Foliate Oak March 2019

Fiction

Stars Above Detroit
​By Jonathan Ferrini

It was a cold and snowy December when I was handed the address of a “crack house” in one of the deserted and boarded up Detroit neighborhoods once inhabited by happy families whose sustenance was provided by good paying manufacturing jobs.  The closing of the automobile plants made the neighborhoods ghost towns. A significant percentage of housing parcels in the city are vacant, with abandoned lots making up more than half of total residential lots in large portions of the city.

They call me “Mr. X” around the office because it’s my job to “tag” deserted homes for demolition by spray painting a large red “X” across the front of the homes. It’s my first job since graduating with a degree in drafting. The City of Detroit hired me because I grew up remodeling homes with my father and I knew building materials. My official title was “Building Safety Inspector” but my work had nothing to do with building safety. The City was broke and sent me alone, armed only with pepper spray,  into the blighted neighborhoods to identify homes with valuable building materials like copper, used brick, marble, or fine woods, the City could sell before bulldozing the home. My work was dangerous because poking around deserted homes; you’d never know what you’d find. I’ve been chased away by crazed drug addicts, packs of wild dogs, or the stench of decaying human corpses who were drug addicts or sadly, the elderly owners of the home who died silently and forgotten.

The address led me to a boarded up Victorian mansion which was the largest home on the block. My instincts told me it would be a treasure trove of valuable building materials which might earn me a raise or promotion. I didn’t realize the old mansion was occupied, but decided to assume the role of a homeless man, hoping the occupants would permit me to stay long enough to assess the value of the building materials. Besides, I was single, and alone in Detroit without family to spend Christmas.

Winters are a blessing and a curse in these blighted neighborhoods. The winter cold brought paying “lodgers” like me in off the streets. Ice is plentiful permitting the preservation of food and water for drinking and bathing.  There are no utilities to the house. The toilets were removed exposing the sewer pipes permitting direct deposit of feces and urine. Fire for cooking and heat was from wood siding poached from nearby homes. Ride share and taxis won’t come into the neighborhood. The nearest shopping is four, long residential blocks away on 7 Mile, consisting of a discount retail store, independent market, and a few fast food joints. Downtown Detroit is about fifteen miles away.

Nobody asked me any questions other than telling me the rent was $5 per day, which provided a roof over my head, along with a blanket and a place to sleep in the hallway amongst junkies. I did my best to hide my red paint colored index finger. Despite the bleak environment, it would be a Christmas I would never forget.

It costs a heroin addict $150-$200 per day to support a habit like Roxie’s. It was a long night for Roxie when I encountered her returning home from working as a prostitute. I offered her a cigarette and told her I had just “checked in” as a “lodger” which put her at ease. She told me she made her “bank” and I could tell she was eager for her fix which would anesthetize her throughout the long, dreary, winter day until she would regain consciousness, and prepare for another evening “on the stroll”. Roxie was no older than thirty. She was a beautiful woman born to a Puerto Rican mother who was a prostitute. Her father was a mixed race “John”. Roxie inherited a beautiful exotic face, and an attention-getting curvaceous body, permitting her to earn top dollar from the businessmen traveling through Detroit. She was taken from her mother as a teenager and placed into foster care where she was molested by the husband, and thrown out into the streets when the wife found out. She never reunited with her mother.  Roxie’s quite the entrepreneur cultivating a loyal network of hotel concierges, bartenders, and limousine drivers who handed out her business card to Johns in return for her gratuities.

We heard a helicopter and Roxie ran to the boarded up window peering through a knot hole to see a fire department helicopter, its spot light trained upon the fully engulfed home down the street. 911 won’t send the fire department, cops, or paramedics into these abandoned neighborhoods because it’s too costly. In the case of fire, it’s less expensive to send the helicopter to assess the need for further action. Most of the time, the helicopter determines the home is vacant and lets it burn to the ground. Even if the fire department wanted to extinguish the fire, the water from the fire hose would freeze up in the winter cold. A man shouted, “Get away from that window girl! If that search light catches your cat eyes we’ll be thrown out of here!” Roxie quickly took her beautiful eyes away from the peep hole. Samuel placed his frail arm around her in an attempt to comfort her, whispering, “Don’t fear the spotlight, child. It’s a reminder the bright, lonely. little star will soon reveal itself, and shine down upon us all”.

Samuel was a tall, lanky, balding, black man with a scruffy grey beard who was pushing eighty. He was once a headliner in the best jazz clubs in the States. He became a junky, which ruined his musical career as a tenor saxophonist. Although he kicked the habit decades ago, he’s was an alcoholic, finishing off a fifth of cheap whiskey each day. He sometimes rode the bus into Detroit with Roxie at night where he ‘busked”, playing on street corners for change. His old tenor sax lost its luster, but like a fine wine aging graciously over time, the music coming out was sweet as ever despite the arthritic fingers squeezing out the notes.

I slept against the wall in a dark hallway with a few other guys wrapped in blankets. They snored, moaned, and jerked.  In a far off corner of the old mansion, a tenor saxophone whaled.  The notes invited memories of saying goodbye to somebody you love for the last time. I felt privileged to hear such beauty amongst the desolation. When the tenor sax stopped, I heard the musician, who sounded like Samuel, recite the following,

                                                                           "Come out bright, lonely, little star.
                                             Don’t fear the dark clouds, the cold of winter, or the pain below you.
                  Bless us with your divine rays of hope, warm our spirits, and guide us to a peaceful world where
                                           every man, woman, child, and animal lives in dignity and happiness.
                     Come out bright, lonely little star. Don’t be shy. We’ll accept you as you are and take you into
                                                                                             our hearts.”

I drifted into a deep sleep as if being read a lullaby. I awoke to an obese, seventy something, black woman extending a cup of coffee to me, saying, “Hello lodger, I’m Queenie. Follow me down to the kitchen and let’s talk.”

I followed the old woman and noticed she had difficulty walking given her age and weight. Her feet were swollen and I suspect she suffered from diabetes. We entered an expansive kitchen found only in mansions staffed with butlers and maids. It was spotless and hadn’t changed since its construction sometime in the early twentieth century. Its walls were lined with sparkling lime green tiles, matching counter tops, butcher block tables, and vintage kitchen appliances with manufacturer’s labels marked, “Dutiful Brand”.  There was a breakfast table in the corner of the kitchen where Samuel was sitting, smoking a cigarette, and sipping his coffee. I was invited to sit by Queenie who struggled to sit. Samuel rose like a gentleman and aided her. Queenie reached for my arms and examined each for needle punctures remarking, “You’re not a user are you?” I nodded in agreement saying, “No ma’am. I’m not.”  Samuel took a drag of his cigarette, blew the smoke into the air, and agreed, “Yeah, his eyes are clear and he doesn’t have the shakes. He looks clean to me. What’s your game young man?” I nervously replied, “I’m down on my luck and just looking for a roof over my head for Christmas, Sir.” I heard somebody walking swiftly down the hallway and a young man entered the kitchen pulling up a chair. Queenie sternly remarked, “What do you say first thing in the morning, Rascal?” The young man respectfully replied, “Good morning”. Queenie smiled like a proud grandmother remarking, “That’s a proper mornin’ greeting. Let me get ya’ all some oatmeal.”
 
Rascal was a white man in his early twenties, about six feet tall, razor thin, tatted up, pierced, and missing some front teeth. His face was showing the ravages of meth use scars. He was wearing low hanging faded jeans, old sneakers, and a “Red Wings” hockey hoody. Rascal extended his hand to me and we shook. Samuel looked Rascal up and down like a grandfather, scolding him, “Pull your britches up boy! Why don’t you clean up and make something of yourself.” Like a doting grandmother, Queenie defended Rascal, “Leave him alone, old man!  Why don’t you clean up and make something of yourself playing that old sax for big dollars at weddings and Bar Mitzvah’s instead of busking on dirty, cold sidewalks. You still got it, old man. Use it!” Samuel stared at the ceiling as if looking into the past, and angrily replied, “Stay out of my business, woman.”

Queenie gave each of us a piping hot bowl of oatmeal she prepared atop a butane fueled hotplate. Rascal immediately rose to help her sit. Rascal sat, devouring his oatmeal, washing each mouthful down with a glass of milk. Queenie finished a silent prayer and began to eat her oatmeal with etiquette seeming out of place, given her station in life which made me curious about her background. Queenie spoke with reverence about Samuel, “Back in the day, Samuel was kickin’ it with the likes of Duke, Ella, Basie, Miles, and workin’ the best clubs in the Country.  Show ‘em that Downbeat Magazine cover with you on it, Samuel!” Samuel shook his head as he slowly ate his oatmeal, his hands trembling from the effects of alcoholism, and old age. Rascal finished his oatmeal, wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve out of sight of Queenie, rose from the table, and placed his arms around Samuel boasting, “It’s true, man.  I saw the magazine cover. Samuel was a cool young dude on the cover of a sixties Downbeat Magazine. In big letters above his photo, it say’s, New Tenor Sax Virtuoso Makes the Scene. All right folks, got to start my day dumpster divin’. Nice to meet you, Sir.” I was impressed with Rascal’s manners and replied, “My pleasure to meet you Rascal. Good luck out there!” Rascal kissed Queenie on the cheek before exiting the kitchen from the boarded up service entrance. I caught a glimpse of him retrieve a shopping cart hidden within some bushes. In a hushed voice, Queenie remarked, “Rascal was thrown out on the streets by his folks. He came from a good family with parental expectations he couldn’t live up to but he seldom mentions his family. I treat him like my own grandson.  He has a sweet temperament but slips into a dark hole of depression, so he self medicates by shooting up. If only he could kick the junk, he still has time to make somethin’ of himself.”

Queenie slowly rose from her chair, gathered the bowls and cups, and rinsed them in a bucket. She placed them in a dish rack to dry, took a deep sigh, and said, “Well, it’s time to start my day. I got to hit the food pantries first thing this mornin’. Between Rascal and me, we’ll gather all the fixins for a proper Christmas Dinner. Pay $5 dollars a day room and board, lodger. Leave the money with Samuel. Anything you need to know, just ask him.” Queenie reached for her winter coat hanging on a hook, draped it on, grabbed her hand bag, and headed for the door.  Queenie dressed nicely for a homeless woman. My heart was heavy as I watched her slowly walk up the sidewalk, her feet swollen, and her joints aching.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out a twenty dollar bill, handed it to Samuel, and said, “It’s the 24th today. I’ll be out on the 26th. Keep the ten dollars change. I’m certain the house can use it.” Samuel rose from his seat and placed the twenty dollar bill into a drawer saying, “Thank you, young lodger. This ‘ol man got to get to sleep before headin’ out tonight but maybe you can help me with a chore, first?”

