending to kiss her bloodied, purpled face, smoothing sweaty strands of thin, finger paint-yellow hair from her forehead. Telling her (too late) he’d changed his mind; they’d keep it.
Weeks later—at his father’s—she and Austin curled again in damp sheets that smelled of mold and wood smoke, cuts and bruises nearly healed. Something stirred her and she needed to pee. Her feet found the stairs in velvet darkness, her hands waving through open-door emptiness, crossing the bathroom threshold like someone blinded.
His hands found her this way, too, clamped her mouth shut. Lacey felt his pounding, fish-flipping heart. His arm angled across her chest, her throat, weighting Lacey to the mattress. Austin’s father spat into the can on the floor and she felt the gooey-thick thud spreading inside her. When he covered her mouth with his, the rank wad churned in Lacey’s gut. In rutting season, bull elks scream. Beneath Austin’s father, their high-pitched shrieks carried clear across the mesa, cut through Lacey until she could no longer be certain the noise was not her own.
Now Lacey stares back at the bull—through him—each of them solitary, silent.
Dina Greenberg’s writing has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Gemini Magazine, The Warwick Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Barely South, among others. Her flash fiction “Guinevere Tries a New Kind of In-vitro” was nominated for 2017 Best Small Fictions and Vestal Review’s Vera Award.
Visit www.dinagreenberg.com for more.
* * *
Like the Rain in Seattle
By Brandon Jenkins
Outside, the rain pounded the earth like bullets as the storm released the sweet aroma of pine needles and rosewater. Inside, the lobby smelled like band-aids and the white walls reminded me of an institution.
I shook the water off my umbrella and entered the lobby of the assisted living home. I’ve seen the lady behind the desk three times a week for the past two years and she still asks my name and whom I’m there to see. I dropped the bouquet of flowers on the desk and signed my name next to the column reading Room 3B.
Three days a week for the past two years and I still get nervous every time I walk down the hallway. I open the door slowly. I always open the door very slowly.
The room is dark and I can barely make out my mother’s silhouette in the corner. She’s sitting at a small table with the dead flowers I had brought in a few weeks earlier.
“Who’s there,” her weak voice calls out. “Tell me who’s there.”
“It’s me mom,” I say as I quietly shut the door behind me. “It’s Allison.”
“Allison?” she asks. “Allison who?” This was always the hardest part of the visit. Every time I visit I know it’s coming but it still makes my heart drop.
“It’s your daughter,” I tell her. “Mind if I turn the light on? It’s awfully dark in here.” I reach over to a desk lamp on her nightstand and click it on. I know the lamp is dim enough not to startle her. She doesn’t say anything but squints her eyes as if the whole room just lit up. “Let me replace those flowers for you mom.” I walked slowly over toward her–her eyes studying my every step. I pulled the dead flowers out of the vase and replaced them with the new ones. Roses, dandelions and gerber daisies with baby breath. I step down on the foot lever that lifts the top of the waste basket and trash the dead flowers.
“Those flowers are dead,” she says. “I don’t know where they came from but they’re dead.”
“I brought them for you mom.” I sat down on the opposite side of the table. “They’re two weeks old. That’s why they’re dead.” She didn’t speak but continued to stare at me as if I was a stranger. “These ones have gerber daisies. Remember how much you’ve always loved gerber daisies?”
“The white ones,” she said and nodded her head toward the flowers.
“Yes!” I said in a low but excited voice. “The white ones are the gerber daisies. Those were always your favorite.”
“Gerber daisies,” she said aloud to herself as if she was trying to remember how to pronounce the words. It was these small flashes of recollection which got me through the week; these little glimpses of sudden awareness to her surroundings which made these visits a little less gut-wrenching. Her eyes moved from the flowers to my face and she says, “And who are you?”
I take it back–what I said about the hardest part being when I first entered her room. This is actually the hardest part. The part where her memory seems to snap into place but then completely disappears again.
“I’m your daughter,” I say deep into her eyes. “My name is Allison.”
She stared back into my eyes and whispered my name back to me. “I had a daughter named Allison once.”
“You still do,” I say trying not get too excited again. “That’s me, momma. I’m Allison.” She shook her head back and forth and reminded me that Allison was a young girl who used to play the piano. “That was me momma. That was forty years ago. I’ve grown up.” I grabbed my purse off the table and pulled out a picture of my family. “I’ve got two children now. They’re your grandchildren. They’ve been here to visit you several times.” I placed the picture down on the table in front of her. She looked at the picture carefully, as if it might be a bomb. Finally she picked it up and scrutinized it.
“Jack and Amy,” she says in a low voice.
