Foliate Oak March 2018
By Nathaniel Hansen
The breeze swung the blinds’ string against the window ledge when Dr. Timothy Ford made a
bargain: if he graded three more Expository Writing portfolios before 2:30, he’d buy a Three
Musketeer’s from the first-floor vending machine. Surviving end-of-semester grading--
especially spring-semester grading—required motivational tricks, as well as incentives involving
food. In grad school, there had been jokes about finals’ week weight gain, his fellow grad
students leaving all kinds of sweet and salty concoctions in the TA lounge, some store-bought,
some homemade in the stress of putting off more pressing matters. For him, it was either food
rewards or procrastination via intense cleaning. If he were in his house, he would be wiping
down the bathroom sink and mirrors or vacuuming the Berber carpet for the third time that
week—his residence was never neater than at semester’s end.
He reclined in his chair, eyeing stacks of variously colored Freshman Comp folders before
checking the three-by-five notecard upon which he scored his tally. 34 done. 7 remained. Final
grades were due by midnight, and being an overly conscientious person, he wanted to keep to the
rules. He’d already graded his American Lit II exams, his Poetry students’ portfolios, and three-
fourths of the Comp portfolios. One day away from completing his first full year as Assistant
Professor at East State College, he anticipated the week-long trip to the North Shore of Lake
Superior, which he would take with his older brother, Todd, his sister-in-law Julie, and his four-
year-old nephew Connor. He planned to leave immediately after graduation the next day, casting
off the overpriced doctoral garb he had purchased as a new faculty member, and driving the
fours to their house in St. Cloud.
He rose from his chair and stretched his arms over his head. It felt good to move: working in the
office since eight, he had graded through lunch. So close to finishing—that was when sustaining
motivation was most difficult. Having dated a marathon runner when he was doing his master’s,
he likened this point of the grading marathon to the twenty-mile marker, where, as she said, it
was all mental, and you had to focus on how far you’d run so as not to focus on how much you
had left. When he finished his grading that afternoon, he could relax and enjoy both dinner and
the Twins’ game at his colleague Alex Barnes’ house. He was supposed to be there at five. And
after the game, and he and Alex had likely played a good game of chess, which Timothy would
more than likely lose, he could finish packing for his vacation, his job-related obligations
complete until mid-August. The top folder of the “unread” pile was hunter green, his favorite
color. That portended good, no doubt. He sighed, grabbed the folder, and set to reading.
* * * *
Timothy was savoring his Three Musketeer’s bar, trying not to devour it in three or four bites.
The open summer before him, almost visible, ready for the taking, as he looked out the second-
story window onto the verdant quad. He smiled. The lilacs were strong, and the other flowers,
the names of which he didn’t know but his mother certainly did, bloomed audaciously. He found
it shameful that they bloomed right before the school year ended, allowing little opportunity for
faculty and students to enjoy them before the campus, as with other small public liberal arts
college in the Upper Midwest, shifted to summer hibernation mode. The idyllic campus (if
something in eastern South Dakota could be considered “idyllic”) was tainted, however, by the
leaf blowers roaring and trimmers humming—the grounds’ crew readying the campus for
graduation. When the cacophony subsided, it was abruptly quiet. Inside the building it had been
quiet all day, with Deb, the department secretary, the only person he’d seen.
He turned to the now-short stack. He had the portfolios down to less than thirty minutes apiece,
and with two hours left until he had to leave for Alex’s house, he had just enough time to make
the final four slashes on his notecard and submit the class grades. He licked the last of the
chocolate from the wrapper. Invigorated, with only a mile left, he resumed his seat, glad he had
saved the best student’s portfolio for last, one that would be a delight to read. Yet, there were
three prior, all of which would be bland. He opened the next folder—orange—submitted by a
young man who had spoken maybe three times the entire semester, the type of student so easily
forgettable because he had established no personality. He began reading, and when he reached
the bottom of the second page, that’s when the a cappella singing began.
Timothy dropped his pen—the singing was not quiet. First a tenor and then other voices, singing
in French—that much he could tell. He supposed they were good, but he abhorred a cappella
singing ever since a bad experience with it while in his MFA in Ohio. He and a few friends had
traveled to a nearby town that held “First Fridays” on the first Friday of each month and where
the downtown businesses remained open, vendors sold food around the town square, and classic
car owners showed off their refinished prizes. The three of them had ventured into a bank that
was serving free root beer floats. Several dozen high school students, dressed in blue jeans and
black shirts and led by a rotund middle-aged man, streamed into the lobby and began an a
cappella medley from Grease, a musical which he “did” abhor. He was trapped in the bank, the
group of students overly happy and blocking the entrance with their ridiculous song-and-dance
routine. He had glanced at his friends, Steve and Leslie, who smiled and mouthed the words. But
it was everything he could do to keep from yelling “fire” and running out.
Sitting in his chair, he felt sweat gathering in awkward places. Why in the world were they
singing out in the hallway? What was the occasion? A more-terrifying thought sauntered into his
mind: would they visit his office next?
Without investigating immediately, he guessed they were singing for Rhonda Williams, the
easily excitable early Brit Lit person on phased retirement. Although she was both friendly and
sincere, her loud wardrobe matched her voice. She seemed like the type of person who would
enjoy the performance.
He was prepared to lock his door, move furniture in front of it, if necessary. Then he decided--
even though it was riskier because the singers might see him—to bolt to the bathroom. He stuck
his head out in the hallway, wincing as though he expected to see a mangled animal on the side
of road. Eight students sang the last bars of a song outside Rhonda’s office. He ducked back in.
Following her boisterous applause and whistles, they began their next song. His main thought
was “escape.” The other thought close behind it troubled him: that he was being held back in his
progress. He couldn’t concentrate with this noise. He slapped shut the folder, remembering
nothing of what he’d just read—he’d have to start over.
Focused on his breathing, he closed his eyes, and counted silently to “three.” He snuck out of his
office, leaving the door partway open. He speedwalked down the hallway, which seemed far
longer than normal, catching Deb give him an odd look as he passed the department office, and
then turned the corner.
He gingerly pushed the squeaking door. Though no residue of the candy bar remained on his
hands, he washed them. How long would they be singing? He wanted to kick something, throw
something. He was so close to the finish line, and the stupid singers were obstacles. He paced the
room, pausing to inch open the door and listen for the songs to end. The singers vibratoed on:
two, three, four, five songs. He slunk down against the wall.
* * * *
It was nearly 3:00 when the singing finally ceased. Timothy felt strung out, sweaty, frustrated.
He would have to speed-read, but it was still possible for him to finish that afternoon. He had to
read through them—that curse of thoroughness. There were no odd sounds, nothing that he could
tell. The end of the hallway was quiet, the office doors closed. He walked as though trying to
cross a bed of bubble wrap. The main hallway initially appeared empty, but then he was unable
to move further.
In front of his office door stood Michael Brunken, senior Creative Writing major, who had taken
three of Timothy’s classes that year. If there were any student who would be outside his office on
the Friday afternoon of spring finals week, it would be Michael. He had dominated the
discussions, or at least attempted to. He had freely distributed “advice” to his peers about their
work, and if he had had his way, every story and poem would have been set in some kind of
zombie-infested post-apocalyptic burnt-out world. It took all of Timothy’s concentration to reign
in Michael during class discussions.
Once or twice every week, he had dropped by to talk with (or more, accurately, to) Timothy. He
thought back to the previous week’s visit in which Michael had droned about his favorite video
games and how he had an idea for a story based upon the characters of one particular game.
When Timothy had asked him about the progress he’d made thus far, Michael said that he had
only been conceptualizing the stories at that point, and he was mentally mapping plot lines and
character traits before writing down a single word. Nonetheless, it was these “conversations”
(often at minimum, of one hour) that consumed his time.
Despite obvious deficiencies, Michael was dedicated. In all three classes, The Short Story,
Fiction Writing, and Poetry, he had missed only two days, and had never turned in late work,
factors that Timothy had to admit were rare for a student, even a senior. And, overall, Michael’s
work had not been half-bad—he was clearly one of the better writers Timothy had taught that
year. But Michael’s physical presence (and even the thought of him) exhausted Timothy. It
didn’t help matters, either, that Timothy felt sorry for him. Early on during the fall term, Michael
had mentioned that he couldn’t drive because of his epilepsy. Timothy had had a car when he
was an undergraduate, but he had known several people who didn’t. It wasn’t that strange as it
was now that he was a professor.
Timothy turned and darted for the bathroom. He knew he’d never finish grading and make it to
Alex’s by five if Michael started talking.
Timothy’s shoulders slumped, and he reluctantly submitted. He would have to finish grading on
the Friday night before graduation, a travesty since he was so close to the end. Instead of fully
enjoying his time at the Barnes’ house, eating dinner, watching the Twins, drinking beer, playing
a game of chess afterward, he would be haunted by the last portfolios, the final grades, all while
wanting to be completely free for three months.
He walked toward his office, offering his best smile as Michael stood outside his door grinning.
When he passed the department office, Deb said, “Michael Brunken has been looking for you.”
“I know,” he said, shaking his head.
Deb offered a smile as if to say she sympathized.
“I hoped you’d still be here.” Michael stepped right into the office and sat down. “But I didn’t
think you would be.” His cologne was overpowering and, depending upon the visit’s duration,
could linger for some time. “And thank you for the B+ in Poetry.”
“Well, you earned it. Are you excited for tomorrow?” Timothy hoped to maneuver the
conversation away from Michael’s writing.
“Not much, Professor. My folks and my sisters are going to be there. After the ceremony we’re
loading up my room. That’s about it.” He leaned back in the chair after unzipping his backpack.
“Kind of a flat ending, I guess.” Michael suddenly laughed and shook his head. “I already had
everything packed two days ago. Except for my PS3, my laptop, and a couple of books and
He appeared proud of his feat, and Timothy thought briefly, but then cast it out of his mind:
a man after my own heart.
“I won’t take long, Professor,” he began. “My folks are going to be here soon, and we’re
checking into the AmericInn. Big Party, you know?” He rolled his eyes.
Timothy almost laughed at the first comment. Fat chance, he thought.
From his backpack Michael pulled out a package wrapped in a brown grocery bag. It seemed
shady and suspicious.
“Here,” Michael said, handing him the package. “To say thanks.”
Timothy must have appeared shocked because Michael added, “It’s not a bomb or anything.”
His office suddenly felt smaller than it ever had. Had Michael finally detected Timothy’s
annoyance that he strived so hard to keep invisible?
“It’s just a joke, Professor. Sorry.”
Timothy took the package, immediately discovering from the shape and feel that it was a book.
He tore the thick paper, glancing for a moment at Michael who was leaning forward and grinning
again, but this time in more childish way, as though he were eight and it was Christmas morning.
When he completely unwrapped the paper, he was staring at the Library of America’s edition of
Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories, complete with the black-and-white photo of the man
himself, hands behind his head and a serious look on his face—that paradoxically relaxed
intensity. This book, along with dozens of others, had waited in Timothy’s Amazon.com wish
list for a few months. Had Michael hacked his Amazon account? “How did you know?”
“Well, last semester you taught that story ‘Cathedral.’ I remembered especially how you talked
about his use of dialogue and about the ending lines. I checked out one of his collections from
the library and liked it.” His face became more serious, almost crestfallen. “If you already have
it—but I didn’t notice it on any of your bookshelves,” he said. “I hope you don’t have at your
house or anything.”
“No, I don’t,” Timothy stammered, studying the contents. Michael had been thorough, almost
“I wrote something inside the cover.” Michael leaned forward to zip up his backpack.
Timothy flipped back the crisp pages to the inside cover where Michael had written in tight
This is just to say “thanks” for all you did for us writing students. You helped me learn more
about writing in three classes than in the rest of my college career.