Samuel reached for his tattered pea coat and struggled to get into it. I helped him get into the coat saying, “I’ll be glad to help you with the chore.” We exited the kitchen through the boarded up service entrance out into the cold, sunny day. I followed Samuel into the expansive former back yard of the mansion, now overgrown with weeds, shrubbery, and tree branches. He led me to a baby Christmas tree about three feet tall, alone, in the corner of the backyard. He kneeled next to it as if it were a child saying, “This little tree sprung up out of the ground last spring. I saw it grow inch by inch throughout the springtime. It wanted to survive even amongst all this squalor so I started to water it and it grew faster. It withstood the scorching heat and humidity of summer, the chill of autumn, and here it is in the dead of an icy winter, still alive. It ain’t a big tree but it will make a fine Christmas tree. I’d like you to help me dig it up, pot it, take it inside, and we’ll give it a home for Christmas. It won’t end up on the trash heap like the others. No, Sir! After Christmas, I’ll plant it a couple of blocks away in the City Park so if this old house gets bulldozed, this tree will survive. Will you help me?” “Of course I will, Samuel”, I answered. Samuel retrieved an old spade, pick axe, and a pot filled with fresh potting soil. We carefully dug around the roots of the tree beneath the stare of the boarded up mansion. I asked, “What’s Queenie’s story?”

Samuel turned towards the mansion pointing with the spade, saying, “Queenie was the maid for the family who owned the mansion. She lost her son in Vietnam and her job when the owners of the house moved away in the seventies.  She drowned her pain with alcohol, struggled as a hotel maid, couldn’t keep it together as she got older, and ended up on the streets. Even though she’s a big woman and sick with the diabetes, she has the grit and determination to be the first in line at the food pantries walkin’ on those frozen, swollen feet”

We managed to carefully remove the small tree from the frozen ground. Samuel placed it in the pot and assured the roots were securely planted. As we walked back towards the mansion with the tree, Samuel continued, “Queenie reveres the old mansion like it’s hers.  It was owned by a fine family, manufacturing durable stainless steel kitchen appliances used in the finest homes, restaurants, and hotels. The company was called Dutiful Manufacturing and their blenders, mixers, and toasters were called Duty Brand with a reputation for reliability and dependability.
 
Check out the library upstairs and you’ll find a stack of old catalogues showing the history of the brand.  Start from the bottom of the stack and it will read like a history book.”

We entered the kitchen, removed our coats, and Samuel retrieved a spray bottle of water to tenderly irrigate the potted tree. I asked, “What happened to cause the home to fall into disarray?” Samuel continued, “The business was handed down to a no count son who succumbed to thieving Wall Street bankers convincing him he could make more money by manufacturing with less steel and more plastic. The appliances became shoddy and less reliable. Sales plummeted and the once proud company name became tarnished. The only people who made more money were the Wall Street snakes. When the company went bankrupt, only the brand name had any value, and was sold to a company in China who never used it. The patriarch of the family, and founder of the business, died from a heart attack in the library, pouring over the original blueprints for the “Dutiful Deluxe Blender” when he learned his son bankrupted the company. The family history mirrored the history of Detroit. With each decade, the Dutiful family and Detroit’s manufacturing jobs grew smaller, eventually to the point of extinction. Our little family is like the Dutiful Company and these blighted neighborhoods.  We’re threatened with eventual extinction. Those large red X’s spray painted on the houses signify they’re scheduled for demolition. Every day, I see more red in the neighborhood and know it’s a matter of time before we’re extinct!”

I roamed the mansion alone. I found the basement, revealing what appeared to be miles of copper plumbing and copper wire. The library, dining room, and most of the house was paneled with fine woods. Marble was abundant in the bathrooms. I was fascinated with the library which was the repository for the manufacturing catalogues of the business, appliance blueprints, and photographs of the family. Samuel was correct. The catalogues read like a history book about a fine, Detroit manufacturing family of a bygone era.

I joined Samuel for a cup of coffee in the late afternoon before he and Roxie would catch the bus to Detroit expecting downtown Christmas Eve business to be brisk with travelers and last minute shoppers. Queenie arrived home with a cooked, sliced ham. She had bags of potatoes, a pumpkin pie, vegetables, and fruits. We rose from the table to help the tired old woman carry the groceries inside the kitchen. She was breathing heavy, wiped her brow, and said, “Whew, what a day but I sure did score a fine Christmas dinner for tomorrow night!” Queenie began to wobble on her feet as if passing out. I quickly grabbed her and helped her sit. Samuel brought her a glass of water.  I heard high heels hurriedly coming down the hall and Roxie entered the kitchen, dressed to kill, and ready to catch the bus to work. Queenie remarked, “Girl, you ain’t out hustling yet. You’d better get to the stroll while you can sell that pretty face and hot little body before age and the horse catches up with you.” Roxie looked into the glass pane of the kitchen cabinet, primping herself, answering, “I got to buy my fix, first.”

Queenie knew the drug dealer would be stopping by shortly to deliver Roxie and Rascal’s heroin. Queenie lamented, “I guess that nasty, no good pusher, Wrangler will be showing his ugly, hillbilly face soon!” We heard Rascal’s old shopping cart with bad wheels approaching the kitchen. Rascal came into the kitchen beaming with pride because he had a great day dumpster diving exclaiming, “Check it out, Christmas ornaments!” Rascal found discount store price tags cut into the shape of stars in red, green, gold, and silver inside a dumpster. Despite the word, “Discount Price” printed on each card, they were beautiful. Rascal also scrounged some plastic Christmas bulbs with the name of the discount store printed on them. He dangled one, asking,”Did you dig up the Christmas tree, Samuel?” Samuel replied, “Me and the lodger dug it up and it’s sittin’ in the livin’ room ready for the ornaments”. Rascal made a dash with the ornaments towards the tree but was stopped by Queenie, pronouncing, “Not so quick, Rascal. We’re decorating the tree tomorrow night, together, like a family.” She tried to get up but fell backwards, sighing, “I sure did wear myself out today.”

There was a hard knock at the back door and a man with a stern voice, announced, “It’s Wrangler.” Roxie opened the boarded up service door and Wrangler came in. He was a forty something, medium build, Caucasian man with a menacing look, shaved head, diamond ear ring, and handle bar moustache. He wore a leather jacket and jeans.  I noticed his shiny cowboy boots were rattlesnake and his briefcase was genuine alligator. I caught a glimpse of a pistol he had hidden inside his coat. He looked me up and down and I knew he was suspicious of me when he said, “Who’s the other dude?” Queenie was annoyed replying, “He’s our lodger and you pay him no mind. I don’t want you pushin’ your junk in my kitchen. Go do your business in the library.”

After Roxie, Rascal, and Wrangler left the kitchen to conduct their “business”, I lamented, “I hope I didn’t scare their pusher away.” Queenie answered, “I never liked that ‘ol redneck. We call ‘em Wrangler because he rides the horse which is slang for the product he’s pushin’, heroin! I’ll bet his grand daddy was lynching Black folk down South.” Samuel piped in, “Now woman, don’t get carried away. Wrangler moved to Detroit with his parents from the South when his daddy got a job at the auto plant. Don’t blame him for not losin’ his Southern drawl. He’s just tryin’ to survive in Detroit like everybody since the auto plants closed down.”

Wrangler finished his business and entered the kitchen to leave by the service door saying, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” He turned to leave and Queenie shouted, “Join us for Christmas Dinner, Wrangler. 6pm sharp.” Wrangler’s business of dealing death was a lonely business, and an invitation to join even a rag tag family for Christmas dinner, was a special invitation. He paused as if thinking about the many Christmas dinners he had missed over the years, and gratefully accepted, “Thank you. I’ll be here at 6pm, sharp”. He hurriedly left to deliver more “holiday cheer” to his eager clientele.

I helped Queenie in the kitchen prep the Christmas meal. I peeled potatoes, cut string beans and did whatever was asked of me. Samuel prepared a layer of charcoal atop tin foil in the vintage oven which would warm the ham wrapped in aluminum foil. I spent the remainder of Christmas Eve alone in the library, pouring through product catalogues and imagined the cheerful Christmas holiday’s inside the mansion during the heyday of the family business.

On Christmas day, Queenie had the meal fully prepared and cooking. Roxie prepared the makeshift dining room table with the paper plates, plastic utensils, and paper cups. I produced crystal champagne glasses I found in the basement which would do justice to the champagne Samuel had purchased.

We all retired to the living room to adorn the tree. It was eerily silent as each member hung a star shaped store tag or plastic bulb on the little tree. I suspect each person was remembering happier times with family. Our efforts produced a magnificent Christmas tree. Samuel planned a surprise. He removed the folded up Downbeat Cover from his wallet revealing a handsome young musician, and tacked it above the fireplace. He handed us copies of his poem and asked us to recite it slowly while he played beautiful notes on his tenor sax which he retrieved. Each note conjured up reminiscence of a beautiful lullaby spoken by loving parents to children eagerly waiting for Christmas morning. We held hands and recited,

                                                                          "Come out bright, lonely little star.
                                         Don’t fear the dark clouds, the cold of winter, or the pain below you.
                Bless us with your divine rays of hope, warm our spirits, and guide us to a peaceful world where
                                    every man, woman, child, and animal lives in dignity and happiness.
                   Come out bright, lonely little star. Don’t be shy. We’ll accept you as you are and take you into
                                                                                              our hearts.

                                           Come out bright lonely star, you won’t be judged nor shunned
                                            Just loved and adored atop our tree of many beautiful lights
                                                            Revered and respected for whom you are
                                                      Beautiful and original as you were created to be
                                                   You’re a loving reminder that we all have self worth.”
 
Samuel’s beautiful melody triggered memories and painful introspection. It particularly affected Rascal as he appeared to be slipping into his emotional dark space. He rubbed his arms indicating he was in need of a heroin fix. Queenie wiped a tear from her eye but woke us from our dreams of happier times, exclaiming, “My man, Samuel, still has the magic touch. Thank you, ‘ol man. It’s time to eat. Everybody find a seat at the table in the dining room.”