“Yes!” My voice shoots up louder than I anticipate. “Yes! It’s actually John and Amy but yes! They’re your grandchildren.” I don’t want to get carried away because I know it won’t last. Her memory never lasts. It comes and goes throughout the day just like the rain in Seattle.
“John,” she says. “He plays baseball.”
“Yes!” I start crying and reach under the table to put my hand on her knee. “You remember.” I’m bawling at this point and my make up starts running down my cheeks. “You remember how much he loves baseball.”
“Amy,” she lets the name linger on the tip of her tongue. “I can’t remember what Amy does.”
“It’s okay,” I assure her. “It’s okay if you don’t remember everything.”
“And who’s that?” The tone in her voice changes as she points to my husband’s face.
“That’s Mark,” I say between sobs. “My husband, Mark. Remember the wedding? You said he wore the tackiest tuxedo you’ve ever seen. Remember that ugly white tuxedo, ma?” She shook her head no and put the picture down. I put it back in my purse. “Well, I’ve got to pick up John and Amy from school but I wanted to bring you new flowers.” I wiped the tears from my eyes with my fingers. “Maybe I’ll bring the kids this weekend.”
“Kids?” she says as if the entire past two minutes had never happened.
“Nevermind, ma.” I stood up and leaned over the table to kiss her on the forehead. “See ya’ soon.” Before leaving the room I clicked the lamp off again. I took one last look at her silhouette before leaving.
Back outside I raised my face to the sky and let the rain wash away my tears.
Brandon Jenkins holds a journalism degree from San Diego State University. He currently resides in Cedar Rapids, IA where he spends the cold winters writing stories and talking to his dogs.
* * *
St. Gertrude's Summer Fair
By Danie Knopf-Weinstein
I had to close my eyes for just a moment as the loud sounds wafted over me. The fast swinging seats has blocked out all noise except the whooshing air past my ears, and my laughter.
The metal poles rubbed against the palm of my hand, sticky with a small child’s cotton-candy saliva-covered hands, or a teenage boys soda cup they anticipated being able to bring on the ride, and the top popping off mid-spin, spilling all over his lap. The sticky-ness has a story, had a story. It’s in the past, one that doesn’t involve me.
I almost tripped on the metal bar holding down the fence as I walked out the exit, or it was possibly my own shoelaces. Everything's a blur, was a blur, a blur like the spinning chairs above me.
“Beth! What are you doing? Your little brother is waiting for you to go on the merry-go-round!” My mother called out. Or possibly my father. Maybe it was Kat, my older sister. I can’t remember who brought us to the fair. The day was busy, and the tarmac was crowded with little children covered in candy, or an older couple sitting together on the Ferris wheel, observing the people.
“Sorry Mom.” So it was Mom who brought us to the fair, probably reluctantly. My voice sounded muffled in my own ears, them still ringing from the whipping air and my own hysterical laughter. I had felt like I was flying in those seats, and I was tempted to slip back into the line while she was scolding Ben for trying to sneak off on his own.
The line was extremely crowded, it almost wrapping completely around the ride. I kind of remember when it was less crowded, a few years prior when the fair wasn’t as popular and there weren’t as many rides.
The plastic bracelet around my wrist allowed me to ride as many times as I want. The sharp purple; no wait, it was blue that year, edge dug into my skin, the unforgiving material refusing to bend with my wrist.
I did it. I snuck back into the line, my small stature being an aid in a crowded area instead of a burden for once. I heard Mom calling out for me, but the excitement of hiding from her was greater than calming her nerves.
I heard a crack from the machine, the ripping of metal overpowering the jovial music emitting from the rusted-over speaker. People around me had backed up, their own sneaker-clad feet shaking on top of the concrete.
I had realized them moving, their bodies pushing me back with the crowd, but I stayed rooted in my spot. I kept my eyes on the cracking metal, before I looked over at the machine operator, and him frantically slamming the buttons on the control panel.
“Bethany!” I heard my mother cry out, some space behind me.
“Beth!” Ben called out, and I could imagine the two of them. The sun always bleached Ben’s bright blond hair in the summer, and my mother’s shoulders tanned easily from her work in the vegetable and herb garden we had alongside the house.
I liked helping her out on cooler summer evenings, pulling weeds and digging little holes to put basil seeds. And tomato seeds. And sunflower seeds along the back of it.
Someone’s fear-filled scream dragged my attention away from pondering about my mother and brother, and back towards the situation at hand. I was standing alone in the middle of the walkway, metal railways both in front and behind me. The metal cracked quickly, but it was like I saw it in slow motion.
My mother repeated my name, but the mass of people didn’t allow her to get any closer.
It broke, and snapped, and cracked, the painted alloy flying off of the machine. The machine operator hadn’t been able to stop the machine in time.
Or possibly he had, and the sudden lack of momentum had been the final push for the crack to break.