Timothy’s throat and chest tightened, and his eyes ached, but the sudden vibration of a cell
Michael said, “it’s my folks. I gotta go. Thanks again.” He leapt from the chair, leaving Timothy
sitting in his desk chair, confounded. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Professor.”
The book still open to the dedication page, Timothy heard Michael speaking down the hallway.
“Professor Ford. . .Yeah. . .I’ll try to find him tomorrow after the ceremony so you can meet
him.” And then his voice trailed off.
Timothy sat in his chair, flipping again to the table of contents. Acquiring a new book had
always delighted him, and even more when it was one he’d wanted for a long time.
Four folders waited on his desk. He decided he could read and grade three of them before he had
to leave. A reasonable expectation. He would have to bow out of chess, but Alex would
understand. He would save the last one (the best one) for later that evening and submit grades,
and then he would get ready for bed, switch on the bedside lamp. It would be as though he were
a kid again, reading late into the stillness of the spring night, the book at last tipping over on his
chest, the lamp glowing while he slept.
Nathaniel Lee Hansen is the author of the poetry collection Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life (Cascade Books, 2018), as well as the poetry chapbook Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2014). His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in various literary journals and magazines.
* * *
Ike's Perspectives on Hole Theory
By Sidney Kidd
“Mr. Henry, says he’s fixin to go to the poor house on account of the government is stealing ever-thing he’s got.”
“Toad Henry’s full of shit. He’s richer than he’s ever been. He’s mad because that federal judge stopped him from stealing the only bank in town he doesn’t yet own.”
Ike shook his head, “I was feeling sorry for him too. I should a’knowed better. Why do rich folks always go about poor mouthing? They already got more than we ever gonna have.”
Johnny hesitated to pay the bus fare. Once a rider took a seat on Ike’s tour bus he was committed for the entire route—every stop. As usual, Johnny fell to temptation, “It’s their perspective. Looking down a ladder is different than looking up.”
Ike repositioned his Prowl Herbicide cap to get a different perspective in the rear-view mirror, “What you mean, Johnny?”
“What I mean is, poor people on the bottom yell depravity up the ladder for their poverty. The rich scream depravity down the ladder for the change that fell from their pockets. They both see themselves poor as hell. But, that’s beside the point, no one truly wants to be equal, anyway. Hell, we create religions and politics to make certain we never have an equal.” Johnny had deposited his tokens. He settled onto the hard seat to await the consequences. He muttered while staring out the greasy window, “Only people preaching parity are the ones with no perspective from which to look down on someone. But what the hell do I know?”
Ike ground the stick into gear, “You know a lot about them perspectives, Johnny. And you right too, bout them religion and politic ladders. The preacher said that even heaven is got fancy gated neighborhoods for the real good folks but shot gun shacks for the ones that climbed over the fence with Obama Care. He said them bouncer angels had their hands full, chucking them squatters over the fence. I reckon heaven ain’t no different than it is here in Wayside, South Carolina. I don’t know about you, but I’d just as soon stay right here where I already know the pecking order.”
Ike jerked to a stop in the middle of the busiest road in Wayside, got out and lumbered over to the curb dodging cars and cusses. His arms rippled as he freed Beatrice Spillers shopping cart stuck in the storm drain. He picked the entire cart up and sat it gingerly on the sidewalk and gave her a slow nod. Ike waived towards the car honks and the go to hell glares jutting from the pickup trucks, “Get the fuck out the road you retarded son of a bitch.”
Ike closed the door. The air brakes sighed. “The preacher used that parity preaching alliteration thing you mentioned last Sunday.”
Ike waited for recognition of the word he managed to fit into “a ordinary” conversation.
Johnny, searched his words for alliteration, nodded and smiled at Ike. Life with Ike was a puzzle.
Properly recognized, Ike continued, “He was preaching on the End Times. He does that when the payment is due on his Cadillac. End Times makes folks empty their pockets. I reckon it’s because, they ain’t wanting their loose change to fall like manna from heaven to them no counts down below when God calls the role up yonder.
“But back to alliteration. Preacher Vainglory sure preached a big ole mouthful last Sunday. Yes sir, he went to stutter steppin like a big ole red rooster, crowing, scratching, wiping sweat, done overcome with the Spirit…”
Ike braked under the green light to let Miss Suzy turn left in front of him and the line of traffic honking behind. He tilted his head to the side and winced as the gears ground towards a clunk. “He looked just like Ric Flair strutting and a’hollerin. His eyes was all bugged out and he was huffin and puffin like a coon dog treeing. Directly he stopped pawing, his leg went stiff and stuck out to the side like and he looked up at God and went to yelling, “Them heathen heifers cashing in their Sacred Cow Cash Checks sucking on the government’s Golden Calf’s Tits is sure ‘nuff a sign that Obama is the antichrist. Hallelujah, praise God, separate the wheat from the chaff.” Said it all red faced like. He was plumb out of breath with all them words he strung together. The congregation was standing, waving their stick fans at the ceiling, talking in tongues and high steppin it up that ladder.”
Johnny blinked and nodded, chewing and spitting words while viewing Ike’s crayon colored idiom. “Ike, I guess heaven’s a long ladder that we never reach the top, no counts on the bottom, the godly kicking folks in the face. We look up our neighbor’s designer dress tail and lust for all she’s got. Down below becomes a land of no-good miscreants clawing to steal our just rewards, just desserts that they don’t deserve. It’s all a matter of perspe…”
“You know, Johnny, I read one time that just desserts started out as just deserts. That writing said desert used to have a extra meaning a long time ago that meant entitlement. But we plumb forgot to scroll down and see that extra meaning so we just figured desert was only a sandy place that was hot and chafed you. Now we just say desserts like we expect a reward for eating our collards and boiled okra. Really, we doing a thing called tongue in cheek when we say just desserts ‘cause we is implying that them desserts ain’t deserved at all. Only, we don’t have to wink when we say it.”
Ike frowned and double clutched, “I had that word miscreant happen to me just the other day. I was trying to fix Preacher Vainglory’s spelling on the church sign out front—he plumb forgot the nu in annual. I was trying to figure out where to get a n and a u when he come out and hollered, 'Get away from that sign you damned devil.' You know what he done? He turned around and blamed me for stealing them letters. Told the entire congregation Sunday morning, 'Y’all can thank that miscreant, Ike Leroy Johnson, for making our church a laughing stock.' He hurt my feelings real bad. Most folks think I ain’t got no feelings on a’count of me being slow climbing that ladder. He said something about blaspheming too, but I don’t rightly see how it fit from any perspective.”
“Ike, you seem…occupied…with perspective.”
Ike adjusted the brim of his cap back to center, wiggled his lips and studied Johnny just to make sure he was really interested. He tilted his head and looked at Johnny from varying perspectives. Satisfied of his genuine interest, he began with his take on that very same word.
“Johnny? Don’t you reckon ever-body is got a perspective? Rich and poor is got one, just like your ladder analogy. Some perspectives is looking up a dress tail and some is looking down a bosom just like you said. I read one time, that folks draw analogies with pencils called metaphors and similes.”
Something big was coming up the ladder, “Well, yeah…I’d say, everyone, has one—depending on…”
“Ain’t none the same though, is they? It’s all about how you look at it, ain’t it? Only thing that makes one better than another is how high up that ladder the point of view is, ain’t that right?
“By the way, that string of words means the same thing as that one word, perspective, all by itself. Some words are so highfalutin that it takes a bunch of other words to say the same thing. Highfalutin folks’ points of view is worth more than them miscreants’, you mentioned, ‘cause they are up the ladder preaching and we are on the ground rearranging them out of place letters on the church sign. It’s better for poor folks to stare at the ground hunting loose change, than get a crick in our neck staring up at them rich people’s lacy drawers.
“By the way, Johnny, point of view and perspective are synonyms. I found that word the other day while waiting on the bus. It was throwed down, right on the bus bench, in one of them word puzzles. Puzzles is real good at broadenin’ a feller’s vocabulary.”
Johnny was finding it difficult to get a word in edgewise, “Yeah, I’d say, each perspective, is, different…”
Ike pursed his lips and nodded, assured that Johnny was still listening. “You want to hear a story ‘bout perspective?”
Ike grinned real big like a mule eating briars. He loved it when folks listened to him. It didn’t happen very often. His ears wiggled as he adjusted his perspective.
“You know how I like to get a sack of them donut holes when I go to town? Well, I got me a whole dozen of them holes…”
Ike tilted his head, “You know, they ain’t really holes and they ain’t really a dozen, the holes is still in them donuts and they is thirteen of them holes. It’s just a funny way of selling things that would just be throwed out. And that extra one makes you think you gettin’ somethin’ for nothin—kinda like them cow cash checks the preacher hates so bad. They call thirteen a baker’s dozen on account’a being careless with his counting. Thirteen makes it real hard to share equally, unless you get half a hole. Kinda like your ladder story and the miscreants hollerin “let me up, I want a better perspective up them dress tails”. Holes and miscreants have the reputation of being refuse.”
Ike paused hoping Johnny recognized his new broadened vocabulary (it is “real hard” to fit some words in ordinary sentences).
“Well, listen to that new word in your repertoire—refuse.”
“Refuse is a odd word, Johnny. It’s one of them words that’s hard to figure, unless it’s got other friends around to help it out. Hard to put in a ordinary conversation so folks just walk around it. If you write it all by itself most folks just assume you being stubborn and ain’t gonna do something. It’s a very seldom feller that sees refuse and picks it up.”
Johnny nodded, “Yeah…I see, what you mean…”
“Me and you is kinda like refuse in society. When I worked at the filter factory, we used to punch out itty bitty holes in the tubes for them oil filters. We’d keep them holes in barrels. Sold them to a feller what built fancy boats and used them for ballast down in the hold, as he called it. Them heavy holes made his boats more stable, he said. Ain’t it funny how holes in the hold keep a boat afloat like? Holes is real peculiar, if you think about it. But who is gonna buy a sack of real holes? That Coyote feller trying to catch that Road Runner, but that’s about all.”
Johnny nodded slowly, wondering where all this hole talk was headed.
“Anyhow, I went outside and sat down on the bench waiting on the bus. I put them holes down beside me, was gonna save them till I was riding down the road. You know how I get awful hungry when I’m riding. Well, there’s a paper somebody left, laying there—most likely in a hurry to catch that impatient bus and plumb forgot it. I picked that paper up and was reading the headlines looking for new words. That’s when this straggly looking fellow come up and sat right aside me. I nodded at him and asked how he was doing, real friendly like. He said fine and I went back to reading that paper looking for words to fit in ordinary conversations.
“Directly, I heard a paper sack rattling. I cut my eyes over, pretended to still be reading. That man is got his dirty hand in my sack of holes. Brings out one and pops it right in his mouth. Goes to smacking it around. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say nothing. Just kept on looking for words, but, all I could think about was my lost hole. Kinda like that story of the lost sheep that Jesus told folks about. That story is really a thing called a’allegory. Folks at church call it a parable but I call it a story, just so it fits with ordinary folks. Kinda like refuse, I ain’t wanting to lose nobody pondering on fancy words.
“Anyway, that man reached in and grabbed another hole, sucked his fingers. I said to myself, Ike, you might better get some of them holes afore he eats ever last one. I turned my head and looked right at him, from a straight on perspective, tried to look real mean. I reached right out and grabbed two of them holes. Ate them one at a time, while me and him was chewing and staring at one another. Directly, he grins real big and reaches over and grabs him two. Well, I was getting a might riled up, so I grab two more, and slide the bag over closer to my leg. He just stared at me and didn’t say nothing, so, I figure he done got the message on pilfering my holes. Well, I got down to one last hole, figured on saving it for my bus ride.
“Directly, his bus came by and he got up to leave. He reached over real slow like, put his hand in the sack and took out the last one of them holes. He saw how mad I got ‘cause he pinched that hole in two. Hands me half and eats the other while staring at me over his shoulder. Oh, I give him a good what for too, him sitting staring at me through that bus window.”