Wrangler showed up on time with a bottle of wine and sat next to me at the makeshift dining table. He put his arm around me pulling me close, and whispered, “I saw the red paint on your index finger in the kitchen. You’re “Mr. X”! Leave this old house be so these people can be left to live the small family life they made for themselves. This neighborhood is known to swallow people alive. Strangers come in and never leave if you know what I mean.” I knew it was a veiled threat but Wrangler didn’t know that during my secret inspection of the house, I was able to determine that it qualified as a “Historical Preservation Home” and with a simple check of the box on my inspection form; the mansion would be entered into the city database of “Historic Homes” which couldn’t be demolished.

Queenie and Roxie returned from the kitchen with the Christmas dinner, carefully placing the ham, mashed potatoes, vegetables and pies on the table. It was a magnificent feast and the look on everybody’s face was happy and ravenous. Roxie stood and helped Queenie sit, and took her chair at the table. Queenie pronounced, “Everybody take a moment and say a silent prayer of thankfulness.” I looked around the room and everybody, including Wrangler, bowed their head and mumbled a prayer. Queenie was the last to finish her prayer, and gleefully exclaimed, “It’s time to eat, brothers and sisters. Pass the food around family style.” For a moment, I wasn’t aware that we were dining in a boarded up deserted mansion. The food was bountiful, delicious, and the table setting, albeit picnic style, was beautiful.

Roxie sat across from Queenie, next to Rascal, saying, “I met an interesting trick last night. He didn’t want to go to the room but paid me to have dinner with him. He’s a big shot talent agent in Hollywood who scouts rappers and R & B talent.”  She pulled out a business card, handing it to Queenie, who handed it to Samuel and said, “Go on girl. Keep talkin’. Roxie continued, “I told him about Samuel and the dude lit up saying, Sam is still alive! The man is a living legend. Can I meet him?” Samuel wasn’t flattered saying, “Man, I don’t want to waste no time recounting my past with nobody! I’m retired!” Roxie was persistent, “He said he can line you up with steady, studio work!” Rascal was elated, “That’s fantastic, Samuel. You got to meet this dude!” Roxie continued, “That ain’t all. I mentioned you, too, Rascal. He said he can hook you up as a roadie, and, if you want to learn to drive a truck, he’ll get you into the Teamsters Union as a truck driver with full benefits and great union pay!”

Rascal and Samuel were dumbfounded. They had both lived lives of false promises and rejection but this felt real to them. They needed to ponder the reality that their lives could change if they had the motivation to get sober. Queenie was interested in the trick’s motivation asking, “You think this man is sweet on you, baby girl?” Roxie was embarrassed but replied, “Yeah, we kinda have a thing brewin”. Queenie lit up, “Well good for you, girl! You hooked a big fish. Reel him in slow, the traditional, romantic way. Got it, girlfriend?” Roxie had an expression on her face like it was the first time she might be in love answering, “I got it, Ms. Queenie. He wants to have dinner with me, Samuel, and Rascal the day after Christmas.”

Roxie made good money on Christmas Eve and was generous. She gifted a pair of orthopedic shoes for Queenie and a set of cashmere gloves with the finger tips removed permitting Samuel to play the sax more comfortably in the cold weather. She bought Rascal a new hoodie and pair of trendy sneakers.

During Christmas dinner, Rascal descended deeper into a depression, as thoughts of missing his family weighed heavily upon him. I saw a fresh puncture mark on his arm and knew he shot up before dinner. Rascal was struggling to stay awake. Queenie remarked, “If you’re tired baby boy, go take a rest. It’s ok.” Rascal’s eyes rolled back into his head, his mouth began to foam, and his face fell into his plate. Wrangler shouted, “Get ‘em off the chair and flat on the floor.”

Rascal’s lips were blue and his breathing was barely noticeable. Wrangler went for his briefcase, hurriedly opened it, and its contents looked like a salesman’s sample kit of drugs. Samuel shouted, “Shoot ‘em with the Narcan, quick”, Wrangler reached into his briefcase and produced a two pack of “Narcan” nose spray, tearing one dispenser from the package, and pumped the contents into Rascal’s nose. Rascal didn’t respond. Wrangler yelled, “He’s not helping. He doesn’t want to come back. I’ve seen it before. Wake up, Rascal!”  Queenie was beside herself with fear but impressed by Wrangler’s fervent efforts to revive Rascal. She placed her arm around Wrangler, whispering, “So, you have a heart after all!” Wrangler replied, “He reminds me of myself when I was young.” Wrangler tilted Rascals head up, placed the second plastic syringe into his nostril and released the spray with a forceful pump.  Rascal slowly opened his eyes. Roxie cried tears of joy watching her “brother” of sorts regain consciousness. In all the commotion, nobody had noticed Samuel was slumped against the wall holding his chest and gasping for air. Queenie screamed, “Don’t you die old man! I can’t run this household myself.  Please, dear God, let him live!”

We huddled around Rascal and Samuel trying to render comfort and aid but there was nothing anybody could do for them in a blighted neighborhood on Christmas, except me. I carried a small flip phone hidden within my jeans. I knew that when I called 911 and identified myself as a City Building Inspector, medical help would arrive swiftly but break up the family, forever, placing each within the penal or the inadequate social services system. The old mansion would be locked up by the cops.
 
I speculated that if given the choice of dying or permitting Queenie and Roxie to go on living in the old mansion, Samuel and Rascal would have elected death, but not calling for help and letting them die, was a choice I didn’t want to make. Samuel’s beautiful notes resounded through my memory of saying goodbye to somebody you love for the last time, and, Wrangler’s admonition to “leave this old house be” were clairvoyant. It was the City of Detroit which led me to the old mansion but it was a loving, flawed little family, who extended their hospitality to a stranger, inviting me to share their love and kindness on Christmas. I looked at my paint stained, red index finger, and knew that I couldn’t be responsible for the “extinction” of the family. I was certain my call to 911 would be a final goodbye and never reached for my phone. I prayed for Rascal and Samuel to recover.

It was a sleepless night for everybody but the following morning, Christmas delivered a gift of life to both Rascal and Samuel who were resting comfortably, lovingly tended to by Queenie, Roxie, and Wrangler. I gathered my possessions and discretely removed the little Christmas tree from the living room. I placed a note alongside the Downbeat cover reading, “Tree at City Park”. I left the mansion without saying goodbye, not wanting to interrupt the family in their time of need.  It was my hope Roxie would find true and lasting love with the talent agent who would make good on his promise with jobs for Samuel and Rascal. It would be up to Samuel and Rascal to treasure the gift of life and seize any opportunity extended to them. I knew of one certain outcome.  As long as Queenie could draw a breath, I knew her love, strength, and inner beauty would hold the family together.

Although I found the house to be a treasure trove of recyclable building materials, the most valuable contents were the people who created a loving family despite the bleakest of conditions.  I would never forget them. I threw my can of red spray paint in the trash. I left the mansion with the potted Christmas tree which I would plant in the City Park as Samuel wanted. The evening sky was turning to daybreak and I gazed upward finding the lonely little star shining brightly.

Jonathan Ferrini is a published writer who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television production from UCLA.

* * *

And All The Ghosts Sang Hallelujah
By Evan James Sheldon

And all the ghosts sang hallelujah

There’s an abandoned church, about a five-minute walk from my apartment, where I used to go to smoke weed. People know about it, but no one goes up there. Only me, and if I take anyone up there it is just to fool around in a creepy place. There’s something exiting, almost exhibitionistic, about going down on someone in baptismal font. 

The last time I went I was alone, and today I was walking up the road by myself and I thought I was beginning to recognize a theme.

Work had sucked. My coworkers had sucked. The weathered had sucked and continued sucking, like nature itself agreed that the day was shitty and we might as well feel shitty and be shitty too. I don’t normally drink, but an artsy ex had left a bottle of absinthe in the cupboard, and my soon-to-be-ex was out and about, making sure that our lives were as disconnected as possible to make the coming breakup easier. We’re just different people, into different things. It’ll be better for both of us. I could picture their shapely lips forming the words already.

The shitty thing about this imagined breakup is that my soon-to-be-ex would be right when they said those words, and it made me preemptively irritated at the possibility they might so casually dismiss what we were losing.

So, I took the absinthe and walked to the abandoned church, planning on getting as shitty as I felt. It was snowing, but not the pretty fluffy flakes that float down and remind you that there is gentleness in the world. No. This was the sleet-like, wet, driving type of snow that chills your marrow and burns as it freezes.

The door to the church was shut, but opened easily, welcomingly, after a solid kick from my size-eight Sorel boot. The lights didn’t work, but the moon was up and churches always have lots of windows, with this being no exception. One window along the right wall had a small hole, the size of a dove, and snow had blown in at an odd angle, piling and dusting the end of one blood-red upholstered, wooden pew. In that light, it didn’t even look like snow. Rather it was grainy and sand-like, as if the church had been abandoned in Egypt or somewhere far more exotic than a dying Colorado mining mountain town.

I sat down next to the pulpit and poured myself a shot of absinthe in a plastic communion cup. One silver platter filled with the cups had been left behind, along with a couple of bibles, all the hymnals, two white baptismal robes, and a handful of tiny pencils without erasers. I took the shot and poured another before it hit my blood stream and took that one too. It tasted like Listerine and gasoline had been mixed with some witch’s herbs in a cauldron. It burned all the way down and lingered—deadening, dampening. It hurt a bit. It was perfect.

As I waited for the blanket of alcohol to wrap me up, I looked over my sanctuary. I tried to picture the congregation, hands clasped before them, singing in four-part harmony. It may have been the poor light, but I could almost make out a family holding hands near the back. Though I knew they weren’t really there, I strained to hear a song they may have never sung. Normally, on either side of the entryway hung two metal and glass sconces. But now, the one on my right was missing. A cluster of torn wires was exposed and protruding from an ugly hole. That was all that was left. If the sconce had been still been there, it would have hung over the family and the ghost of their song.

The thought that someone had been here, to my church, and had taken something was irritating. Who knew about this place? My exes for sure. But who else would come out here just to take one sconce? They hadn’t even bothered to take both sconces. Somehow this made the intrusion worse. Not only had someone invaded my space, or a space that I thought of as my own, but they had vandalized it.

I took a slug from the absinthe bottle and made a mental list of exes. Which one could have done this? Which one had the audacity to come out here and take the sconce? I tried to picture each of them, at home with their new lover, casually showing it off. It would be a concrete reminder of my crazy, a reminder of how much better they had it now. But none of my exes fit my mental image; they looked wrong in the photo of my mind. I tried to insert my soon-to-be-ex, but they didn’t fit either.