I stared up at the machine, my eyes trained on the girl who was flying towards me.
Her hair was black, tied up in a ponytail eerily similar to the one holding back my hair and her fringe was ruffled from the wind and fast speed of the machine. I could almost make out the fear on her face, it quickly coming closer to mine.
It was like we were twins. Expression and haircut so similar that I reached up to curl my finger through the bottom of it, the texture crinkling, and rolling, against the pad of my finger.
The weatherman that morning had said that it was going to be abnormally cool that morning, for a mid-August fair, it was going to be only in the seventies. Mom wanted me to wear a coat, or at least a heavy sweatshirt, but I had argued that it didn’t match with the green skirt I was wearing, and I had worn less in colder weather.
The shining sun was one of the last things I saw before I fell to the ground, pain jolting up my spine from the rough concrete, before it all disappeared.
Danie Knopf-Weinstein is a 16-year-old writer living in Greer, South Carolina. They attend the Fine Arts Center for creative writing. She is assistant poetry editor for Crashtest, and the prose editor for Apprehension Magazine. She has been published in Red Fez and the Eunoia Review, and has won a Gold and two Silvers in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
* * *
By Shayleene MacReynolds
Death as we know it is nothing like the war torn, gang ridden streets of Los Angeles, where wearing red in the wrong neighborhood will get you a bullet through the back of your head. Hell, standing in your yard will get you some metal flak from a drive by piercing straight through your spinal cord, severing your life.
It's nothing like the crack houses, where an extra dose of the good stuff leaves you trembling in a fit of seizures on the floor, white foam pouring out the torn corners of your chapped lips and everyone around you is too damn high to work their pay as you go phones and so you die there on a floor littered with garbage, surrounded by tattered walls growing with mold. And no one ever knew your name.
And these people, they tell you about their friends, the ones who died, like it was nothing. Like they were lighting a damned cigarette, one Class A from a pack of 20, 5%, not even a big enough statistic to make the wind shift its course.
But people aren't numbers. People aren't statistics the more we assign them numerical value the more their worth declines haven't we learned anything yet? The moment you subtract a life you’re left with less than you had when you began. Worth isn't about the product it's about the labor that went into it and there's no cost value we can assign to the loving embrace of a mother who sits upon the edge of your bed at night, watching you feign sleep. Tracing the lining of your face and wondering at the small frown lines that, at such a young age, have already begun to form. Thinking and dreaming of all you will do and all you will become and loving you fiercely with the caress of a hand across the tiny little foot protruding from the edge of great-grandmother's quilt.
And then mother sits in the front pew of the church and instead of being shrouded in grandmother's quilt you are bathed in the quilted satin sheen of the casket lined in white silk. And your face is still and your eyes are closed and your arms are crossed over your chest in peace and your feet are shoved into a pair of shoes three sizes too small and the bullet hole is covered by the 1970's three-piece suit bought on senior discount day at the Salvation Army. It's brown, tweed pattern stifling, the wool scratching at your gray flesh but you can't feel its itch. You can't feel anything.
And someone donated some carnations because that's all they could afford and so the lonely vase sits beside a photograph of you smiling at your high school graduation in its gilded frame and it looks cheap and it looks tacky and it looks nothing like you.
And she shakes the hands, one after the next, the wadded up Kleenex tucked into the long sleeve of her left arm. It slips out every now and then, the soft whiteness of the paper triangle like a kerchief in the breast pocket of the vest that you wear. And her eyes are dry and rimmed in red and she's sick and tired of the constant overflowing of apologies that trickle forth like the holy water in the marbled fountain entryway.
She looks into your eyes but she doesn't look into your eyes and you grow nervous from your place within that snaking line and you know that it could have been you and even more so, that it probably should have been you. And so you sneak out of the line and you think that no one's seen but your retreating back is the first thing that her eyes have seen all day.
You pull open the weighty, wooden doors and you step outside into a sky shrouded with the heavy mists of mourning and you lean against the concrete brick walls of the church, the little stones crumbling against your back. You take out the pack of Class A cigarettes and light one up. One of 20. 5%. And you inhale deeply and you take the smoke into your lungs and you think about the bullet hole in the chest and you choke on the cloud of vapor as it winds its way into the back of your throat and you are sick and you are nauseous and you are still alive but not for long. You may be two of 20 you may be number 15 you may be number 18 or even 20 itself but eventually you will be just a number, cemetery plot 452, dotted with red carnations that bleed out upon your grave like crimson blood upon the earth.
Shayleene MacReynolds is a grad student at California State University Northridge, working towards her Master's Degree in Creative Writing. A bartender, writer, editor, and Social Media savant for a local restaurant, Shayleene is concerned with all things human, both enamored and intrigued by the emotional connections forged between us. Her writings explore the capacity for connection that we maintain as human beings, and the vast responsibility we owe to one another to connect better, to love better, and to be better.