Ike paused, rolling the imagery in his head, “But now, I ain’t got no holes to eat on my ride. All I got is a empty sack. I’m sitting there with half a hole in my hand when my bus pulls up and hisses at me. So, I stand up real fast—that bus driver lady ain’t got no patience for folks taking their sweet time getting on or off her bus. It’s her perspective to think folks like me is dawdling like. On account of she is sitting up at the top of them stair steps looking down. Well sir, I stood up and sitting right yonder on the other side of me is that whole sack of holes I bought—all thirteen of them. I done been eating that man’s holes the whole time. He was a real accommodating feller, ain’t never said not one word, never so much as give me a frown like I gave him. He even gave me half of his last hole and never complained one single word.”
Ike rubbed his palms upon the thighs of his overalls remembering. “I reckon that there is about the best allegory I ever learnt on perspective. You don’t never know where another feller is coming from unless he’s willing to share his holes with you and don’t try to change one thing about you neither. I know for a fact that it’s real easy for a fellow to be standing on that ladder a hollering depravity down it and not even be aware he climbed up that ladder. On account’a I done it. You know why that is?”
“Well, I’d say…”
“Cause ever-body is cooking up agendas, me included. They got motives in them perspectives that aims to put different spins on things like that feller down to the pool hall that uses all that fancy pool shootin he calls english. Ain’t got nothin to do with folks from England so I really don’t know why he calls it that. The preacher might know, he got a spin on God that puts jingles in his pockets just like that pool shark’s english.”
Johnny tilted his head, taking in the many perspectives of his dear friend.
“Johnny, you ever notice how folks is always trying to change something about you they don’t like? After a spell they done changed you so much they don’t even know who you are no more. They done redecorated you and still don’t like nothing they see. They even stop hanging out with you all together. Seems to me it’d be a whole lot better if folks would change their perspective instead of redecorating a fellow. Them perspectives they use are always down their noses and put me in a real bad light. I ain’t asking to be equal, just to be looked at different. I reckon you and that feller with the donut holes is the only folks that never tried to redecorate me. Why is that?”
“Well, I think it’s due to…”
“You know why I think that is? Why you don’t never complain and point at all my bad pieces? I’ll tell you why. Me and you is a thing called complementary. Our bad pieces ain’t so bad when we is slid together. Me and you are like pieces on one of them picture puzzles. We don’t fit with nobody but ourselves. If we was to smooth off each other’s funny shaped spots, we wouldn’t fit in them holes. Just think what that pretty picture would look like without us right side by side. There’d be a little biddie hole in the picture and ever-body would just stare at that hole and not even notice what the rest of the picture was all about.
Johnny righted himself as the bus hit a hole, stared and blinked.
Sidney ponders on human nature. His ponders have been published in Play Girl, McSweeney's, Fiction Southeast, Projected Letters, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Short Story Magazine, Atticus Review and others.
* * *
By Giles Selig
I'd just crossed the Boulevard Saint-Michel. And there was
Ellen, exiting the Luxembourg Métro station. I didn't know
what brought her all the way to Paris, of all places, but
the coincidence was heart-stopping. Some months before,
and across an ocean, we'd been lovers. But then she soured
on me; I don't know why.
It was a deliciously mild October afternoon. The sun slid
low and west beyond the Eiffel Tower and the Seine, casting
streets and boulevards aglow in golden light. Ellen was a
bit overdressed for such warm temperatures but her total
presence was resplendent. She wore that faded leather coat
she loved, accented with an azure scarf so bright it nearly
dimmed the sky; that was flung faux-casually around her
neck. The look was very Hermès, very French. She had on
chic sunglasses, too, with frames of plastic tortoise
shell. That's how I knew for certain it was Ellen, by
those glasses. She had worn them when I called a cab for
her that night, to hide her tears.
Ellen hadn't seen me yet as I approached. When she did,
she initially shied and turned her back. But then she then
spun around again, feigned surprise, and shrieked,
"Raymond? Oh, my god! Raymond! Is that really you?"
"Last time I checked," I answered coolly, remembering how
she seemed to like my wit.
"You must know I've thought about you constantly, like an
obsession," Ellen said. "What on earth brings you here
"Looking for something, I guess," I answered vaguely.
"Isn't everyone? To be honest, I don't really know." And
then I hugged her -- awkwardly, as one might hug one's
boss's wife, or cleaning lady, but not a onetime bedmate.
I pecked her cheek. Her familiar perfume tickled at my
nostrils and I savored it.
Then Ellen backed off, pushed against my shoulders with
both hands, and glared at me with that old, determined burn
of passion in her eyes.
"You call that a kiss?" she said. And suddenly she was all
over me. Her lips and tongue engulfed my own. It was a
long and breathless kiss, rich with the aftertaste of
cigarettes and lunchtime wine. When we came up for air she
put her mouth against my ear and cooed that she'd been
missing me. I had fond memories, too, but was still
surprised by her aggressiveness.
"You're trying to seduce me, aren't you, Ellen?" I asked,
just as Benjamin inquired of Mrs. Robinson. But I didn't
really need an answer.
"Well, sort of. Maybe..."
I somehow felt like teasing her. "Then can't you be a bit
I thought that would have been impossible but Ellen
promptly grabbed my crotch, right there on the sidewalk.
When I brushed her hand away she took my wrist and led me
toward the darkness of the Métro.
"I think tunnels are intensely Freudian," she said, adding
that she knew a secret place where we could be alone.
I followed her not passively but anxiously, tingling with
excitement, thinking back to the rough sex we enjoyed; how
she scratched and bit and gasped and moaned throughout it
all; how she squirmed and shuddered when I filled her with
my heat. We strolled along the crowded platform, trying
not to be conspicuous even as she was unbuttoning her
I tried to calm my nerves with chitchat, asking her how she
wound up in Paris.
Ellen smiled back cagily. "I don't think anybody ever
'winds up' anywhere. There's usually some reason."
"Yes, Paris has a special magnetism."
"Ah, but you're the one who is magnetic," Ellen said. "You
had to be, to spin me like a compass needle. How else
could I have followed you and found you here?"
"Followed? Me? What motivated that?"
"You shouldn't have to ask," Ellen said, her tone becoming
sharp and chill. "Or maybe you forget too easily. I
remember everything about that night."
I told her it was special for me, too. But all she did
was laugh and turn away.
A train drew to a stop and emptied. It quickly filled
again and left the station. Then we were suddenly alone,
two voices echoing in hollow space.
"I'm still trying to absorb this," Ellen said. "I'd often
dreamed of seeing you again. I feel so alive right now, so
physical. You bring out the animal in me."
"Still a little on the frisky side, I see. That hasn't
"Then follow me," she bade, and we darted into a narrow
passage lit by naked ceiling bulbs in metal cages. It
darkened gradually as we reached the end, where several
bulbs were broken. A stench of urine added to the
dankness. I saw a condom on the concrete floor amid the
cigarette butts and other litter. Not exactly a romantic
Ellen gestured toward an unused janitorial closet, its
steel door broken and ajar. She had me stand against
the wall and watch while she fiddled with her clothing.
She muttered something about squirming that seemed out of
context, and started tittering in a way no less
Whatever it was, I didn't get it, and so I asked her to
"No," she said, and glared at me.
"You didn't listen, Raymond. I said no. Just like
Only then did I see the glint of the knife she'd pulled out
from an inside pocket, and feel its cold steel penetrate
and thrust inside of me, blow after rhythmical blow. All
this happened faster than I could possibly absorb or
comprehend. I tried to wriggle away from her but she held
dominion. She swept the blade across my throat in one final
coup de grâce, and my unstopping cries of "why?"
became a croaking gurgle. And even that pathetic sound,
already faint against the shrill of vengeful laughter,
would fade to silence as the tap and scrape of Ellen's
footsteps receded into her Freudian tunnel, into the
Giles Selig writes anonymously in Rhinebeck, NY. His short fiction and poetry have been published in various print and online literary journals, including Chronogram, Pilcrow & Dagger, Medium, Made-Up Words, Laughing Earth Lit, Henry, Edna, and now Foliate Oak. He is a retired advertising/communications executive.
* * *
By Justine Talbot
I kicked a cat tonight.
I didn't mean to do it. I was smoking alone in the cold dark and this tabby cat that always hangs around my building came up and started nuzzling my leg. It’s pretty cute, but it obviously has fleas—I know because it's always scratching its back against the porch railing, back and forth—and I don't want fleas, you know? Does anybody want fleas?
I thought about shooing it away with my lighter, but I figured the fire would freak it out, and honest to God I didn't want to freak it out. I just wanted it to leave so I could ruin my lungs without having to worry about getting fleas too. So I tried to shoo it away with my leg instead, gently—except I couldn't have been gentle, not really, because the poor stupid animal moved its face and I heard my boot make contact with its teeth. The sound was quiet but soul-crushing.
I kicked the cat.
Instantly I gasped a wordless apology and hot smoke rose from my mouth like steam. The cat didn't hear me and clearly didn't understand that it was an accident, or that I loved it but only didn't want it to touch me. It darted away into the dark, injured maybe. I'm not sure. Probably injured.
The wide-eyed look it gave me before it ran away reminded me of saucers of milk. I actually have these big old tea saucers from my grandma up in my apartment, which I’ve been using as plates ever since I broke my last real plate. In that moment I just wanted to leave out a saucer of milk for the cat, except all I have in the fridge is vanilla-flavored soymilk, which is probably dangerous for cats. It’s probably dangerous for me too, I don’t know. I still can’t figure out the whole debate over whether or not soy products cause breast cancer.
Although I should probably be more worried about my lungs at this point. My liver too, but especially my lungs.
At the very least, it—he or she—must be in pain. What if its jaw is out of whack and it can't eat? What if it dies because of me? How am I supposed to go to sleep tonight knowing there's a hurt animal out there that would be perfectly fine if I hadn't been around, doing my best chimney imitation, or if I had just sucked up my selective hypochondria and petted it? The shaggy old couch I was sitting on probably already has fleas and worse anyway.
And I really don’t have an excuse. I wasn’t even drunk. When you’re truly sadly drunk your limbs can almost liquefy into a kind of viscous fluid, sloshing and spilling out of you in all directions. But I only had two beers tonight and they weren’t real beers, just with-dinner beers.
I guess I was sort of high on cigarettes though, if you know what I mean. When the cat showed up I had been chain smoking for a while, just inhaling my new pack like it didn’t cost me an hour’s wages, and I was right on the cusp of actually making myself sick because I’m fairly new to smoking. Of course I’m hopelessly addicted, but it’s only been a few weeks and sometimes when I stick a cigarette in my mouth I think I’m going to throw up before it’s even lit. I love them though.
But this is the final stage of something horrible, I can feel it. It's been coming on for a while, and now the transformation is complete: I'm an addict and an abuser.
I'm sorry, cat. I'm sorry God. I'm sorry Universe. I didn't mean to hurt it.
I used to think cats got me. I figured I was probably a cat in a former life. One time as a kid I walked into a room full of caged kittens in an animal shelter and I swear to God they all started purring in unison. Never again. This is a bold black tally in the negative column of my karmic scoreboard for sure. Now every cat that ever sees me will know how violent and powerful I was tonight. Animals sense these things. I wouldn’t be surprised if no cat ever let me pet it again.
What kind of person kicks a cat? What kind of vegetarian kicks a cat?
I'm a cat kicker. I'm going to carry this around with me until the day I die. Funny how right before it happened I was wondering if I was going to carry my smoking habit with me until the day I died, and I had this acid feeling in my throat like that day couldn't possibly be very far away.