My cheeks were flushed with alcohol, but I knew my body would be cold, even if I couldn’t quite feel it. I had read somewhere that alcohol pulls the blood toward your stomach, and even though you feel warm, you aren’t. You can freeze that way. The church walls kept most of the wind out, except any that leaked in through the dove-sized hole in the window. I could feel it, the draft coming from that hole, so cold as to be hot. I laughed and thought about desert winds, and in the echoic sanctuary my voice didn’t sound like my own.

I got up and pulled one of the baptismal robes over my head. It was still so clean. Pure even. And it made sense that people would wear this to get dunked. But the added layer was thin, and didn’t warm me.

My hands had shrunk with the cold and I shoved them beneath the baptismal robe. I shouldn’t have come out here. I shouldn’t have come out here alone. And I definitely shouldn’t have drank the absinthe. I took another quick swig for the road, because fuck it, that’s why, and I set the absinthe on the altar. Maybe whoever had taken the sconce would come and find it. Maybe they would drink sips and wonder who had invaded their space. Maybe I could ruin their perfect little escape.
I wobbled my way home. The snow stung my face, and I was glad for it. My soon-to-be-ex was already there. And sober. I tried to shake off the church, the absinthe, and the cold. What are you doing back so soon? I asked. After I saw their smile dim, I wished I could have changed my tone. My soon-to-be-ex turned away and I thought that was going to be it. But they turned back with a small box in their hands and a smile flared so bright it hurt my eyes. It was a small box, with a curved top. It was the kind the held rings.

Do you remember when you took me to that church? Well, I went back, and took something, and I had this made for you.
I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. They kept speaking, explaining why they had been gone a lot recently, but I couldn’t understand any of the words. I couldn’t respond, my would-be-words turned to sand in my mouth. I could only think about how my hands were so cold and shrunken. How easy it would be to slide on a ring. And how easy it would be for that ring to slide off.

Evan James Sheldon's work has appeared in CHEAP POP, Ghost City Review, Pithead Chapel, Roanoke Review, and Typehouse, among others. He is an Assistant Editor and the Editorial Coordinator for F(r)iction. 

* * * 

The Moon In Her Veins
By  Ann Tinkham

Crystal awoke to pulling and prodding and men barking orders while tying her to a stretcher. Before she could make sense of it in her woozy state, she was outside her tent, a captured prisoner on a plank.

“No! Don’t do this!” she screamed, trying to kick her feet, but they were bound as were her hands. Her screams became shriller in hopes that deafening the kidnappers would dissuade them. An EMT covered her mouth with his calloused hand. She bit his hand as hard as she could muster.

“Fuck!” He shouted. He shook his hand in pain. “We’ve got a live one.”

“Don’t hurt her,” she heard Piper say. Crystal would recognize her sister’s hoarse voice anywhere.

“Pipe don’t do this, again, please,” Crystal said. She knew what awaited her—weeks of lockdown, withdrawals, antidote administering, therapy sessions delving for reasons, false compliance to expedite her release, judgmental medical professionals, shaming administrators, all subjecting her to their overcoming addiction agendas. They would repeat various versions of: a life well-lived is one in which you’re not a junkie. Who says? Perhaps it is the very best life one can live.

“The patient has to want it,” she said to her captors. “You can’t make me want it no matter how hard you try.”

“Cry’s, please. Do it for us; do it for Mom and Dad.”

“I love you. Why can’t you love me in return no matter my choices? I’m a junkie. That’s what I am, no matter how much you don’t want me to be.”

Her sister plead through tears. Crystal’s junkiness always made Piper cry. If she could only get Piper to see she was happy, even though society thought she shouldn’t be. She knew it didn’t look good from the outside, but it was only if you defined life as sobriety, a job, and a reproductive unit inside a tidy landscaped dwelling with a patio for BBQing. Crystal didn’t want to be tied to that world. And why should she have to be?
 
She now had a secret that made this trip extra treacherous. If they discovered she was pregnant, they’d try to lock her up, force her to get clean, and lay on the guilt so thick it could bury her. She knew smack wasn’t good for her baby and yet she hadn’t wanted to abort. Now she was four months in with no real plan. Planning in Crystal’s life was simple; after scoring and hiding smack, she lived from injection to injection. She figured she was like a squirrel—procure and stockpile nuts. Hoard them if need be. A squirrel lived from nut to nut. Why couldn’t she?
 
The EMTs slid her into an ambulance and slammed the doors. This was ambulance trip number ten or twelve, maybe thirteen in three years. Thinking about the drill that followed made her weary. Piper sat with her and reached for Crystal’s hand. Piper’s was cold and shaking. Crystal sandwiched her sister’s hand with hers to steady her. Piper cried softly as they zoomed off.

“Pipe, I know what you want for me is to be someone else. I wish I could be a sister you could love, one you could be proud of.”

“But don’t you see? You were once and you can be again.”

Crystal reached up to hold her sister’s damp cheek. “I wish you could see that I’m happy.”

“You live in a tent under the highway. You shoot up until your arms and legs are shredded, until you don’t have any good veins left. You’re filthy and your hair is matted. How could you be happy?”

“Are you ashamed of me?”

“I just want better things for you.” Piper stroked Crystal’s matted hair.

“That’s what you want me to want. Pipe, I don’t know how to say it any other way—the best thing you could do for me is to leave me alone.”

“But you’re going to die.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“You know what I mean.”

“So, I die a little sooner. At least I will have lived the life I wanted.”

Then Piper did a very non-Piper thing; she snatched her hands back and yelled. Her bellow filled the back of the ambulance. “Stop being so god damned selfish. Don’t you see, Crystal? It’s not just about you and your fucking self-centered fix. You’re driving that fucking needle into our hearts.”

“So, let me go. Forget that you ever had a sister.” Crystal glanced away from Piper and toward the whizzing world outside. It made her dizzy, so she stared at the ceiling.

“Fuck you, Crystal! You’re choosing smack over us. That’s so fucked up.”

“Maybe stop yelling at me and try to understand.”

“Okay, why, then?” Piper said in whisper.

Crystal risked looking deeply into Piper’s eyes to get her to understand. “I need the moon in my veins.”

Piper rolled her eyes. “Here, let me try a less poetic translation—you’re a fucking addict.”

Crystal blinked her eyes closed. “Do you want to have this conversation or not?”

“I do.”

“You know when you’re walking in complete darkness and you wander into a moon beam? The sparkle flows in my blood. Without it, there’s thickening crude.”

Piper looked away, her arms crossed in front, squeezing her torso as if she might fly to pieces without her own embrace. “We have to face you every day without the moon in ours.”

Crystal’s eyes lit up. “Just sayin’, Pipe.”

“Never. I will never.”
 
As they signed Crystal into Desert Canyon, Crystal plotted her escape, knowing she had just a few hours before the nausea and vomiting, aches, and high anxiety took hold. She had never been to this facility; her family had clearly forked out big money this time. As she walked to the check-in, she noticed an infinity pool with a desert backdrop and steep canyon walls on all sides. The desert blooms were intoxicating and would have been more so if she had just had a hit.
 
She was escorted to a small room with an intake specialist with a top knot hairstyle and dressed in soft desert colors. Crystal had asked for confidentiality, not for privacy’s sake but because she was scheming.

“Let me start by saying, I’m going to run, so there’s no point in going through this charade. Let’s just call it a catch and release,” said Crystal.

The intake specialist was unfazed, like she had heard it all before. She continued to fill out her online paperwork.
“Listen, I’ve been to rehab ten times. Do you really think this one will take? Now, here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to tell me where to find the bathroom with the best escape route. You’re going to walk me there and tell my sister we’re going to detox. Then wait 30 minutes before telling her that I’ve left the premises. Okay?”

“And why should I do this?”

“Because I’m pleading with you to see the humanity in me. What I want is to be a junkie and to be left alone. What good are you doing by standing in the way?”

“Listen, I hear you, but I could get fired, and I really need this job.”

“Okay, fine. Have it your way. I really need to pee, so please tell me where the bathroom is, and I’ll take a piss and return to follow your orders. Girl Scout’s promise.” She held up three fingers.

“How do I know you were a Girl Scout?”

“You don’t, but I can still make a promise—right?”

She nodded skeptically. “Down the hall to the left. And no monkey business—okay?”

Crystal hoped like hell that a bathroom window was her answer to freedom. When she threw open the bathroom door, she was delighted to see a window, but it was out of reach. She had noticed a table with pamphlets on it right outside the door. She would grab it, position it beneath the window, and catapult herself out, ideally without anyone noticing. She prayed the jump wouldn’t harm her little one, but she had to risk it. If she stayed, they would find out about her baby boy and have her on lockdown until she gave birth. A prison sentence wasn’t healthy for her or her kid. Then once she did the hard work of birthing, they would snatch him away from her and give him to a different mother unless she agreed to get clean. Nope, she had to fly and go for a soft landing. As she hurled her body to the ground, she cradled her abdomen and said, “Hold on for your life, little guy.”  
 
Crystal remembered the day she surrendered. It had started in a rehab support group meeting when her fellow heroin addicts were swapping stories and reasons to stay straight. And it hit her.

“But what if we don’t want it?” Crystal said.

“Don’t want what?” the therapist asked.

“To stay straight.” The fellow addicts nodded like they shared Crystal’s thoughts but didn’t have the nerve to express them aloud.

“That’s just your addiction talking,” the therapist said as she stared Crystal down.

“No, actually, it’s me talking. I don’t want to be straight.”

“You don’t know what you want.”

“That’s really fucking arrogant of you to say.”
 
Crystal was able to return to work, having been beaten into recovery submission by the rehab system, but two months in, she relapsed. The computer-as-modern-day-altar had lost its allure. As a digital crime buster, she was responsible for halting cyber-attacks. During a strategy meeting on Russian cyber-attacks, she tried to care that companies and government systems were vulnerable. Their fortunes and reputations were at stake! As she listened to the exchanges, her fingers traced the tracks on her arms under her sleeves; such longing. She ached for the moon. She knew then she would never look back.

Not telling a soul, she sold her life on eBay, gathered her provisions—a tent, sleeping bag, cooking stove, and other essentials—and moved outside near a highway under the moon. Crystal had one remaining societal hold—a bank account with money from her eBay sales. If she spent carefully, she would have enough for five years. She knew where to score smack and how to hide it so junkies wouldn’t raid her stash. She could outsmart them all, even while high.
 