* * *
By G.W. McKinney
The transplant coordinator at Baylor Hospital, Dallas, calls me. “We have a kidney for you. Do you want to go through with the operation?” This could extend my life.
“Uh, let me think, YES. What do I have to do?” Isn’t science great!
“Don’t eat anything and come to the hospital, at Johnson admitting, right away.”
On the way there, I hear, on the radio, an eighteen-year-old boy, riding a motorcycle, fell from the LBJ overpass, in Dallas. He is on life support, pending transplants, as he had wished. I pray this transplant works, for my benefit, but also, to not waste his precious gift.
Nurse Kelly checks my urine bag daily. We both know, urine content, or absence of, represents my life or death. “None yet; it’ll start soon. Don’t worry.”
I ask Dr. Clintmalm, “What’s the longest it might take for one of these cadaver kidneys to start peeing?”
“About seven days, but we can’t say for sure—what’s too long. It’ll start. When I hooked up the artery, that baby turned bright red.” He checks my big bag of nothing then smiles and leaves.
On the seventh day my family is, thankfully, allowed in. However, I suffer the hidden disappointment, on their faces, as the attendant wheels me off to dialysis. I could kill that mocking bag.
I obsessively check my catheter-tethered bag, hourly and cuss it severely, as often. At one o’clock on the tenth day, I notice something odd, as I lean over the edge of my bed to inventory my artificial external bladder—a hairline, near the bottom. What is that? I get out of bed, carefully maneuvering my penile-pipe-torturing tubing, to get a close-up look at the mysterious line of demarcation.
It’s an emergency, so I push the button. “Can I help you?”
“I need a nurse! There’s a line in my bag!”
Nurse Kelly paws her mane back to check my bag of pride. “It’s nothing—maybe condensed water from the air in the bag. Wait, it’s growing. You’re making pee!”
The Kucera’s come to visit that evening. They were the kids we used to go camping with. Daddy said they were godsends; two boys and two girls to keep my sister and I entertained. Those Kuceras were from another world—Czechs from Ennis who ate klobase, called their daddy, Diddy, and went to Mass every Sunday, even when camping.
As I was about to flood them my good news, they tell me about a prayer vigil they held for me at their church. “We discussed your need for prayer with our congregation Sunday, and had many volunteers meet us today at the church for the vigil. I want you to know; it was an uplifting experience, we all felt.”
“Well, that’s great. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness, and the peoples’ in your church. Wait, did you say today?”
“Yes, today, before we came to the hospital.” I felt funny.
“Uh, what time were you praying?”
“Let’s see, we met at 12:30, we waited a few minutes for everyone to gather, and finished just before 1:00.”
The scientific hairs on the back of my neck raised their collective, little white flags. “My new kidney started working today, after nothing for ten days. None of the kidneys they’ve done here have gone that long and then started to work. I was constantly checking my companion bag. It started collecting right at one o’clock, I swear.”
I expected shock, disbelief, wonderment, and awe, as I had. I got, knowing nods and congratulations.
I can do anything now—not tied to that dialysis-machine ritual. I invent the holographic fishing lure about the same time as I am laid off from my computer job. I am, obviously, invincible, so I invest my severance in my brainstorm and begin barnstorming the country’s boat shows.
Jeb, a Cajun, boat-cleaner-solution entrepreneur, befriends me, out of the bayou blue. He asks me if I’m part Cajun, and I have a strange feeling, like he is a cousin or something. Soon, he introduces me to a famous, old Cajun, Willard, inventor of soft plastic lures. “Jeb say, you alright, boy, so dat’s good enough for me, too.” Day take me right in. Willard says some incantations in French, and I think I’m adopted.
We try to sell our million dollar ideas, at all the boat shows, in between eating cajun food and talking dat cajun. Now, if I don’t have cajun food for awhile, I start feeling like I need dat cigarette, and I don’t even smoke, boy, I guarantee.
A big fishing company covered my holographic original, so I never made any millions. I’m at the clinic for a checkup, enlightening myself with my folder, I borrowed from the other side, of the door, to the examining room. “Large intact graft from eighteen-year-old, male from N.O. Louisiana.” My God, my kidney is a Cajun, no wonder I….
“Hello Tiger, I see you found your folder. How are you doing?”
“My kidney was from a Cajun! Right after my transplant, these Cajuns glommed onto me, like I was one of them; and I started ca…raving cajun food. I thought my kidney was from a guy here in Dallas all this time. Could a cajun kidney actually make me start liking everything cajun?”
“There’s no scientific basis for a transplant to cause altered preferences. The human brain notices coincidence then tries to assign a logical explanation to it, that’s all.”