I swear Ben is going to hiss at me the next time he sees me. He’s my downstairs neighbor and he loves that cat. He actually started buying cat food for it—I mean, him or her. He used to want to date me, you know. Around the sixth time I blew him off I think he gave up and turned to the cat for comfort. He’s such a loser.
I guess I’m just mad at him because he hates my smoking habit. He always kind of rolls his eyes when he sees me out on the porch couch, which I guess is still technically his couch even though he gave it up for the good of the building. He keeps this broom outside his apartment now, and sometimes he sweeps any ashes and cigarette butts I leave behind into a little pile in the center of the porch, really passive aggressive. One time I said hi to him on my way up the stairs and he said, “Do you think smoking contributes to climate change?”
I haven’t seen Ben in a few days. He probably turned into a cat. It was probably Ben I kicked.
And now I feel like something bad is going to happen. I don't know what, but I'm scared. I only want to make sure the cat’s okay. I only want to know that it—he or she—forgives me.
I am so sorry God. I am so sorry Universe. I am so sorry cat.
When I end up in Hell or at the bottom of a black hole I’m going to know that this was it. This was my fork in the road. And instead of being a good person I went and kicked a cat.
That’s why I’m still outside, shivering down the sidewalk in search of a sign. A sign that I’m okay, I guess, that I’m not damned after all, at least not yet. And of course I’m also looking for the cat.
I keep apologizing to the air in front of my face because every time I take a step I kick that too in a way. Or I guess it’s more the night I’m apologizing to, the night and the Earth and the Universe beyond it, and God, which might be a woman but probably has no gender and might actually be the Universe itself. Yeah, God and the Universe are probably the same thing. Although sometimes when I try to pray I do picture a beard just sort of floating among the stars, and then I have to correct it in my head to some floating hair or a robe. Something less definitively male.
Anyway, I’ve had a couple of candidates for signs. I saw one little pink flower growing all by itself in the space between a broken-down fence and a pile of garbage a couple blocks back, so that was nice to see. It felt special.
Even more special I think was the one bright star I caught peeking around the clouds. It’s a very dreary night. The clouds are all sort of heavy and oppressive and they remind me of the smoke I’m always stuffing down my own throat. But at least there was that one star. It should mean something, right? A light in the dark. To somebody else out there it might be the Sun.
Actually, you know what? Ben is right.
What kind of environmentalist smokes outside, carelessly, self-indulgently, sharing her pro-cancer stance with the world and dropping burnt out bodies everywhere she goes? Tonight feels like a revelation. It feels like more than anything I’m addicted to being a hypocrite.
Maybe Ben is much more than just a lonely cat person. He could be my conscience made flesh.
So I guess that settles it then: I have to quit. Or at least cut back heavily. I should use this gloomy, guilt-ridden, nauseating night to train my mind/body/soul to associate the nicotine it wants with the bad karma it gets. I should ration what’s left of this pack. After this pack, I should never go to 7-Eleven again except for beer and Coke and Doritos.
Oh shit. There’s the cat.
Did I hurt it? It looks okay. It’s just wandering up the street back toward my building. Well, I guess that’s my sign. I don’t think it recognizes me at all, actually. He or she, I mean. I bet it’s a she. She’s not running scared or anything, just kind of watching me, maybe a little bit suspicious but mostly just bored.
Wait. Is that the same cat?
Justine Talbot was born and raised on Long Island. She has a BA from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she studied philosophy with a focus on environmental issues. Her short fiction is forthcoming from The Bookends Review.
* * *
By Robin Vigfusson
Chloe regularly took Vicodin for anxiety, but today she’d mixed it with Xanax since staying at her ex-husband’s beach-house made her as seasick as being on a cruise. Kevin’s clapboard mansion overlooked the water and when she stepped out on the terrace, she had to clasp the guardrail to keep from falling off.
Even sitting in the living room, Chloe thought the oval windows resembled portholes.
“Why are we here, again?” Chloe’s daughter, Emma asked her. She sat next to her mother on a loveseat, her face hot pink with annoyance. Emma’s ultra-fair skin was marred by rosacea and she changed color like a mood ring.
They were spending Thanksgiving with Kevin, and his wife, Allison who’d recently given birth to a son. The new baby was a messy, blobby boy, as wet and inert as dripping larvae and Chloe wondered if he was autistic.
After all, Kevin was sixty-five and recent studies tied old fathers to a host of disorders in offspring. Though he’d been in the world for two months, Lucas seemed comatose as if still in the womb.
Allison came into the parlor to announce dinner. Her over-radiant lipstick suggested she was nervous, though Chloe didn’t blame her for wrecking her marriage. Chloe was the one who’d stopped having sex with Kevin, knowing he was destined for an upgrade as soon as an accoutrement wore out.
Everyone filed into the dining room. The wallpaper pattern was laden with symmetrical green leaves and gold pears and the resplendence made Chloe dizzy. Her own house was as sparsely furnished as a convent run by refined nuns. Her clothes were also assiduously muted and she’d stopped wearing makeup as if in the process of erasing herself.
The holiday spread on the table looked nauseating. The turkey sat in the center like a nude burn victim and the other dishes were similarly tortured, seared, swollen tomatoes and roasted beets, not to mention clotted heaps of cranberry sauce.
Kevin carved the huge bird’s corpse with the smug precision of the neurosurgeon he was.
“Glad you and Emma could spend Thanksgiving with us, Chloe,” he said.
It was really as if he had two wives and Allison was the one he preferred. He still managed all Chloe’s finances, knowing she was helpless.
“Well, as usual, I had nowhere to go,” Chloe tittered. She claimed to suffer from agoraphobia, but actually she just didn’t like being seen, anymore. When she was young, her beauty had carried a residual excitement that floated into rooms like magic perfume, stirring the air and shaping events, but now, her blonde looks were pallid and stale.
“How’s your sister, Diane?” Allison asked. “I’m sure you could have joined her.”
“We’re not talking.”
“Mommy did something really vicious that Aunt Diane can’t forgive her for,” Emma said.
Chloe snorted and drank more Garnacha while Allison looked at her quizzically.
“I don’t know about you, but we’re being overrun by deer,” Chloe said. “They hurl themselves at cars, eat everything in sight and shit all over the property. A couple of them started living in my backyard and I asked my neighbor to shoot them.”
Allison flinched, nearly dropping her fork.
“Aunt Diane was staying with Mommy at the time and almost had a nervous breakdown.”
“I had to do it. They carry Lyme disease. Someone I know caught it and now she has to give herself transfusions every day.”
Allison looked pained and shook her head.
“It isn’t Bambi,” Chloe curtly informed her. “They roam around in gangs. One of them even killed a dog. The owners sent their golden out to chase it away and the deer stomped it to death. I didn’t see it, but what I heard was blood curdling.”
“You know, you could have invited Adrien,” Kevin told Emma to change the subject. Adrien was Emma’s current lover who happened to be a lesbian. Until Adrien, Emma had only dated men, but Kevin was trying to be broad-minded.
“Adrien wanted to see his parents alone,” Emma said.
“Since when is Adrien a ‘him’?” Kevin asked.
“Since he’s been taking testosterone,” Chloe said. “He’s going to be reassigned or whatever they call it so I guess Emma’s not gay, after all.”
“I don’t define myself like that,” Emma snapped. “I fall in love with individuals, not groups. The LGBT community doesn’t understand any more than cisgenders do.”
“What’s a cisgender?” Chloe asked. “No, don’t tell me. It’s like trying to learn a new language at my age.”
“Well, I don’t get it,” Kevin tersely admitted. “You’re obviously attracted to men so why don’t you just find one who’s fully equipped to begin with?”
“You’re really the last man on earth to tell Emma what to do,” Chloe said, softly as if she didn’t mean for him to hear her. Emma had cried for days after he’d moved out.
“Excuse me?” Kevin’s face had turned a mottled violet. Emma had inherited her angelic face from Chloe, but her rosacea from him.
“You have to understand,” Chloe said to Emma. “Your father and I weren’t taught to deal with complexities. When we grew up, Walt Disney was running the country along with Billy Graham and things were very simple. I went to high school with a woman who moved to a town in Florida that Disney built because she thought nothing bad could happen to her, there. Well, she got breast cancer and came back to New Jersey -“
“You’re just like Adrien’s parents,” Emma said. “They keep hoping it’s a phase he’s been going through for the past thirty years. You might as well know we’re getting married.”
“Well, I think that’s wonderful,” Allison said.
“Why?” Chloe asked.
Allison looked shocked as if Chloe was casting aspersions on her sincerity, “Because it’s wonderful to find love in this world. It’s more important than anything else.”
As far as Chloe was concerned, love and sex had become as overwhelmingly intricate as technology, now. It was all beyond her grasp as if the world was pushing her out.
“When did Adrien start hormone therapy?” Allison asked.
“He’s been transitioning for a while,” Emma said.
“How long will that take? I mean, till he’s completely transfigured,” Chloe asked.
“Shut up, Chloe,” Kevin ordered.
“You do know you’re paying for the wedding-“
“This is all too fucking much for me and I won’t pretend to be happy about it!” he yelled.
“I didn’t expect you to be,” Emma said, her skin serenely pearlescent. “You’re even worse than Adrien’s parents. At least, they act supportive. They make the effort. You’re both just incredibly ignorant.”
“I never even thought about transgender people,” Chloe said in her defense. “Years went by and I never thought about them at all and I don’t plan on getting obsessed, now. If you’re happy, I’m happy, and I could care less what bathroom people use. Mi casa es su casa. Now, if you’ll excuse me –“
She’d been drinking a lot of Garnacha which was probably not a good idea with all the meds she was on. She glanced at one of the porthole windows in the living room and could feel the house move. She stood up, left the table and walked upstairs without looking back to try to avoid an attack of vertigo.
She went to the bedroom that Kevin shared with Allison to use the toilet in the adjoining bath, there. After peeing, she washed her hands and automatically opened the medicine cabinet to see what prescriptions were kept there the way other guests inspected books their hosts read. She was not above swiping medications she wanted to try. Chloe saw a bottle of Prozac, assumed it was Allison’s and immediately lost interest. There was also Lisinopril for blood pressure which she knew belonged to Kevin.
Their king-size bed was plump with burgundy embroidered comforters in contrast to Chloe’s bed at home which she covered with a single down blanket. She’d given most of her furniture away after the divorce. Chloe’s sister, Diane, had told her the pared-down décor in her house made her feel she was convalescing in a health resort for TB patients. Emma, had gone further, telling Chloe she was as depressing to be around as someone in hospice. Ever since menopause, Chloe’s life-force had been terminally compromised and she was uselessly trying to recover.
She opened the top drawer on the night table next to what she presumed was Kevin’s side of the bed. Nestled there like a lethal pet was his Smith and Wesson. He’d also kept it near the bed in their house, in case of intruders. Kevin had even joked that the gun was their ‘long-term care plan’ for decrepit old age. Chloe stared at the gun without touching it as if it were a snake or a tarantula.
Downstairs, voices were plaintive though she couldn’t make out what was being said. Probably more dudgeon over Chloe’s upcoming marriage.
She recalled another wounded dinner with charred potatoes and burnt flesh, a roast of some sort. Had it been Christmas eve? She was about ten and her sister, Diane, a year younger, and her father had slapped Diane for what he termed ‘backtalk’. Maybe she’d criticized her mother’s cooking or even refused to eat it. Chloe was the pretty one, but Diane had all the spunk.
After her father slapped Diane, he demanded she apologize. It was a bizarre ritual in that house almost like an S and M transaction between a call girl and her client.
“Say you’re sorry!”, “Say it like you mean it!”, “I don’t like the way you said that!” and the punishment would go on until her father was happy with the penitent’s tone.
Chloe heard a wail come from below. Emma was shrieking like a diva in an atonal opera.
“It’s embarrassing enough having a baby brother at my age, but I will not be Lucas’ godmother! Daddy’s such a fucking control freak, he had to make his own grandchild!”