At first friends and relatives frequented her highway hideout trying to talk sense into her but it was nonsense to Crystal. “The life I left? I felt dead inside.” But they couldn’t understand. They thought it was giving up. “This is my life,” she’d say. And they would touch her arm with tenderness shaking their heads, trying to get her to see that she was making a grave mistake.
 
She loved nights best when the chorus of crickets would sing liquid gold into her veins. She sensed the world moving, pulsing beyond her, without her. She didn’t miss it one bit. The wind whispered her name and the cloak of night enveloped her. She remembered when her family had accused her of dropping out and shooting up. And that’s when she knew it was exactly what she wanted. Just me and the poppy. Such a simple equation. People pursued happiness with a vengeance and many never found it.
 
As her belly grew so did her appetite and she watched her savings dwindle. She hadn’t factored into her budget a baby growing inside her. Crystal tried to subsist on freeze-dried rice and beans, but the little one inhabiting her body made her crave big juicy burgers and milkshakes. Several times a day. She hoped junk food wouldn’t hurt her baby.

In a moment of weakness, she had let Bryce, a fellow junkie, into her tent one winter night for warmth and companionship. Most days, he was an irresistible nuisance who tapped down her stash. That night he had tempted her with his gorgeous tattooed abdomen and blossoming cock. But before she could have him, he said, “Man, I’m tweekin’. Are you holding? Crystal hesitated, so he knew.  

“Then smack up my bitch.” Afterwards they made love for hours stopping only to shoot up.
 
One night feeling restless in her little encampment, she wandered over to a lake a mile from her home. She wanted to see the water’s moving canvas of the moon. Crystal sat on the shore mesmerized by the lapping water and the moonbeam flirting with lake’s surface. Lost in thought about how to care for her baby once he arrived, she at first didn’t hear the soulful cry rising from the depths of the lapping lake. As the haunting sound grew closer, she wondered what creature called out in the darkness. She found a good vein, inserted her needle and released liquid gold into her body. The universe bellowed to her from its depths as pressure grew inside her and pushed down toward the earth.

Holy crap, not now!

She was many miles away from a busy road and many more miles away from a hospital. This was not part of the plan—not that she had a plan. But she knew one thing—that she wanted this baby to live. She popped up to find a soft grassy area to try to resist having a baby in the wilds. She would lie very still and focus on keeping her baby inside. Then once the contractions had ceased, she would go directly to a busy road and hitchhike to the nearest hospital, hoping that drivers would notice her belly. But the contractions came fast and furiously, and she could feel her baby’s head pushing down toward the earth. She reached inside and could feel the head inching toward the opening. He would be crowning soon. Crystal had nothing with her—no tools for cutting the umbilical cord, no cloth to wipe him clean, no blankets for wrapping him. She had read about lotus births where the mother kept the umbilical cord attached for days—until it dried up and fell off. But what was her plan once her baby arrived? Hitchhike with a newborn all bloody and dripping with the juices of birth? No, please, sweet pea, wait for your mama to be somewhere safe. Though her instincts told her it was too late. First, she felt a rush of fluid flowing down her legs. As her baby pushed toward his opening to the world, the burning and ripping sensation grew unbearable. She felt she was going to tear open. Her moaning was low and soft and then was punctuated by high, fast-paced yelps. She reached in to pull on her baby’s head, but she didn’t want to yank too hard.

She cried out, “For God’s sake, help! I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Crystal had seen photos and videos of women in the Third world squatting to let gravity assist in their births, so she squatted on the cool, wet grass and pushed. The pushing went on for an eternity, but the baby inched down until his head was out, then shoulders, and then his wet sliminess slid right into her trembling hands. The moon, which had been obscured by the clouds made its debut, the sparkles lining the water. Its light illuminated their little patch so that Crystal could see that the baby she cradled in her arms wasn’t a boy.

“Luna,” she said. “Bella Luna.” Luna squirmed and wailed. “Thank God, you’re breathing,” Crystal said to the grass, shrubs, and moon. “But your mama’s not—you take my breath away.” Crystal sat on the scratchy damp earth, cradling Luna, tears streaming down onto the baby. Her baby. Her breasts were full and ached for the little one’s mouth. Crystal guided her mouth up to her nipple and hoped she would latch on. She worried about her wee one ingesting heroin from her mama’s breast but then laughed aloud. Heroin had helped make Luna who she was—perfect.

As her wailing trailed off, Crystal kissed Luna’s slimy face, sensing the cord that connected them, the cord that had delivered life-giving sustenance, the cord that had delivered smack to the new life growing inside her.

“Sweet pea, did you know we are made of stardust?” The little one’s eyes flew open and locked onto hers. Peering into the twinkle, Crystal could see the expanse of the cosmos. “We have stuff in us as old as the universe.” Crystal pulled her baby close, her arms lined by tracks, awaiting the next hit.  

Ann Tinkham is an anti-social butterfly, pop-culturalist, virtual philosopher, ecstatic dancer, political and java junkie, and Maui-lover. She blogs about pop culture and politics at Poplitix. Her fiction has appeared in the Adirondack Review, Foliate Oak, Word Riot, Toasted Cheese, and others. Her essay, "The Tree of Hearts" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her second collection of short stories, Stories I Can't Show My Mother, will be released in March 2019.

* * * 
 
Poetry

Popular 
By Holly Day

I wanted the kids at school to like me
so, I stole candy bars
to pass out during recess and of course
they knew I stole the candy
 
so, I told them Cheryl Tiegs
was my aunt
and I stole bubblegum cards
no one believed the Cheryl Tiegs lie
but they ate my candy anyway.

Holly Day’s poetry collections are A Perfect Day for Semaphore (Finishing Line Press), In This Place, She Is Her Own (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), A Wall to Protect Your Eyes (Pski’s Porch Publishing), I'm in a Place Where Reason Went Missing (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.), and The Yellow Dot of a Daisy (Alien Buddha Press).

* * * 

Dharma
By Donald Gasperson

it’s a small tidy house
in a nice neighborhood
on a cool summer evening
 
giving thanks
I remove my shoes
before entering
 
there’s a simple welcome
quietly observing
tea and cookies
 
but tired and anxious
I’m self-conscious
and afraid of echoes
 
just waiting
‘til the sound of a bell
from the hall
 
a sangha member
opens the doors
to the laity
 
gather a mat and a pillow
deserving practice
sit well

Donald Gasperson received a bachelor of science degree in psychology and a master of arts degree in clinical psychology. Now retired, he is able focus his time on the vocation of "Poet". He has had poetry published by Quail Bell Magazine, Big Windows Review and Tipton Poetry Journal among others.

* * * 

Two Poems by Donald Illich

Perishable
 
I think I'm expired.
My face’s date is past due.
When I look in the fridge
 
even yogurts laugh at me
for going the way of the dog.
I wish I'm not perishable.
 
That ingredients that make me
are well-preserved in any world.
Yet I also shouldn't deceive
 
myself, that if I'm rubbish
I must not tell my love a lie,
that we can last in this life.
 
She wants to look at my lid.
Smear letters so they're unreadable.


Dream Warning
 
The pond is dark.  No fish to be seen.
Each car is in its garage, each person
steady in sleep.  The house overlooks
the water, and it’s drowsy, too, barely
 
reaching its image across dry grass
to create a reflection.  The animals
move through trees, eating one another,
mating, finding life again in the night.
 
What the people dream is a warning.
The gate circumvented, the alarm turned off.
Three men who do not bring gifts, though
they walk beneath a star.  The pond
 
shows their images, monsters in hoods.
The people wake suddenly, gasp loudly.
They check the defenses, electronic eyes.
Nothing has been breached, but it takes
 
a long time for them to relax again.
The fish swim in loops.  The house
releases its hard wood weight, breathes out.
Animals stop tasting blood and sleep.

 Donald Illich has published poetry in journals such as The Iowa Review, Fourteen Hills, and Cold Mountain Review. He won Honorable Mention in the Washington Prize book contest. He recently published a book, Chance Bodies (The Word Works, 2018).

* * *

Penelope
By Raymond Luczak

Days she sits, her laptop
a loom:
she weaves in and out of her story
her lost love,
the kind that can last for years
without a word.
 
She says she’s still waiting
for him
to return here. They had met once
while browsing
the aisles for their next book. But
she lost his card.
 
Well-read men, enamored
with her,
try to peek over her shoulder
and wonder
if she’d be interested in
any of them.
 
Watching her, they fidget.
Who’ll score
her heart first? What if she’s lying?
They demand
proof. Her tears fall on the keys.
Yes, they will wait.
 
One night in the bookstore
his face,
deep-lined from divorce and sirens,
reappears
as if a dream lost, regained.
He kisses her.
 
She’s left behind her desk.
The store
is awash with tales yet woven,
rewoven,
cherished in the brine of night.
Books are faithful.

Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of 22 books. Titles forthcoming in 2019 include Flannelwood (Red Hen Press) and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares & Rebels). He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and online at raymondluczak.com.

* * *

Three Poems by Lucinda Marshall

Mirror Image
          
Part 1 (current antipathy)
 
           The visage
that greets me
in the mirror each morning
is a slightly altered
version of the one
from the day before.
           Her hair a little greyer,
she's put on weight and
the bags under her eyes...
Her lipstick is smeared (again)
and what was she thinking?
           Those clothes!
           Hopelessly unfashionable,
and let's face it,
she was never a size 6.
 
Part 2 (youthful insecurities, not forgotten)
 
           My teenage self
wanted to be like the
magazine models
or the starlets on tv.
           So I shellacked my hair
with hairspray, and pancaked
my blemished face.
I batted my ultra-long lashes,
peering out at the world,
with pouty, bright red lips.
I tried every diet and fashion fad
but still, I knew--I WAS UGLY.
           Self-loathing was a way of life.
 
Part 3 (present tense again)
 
           But now,
when I look in the mirror,
and see the wrinkles,
the bulges, the grey,
l see that young girl, and
the beauty she was, always.


My Grandmother’s Tea Cups
 
Scent memory--
steeped jasmine,
respite served
with trembling hands,
translucent skin covering
your gnarled knuckles.
I traced the china’s
delicate pattern with
my young fingers.
Be careful you said,
it’s fragile.
 