Obviously, I owe my life to science, prayer, and crawfish etouffee, not necessarily in that order. Are silly string theory, spooky quantum mechanics, fuzzy logic, and invisible dark matter more likely than a prayer perceived? As science discovers more, our realized unknowns increase exponentially, proving; we will never be the all-knowing.
G.W. McKinney is a computer programmer, naturalist, inventor, and writer of poignant, humorous hyperbole. This essay, “Part Cajun”, won honorable mention in the 2016 "Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition"—kudos to the author in the December issue (essay not published). His essay, "Pirate Ship Treasure Discovered", was published in 2016 by Mamalode Magazine.
His author website is under construction here.
He finished-off a thriller novel, Doomed or Dead, My Choice that needs an agent.
* * *
A Better Place
By Fernando Meisenhalter
I return to my workstation only to find Sandra, my coworker, calmly reading a Raquel Welch memoir. The title is Beyond the Cleavage.
She brings books to the office, to fend off boredom, she says, books like How to Raise Your IQ by Eating Gifted Children; and, How to Succeed in Business without Having a Penis; and, Why is Everything I Love Illegal?
“Sandra, you’re more than an hour late,” I say.
“A drunk fell on the tracks at El Cerrito BART station,” she says. “There was a huge delay.”
“You could’ve called,” I say.
“How was I to know it was going to take this long?”
“When a drunkard falls on the tracks it always takes long, Sandra, you know that.”
“But why spend so much time saving a wino? That’s just enabling behavior. He’ll be boozing again tomorrow. BART is totally codependent.”
I don’t argue with her. I have more important things to worry about. We’re on a deadline. We need to finish this copying order, so I load color paper into the Xerox machine, set it to double-sided, and start printing.
“The world is full of idiots wasting our time,” Sandra says, “And they’re everywhere, Fernando, just everywhere.”
“I know,” I say, looking straight at her.
“Fernando, you work too hard. You should take a vacation.”
“Sandra, I temp. The only vacation I get is called unemployment.”
“I took a vacation once,” Sandra says, “to the Grand Canyon, the dumbest place ever. Why are people so proud of it? Did we build it? No, we stole it from the Mexicans, who took it from the Native-Americans, who found it already there, as is, some thirty thousand years ago.”
The machine runs out of toner and I can’t find a replacement cartridge. I search while Sandra yaks on about that ugly pit we call the Grand Canyon, the worst case of erosion on the planet, and how we might as well just give it back to the Mexicans.
Is this all there is to life, just listening to people jabber nonsense all day long?
Next she tells me about her uncle, a former bus driver in L.A.
“He once saw a man shoot a woman on his bus,” she says. “Luckily the bullet went through the woman's afro.”
“Did they take her to a hospital?” I ask.
“No, Fernando,” she says. “This was in the seventies. They just took her to a hair salon.”
“That's crazy,” I say, still believing every word she says.
It takes me twenty minutes to find the toner. It’s hiding behind one of Sandra’s many books, one called Revenge of the Lawn.
“Is this book any good?” I say.
“Good?” she says. “It’s brilliant: Richard Brautigan, America’s greatest writer ever, now sadly forgotten.”
“How come forgotten?” I ask.
“He went to a better place,” she says.
“You mean to Canada?”
“No, you fool,” she says. “He killed himself.”
I load the toner, restart the copy machine. There’s still a ton of work to do.
This day has hurt written all over it: the mauling of the soul for minimum wage and no hope.
Sandra hardly works. She doesn’t have to. She has a note for narcolepsy from her doctor so she can fall asleep on the job anytime she wants and no one can fire her. I don’t enjoy such privileges. If I slack, I’m gone. It’s called at-will employment, it’s everywhere, and they call it progress.
“Did I tell you about the time I started a threesome to spice up my marriage?” Sandra says.
Sweet baby Jesus, not another dumb ego-boosting story!
I’m about to ask her to please spare me the nonsense, to have mercy on my poor immigrant soul, when I stop myself and ponder: did she just say a threesome? I feel the pinch of true interest reanimating my tattered spirit; the rise of a feeble flicker of hope in my otherwise frayed universe; a dim glow of light appearing at the end of that proverbial tunnel.
Hey, this might be interesting.
“No,” I say, “I don’t think you’ve told me that one.”
“Oh,” Sandra says excitedly, “this was back in San Francisco where everyone does it, even the normal people.”
She read some books to educate herself, she says, books like Stuck in Between, and Polyamory Made Simple, and The Rule of Three. She tells me all about it, in detail, and I listen, and truth be told I’m enjoying her story. I’m learning to use her narcissism as a form of entertainment.