“I just asked because I love you!” Allison sobbed.
“I don’t want you to love me! I don’t want you for a friend! We can be civil to each other, but don’t be my friend!”
“Shut up, Emma! How dare you!” Kevin boomed and there was rumbling as if furniture was being moved and even flung around. They were all getting up from the table, and Chloe quickly left the room, went down the hall to her own and closed the door.
She lay very still on her bed and when she closed her eyes, she imagined she was in a cabin on an ocean liner and felt grateful and safe, being with people who forgave her no matter how badly she behaved. That was what family did.
Robin Vigfusson's work has appeared in The Blue Hour, Referential Magazine, Caravel Literary Arts Journal, Lunaris Review, Bookends Review, Junto Magazine, Jewish Fiction.net, Fine Flu Journal, Old 67, Feminine Collective, The Valley Review, The Tower Journal and other literary magazines.
* * *
The Time (I Couldn't Move on Because) I Fell in Love with a Writer
By Vandana Devi
Trip and fall but try not to, onto a writer
someone who screams metaphors and silences small talk
they’ll take you, and take you, little by little but also
altogether in such a manner that within
seconds, minutes, hours - doesn’t need days
you think you’re the only one that matters
and they become the only one that ever mattered
becoming at first conscious of how they notice
everything - your eyes, your toes, the littlest of your flaws
eventually you turn less you and more you
the you of their imagination - the notes they made
the poems they wrote, the prose they wove
less the living you live, even less the living you lived
they wrote the living you will live and now
that’s the only living you want to live
and no one ever told you if it is alright
to go into such depths with someone whom you can never even
hope to uncover - is it alright to become
that what they want you to become, have you think
that is what you want to become, have become
no one could have ever told you right from wrong
you wouldn’t have paid heed, why would you
you wouldn’t want to, know to
how even to de-romanticise the romantic
how even to not live in the moment
how even to not act on your instincts.
~crash, burn, breaking glass, fumes, falling
Strapped to some hospital bed in some
overly sanitised smelling unreal feeling room
with lots of wires, beeps and what seems like
another set of heart beats, you know it’s
not yours for sure, for sure, for sure
- you think with every beat, with every rising
chest - realisation that you are not
breathing on your own, living on your own
fallen so hard that you don’t even know
if it is the imagination of your own
- the ventilator keeping you alive
their ink was running through the pipes
all this while, making you finally see that they
have shut you up in the ultimate prison -
you never did think you’d fall so bad, you never did
sign a DNR, the stupidity of it all, but it is true
you never did think it would reach this -
shut up in this room alone, just the ink flowing
company - they have immortalised you - you never wanted to
maybe you did, in the beginning, barely gave it a thought
alive, barely, dead, barely
revisiting the same places, making the same love
over and over and over and over
ink flowing heavily keeping you properly awake and miserable
until they find their new victims - their new muse - their new
dead-alive or alive-dead
the flow subsides, you flatline, welcome death happily
but the flow resumes soon enough
steadily, you feel like a memory, you haunt them
they have made you a ghost - blue and black ink makes up
more of you than you ever did, no more blood, it all drained out
with the tears - with the pipes tightly clamped on your wrist
they’ll never let you go - this room will always exist
a compartment in your head, never can be demolished.
Vandana Devi is a 20 year old from Kerala currently living in Chennai, India where she is doing her Second year of College. She likes writing because she’s no good at the talking business. She has been published on the Underscore Review, is going to be published on Girls Right The World and hopes to one day publish her own book of mundane things.
* * *
Reflections on Endings and Revolutions
By Jonathan Devin
I left an apple on my desk this morning.
The freckled skin, distilling under fluorescence--
reflected on yellow smiles to welcome the office coffee morning.
All day I watch this organic passenger,
the peel exposes, red veins expand upon the skin, diving
like rusting fishhooks into a green trout’s neck.
At night, I leave it on the desk,
the seeded core diminishing,
closing upon itself
like a dying sun.
And you greet the morning, hoping
this day to find its zest returned,
its wrinkles released
its bruising softened, as if
you’d awoken to find you hadn’t plucked it at all,
to, in the orange sunlight of August, behold it affixed
to a branch on a tall tree in a lost corner of an apple grove,
the one you think of often
but to which you can’t return.
Between the familiar eyes of the bar
and the parking lot across the warehouse,
are the first steps;
you’ve walked them before
with drunken feet, scuffling
towards the blinking red light
of the all night sub shop,
a rose in the cold air—a refuge
in the wrong of the night.
I have walked these steps with you,
a traveler marveling,
the electric hum of the unfamiliar
a current on the lips.
And I know
we will both make mistakes
But we leave anyway
two subs tucked under an arm
the wax paper crackling
the whiff of a cigarette.
And I follow behind you, knowing
we may not walk these steps again.
It’s like holding the hand of a stranger:
the moment extends in time
and you’d hate to disappoint the other by letting go,
so you let it linger
like ice cubes in wine
a rose garden in the Submarine.
Jonathan Devin is a corporate trainer, adjunct professor, and writer from the state of Massachusetts, currently living in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in previous issues of Foliate Oak, Ruminate Magazine, and LAMP Magazine. His poetry reflects on small moments that make big differences by insisting that for every beginning, an end, and for every ending, a revolution.
* * *
First Fall Rain
By Nels Hanson
As night ends and first sun
lights the window holding
still drops of rain our room
reappears, lamp, bureau with
its shadowed pictures, drawers
closed through the dark storm.
Hear them? Just then one dove
called and another answered to
say I made it through cold wind
and water falling past walnut
leaves. Soon other birds will
wake, the dog scratch the door
for food. If you want I’ll make
the coffee and toast if you’ll
start the bacon for the eggs.
Nels Hanson’s fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart nominations in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. His poems received a 2014 Pushcart nomination, Sharkpack Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize, and 2015 and 2016 Best of the Net nominations.
* * *
I Turn Left Instead
By Gordon Kippola
of right, or heading back home.
At this exact spot, one hundred years back,
I might be inside a tree.
If my parents had produced me
ten minutes earlier, I might have been
a math whizz, or a girl, or stillborn.
Miss a single crosswalk light:
I miss meeting my Army recruiter,
miss being hit by a bus; Miss
What’s-Her-Name and me don’t marry up.
Oversleep one Saturday: I’m dead,
I’m blessed, I’ve lost
or gained a friend,
I catch a break or a cold;
or I catch myself prior to stumbling
into madness—or else love--
which might have almost worked
if we had met: in college, on a hilltop.
If I were writing these words
next week, you’d be reading
something else entirely.
Following a career as a U.S. Army musician, Gordon Kippola earned an MFA at the University of Tampa. His poetry has appeared in Stoneboat Literary Journal, Third Wednesday Magazine, The Courtship of Winds, Literary Juice, Young Ravens Literary Review, The Raintown Review and other splendid publications.
* * *
By Fatima Siraj
They forced ‘land’
to ‘mother’ –
like an unwanted child
from his first wife,
and ask me to give back
to the soil
that created territories –
in the name of
Fatima Siraj is the previously published author of Walk with Me. She is a student and facilitator based in Pakistan who conducts Poetry Workshops at schools to encourage and inspire young students to engage with the literary world. Motherland belongs from her latest poetry collection titled, Limits which revolves around the theme of boundaries. Fatima maintains a social media presence on Instagram. Her website can be found here.
* * *
By John Stocks
We are ‘blow-ins’ she said
‘Ten summers in from County Clare’
It was a phrase new to me
Stirring images redolent
Of troubles, a turbulent past.
Creaking hulks crushed on Skellig
Weary survivors on the shore
Shivering in winter-moonlight
Gifted shawls and peat-burn warmth
From wide-eyed, kindly, country peasants.
The forebears of the dark-haired men
Who sit, nursing nips of whisky
In half empty country bars
Still wearing the distant scars
Of half-forgotten exile.
John Stocks is a UK based Poet, Novelist, Historian and Free-Lance Journalist who has had work published in magazines worldwide. He has been widely anthologised. Since 2010 John has appeared in the UK ‘Soul Feathers’ anthology, alongside Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds and others. He also had the honour of sharing a page with Maya Angelou in the anthology, ‘Heart Shoots.’ Both anthologies were available in all major bookstores
* * *
By Mahinour Tawfik
An unfair battle among divergent colors
Claiming white for peace, black for dolor
How on earth is white claimed for peace?
Within that color I find the least
Sensual seduction, this time is visual
Literally like love, the easiest to be tainted
Few dusts make it no more picture perfect
Eventually become anything but the original
There’ll never be love nor will there be miracles
Only illusions of minds relying on fictionals
While eyes are seduced, souls behold the black
Whose image is crystal clear without a crack
Since dawn till dusk, holding its identity
Despite the temptations, preserves its chastity
Never leads us down the garden path
Above the clouds, endues us serenity
Grasping within all elements of perfection
Beyond capacities of eyes and hearts
It’s only for souls of empyrean perception
Mahinour Tawfik is a 24 year old - Egyptian senior medical student. Her first anthology Dark Secrets was released April 2016 in USA by KCL publishing company in South Carolina. She was featured in the local Indian daily newspaper and in multiple anthologies and online literary magazines.
* * *
A Day at the Races
By Don McCrady
Ruben was my friend, albeit, for only a short time in both our lives.
I met him in February of 1994 at an AIDS Hospice south of Los Angeles. He was a soft spoken, good looking man with a great appreciation for humor. He had celebrated his 61st birthday in May of the same year among the other residents and staff.
Ruben was never more at home than at horse racing venues and had spent the better part of thirty years at racetracks around southern California and Mexico. He was a wealth of knowledge when it came to horses and the jockeys that rode them. He rubbed elbows with the elite and the common man.
He only inquired a couple of times about the AIDS which was ravaging his body and mind. He was aware that he was very ill and that his body would soon surrender, but he seemed determined to keep going as long as possible. I was aware of the physical pain he was in much of the time but he rarely complained about it.
We laughed a lot together and a couple of times shed tears together. There was an unspoken understanding between us; nothing to prove, no one to impress. For most of our visits, we would watch Mexican soap operas or soccer together and not complicate things by talking about the drivel of politics or news.
He dearly loved horseracing and while he was still mobile, we made it out to Hollywood Park in El Segundo, California a few times. The first time we went, which was also my first time at a racetrack, he was studiously checking out all the horses and jockeys. When it came time to place bets, I took his skillfully thought out betting slip based on his years of experience and my own, based on the horses which had quaint sounding names. Needless to say, I was the only winner that day and even though he joked about it, I could tell he was just a little upset.
The last three months around Ruben were like being on a rollercoaster. One by one the freedoms that many times we all take for granted were stripped away from him. He could no longer drive and as such, he couldn’t make his escape anymore. His body became weaker until finally his legs gave out ad he could no longer get out of bed under his own power. It became painful for him to just sit up. Through it all, he still held onto his sense of humor and never gave up.
Ruben’s roommate, Alfonso and I managed to get him to the race track one last time. He just sat in the wheelchair with the racing form and smiled as if he were home.
My wife, Bobbi, and I were heading up to northern California to visit a long time friend who had been ill and I stopped at the Hospice the night before leaving to tell Ruben I would see him again in a few days. All he said was, “Maybe not”. I kissed him on the cheek and held his hand for a bit. Though his body now weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 pounds, his eyes were clearer and calmer than I’d ever seen them. That was the last time I saw Ruben alive. He died on August 8th, the night before we returned. I was told that he died peacefully and with little discomfort.