Sipping my tea now
from those same cups,
my hands tremble too, and
I see the you in me
as I become the wearer
of your papery skin,
an inheritance
with its own design,
fine wrinkles and lines
as delicate as the china
that you left in my keep.
 
 
White
 
vanilla ice cream
           on hot apple pie 
 
primed canvas
           awaiting paint 
 
Grandma's hair
           secured in a neat bun 
 
the color of oppression
           over and over and again
 
goose down feathers
           in the pillow where I lay my head 
 
newly fallen snow
           on a winter's day 
 
a blank sheet of paper
           before filling with words 
 
flags of surrender
           in too many wars 
 
the coat that the doctor wore
           when he delivered bad news 
 
cirrus clouds
           against a blue sky

Lucinda Marshall's poetry publications include Sediments, Tuck Magazine, Stepping Stones Magazine, Columbia Journal, Poetica, Third Wednesday, and the anthologies, "Poems in the Aftermath" and "We Will Not Be Silenced". She is the founder and host of the DiVerse Gaithersburg Poetry Reading and Poetry Chair for the Gaithersburg Book Festival.

* * * 
Three Poems by Victoria Nordlund

Vortex

As sight is one of the most developed senses within the human body, the brain chooses to believe sight over touch.   Camera Obscura
 
Say, you are at a carnival---
and willingly enter this vortex:
 
A neon intestine
that has swallowed you whole.
 
Even though your brain
absorbs that you are on
 
a bridge that is solid
and stable, you begin
 
to lose your footing---
This illusion is no longer
 
digestible. So you break
down, grasp the railing,
 
and search for an exit
hidden in this black-lit
 
fog.  You wonder why you
ever loved the feeling
 
of spinning--- as the walls
revolve and spiral
 
and turn away from you.
Face it: You can no longer
 
stomach looking now---
But even when you
 
close your eyes---
you still see me.


The Münsterberg Illusion
 
It is dark                                  and my Mom
                                                                                                          is driving.
         
I am in the backseat                 and I don’t know                
  what road I am on
                                   or whose car I am in.   
We do not speak to each other.                                                                                                 The road slopes
         and bends           
                                      and it is somehow light here too.                         
 
Now I am conscious                                                                          that this is a dream                      
                                                                          and that we will never speak again
 
I see a black and white brick wall.
                 I can’t take my eyes off of the lines                        that pull away from me
     I can’t keep this straight: 
 
I know that there is a wall with parallel lines
                             I am not in a car
My mother is dead                            It is day and night                             My eyes are failing me
 
                                                                                                 And nothing is on the other side---

Zmora
 
It is winter and you wake
from a dream that you can’t
 
remember. You are on your back
and you hear your husband snoring
 
and  the deep whisper
of your fan. You think your dog
 
is somewhere here too.
You are sweating under
 
your white down comforter
as you make out the four posts
 
of your bed. It is your pillow
that you feel under your head;
 
your ceiling---with the water
stain on it.  It is dark
 
because it is 3:30 AM--- or so
but you can’t see the time
 
because you can’t move.
And you try to remain calm.
 
You have Googled this before:
It is textbook sleep paralysis---
 
But that demon you just had a dream
about is at the foot of your bed
 
pulling on your leg.
You think you hear her hiss so
 
 
you try reciting prayers you said
when you were ten to make her leave.
 
Blessed art thou among women
 
She is on your chest now. 
Her black hair spooling
 
to your lips. and you have no
noose to throw at her,
 
no bundle of hay in your sheets,
no dead bird affixed to your door.
 
Forgive us our trespasses
 
You have heard that if you leave
a mirror by your bed
 
the demon will leave
if she sees her reflection---
 
But she is staring into your eyes.
And her eyes are now your eyes.
 
And you wonder
what she was promised,
 
and what she didn’t get to confess,
and if you will ever wake up,
 
and if you are already up,
and if she is already inside.

Victoria Nordlund is an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut. Her chapbook Binge Watching Winter on Mute will be published in Spring 2019 by Main Street Rag. She is a 2018 Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize Nominee. 

* * * 

Bad at Directions
By L.T. Patridge

The heron-man asked me the way to Waffle House.
I stared, and then I said, I figure
it was three, four exits back – with this, I waved my hand
in some diagonal I thought was maybe as the crow flies.
 
He nodded his beak. I said, just meaning to talk,
I expect your people called this whole place
something different.
 
At this, he stared, and said at last,
My people didn't have to call
anyplace anything. It just
was. It was in
our heads.
 
I-40, the river of greensward and gray,
marked by islands of exit, has no
mother tongue or meaning; it was poured out,
sodded, built and run. I felt like an ass.
 
I raised my head to say that I was sorry.
Then I was not sure I was. But before
I could decide, the heron-man
 
struck skyward, flapping hard then tilting high,
to steer by signs and currents,
all the blinds and drainage
in his sight and scent
and weighted mind.

L.T. Patridge has been published in Voices by Brain Mill Press, Innsmouth Magazine, Lovecraft eZine, and Grimoire Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in Not My President: The Anthology of Dissent from Thoughtcrime Press. She is a 2017 MFA graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier

* * * 

Thirty Years Ago
By David Rushing

Thirty years ago an old man told me a story
about an older prostitute he’d once lain with
while he himself was still a young man.
 
As they lay together afterwards
and she played with the soft downy hair upon his chest,
she said, “Everything young is beautiful.”
 
The man didn’t fully appreciate
what she’d meant at the time,
but later, at seventy-five years of age, he understood.
 
Today, at the age of sixty,
I now ponder myself
the truth she spoke.

David Rushing writes poems and book reviews for his local library and for the Los Angeles Public Library. 

* * * 

Walking in La Habana Vieja
By David Stillwagon

Walking the de Plaza San Francisco in old town Havana.
The wind blows the warm breeze off of the
Havana Harbor.
The pigeons flock all around us.
Admiration for the buildings
gray and stone.
 
The sun beats down on us
as we navigate through shops
and restaurants.
Our 2 bottles of rum clang together.
We take care walking on the
broken cobblestone.

David Stillwagon writes short stories and poems. He has poetry forthcoming in Right Hand Pointing as well as poems in Clockwise Cat and Lit-up. He has also had short stories in Johnny America and Mississippi Crow. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and son.

* * * 

Coffee And Dreams
By Ann Christine Tabaka 

Day filled with coffee and
dreams, sour notes of songs
unsung. Eyes weep not for
lack or want. Towering passions
beyond deprived means.
Another day, same as the rest,
lingers on past the due date,
waiting for pangs of deliverance.
Duty paid, the ransom dear,
hours float by on a whisper.
Turnstile coins collect dust
on windowsills of desire.
Hands held high in surrender.
Coffee now cold and stale,
forgotten dreams fade.

Ann Christine Tabaka was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize in Poetry, has been internationally published, and won poetry awards from numerous publications. She lives in Delaware, USA.  She loves gardening and cooking.  Chris lives with her husband and three cats. Her most recent credits are: Ethos Literary Journal, North of Oxford, Pomona Valley Review, Page & Spine, West Texas Literary Review, The Hungry Chimera, Sheila-Na-Gig, Synchronized Chaos, Pangolin Review, Foliate Oak Review, Better Than Starbucks!, The Write Launch, The Stray Branch, The McKinley Review,  and Fourth & Sycamore.

* * * 
Creative Nonfiction

Accomodation
By Audrey T. Carroll

How delightful that you’ve found yourself here on your journey to being disabled! Now, I know what you’re thinking. (But I’m already disabled! The journey has been realized.) What we want to make sure of here today is that you’re the right kind of disabled. Oh, I don’t mean that certain disabilities are better than others! Heavens no! But there are ways that you could certainly be more considerate of those around you.
 
                                                                                                    1
Don’t be young. If you’re young—let’s say, too young to convincingly rock white hair—then you want to avoid being disabled. It will only confuse normal members of society, and they will compulsively be required to inform you in the grocery store and the pharmacy, “But you’re not old!” Those kind, able-bodied folk have so many better ways to spend those five seconds. You don’t want to take that time out of their day, and you don’t want to inconvenience anyone.
 
                                                                                                   2
Make sure that your disability is super obvious. Props are great! If you can manage to accessorize with a wheelchair or a cane, it helps normal people understand that you’re not like them. These kinds of markers are a simple courtesy that go a long way. But be careful. If you’re not announcing your weaknesses clearly and consistently, then some Good Samaritan at the post office may need to grab your cane while you’re paying for postage so that they can turn it in to the Lost and Found because “Certainly this isn’t yours!” On the bright side, when you inform Good Samaritan that it is your cane, they’ll offer a pat on the back and tell you how good you look (for a cripple, of course).
                                                                                                  3
Don’t forget your cripple card. Can’t take a table with a barstool at a restaurant because of your disability? Show them your cripple card! Can’t get to the top floor of a building without an elevator? Show them your cripple card! Can’t stand in a line for two hours at the DMV because of your disability? That’s right! That cripple card will make normal people believe your story, 99 times out of 100!
 
So remember: Don’t be young. Make that disability sparkle! And always carry your cripple card. With these three simple steps, you, too, can help prevent normal folks from being inconvenienced by policing your body. This way, they can take the shortcut straight to pity.
 
We don’t want to be a burden!

Audrey T. Carroll is a Queens, NYC native currently pursuing her English PhD at the University of Rhode Island. Her obsessions include kittens, coffee, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, The Fem, Luna Luna, and others. Queen of Pentacles, her debut poetry collection, is available from Choose the Sword Press. She can be found at http://audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter.

* * * 

The Seduction Production
By Ilene Haddad

We hadn’t yet hit the seven-year itch, but my black lace bra had long ago been replaced by a sturdy padded number. So when we received a gift certificate to stay at a fancy hotel for our wedding anniversary, the gears began turning. After five years of wedded hit-and-miss bliss, I figured my husband might appreciate a little spice in his life. And that’s when I hatched my plan to rekindle the flame.
 
There would be a wig, of course. Everyone knows, any good fantasy includes a wig, which explains how I found myself wandering around a perfumed boutique that caters to strippers and daring graphic designers bent on seduction. There were sky-high platform shoes, satin teddies and fascinating supplies that looked unpleasant to downright dangerous. The wig department was in the back, and it was impressive. Cascading locks of red, brunette and silvery blonde melded together to form what amounted to a wall of horses’ tails. I settled on a platinum blonde coiffure resembling my childhood dog, Max, and went home to strategize the upcoming weekend of erotic pleasure.
 