I guess this is one way to survive in this cold, cruel world, with all that sick, alienating crap in it. This probably won’t save my life, but at least it’ll keep me from killing myself during the next eight hours.
I continue copying and listening, staying busy, taking no breaks, working and working until I feel better, until I feel don’t have to worry about anything anymore.
Fernando Meisenhalter is of German ancestry, raised in Mexico City, a full-time immigrant in the US since 1995, and a God-fearing citizen since 2002. He's MFA-free, has somehow survived the brutal gentrification of the San Francisco Bay Area, and still writes flash fiction.
* * *
Fools Like Me
By Peter Murphy
Once upon a time I was born in the small country of Wales which is best known for its most famous poet, Dylan Thomas, who is best known for his most famous poem, “Fern Hill,” which begins:
“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…”
“Bough,” I’m sure you know, is a fancy word for a tree branch, but “Fern Hill,” you may not know, was the name of his aunt’s farm in Wales where Dylan spent his happy-go-lucky summers as a young boy.
Soon after I was born, my family left Wales, sailed across the Atlantic and settled in New York City where I was young and easy on the concrete pavement and happy as the asphalt was black. I loved the smell of diesel exhaust in the morning and the noise of taxi cabs blasting their horns throughout the day. But more than anything, I loved my tree.
Each day I ran down six flights of stairs, went outside and hugged it. I rubbed my fingers over its smooth, silver trunk that rose straight into the sky. At the top was a long bough with a bright light that lit up the street when it got dark. When a neighbor asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be the tree-man so I could turn the light on and off. The neighbor shook her head.
One day my father told me my tree wasn’t a tree. “It’s a lamppost,” he said.
“No! It’s a tree.”
“It’s a lamppost.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He took me on the Subway to Central Park. I had never seen such a place. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing at the green stuff on the ground.
“That’s grass,” my father said as we stepped off the path and walked on it. Unlike the firm pavement I was used to, grass was squishy, and I was afraid it would suck me in. We stopped near some big, ugly things that rose out of the grass. My father said, “These are trees.” I rubbed my finger against the surface which wasn’t smooth like my tree. And when I looked up, branches crowded with green, papery things, blocked the light.
“I don’t like your trees.”
“They’re not my trees,” my father said. “They’re your trees too. They’re everybody’s trees.”
“I don’t like them.”
“Everybody likes trees,” my father said, shaking his head. When I looked up again, I saw the boughs move, and heard the leaves rustle.
Years later I left the city to go to college in the country. I was walking to class with a country friend when I looked up. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing at the sky.
“What’s what?” my country friend said.
Confused, my friend said, “You mean the rainbow?”
“Rainbow?” Of course I knew what a rainbow was. Everybody knew what a rainbow was, but I hadn’t realized that I’d never seen one before. My friend shook his head.
In botany class we took a field trip into the woods where the professor asked us to identify trees. The country kids touched the trunks, examined the branches, looked at the leaves and called out,
I rubbed the trunks, examined the branches, looked at the leaves and called out, “Tree.” My professor shook his head. I looked up and saw the boughs move and heard the leaves rustle.
When I failed botany and flunked out of college, I blamed the trees and have avoided them since. There is a tree in my backyard. It was there when I bought my house, but I don’t go near it, especially when I see the boughs move and hear the leaves rustle.
Recently I visited friends in Wales. Gwen and Trevor live outside the village of Llangain, next to the farm that had been Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill. Gwen showed me some old black and white photographs they found after moving in. Dylan’s wife, Caitlin, was skinny dipping in Fernhill Brook which runs through my friends’ property. Her large white breasts and smooth belly gleamed through the surface of the murky water. Trevor suggested we go for a hike. “We’ll walk down to ‘Dead End’ where the photographs were taken.”
Dead End, I thought. This can’t be good.
Soon we were walking across the squishy grass into the woods. We walked single file along a narrow path, Gwen in front of me, Trevor behind. Marshes on our right. Fern Brook was on our left, and all around us, trees, trees, trees, their boughs heavy with leaves, their gnarly roots snaking in and out of the slippery ground. Finally, we stopped. Trevor pointed at the water and said, “Here we are at ‘Dead End’ where the bard once trod, and his wife bathed naked.”
I stared at the brook, and even though the photographs had been taken seventy years before, I half expected to see Caitlin Thomas and her large white breasts rise out of the water. “Fern Brook,” I joked, “sounds like a porn star.” Gwen and Trevor shook their heads.
As I turned around and started to walk back to the house, a root rose out of the dirt tripping me, and a branch smacked me on the head, tumbling me into Fern Brook. Gwen and Trevor hauled me out. My face was bleeding where the tree hit me, and my eyeglasses were gone. When I looked up, even though they were fuzzy, I saw the boughs move and heard the leaves rustle.