I was amazed at how Ruben’s roommate, Alfonso came through it all. In the beginning he expressed some fear but later he carried Ruben around like a child and gently watched over him. Yes, that was the last time I saw Ruben alive but it was not the end of our relationship. His son called me in November to ask if I would like to help spread Ruben’s ashes. I readily agreed. So on a Saturday, with the hot dry Santa Ana winds blowing from the east, I met with him, Ruben’s former roommate and a long time friend of Ruben’s from many race tracks over many years. Together we sorted Ruben’s ashes into four double lunch bags. I think the others sensed the hesitation in my voice when I asked where we were spreading these ashes, hoping that we were heading out to the beach where it might be cooler. It was explained to me that Ruben’s wishes were to have his ashes spread in the “Winner’s Circle” at Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California.
It was hot, too hot for a jacket to hide the ashes, so we smuggled them past security under our T-shirts. Once inside we slowly worked our way down toward the Winner’s Circle. When we reached it, we were in for a shock. A hedge approximately 7 feet high was encircling the area where we wanted to spread the ashes. So here we were, the four of us jumping up and down, in front of the crowd, trying to get the ashes over the hedges to fulfill Ruben’s last request. While we were doing this, the wind picked up and most of Ruben was blowing back on us and I had Ruben in my eyes, my hair, in my mouth and up my nose. He must have been laughing his butt off somewhere. Some of Ruben must have made it over the hedge and I felt my heart stop as we heard a voice from one of the people on the other side setting up, say, “Where is all this dust coming from?” That was our cue to exit!
We started the climb up the bleachers to mix in with the crowd and to make our way out to the safety of the parking lot, content that we had fulfilled Ruben’s last wishes. I still think of him often and of course, wish that we were able to spend more time together.
Don McCrady is currently living in Standish Maine. He volunteered at AIDS hospices all over Los Angeles and published From The Heart for several years, a newsletter comprised of interviews and stories devoted to people living and dying with AIDS.
* * *
By Hayden Selingo
For a long time, I thought that Andy, the bean roaster, who was piously stirring, weighing, or
bagging beans nearly every time I visited the Coffee Roastery, was the owner. From my table
nestled in the far right corner, comfortably secluded from the other patrons, I would watch Andy
set down his pen on his yellow legal-pad inventory and stroll from his own small table to the
shiny black roaster. Its rust colored, crooked venting pierced the ceiling and completed the
machine’s Mecca-like presence in the small shop. A wooden bar where customers prayed
solemnly to newspapers or their laptops made a peninsula of the roaster; bags of beans sat
slumped on the floor between the bar and machine. Processing around half-a-dozen power
chords and the standing lamp which nearly blocked the opening in the counter, Andy would nod
in polite acknowledgment to the patrons he shuffled past, only a few inches away from their
private but closely packed alters. Andy would pull the lever to release the next batch of roasted
beans and flood the shop with thick coffee-smoke. A full fog and then haze hung in the air for
half an hour at a time, at which time the roasting sacrament began anew. The little shop was
productive to put it mildly- one wall was lined with three-foot-tall wooden barrels, each
brimming with roasted beans at their transparent lids. Few patrons took bags of the coffee home.
I wondered where it all went. The glut of roasted coffee beans I imagined, were a burnt offering,
having little to do with shop’s raison d’être, the pounds and pounds which Andy made seemed
only byproducts of a soothingly consistent ritual put on for the pleasure of me and the
congregation. No doubt some sacrificial offerings were made of the beans. In the old barn-like
storage building out back, perhaps some great fiery pit surrounded by brown ceramic idols, to-
stay-mugs. It certainly smelled as if that’s what they were doing with the beans. Outside the
Roastery, the scent of burned beans surprised and overwhelmed, on warm days reaching my
house nearly a mile away. But inside, all was soothing incense, expected and welcoming to
siesta-hour sojourners. Thoughtfully, Andy would use a brush to even the layer of cooling beans
which collected below the turning metal arms of the machine. A Zen gardener tending an
industrial farm. Typing poems written in my journal, I would think “like me.”
The owners were a few stray grey hairs and one balding head north of middle aged, but served
animatedly. You wouldn’t know that the couple, who occasionally took turns managing the
register or carting unroasted beans between the barn and store, owned the place. Each alternated
between the priestly alertness of receiving confession, taking orders of high schoolers who were
sure to loiter long after finishing their drinks, and a monk-like stillness, intoning mantric
platitudes about the weather for older, more respectable visitors. Coffeetotaling Kal has
admitted- I have it third hand- that as an employee, he heard the Owners complain profusely
about the then fourth or fifth generation of underage smokers who would slink around the
backlot of the coffeehouse. As one group of apparently-uninformed delinquents came of age and
relinquished their de-facto ownership of the twenty-by-eight-foot tract of lawn, the rebel’s
Promised Land, the next group of apparently-unsupervised-and-uninformed delinquent youth
inherited their sanctuary. The back-yard was hemmed in by two other shops’ fences so that a
visit from Officer Yankee’s cherry-red “undercover” Charger or the dreaded canine unit
(chauffeuring Jake-the-Drug-Dog) was visible to those in back but not vice versa. Said
miscreants had time to don a put-off look, nonchalantly pocket the drug du jour.
One day in my Junior Year, I offered Kal his first cigarette out by shop’s violet colored storage barn which
made the far boundary of the yard. The last summer I was an observant member of the
delinquent sect, it was constituted by long-boarders, enterprising grass-grocers and, to their
credit, a handful of talented musicians. I would nod to them politely, occasionally greet them by
name as I cut through the back on my way inside, prepared for my own fix. The hemp-costumed
constituency, those born-too-late sixteen-year-old Dead-Heads, so often suspected they were
being judged personally for their loitering lifestyle, and often they were right. Adults walked
their toddlers through the back lot and alley next to the backyard, all the while glowering at the
little ne’re-do-wells. Were they terrified by the profane imagination of their child’s first
cigarette? The smokers, ‘The Family,’ as they called themselves-apparently unaware of or
undeterred by the nickname’s dubious association- knew well that they might be the butt of a
joke with a rather cruel punchline which they didn’t care to hear. They smoked and imbibed on.
They met stares with mild smiles.
They knew well enough to feel comfortable around me, though it took some time till they began
to regularly greet me as I sat slumped casually in my tree out back. They freely toked near me,
and even offered to share before my polite refusals. I think that to them, my refraining made the
year or two I had on them seem like more: what had happened to me, was I there to convert
Eventually I slinked into the guitar-playing circle when Casey brought his tattered
Yamaha for the third or fourth time. In spite of my abstaining from smoking, I offered to help
roll a few joints, and went ahead with a mix of discomfort and pride, as their once crooked,
green-piebald fingers became more like my neat, white cylinders. Eucharistics rolled between
knowing, ascetic digits. In exchange, they warmly welcomed me to join them more often and let
me lead renditions of my 60’s favorites, while they hummed and ran searching solos through my
fingerstyle, lyricless versions of CSNY’s “Woodstock,” “California Dreamin,” Zepplin’s “Babe
I’m Gonna Leave you,” “White Rabbit,” and others. Our music rose from behind the Roastery,
hymns intoned to rival the anxious beat laid by bourgeoisie nerves. Speedily walking their
children past or into the shop, parents paused. Hadn’t they heard that song before?
After being invited on a couple night drives I set aside my reservations, joining them regularly
and looking for them huddled around one of their cars in the back parking lot as I walked
barefoot down the side streets of the little town at night. A couple times I caught one or the other
of them doing the same, casually looking for the rest of The Family after work. A few of these
uncoordinated encounters with one girl lead to long drives and night hikes just the two of us. She
got me onto obscure tracks from The White Album and onto Rubber Soul; we got into my bed.
She showed me her piano arrangements of more contemporary music and her messy room.
Posters, concert tickets, her drawings, stories of intoxication, and tall tales of escaping trouble
made up our confessional, all while I clumsily pursued longer and more frequent trysts. Little
luck. Norwegian Wood. One afternoon we painted, drank, and made love in the fields of a nature
preserve on lake Michigan. I doted over her but was realistic. Preparing to return east to my
Sophomore year of college, and other equally ill-defined romantic arrangements, I backed off.
The Family did not gossip but secrecy was impossible, made extinct for lack of necessity. Her
boyfriend -a proper member of The Family- returned sometime in August and no one, including
him, seemed to mind how we’d passed the time. I met their indifference with mild remorse.
Summer slipped by The Family in infinite afternoons. I went back to my tree eventually, I’d
hang upside down, swing up, slouch, sigh, and smile as they passed.
Brandon got his coffee from Fiddleheads next door. One afternoon in the middle of the next
summer, I saw him for the first time sitting next to the small storm grate in the center of the
Roast’s concave lawn. He was surrounded by a number of my friends and acquaintances, all of
whom were lounging comfortably in the sun and saying very little. He was finishing the
background of a portrait, making the fractal patterns which always filled the white spaces in his
drawings. All his sketches were portraits and his style made each and every one of them appear
simultaneously nonhuman and unnervingly organic. He emphasized facial features as if he were
drawing trees or other living still life, extenuating esoteric characteristics, mocking the viewer’s
pleasant illusions of the symmetry of the human form. Brandon wore a long, full, dark-brown
beard and his hair as short as he could shave it. He was nearly twenty-four. The day I met him,
he let me peruse his sketch books and told me about his garden and the dozen-plus things he
grew on the little plot in his parent’s backyard. He had had to displace an ant colony to make
space for the wooden drawers he stacked and used to grow spices which needed some shade.
Brandon tried not to kill any of them. Looking at me with an expression of intensity and sincerity
that I will not soon forget, Brandon confided something. He had killed some of the ants. He had
Eventually Brandon would want to talk with me almost exclusively about spirits, hallucinations,
reincarnation, dreams. Things he saw leaping in and out of people. Walking up the alley to the
front of the Roastery, he would be recognizable immediately, supine in the back lawn or kitty-
corner to it leaning against the western extension of Fiddleheads’ fence. Our conversations
required no segues. As quickly as Brandon would recognize me, he would begin telling me about
what I had said to him with other people’s voices just before arriving, or would express surprise
after not having seen me for a week or two: just the previous night he had had a dream about me
and my father, whom he had never met.
On my long barefoot walks at night around the town, I recognized his silhouette as often as him,
but both during the day and at night, he existed only there. Never can I recall him arriving after
or leaving before me, yet, he seems to me the most nomadic of the coffee house’s ghosts. Often
times while we talked, Brandon would start suddenly, eyes widening, pupils visibly dilating. He
would reach out, press his hand to my arm or chest and say with that same disarmingly serious
look “Did you see it? Went into you. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to hurt you, I love Jesus, man.”
When he’d say that, sometimes he seemed terrified, pathetically caught off guard and forced to
speak to keep hold of lucidity. Sometimes he might have been matter-of-factly blessing me after
a sneeze. I wanted to tell him how well I thought I understood, how I was trying to strengthen
my own shaky grip on reality. For a while, I tried reciprocating that wild-eyed sincerity, I
admitted that I also balanced precariously between my life and the unsettling nightmare of
paranoia and hallucination which bled into its periphery: a world like his sketchbook. But the
same summer I first tilled my parent’s backyard and erected a wire fence to grow peppers, leeks,
and spices, I stopped telling Brandon about that other world I saw. Was I terrified at the profane
thought of gardening the same plot when I was almost twenty-four? It couldn’t matter. My
nightmare began to fall away unlike Brandon’s. I learned just to listen, trying to explain was like
trying to save every ant.
In the winter, I went to meet Lou at the Roastery and learn basic chess strategy. The retired
sound engineer offered firm handshakes and amiable hellos in place of Brandon’s unsettling
greetings. Sometimes I’d ask if he’d read anything interesting lately, and he’d brandish the same
copy of the Tao Te Ching, recite the thought experiment it inspired him to conduct for something
like the twentieth time. A devout and self-converted agnostic, he would happily proclaim
himself. Questions about classes, the family, and my long-time friend Matthew (who had
introduced us) answered, he’d ask something along the lines of “how are the women out east.” I
had finally begun to date a girl from New York State at school, and had happily exorcised the
impotent, lascivious, promiscuous rituals which had so exhausted me the year before. I was
pretty happy and even more annoyed than usual by that brand of ‘guy talk.’ I wanted to answer
him in detail, I thought, about as much as I wanted to hear, in the same sitting, once more about
his imaginary box containing the universe which “called into serious question the possibility of a
creator.” All I could offer was a tepid “oh, you know,” in reply. Safely returned to the game, his
opening move, knight to e5.