It was decided I would check into the hotel room on a Saturday afternoon. Later that evening my husband and I would independently show up at the nightclub connected to the hotel and seduce each other. Easy enough. After discussing the ground rules (no making out with strangers), I spent the rest of the day packing as if I were going to a hooker convention. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from a mid-life crisis, but I was about to find out.
 
***
 
I arrived at the hotel around 4:00 p.m. and sauntered up to the front desk, where I tripped over my bag and bumped a stack of postcards onto the floor. The polite young desk clerk pretended not to notice me crawling around on the carpet. Once I received my key, I headed to the elevators and up to my room.
 
I felt a thrill as I entered the dark suite, turning on the lights which revealed two double beds. I dumped my pink duffel bag on the floor and called the front desk to request a room with a king-sized bed, but there weren’t any available. Undeterred, I made the best of it—this way we could have a sex bed and a sleeping bed.
 
After hanging up the various outfits I’d brought with me, I cooled the air conditioning to a level I thought two hot-blooded lovers would require, then flopped onto the bed, anticipating a night of lust and room service.
 
My vision of the night to come was a chick flick’s worth of clichés. I imagined myself gliding up to Bill at the bar while he gazed deeply into my eyes. He’d order me a drink without breaking our eye lock, then ask where I was from. We’d dance to a slow song, while he kissed my neck and whispered something naughty in my ear. Then we’d hurry out of the bar and make out in the glass elevator on the way up to my room. And that’s almost exactly how it worked out—only imagine Lucile Ball playing my role.
 
***
 
It took almost an hour and three hundred bobby pins to tame my hair into a maze of precious little pin curls that would allow me to wriggle my humongous head into a wig cap the size of a condom's reservoir tip. When I finally got the wig on, I tried styling it in such a way that I wouldn't resemble a cocker spaniel, but it was quickly revealed I had no business fooling around in the cosmetology realm. After removing an eyeful of painful synthetic hairs, I attempted to apply makeup while tears streamed down my face. I came out looking like a slutty Ozzy Osbourne after a rough night. 
 
Next, I put on a demure white lace blouse and simple black pencil skirt, not wanting to distract from the fluffy pup perched atop my head. After checking the mirror once more and replacing the nightstand’s Bible with various novelty items, it was go time.
 
***
 
My heart raced as I entered the nearly empty nightclub and sauntered up to the bar, ordered a vodka tonic and surveilled the room. The place felt old and worn out—kind of like I did. The bar sat at the center of the room beside a beat up dance floor, which was surrounded by small tables. Tiny fake tea candles, which I supposed were meant to class up the joint, topped the tables and created just enough light to reveal pitiful vases of fake flowers beside them.
 
I was one of three people in the club, including the bartender. After about ten minutes, a very fit bleached-blonde woman crossed the room and introduced herself as “Deedee,” then revealed that her club name was “Montana”—or maybe “Wyoming”—one of those western states. I never knew this custom of club etiquette, so I decided my club name would be Eileen, but with an “E” instead of an “I.” She asked if I was alone, and I gratefully accepted the invitation to join her while she waited on her friends.
 
A few people began meandering into the hazy room, squinting to find the bar as quickly as possible. I was glad to have someone to talk to, even if that someone named herself after a state known mostly for elk and survivalists.
 
Within about 30 seconds I learned my new friend had two ex-husbands and 12 percent body fat. I had given considerable thought to inventing a new persona for the evening but became so jumpy when Montana asked about my profession, that I blurted out “dancer” and “photographer” almost simultaneously.
“So you’re a dancing photographer?”
“No, I’m a dancer and a photographer.”
“What kind of dancer?”
She sure asked a lot of questions.
 
I paused to work up the guts to say I danced at a gentleman's club but instead said, “aerobics instructor?” as if I were trying to convince myself. Not surprisingly, she of the 12 percent body fat found that fascinating, which allowed us to carry the conversation forward another few minutes. She asked if I was waiting for friends since apparently my eyes kept darting to the door, desperately seeking my husband. He finally arrived about half an hour later, and I would soon discover he was already mighty drunk. Not seeing me right away, he wandered over to the bar and ordered a drink. I downed mine then headed to the bar for a refill.
 
I ordered another vodka tonic, then eased over to the handsome stranger. We chatted about nothing for a minute or two before I invited him to my table where he became ill at ease. I later found out he thought Montana was a prostitute whom I had hired for the evening. He was petrified. Well, it served him right for getting drunk at Hooters on date night.
 
Soon Bill asked me to dance—wanting to get this whole charade over with, I assumed. We were like oversized tweenagers—awkward, anxious, and moderately sweaty. I excused myself, saying I had an early flight to catch, so he offered to walk me out. On our way to the door, Miss Montana ran over to give me a hug and offer up blessings—reminding me of the paraphernalia I’d left by the Bible upstairs.
 
My new man and I were so relieved to be free from our table-mate that we literally ran to the elevators. We tried making out on our way up but couldn’t stop laughing. My plan was failing perfectly.
 
We made it to the room, and about four steamy minutes later (maybe five), Bill slunk back down to the bar to retrieve the credit card he'd accidentally left. When he returned, he found the same old brunette from the day before lying on the sleeping bed. Lingerie was scattered about, and I’d donned a stunning nightshirt and fuzzy socks. Max the spaniel had squeezed too tightly to keep up the illusion past midnight, so he was resting on the nightstand next to the Bible. Our affair ended at 1:00 a.m. with Law & Order reruns and a $17 turkey sandwich.
 
Lace bras, it turns out, are highly overrated.  

​Ilene Haddad is a graphic designer, cartoonist and writer. She was a finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas’ manuscript contest for her current project, an illustrated memoir about her mixed/mixed up marriage, and most recently she received second place in the WOW! Women on Writing creative nonfiction essay contest.

* * * 

Bear
By Tiffany Jimenez

You’re taking care of the small things. And as small things, they are easily hidden among their larger brothers and sisters—books, shells from Japan, antique beer steins. You’ve formed a small ball of Bear’s fur to form a miniature. The fur does not meld together as easily as you’d assumed so sometimes Will comes home to you anxiously rolling the ball of fur in your hands. It is about the size of stacked quarters. A dollar fifty, seventy-five. You haven’t measured it precisely yet. His whiskers you’d forgotten about. There are four. You’d almost wiped them away in an attempt to dust. You’d had an inkling Will’s parents would stop by. They, who are stopping by more and more because their son is calling less and less, and you, their future-daughter-in-law, who is preoccupied with a dying Bear and unable to supplement Will’s absence with short texts and calls. Right now, it’s all about the small things—fur, whiskers, maybe nails.
 
You decide not to save Bear’s nails. Though you get a sharp tingling sensation in your fingers when you sweep them away, you still throw them out. You’re not sure what it means to lose these pieces of him. Will does not give you a straight answer when you query him. You don’t think he’s sure either, but you find comfort in your communal preparation for the after.
 
You’ve been in and out of the hospital, emergency and regular, since early July. You’d almost paid off your credit card when it happened. Bear wouldn’t eat and so you immediately took him to the veterinary clinic around the corner from your old apartment where you were sure he’d be diagnosed with hyperthyroid. Instead—and you wouldn’t find out until a month or so later—Bear has stage three kidney disease, chronic pancreatitis, and diabetes. Bear has lost over ten pounds and counting and has begun to growl. This is something new for him. The vets find it funny that you are surprised at his growling. You shrug it off instead of going on about his exemplary behavior at all vet appointments. You shrug it off and try to find it funny, too. Watch yourself finding it funny because you can’t suppress the feeling you got as you sat in the visiting room when Bear was hospitalized for three days. You’d learned that fourteen is old for a cat—you still don’t really believe that it is even as you tell others about it, He’s fourteen, they say that’s old for a cat—and you watched him gobble up a can of Fancy Feast and called the nurse for more. She scooped out the remaining bits from the can and then left you there. Bear purred as you petted him, but he wouldn’t stop licking the plate. You tried to decode the signs he was giving you. He scratched at the door as if to tell you, “If you don’t take me home, I’ll get there myself.”
 
You’re assured that he would and could get there, but you’re not sure what home! The fenceless place where you’d met him? The one with the man from the former Soviet Union who looked for him in every window? Who fed him piece after piece of sausage even as you politely asked him to stop. Or is it the one you live in now, with the Bay window he likes to sit in where he can watch the cat who looks sort of like him but meows like a cat? You threatened Bear with Rainbow Bridge by that window when he wouldn’t keep still for his fluids. Will nervously laughed while you cried, needle in hand, daring yourself to see Bear as just a pet.
 
Will is trying to handle the big things. You can’t see big things, and this makes the whole trust thing hard for you. He doesn’t cook anymore, but he still plays video games. He relapses a few times, but he’s seeing someone. He’s going to the program. Regularly. You check his bank statement that confirms the daily co-pay. This should be enough for now—until you see a double 7-Eleven charge for $3.27. There is not time for couple’s counseling. There is not time for cooking. Focus. Everyone just needs to focus. Do not uncrumple the receipt you found in his jeans. You’re focused. You’re right there with Bear who’s puking now. He wants you to open a different can of food. He is a picky cat after all. He says he was mis-charged. He asks you what kind of alcohol he smells like.
 
It’s a big thing when Will leaves you in the shower when you inquire again about couple’s counseling. His rage hits you where his relapses do. They’re curt and sharp. Even though he’s not holding you, you can feel the bends of his elbows and knees in your gut. You stay under water until you feel Bear staring at you. It warms you with the memory of how you met. You’d felt his eyes hitting you from the neighbor’s tree. You had just moved into Will’s family home in an attached in-law unit. Bear moved in when I did, you tell people, and it’s true though you forget to mention how he stalked you first. He tried you on for a few weeks and you were overjoyed when he came into your room (you kept the door open most days) and purred as loudly as your heart beat. You think about how you never tried on Will. You just moved right in with him after two weeks of dating, ten months away for college, and two months after graduating struggling in your childhood home.
 
Both Bear and Will tell you that they missed you when you left for the weekend. Bear is next to you, tripping you, holding onto you with a single claw. Will is squeezing you, kissing your forehead, holding your hand while out in public. This all surprises you. You miss them even when they’re next to you. That’s the sort of miss you were hoping for.
 
You have your monthly vet appointment and Bear refuses to get in his carrier. You used to wrap him in a blanket until you got yelled at by a receptionist to be respectful of the dogs. You make Will put Bear inside the carrier and he jokes that you’re doing it so that Bear hates him instead of you. You can’t help but smile.
 