The first thing I did when I returned home was face the tree in my backyard. Nothing moved when I looked up, and the leaves didn’t rustle. But I swear, I swear, I thought I heard something whimper as I swung my ax.
Peter E. Murphy is the author of Stubborn Child, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, Challenges for the Delusional, a book of writing prompts, and four poetry chapbooks. His recent essays and poems appear in The Common, Diode, Guernica, Hawaii Pacific Review, The New Welsh Reader, Rattle, Word Riot and elsewhere. He is the founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University.
* * *
By Josh Rank
I couldn’t remember where I got the gun. I felt the weight in my palm; cold, foreign, angry. But I couldn’t remember where it came from. In fact, everything seemed like a fever dream. The street was too quiet. The air was too still. My heart was beating too fast. Cars drove by but I couldn’t smell the exhaust and I couldn’t hear the engine. The city felt like everyone had disappeared and the only vehicles still moving were left in neutral at the top of an incline and were simply following the orders of gravity. Well, maybe not everyone. There was at least two people left in the city besides myself, and I could hear the flat slapping of their footsteps coming down the sidewalk toward me. I didn’t know them. I didn’t want to.
Of course, with a moment of thought not clouded by the night, I would have remembered speaking with some friend of a friend of a friend outside of a bar I never actually entered. I didn’t have the money to pay him. I didn’t really believe a text message would get passed so quickly from one person to another until I found myself looking at some sort of handgun wrapped in an old t-shirt. The air that night was cold even though it was summer. I didn’t want the gun, even though I asked for it. I didn’t need the gun, even though I really did. I ended up giving him my driver’s license which displayed my current address and told him to come for the money in a week. I gave him my father’s jacket as a down payment.
It was made of brown leather and squeaked with every movement. Zippers alluded to pockets that didn’t actually exist. It was a nice reminder of who my father was before the cancer had ravaged his body and ultimately left him a blinking skeleton. We sunk most of Sammy’s college fund into keeping him blinking for as long as we could. And then I got the jacket.
I was surprised at how the gun didn’t warm. It was almost like a cup of coffee in that the longer I held it, the colder it got.
He was chuckling. I couldn’t hear the joke. She must have whispered it to him. If it was a first date, it was going very well. If they had been together for a while, they must have had tricks to keep it fresh. Looking down from the summit of a decade of marriage, acting this friendly was rare at best. Rebecca and I had grown to resemble business partners trying to figure out how much labor we needed to cut to pay the electricity bill. I didn’t want to feed my son raw potatoes for dinner so we had to get creative. Hospital bills were an anchor in the middle of the ocean for a modest budget. I stood on the opposite side of the ATM. My legs were exposed but my torso and head were hidden behind the red and blue protuberance from the brick building. Their footsteps grew distinctive and I stepped from my bunker.
She might have screamed. He might have stared at me with the hatred of a million damned souls. It didn’t matter. I held the cold gun in my right hand like the handle of that cold mug of coffee, my finger nowhere near the trigger. It didn’t take long for them to remove their wallets, then their money, then their debit cards. I grabbed the money with my left hand, a mere thirty-four bucks altogether, and waited until they each withdrew the maximum allowed from their account. Unfortunately, ATMs don’t carry hundred dollar bills and I was left with a stack of twenties that made it seem like a small fortune. I wiggled the gun and they ran down the sidewalk in the direction they were already going. I never checked if the gun was loaded.
I couldn’t decide if I should tell Rebecca what I was planning. I knew I would tell her afterwards; transparency was the one tenet or our marriage that remained unimpeachable. I tried to guess what her reaction would be as I walked through the dreamscape city until I found my car two blocks east. Her relief from seeing the money would probably combine with horror at the story but hopefully relent to acceptance once I explained this money would provide another month of rent. I knew it wasn’t a solution but at least it was a temporarily bigger bucket to bail out the sinking boat. Banks had systems in place to absorb small losses like this and those people won’t even have to miss their next date. If anything, the experience of having a gun pointed at their faces would draw them closer together. These justifications worked just fine for me as long as I didn’t read into the implications of what the act alone meant for my position in society, but there was no guarantee Rebecca would accept it.
She sat at the kitchen table when I came home. Sammy was asleep. There was no radio playing. No TV flashing in the corner. She sat quietly as I had many times, playing out scenarios in my mind of ways everything could possibly turn out alright. She glanced up with tired eyes and a forced smirk but didn’t say a word. I mirrored her silence as I started pulling out wads of twenty dollar bills from my pockets. The cold gun remained under the driver’s seat in my car. I kept my eyes on hers as she shifted her gaze from the growing pile on the table and my face. When I was done, I drew in a breath.
She stood from the table, walked around it, and put her arms around me. She sniffled only once and her breath remained steady. “Just remember to get the jacket back.”