Soon he began talking about a girl he had picked up at a friend’s father’s yacht club forty years
ago. Lou had only a beater motorcycle for transportation, the product of three years post-high-
school work, physical labor at a plastics plant in southern Chicago. When he and his new
acquaintance fled the party, Lou borrowed the privacy of a stranger’s unlocked Chevy, passing it
off as his own to his date. He put the car in neutral and rolled it, yacht-club-member-daughter-
en-tow, down the hill to a secluded spot. They had sex in the back of the stranger’s car before-no
doubt mysteriously to the girl-walking back up to the club. This story I would hear only once.
Lou and I would sit at the same table where an ex-girlfriend of mine said with a consistent,
apologetic, but proud tone “échec et mat” so many times that it seems like I only ever lost one
game to her. Staring across at the jovial and uninhibited retiree, the memory frequently crossed
my mind, particularly –if ironically- I thought about her when it seemed I was doing just about as
poorly as I opposite her. She would have been even more mortified by his company than I was.
The thought passes my mind that it must have been a very long and important game of chess that
she and I played. I would try to regain focus and count defenses and attacks, but Lou inevitably
made an off-color joke too loudly here and there. “Did I tell you why they had to re-sod the
stadium at Iowa State with artificial turf?” I smiled sheepishly and glanced uncomfortably
towards the tables of former classmates from my graduating class who would intermittently flock
to the coffee house, then back at my sixty-something opponent. Then the punchline.
I started to wonder if a ragged volume of another culture’s half-understood philosophy and a
well-maintained library of mischief and smut were to be part of my own collection one day. I
could see parts of both unflattering characteristics latent in my own library of social openers and
segues. But it was too cold a view, I could quickly recall all the cd’s of old jazz, blues, and
instrumental music Lou compiled and brought to me. He’d have a new couple in his bag for each
time we happened to meet, each with a printed label, my name, and a clever title: “Pensive Pop,”
“Inner Spaces.” To lose something sacred without lamenting, don’t we resort to becoming
profane? I lost the game – I lost each game with Lou- though I didn’t mind much.
Hayden Selingo is a poet, essayist, and nature-writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He recently returned to the Twin Cities after teaching English in Lyon, France. Hayden’s work can be found in Ivory Tower (2017) and Mistake House (2017) publications.
* * *
By Lori Alward
It had taken a bit of research to figure out just the right combination of drugs. Alison wanted to
make sure that, despite his disorientation and sensory distortion, Morgan remained aware of his
surroundings. She decided to use a ball gag rather than duct tape so that Morgan could breathe
around it, just in case he caught a cold from being submerged up to his chin. She also obscured
his vision with swimming goggles coated with Vaseline and blocked out ambient noise with
noise-canceling headphones. It took a while to figure out how to prepare the tank so that Morgan
wouldn't drown or get hypothermia. After all, Alison didn't want Morgan to die. That would
defeat her purpose. She just wanted him to know what it was like.
They'd only been married a month when Morgan showed Alison his laboratory. She was still in
love with him then—besotted, really. He was a genius, a pioneering medical researcher who was
going to cure Alzheimer's, ALS, and Parkinson's. Alison gazed at her husband adoringly as he
guided her through his computer lab, where supercomputers analyzed metadata and tested
hundreds of drug protocols simultaneously. Alison was fascinated by the lab, which seemed to
her an extension of Morgan's prodigious intellect. Scarcely able to believe that she was married
to such a generous, gifted man, Alison was enthralled with everything that Morgan showed her,
until he ushered her into the Guppy Room.
“These fish are a kind of neural chimera. They're guppy-human hybrids,” Morgan explained.
“We inject human stem cells into the guppies to create more human-like brains, so we can test
protocols for treating diseases like Parkinson's.”
Alison looked at the rows of aquariums, housing thousands of guppies. Aghast, Alison
stammered, “How ... how can you do this?”
When Morgan started to explain the technical aspects of stem cell injection, Alison blurted out,
“No! I'm asking a moral question. How can you, in good conscience, create these creatures?
What if they're conscious?”
Morgan laughed, “Alison, they're guppies!”
“No, they're not. You said so yourself. If they have human-like brains, they could be aware of
what's happening to them. They're trapped ... and then you give them a disease...”
“Alison, you're being silly. They're guppies. Besides, we don't even understand how
“Precisely! You don't know. No one does. Maybe you've created self-conscious fish. And they
couldn't even tell you. My God, Morgan!”
If Alison had to pinpoint when she stopped loving Morgan, it would have been that moment. As
her husband chided her with amused condescension for her misplaced sentimentality, Alison
wondered if this was how Mrs. Mengele felt when she found out what her husband was up to.
That night, Alison slept on the couch, but not soundly. She woke several times, groaning with
dread. The nightmare soon became familiar. In the dream, Alison could breathe under water
but, lipless, she could neither speak nor scream. Without hands, she could grasp nothing, and
without feet, she could not escape her watery prison. In a state of confused paranoia, she twisted
her body this way and that, surrounded by similar creatures, who mirrored her own mute terror.
As her nightmares increased in frequency and gruesome intensity, Alison knew she had to act.
She consulted a divorce lawyer and a realtor, but soon realized that distance would not solve her
problem. Her nightmares would not stop until Morgan stopped his horrifying experiments. That
was when she began building the tank.
Bound hand and foot, unable to speak, Morgan stared at Alison with bewildered panic. As she
lowered her husband into the tank, she explained, “I'm only doing this so you'll understand,
Morgan. I don't know why, but you have no empathy. You don't know what it's like.” Before
she placed the headphones over his ears, Alison added, “I'm not just doing this for the guppies.
I'm doing it for you, too. It's really for your own good. Someday, you'll understand that.”
With a background in philosophy, Lori Alward taught computer ethics at the University of Washington in Tacoma from 2013 through 2017. "Guppy Love" was inspired by her computer science students' discussions of the ethics of creating conscious artificial intelligence. Lori currently lives in Steilacoom, Washington.
* * *
By Sankar Chatterjee
John McMahon turned around the corner of the hallway to enter into a partially visible dark
room and got a sudden jolt. In front of him appeared what seemed to be a prison cell. Its
occupant was sitting on a narrow bed. A wash-basin and a toilet could be seen at two different
corners of that tiny prison cell. John quickly regained his senses to appreciate the authentic
recreation of the exhibit inside that room of the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.
In town for a business, he took some time out to visit the place.
Birmingham had a notorious dark past, being labeled as the most segregated city of the country
at the height of the Civil Rights Movements. The depicted person sitting on the bed in that
exhibit was none other than assassinated leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. King had
come to this town to preach his nonviolence resistance against segregation, but was arrested for
purportedly disorderly conduct and put into prison. But the real betrayal came from his fellow
white preachers of the town. They remained silent about the evilness of human indignity of the
segregation, while failing to condemn the violent crackdown of the protesters by the local
authorities. At the same time, the preachers accused Rev. King as “an outsider stirring up
trouble” inside their city. Sitting in his prison-cell, Rev. King would pen a long letter, addressing
to his fellow bishops. He would forcefully refute their “outsider” label for him, while
proclaiming “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. The walls of that exhibit
room were covered with more illuminating lines from that letter.
John finished visiting remainder of the exhibits. But he could not shake up the image of that
particular room along with that universal truth about injustice. The current political climate
inside this country again brought humiliations and injustices to a multitude of groups: religious-
minorities, immigrants, women, and holders of same-sex relationship, to name a few. In a
display of “anticipated obedience,” the highly-educated members of the major political party in
power decided to turn their blind eyes on the despicable behavior of their supreme leader.
Overseas, the country’s reputation as a “Champion of freedom, justice and equality” had been
John came out of the building. He then began to cross the road to go to the other side to visit the
iconic Baptist Church, the site of a horrific Sunday bombing by a white supremacist group. The
terror took the lives of four young African-American children while injuring scores. At that very
moment, he pondered “If history repeats itself, it might very well be that another courageous
future Rev. King somewhere in this country has been preparing himself to lead the masses to
fight against the current injustices.”
Sankar Chatterjee possesses the passion for traveling worldwide to immerse himself in new cultures and customs to discover the forgotten history of the societies. His most recent (2016 - 17) essays appeared in The Write Launch, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Vignette Review, The Missing Slate, Scarlet Leaf Review, The Drabble, Funny in Five Hundred, Friday Flash Fiction, Ad Hoc Fiction, Subtle Fiction, Quail Bell Magazine, Travelmag - The Independent Spirit, Three Drops from a Cauldron, and in DEFY! anthology (Robocup Press)
* * *
The Little White Hope: A Fairy Tale
By Jamie Culp
There once was a girl who had so much love in her heart that it one day came to life as a fluffy
hope, white as good cotton underwear. And while the girl’s parents and schoolmates laughed at
her plain face and early flowering, the little hope whispered sweetly to the girl, saying she should
dry her tears and believe.
As the girl grew her hope stayed little. To keep it pristine she held it close, sheltered under her
growing breasts, and didn’t dare show it to others since hopes don’t take well to rough handling.
Sometimes she wondered if a hope so small was worth so much trouble. But the hope kept
whispering sweetly, so she kept puffing up its fluff--but not too much, lest somebody mean
might see her hope and do it harm.
Until one day, as so often does, a boy came along. He was nice, not like the girl’s friends. He
didn’t disregard her like her father. So one day she dared. She opened her hands that protected
like iron bars and showed the boy her little white hope. The boy regarded them both with sad,
gentle eyes. And happy day! He smiled and said he would hold her hope, too.
And thanks to their nurturing and protection, soon the little white hope grew, and turned from
white to dazzling, diamond-sparkling white. Hot white. It became too hot to hold, and burst forth
for all to see.
“You don’t deserve such a dazzling hope,” her jealous mother said while scowling to shield her
eyes. But the girl didn’t listen, as now her hope sang, sweet and loud.
Time passed, and the girl, boy, and hope grew together. But as they grew they also changed. The
boy, for example: he still cared for the hope, he said. But sometimes even he said it sparkled too
bright. “And why does it sing when I’m watching TV?” He’d ask. Then the hope would slink to
the corner, picking at its fluff and muttering, while the girl hid in plain sight. But later, when the
boy smiled the hope's way, it would puff up and shimmer best as it could. Hopes are good with
positive reinforcement, you know.
And the boy still held the hope, though less than he used to, and almost never in the gentle,
protective ways of before. Sometimes the hope cried out due to the boy’s rough handling. Then
the boy would lash out, telling the girl her hope was too sensitive. And the hope sometimes
agreed, whispering, “Maybe a hope doesn’t belong in your world. Look at your mother and
father.” And it was right, as any hope they had was lost long ago.
So the industrious girl once again hid her hope close to protect it. The boy said this, too, was bad:
he liked caring for her hope. “But why can’t it care for itself sometimes?”
It seemed like the boy and the hope were teaming up to confuse her. Once upon a time she
wasn’t so easily confused.
Maybe her memory was faulty. She remembered a time when her hope was white and fluffy--and
it certainly wasn’t now. She didn’t need her hope to dazzle: she just wanted it to be pure and
good. And she didn’t need it to sing loud, drowning out the jealous voices: she only wanted to
hear its sweet whisper. She told her hope this, hoping to reason with it.
“Hopes come with costs and trade-offs,” the hope argued, then spat in its hands and slicked its
dingy fluff. “And it’s your fault for letting me grow so large.”
The girl decided there was no reasoning with her hope.
More time passed, and the girl the boy and the hope were still together, though the hope was
unlike the little white one that came to life from the girl’s love so long ago. True, it was little
again--littler, even, than when the girl first dared reveal it. And it turned from looking white as
good cotton underwear to a purulent, jaundiced yellow. It hadn’t whispered sweetly in who
knows how long. When it did muster energy to speak, it did so in a raspy snark, saying things
like “maybe you’d deserve a fluffy white hope if you gave more. Maybe if your face was less
plain.” And now it was only on rare occasion that the girl dared ask for the boy’s care, but even
when he did, his complaining of time and priorities made it hardly worth the trouble for the little
hope that was left.
She missed holding her hope close, when it was good and pure. She missed believing.
Finally one day the hope died, though the girl didn’t know what day that was. Maybe it was the
day she noticed, maybe before. Maybe she’d been carrying a dead hope for many days. She
didn’t know that could happen with a hope--they don’t come with owner’s manuals, you know.
But once she noticed, she stared long at her dead broken hope, wondering where she’d gone
wrong. She wondered if she should have listened to those jealous voices. She wondered if she
could have tried more. She wondered if she believed too much.
She showed it to the boy, who apologized for killing her hope. He didn't mean to, he said. She
started to say it wasn’t about blame, but he stopped her, insisting that she please forgive him.
Then he smiled with sad eyes and turned back to the television. The girl wondered if she should
The girl took the dead yellowed hope outside and laid it down on the ground. For a long time she
stared, feeling empty. She realized she would never again hear its sweet whisper, encouraging
her to believe. And though she had no more tears left, for a moment she wondered if just one or
Then she dared to turn away.
Jamie Culp is a writer and traveler. He currently lives out of a backpack in Southeast Asia and occasionally writes about it. He’s been published in the literary journal Gravel and earned a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His writings can be found here.
* * *
By Erin Jamieson
While my older brother and cousins spent hours on the upstairs computer, I slinked to my
Nana and Papa’s basement to use the typewriter. It was nothing extraordinary, as far as
typewriters go: black and sleek like a seal’s back, faint letters, a curved back where the paper
fed. It was always slightly cool to the touch, smooth in a way that felt inviting.
While my brother and cousins played Heroes of Might and Magic and my aunts and uncles
talked endlessly, I sat, alone, in the basement, typing messages only I would see. Astonished by
the beauty of something that people had abandoned long ago.
I was always fascinated, as a child, by things others passed by. Maybe it had something to do
with my father, whose passion for history never faded despite his decision to pursue an MBA,
who told me stories about long dead generals the way other parents read their children
bedtime stories. Maybe it was simply the way I was: drawn to things that had been set aside,
fascinated by a world that had existed before me.
A certain quiet and solitude, a space of connecting where my shyness and quiet nature were no
longer something that needed to be changed, but instead gifts, for listening and discovering what others had left behind.
In the nineteenth century, the standard price for a typewriter was one hundred dollars. You
could buy a gasoline powered vehicle, in 1912, for six times that price. Today, personal
computers, which arguably have replaced the typewriter, can be purchased for as low as three
hundred dollars (the cheap ones, at least) but the average price of a vehicle in the United States
as of 2015 was over 30,000 dollars. You can now buy one hundred cheap computers for an
In the nineteenth century, the typewriter was the primary source of written communication.
Now we have far more options than Americans then would have dreamed: IPad, Macs, myriad
brands of PC’s, smartphones, social media. The list is endless, and somewhere in that endless
list the novelty isn’t what it once was. It only seems fitting that the typed communication
becomes proportionately more ubiquitous and the price tag of getting that communication
continues to decrease. As we conflate our need to communicate with a need to communicate
in many ways, for many reasons, all at once.
In December 2012, I visited my Nana and Papa’s basement the way I had as a child, needing to
separate myself from the chaos of Christmas presents and Christmas Eve dinner being
prepared. The typewriter was there as it always was, seated on a honey blonde desk. Directly
above it was a portrait of my Papa’s father-my great-grandfather, glancing down at me with the
same skeptical blue-grey eyes under oblong spectacles, the same arched brows and stubborn
chin I loved in my Papa.
But something had changed about the typewriter. It was difficult as it always had been to use,
some of the keys stubborn, in need of realignment. It wasn’t that. It was my frustration with the
copious mistakes I made, mistakes I had neither known nor cared about when I was a girl.
Mistakes that could only be blotted out by starting over on a fresh page.
I was on medical leave from college, certain I was bound for failure, and for the life of me, after
a stream of typos, I couldn’t get myself to place a fresh page and try to start over as I had all
those times before.
On the first day of the new year of 1912, The Belleville News Democrat dedicated a small
section to declaring the importance of the typewriter. The typewriter, the newspaper insisted,
“rank[ed] as one of the most important inventions of the last half century” so much so that “its
loss would cause the world to slow down a bit”. The typewriter had become a staple of
American life, something that felt vital to our existence.
It wasn’t always that way. When the first American typewriter was produced by Christopher
Latham in 1867, many were skeptical. Accustomed to writing by hand, it took a while to warm
to the idea, or even see the necessity of what was termed ‘mechanical’ writing. The first
typewriters were clunky, odious, even. It took decades of development for the public to come
to love it, to say they could not imagine the exit of such a wonderful technology from society. That, as the Bellville News Democrat would assert almost a half century later that such as loss
would be unfathomable.
In time I would relearn my way at the typewriter, typing occasional words here and there,
trying to recover that magical feeling that had enchanted me as child. Like my return to health
and college, the process would be slow, painful, futile at times.
Once, after I had returned from medical leave, when my family was still watching me very
closely, I snuck down to the basement, needing, as I had all those times before, an escape from
the heat of the ovens, the counters cluttered with cranberry Jell-O and White Castle stuffing. An
escape from sideways glances to make sure I was eating, to see if I’d put dressing on my salad.
My mother texted me almost immediately when I managed to escape into the basement:
Did you get all you needed? What she meant was: did I eat as much as my dietician wanted me to?
Did I really want to compromise my future again?
I lay the phone flat and approached the typewriter. It seemed frivolous, typing on something no
one used anymore. But as my cell phone went off a second time, I started to type. When I made
an error, I didn’t start new, as I had in the past. I kept typing, only beginning to learn that those
mistakes were part of what had once seemed so beautiful to me all those years ago.
Erin Jamieson received an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University and currently works as freelance writer. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in After the Pause, Into the Void, The Aquarian, The Airgonaut, Blue River Review, Evansville Review, Mount Analogue, Former Cactus, and Canary.
* * *
Honey Don't Play with Your Words
By Bethany Khol
I am on the bus to morning kindergarten when my seat mate informs me that the bag I use to
carry my lunch box and coat is, in fact, not a “pack pack,” but a “backpack.”
“But it’s always been a pack pack,” I insist. I hold my purple bag closer to me, as if it is offended
by the suggestion that I could be wrong.
My wiser friend shakes her head and frowns. “It’s called a backpack because it is a pack you put
on your back. That’s what my mom said.”
I don’t know what to say. Her argument makes sense, more sense than mine, but I feel betrayed.
All I can do is weakly say, “but my dad always calls it a pack pack...”
Years later, making lunch in the kitchen, I will tell my dad of the incident. “You actually
believed it was called ‘pack pack?’” he will ask, laughing.
“Of course! That’s what you always said.”
He will smile and shake his head. “I was just copying you. You couldn’t say ‘backpack’ when
you first learned the word and called it a ‘pack pack’ instead. I thought it was adorable, so I
started calling it a ‘pack pack’ too.”
In the kitchen, I will cross my arms and feel betrayed—even if only playfully—but right now, on
the bus, I don’t know why my dad calls it a “pack pack,” just that he does, and that means I’m
Now in first grade, I look up at my dad as he grabs the container of grits from the cabinet to
make me breakfast before school. I scrunch my face. I’ve been trying to learn the word
“breakfast” all morning. I take a deep breath and try again. “Bressticks.” That’s not right.
My dad looks at me as I slide down the wall and cross my arms. He shakes his head and smiles.
“Try again. Breakfast. Break-Fast. Breakfast.”
I nod, hanging on to every syllable. I close my eyes and try to hear the word. Finally, I try
He laughs, “Close enough.”
The next morning, my dad will call me in to “Brefixed.” This time, I will know he is just
playing. In a year I will learn to say “breakfast,” but in ten years I will learn to say “brefixed,”
In high school, I will learn that “asparagrass” is not a real word when I try to use it in an essay
and the squiggly red line appears. I will wonder why I learned all my pronunciation from my
dad; my mom always says “asparagus.” I will guess that to my young mind, “asparagrass” made
sense. The long green stalks certainly look like Aspara-Grass, whatever “aspara” is.
That night, I will tell my dad of my mistake. He will laugh. I will laugh. I will continue saying
Now in fourth grade, I open the refrigerator looking for an easy snack. Without turning around
from the cutting board, my dad hears me rummaging and tells me that dinner is in 15 minutes. I
sigh, very hungry and tired of waiting.
“Well, then what’s for dinner?” I ask.
“Possum gizzards with sauerkraut ripple ice cream for dessert.”
“Oh.” I know dinner isn’t really possum gizzards. I already figured that out a couple years ago. I
shut the refrigerator door and climb onto a stool to look in the pot on the stove. Dumplings! I can
wait for dinner.
Years later, at home from college on fall break, I will ask my dad what a gizzard is.
“It’s a special stomach that some animals—mostly birds—have,” he will reply. “Actually,
possums don’t even have gizzards.”
I will freeze with shock. I knew possum gizzards weren’t food, but I never considered that they
weren’t real. He will laugh again, realizing just how much influence he’d had on my growing
A year later, in Theology class, I will still think that learning that possum gizzards don’t exist
was the most mind-blowing experience in my life, even as I try to wrap my head around the
On another break, my dad will ask me what I want to eat for dinner.
“Food.” I will reply with a sly smile.
“Are you sure? Would rock soup be fine?”
“Yeah, probably. Or maybe some possum gizzards...”
Bethany Khol is a senior undergraduate student at Cedarville University, majoring in Molecular Biology and minoring in Creative Writing. She is originally from Michigan and has a great appreciation for winter and snow.
* * *
Mixed Media by Amy Donnelly
Amy Donnelly is based on Oahu Hawaii and works primarily in mixed media formats often incorporating acrylic paint, sea glass, wax and other materials. Ms. Donnelly also has a background as a librarian and completed her graduate work at Pratt Institute.
Art by Benjamin Pierce
Benjamin Norman Pierce is a professional dishwasher. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He has had graphics published in Ancient Heart, Convergence, Moebius and 99 Pine Street. He self-published a novel, Snuck Past Death and Sleep and has an album of Lovecraft-inspired ambient music,"Al-Azif, available on BandCamp and SoundCloud.
Self-Portrait and Animal by Sahar Safarian
Sahar Safarian is a multi-media artist. She has been using creative writing as one of her mediums since 2013 and has made short video-arts based on her poems. She has earned a MFA degree from Pratt Institute in Painting/Drawing at 2016 and participated in many exhibitions around the world.
Different Selves by Beth Starger
Beth Starger is a self taught artist based in Burlington Vermont. Her artwork centers around the odd and peripheral.
Touch My Human by Giles Timms
Giles grew up in a small seaside town in Wales. His family emigrated to the US when he was a teenager. He likes to draw with his daughter Sybbie, and keeps his drawings, writings, and ideas in a collection of books. He is inspired by: collage, vintage photos, books, maps and prints. Other things that inspire him are: Soviet era art and animations, ephemera, dried flowers, anatomy, history, esoterica, and the occult. He is currently living in Bulgaria where he teaches at AUBG. He has an MFA in animation from UCLA.