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and has since had stories published in The Missing Slate, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine,The Oddville Press, The Satirist, Corvus Review, Inwood Indiana, and elsewhere. He currently eats sandwiches in Nashville, TN.
* * *
Glass Bottomed Boat
By Allison Spector
You were born on a glass-bottomed boat, but only you could sense its transparency. Only you could feel the churning of the water and the pull of the tide beneath the moon. You had grown to love the rocking of the vessel cradled in an infinite expanse of brine. You had come to learn its rhythms. You strode as others stumbled because they could not read the cycles, sense the change in winds, feel the energy of the waves surrounding you.
And the fish! So many creatures churned and thrashed in the water below your feet. You peered into the furthest depths, where the last shimmers of light cast shadows on objects you could barely discern. They filled your heart with dread and wonder.
Yours was the life of a child then. The ocean was deep and filled with fascination. You stared for endless hours and asked about the shapes, and the shadows and the fish. You reveled in curiosity with your stomach pressed to the ground, your nose upon the glass. Your parents were confused. They didn't understand what you were seeing. Your teachers accused you of wasting time, starring into nothingness. They reminded you, kindly at first, then more forcefully, that you were not on a glass-bottomed boat and you could not see a deep, briny abyss.
The ground was solid. The world was stable. The future was certain.
It was far better, your elders told you, to worry about what you *could* see and *could* feel. You drank in the words of the authority figures along with the brackish water that slowly wrenched your cells of life. Since the poisoning was gradual, you hardly noticed.
The disruption began before you recognized what it was. It came with the soft creak of water-logged wood and the rumble of gods no longer at rest. You were still so young, and your heart was filled with optimism. You ignored the subtle tremors that rippled across the deck and your mother's hands as you strolled through a playground of bones.
But at night, even with malnourished eyes, you could make out shapes and shadows. You could detect the rank brine-stench of rotting blubber. You knew the arbritum was not a forest. The graywater recycling system was not a mountain spring. And overhead, the beautiful sky was filling with great gray clouds under a ponderous, pulling moon.
Time advances. Your thoughts have matured, filtered through the power of routine and the weight of adamant normalcy. You solder pas the seasickness, and the vitamin deficiencies that mar your skin and brittle your bones. There is no way to acknowledge your hurt. They never gave you the words to describe your pain. Instead they gave you enemies. Pre-packages anxieties. Other people. Other lands. Other planets. Supernovas. Meteors. People who hate your freedom. People who lie about imaginary dangers. Intrusions of far-fetched ideas and far-flung objects.
You spend long hours on deck, traveling nowhere in an effort to convince yourself that you're on a journey. But when you return home, you can't help but notice the glow of the floor beneath your feet. You see shapes and shadows writhing, moving, fleeing. A low guttural vibration convulses against the glass. You throw up a little in your mouth.
You lose yourself in distraction. Throw a tarp over the transparent flooring. You drown your fears in drink and pills and willing bodies as you feel the once cool glass warming under your skin.
But try as you might, you can't evade the sights that haunt you. There's always another rumble. A hint of fate. A patch of uncovered glass. And through morbid study, you begin to understand the nature of the shapes that fascinated you as a child. In the glow of the vents and fissures you see endless piles of broken ships, smashed together in a graveyard of unheeded omens. Once proud edifices covered in barnacles and kelp and decay with phrases written in blood.
"Never again, never again..."
You start to scream but your neighbors can't hear you. They're standing on deck, starring up at the sky. They are blind to the water expelling outward ready to boil them alive. They're deafened to the hiss of the steam and the cries of those who too late realized that they were on a fragile craft perched delicately over an unforgiving abyss filled with hungry mouths and molten lava.
The steam clears. The illusions fade. On the horizon, the shoreline of a massive continent taunts you with a fleeting vision of what might have been. But lava ejaculates from deep within the earth and boils the surrounding brine. All paths of escape are blocked. Not a single soul recognizes what has happened. Except you.
You were born on a glass bottom boat, but only you could sense its transparency. This knowledge was your burden. Safe harbor was your responsibility. So close you could have swum to shore any time you had wanted. You wonder, for a moment, if there might still be a chance. But geysers shoot upward, rending the flesh from your bones as the boat slides into the hungry abyss. You leap into the sea, in a fit of convulsive sobs and laughter.
Allison Spector is a New Jersey ex-pat who escaped to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Her work has been featured in The Cost of Paper; Molotov Cocktail Magazine; Five:2:One Magazine; and Moonglasses, among others. She is the author of the novella Let's Stalk Rex Jupiter! and can also be found in the All Trumped Up anthology. Upcoming work is soon to be released with the Mad Scientist Journal and the One Hundred Voices anthology.