Each time you go to the vet, you expect to hear that this is it. No sense in suffering. Let him go in peace. You and Will have had the discussion about it multiple times. You’ve had to let many animals go in the past, Will has only experienced it once. He’d rather let Bear die at home. Pain is better than death, he keeps saying. You’d rather not. Pain is not better. Let me go in peace. Every time you experience pain, you weep, you bang your head with a remote control, you yell at Will to stop drinking. Why can’t you just stop? The back of your head is still sore. The small and the big are everywhere. But at this appointment, you both are pleasantly surprised again. Bear gets two shots, you have to continue giving him daily subcutaneous fluids, binders, pills. You can keep going, the three of you, together, with daily subcutaneous fluids, binders, pills. Bear is not in pain, they assure you. You meet their eyes when they say it. You know a lot of liars. Bear walks into his carrier, seems to shut it closed with his tail. You all laugh and when you get home, he punches it with deflated paws that used to encompass your palms. This is all somehow funny. You are three weeks shy of having to call and schedule an appointment for “peaceful at-home euthanasia.” And even three weeks from this moment, you will put it off for another day because Bear hasn’t pooped for five days even after medicine, an enema, and a manual extraction. All of this shit is really trying to be funny.
 
But when you get home from the appointment, when you are in bed, Bear at your side on the pillow, you decide it’s time to compare the small with the big.

Tiffany Jimenez is from the San Francisco Bay Area where she works as a public servant using an Economics Degree not even her closest friends remember she has. She earned her BA in Creative Writing from UC Santa Cruz and her MFA from Saint Mary's College of CA.

* * * 

Whirligig
By Ann Schlotzhauer

My cat found God in a patriotic whirligig lawn ornament, $9.99 plus tax from Michael's. Set up in the back garden, the fan on the front twirls counterclockwise while the rotor behind it sprints the other direction. All at the caress of the slightest breeze. They're stars and stripes and red and white and blue. My cat, upon first seeing it, approached it slowly. Reverentially. Sacrificially. She stared at it. It spoke to her. I wish I knew what it had told her. 

And I, young still against my will, leaned toward the old man next to me to make a joke. Something simple about the ready availability of false idols, but I choked. I bit my tongue on the word 'false.' For who am I? Who am I to say, to judge, to decide which idol must be false? And which might just be real?  Who am I? Why can't this be god? This modern marvel: all plastic and screen printing and perfected mechanical engineering. Why can't god be mass-produced and marketed and available to all for $9.99 plus tax at your local corner store? A one-time payment; revolutionary. Wouldn't god want that? Ubiquity is catty corner to godliness after all. 

And the longer I looked at the whirligig, the more I felt it. The progress of mankind, the shaping of an entire planet. And, again, I wondered. Who am I? Who am I to say that this cannot be god? Who am I to say that this could be anything but god? 

And there in my back garden, among the daisies fading in the onslaught of mid-May heat, among the leaves of already-spent irises, reigns someone's god, spinning on and on. 

All hail Whirligig, god of the outsides. 

Ann Schlotzhauer is an avowed Midwesterner, often inspired by its fickle atmosphere. She currently lives in Wichita with a small, gray cat. Her work can be found in Cardinal Sins, Junto, East Jasmine Review, and more.

* * * 
Flash Fiction

Everyone Here Is Getting Laid Tonight Except Jeanine
By Grace Campbell

I'm not saying it's because she's behind on the eyebrows but they are not, not, just: not. How has she not realized this? They're nasty little lines across her face, as if one says bottom line and the other says no way. I'm not saying razor brows aren't about to make a comeback, especially since bottom line and no way are here for at least a hot minute, in general, but Jeanine, Jeanine, honey. Plus, she has her daddy's expression all over her face and he's been dead for let's count: one, two, what is today? Well, since Wednesday, at any rate. Yep, here he is, all over her mug and even the kid at this party whose parents are first cousins and the Jersey Shore reject who goes by the name Clubmaster can tell that girl is riding some sad/eyes/vibes. Or maybe since the dad is billboarding on the face, they see through Jeanine and recognize paterfamilias from the Holly Valley Motor Inn where, Wednesday, Jeanine's dad loaded up some smaller mistakes and made a much bigger one.
 
As Clubmaster knows, the Holly Valley is where you go to hide your gambling addiction or your fill-in the-blank addiction and maybe hope the snarl of it will be indecipherable forever after it's blown all over the wall of room 113 C above the queen sized bed on top of the painting of the place known as Holly Valley that doesn't exist and maybe never did, much like her father. Things Jeanine is sussing out in the mirror right now at the party where the countdown till regrettable hookups is starting in three, two, what day is it, no thank you. Jeanine will sideswipe into bed alone tonight. Nope to Clubmaster, who, moments ago, had his hand on Jeanine's leg, because he doesn't care about nasty little lines but is part of the reason she is hiding here in the bathroom talking to herself in the third person. Pass. Aside from pussy, Clubmaster only cares about taped up packs of c-notes he hides behind the cheap paintings at the Holly Valley because he owes all over town, much like her father, who owed everyone everything and was going to, definitely tomorrow, or by, what is it, Saturday, pay you back all of it, every single cent.
 
All of everything is exactly what her father promised Jeanine's mom on the phone from room 113 C of the Holly Valley Motor Inn Wednesday evening, where one of them said bottom line and the other said no way and one of them promised a come back with the sound of truth on tilt across his voice and the other one said you've been gone to me for a thousand years before the line went dead. And him with that bangup job, that final performance, bravo! Good luck getting that off the wall or off the wall of Jeanine's face, yep. Three days and a thousand years ago.
 
Still, not as real as the performance from back when Jeanine was nine and it was only dad's hand on her leg. Back when he bought her the real diamond earrings with the fake money he had on loan from the casino and promised they'd all be living some place beautiful soon, some place that looks now like the modified painting over the bed at the Holly Valley Motor Inn, room 113 C, no money left for a decent funeral, even. But still, Jeanine, Jeanine, sweet baby of fifteen, the mirror don't lie. Those earrings look fine in your ears right now, am I right, Jeanine? Those are yours forever, no one can take those from you: bottom line, no way.

Grace Campbell is the fiction editor at 5x5 Literary Journal. Her chapbook, FWIW, was awarded third prize in the Harvey Turnbuckle Chapbook Competition at Split Lip Press. She was a finalist in the Atticus Review Flash Creative Nonfiction competition at Atticus Review. She is a June Dodge Fellow at The Mineral School. She is the author of the flash chapbook Girlie Shorts (Black River Press). Her work has appeared widely, in journals such as Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish and others. She lives in Olympia, Washington.

* * *

Orange We Happy
By Sheree Shatsky

The tree was a tangerine, but he insisted on calling it an orange, no matter how many times his wife showed the difference with store bought fruit.
 
“Tangerines huddle and easily separate.” She zippered back the rind to reveal the juicy segments. “Oranges,” knifing a cross through the thick fruit, “demand a good quartering.”
 
“Chop chop. It’s all citrus to me,” he said.
 
He planted the tree in the side yard, digging a proper size hole and burying the root ball with the best organic soil on the market. He watered the tree an hour every day and fertilized once a week, hoping to hurry along the first fruiting. “Trees, especially fruit trees, don’t warrant such attention,” his wife said, but he paid her no mind and upped fertilizing to twice a week.
 
The tree dropped all its leaves all at once. “You wicked wench,” he shouted at the bare tree, “after all I’ve done for you.” He turned his back on the tree as he did with his wife.
 
“You shocked that tree from the inside out,” she said.
 
He fumed and hollered and stabbed his finger in her face. “I’m cutting that tree down to the quick,” and stormed off to the shed for the chain saw.
 
“That tree’s not to blame,” she yelled after him, knowing full well he’d never find the chain saw or the bow saw or a single pair of clippers for that matter. She’d hidden every sharp edged tool he owned after he installed an automatic sprinkler system scheduled to water the tree every two hours. She had gone as far to hide her best scissors under the mattress in the guest bedroom. She knew his signs, she knew what was coming. He chainsawed the Christmas tree in half a few years back, lights and all, after a week of obsessive straightening. Her husband had a temper with trees.
 
He dragged the stepladder to the tree and from the top down, stripped off the withered branches with his bare hands. The tree stood dismembered and as dead as he felt. For weeks after dinner, he pulled a lawn chair out to the side yard and sat and stared at the tree. He whipped out his baseball bat a couple of times and bashed the tree a few solid slams. During the blue moon, he poured an entire container of bleach around the trunk, drenching the root system. As days cut short and nights dropped early, the wake ended. He tossed a tarp over what was left of the tree and decided to chop it down come spring, when chain saws went on sale for cheap.
 
The raccoons savaged the first fruit first, sucking the innards concave and tossing the peelings on the weathered tarp, drawing the flies, the flies drawing him to the tree, unfurled, wild, straggly and free. All shapes of oval sprouted like tiny footballs from young branches. “You beautiful wicked wench,” he breathed more than said, tugging the brightest fruit from the tree.
 
His wife followed the hoots and hollers out to the side yard.
 
“I told you. Tangerine trees are best left alone.”
 
“Orange,” he said, peeling back the rind.

Sheree Shatsky writes short fiction believing much can be conveyed with a few wild words. She was selected by the AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship Program as a Spring 2018 mentee for flash fiction. Recent work has appeared in Fictive Dream, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine and Sleet Magazine with work forthcoming in Crack the Spine, and the KYSO Flash Anthology, Accidents of Life. Read more of her work here. She tweets @talktomememe.

* * *

Memo to the Kingdom
By L.E. Towne

From: The Office of Health and Safety
To: Constituency of the Kingdom of Walls and Bridges.
Re: The Death of a citizen and general wall issues
 
The incident last week that led to the demise of Mr. Humpty Dumpty, is under thorough investigation. Witnesses say Mr. Dumpty approached the wall in a rather euphoric state after consuming vast amounts of blackbird pie. His actions appear to have been in protest of the dangers of large and ungainly walls throughout the Kingdom’s borders. His gruesome death at the bottom of the aforementioned wall only serves to prove his point. It has been determined that as Mr. Dumpty was the sole egg on the top of the wall, he was not pushed, cracked, pulled or coerced, and fell to his death simply because of his delicate balance and general unfit condition.
 
In another note, the Kingdom’s Surgeon General has declared the eating of Blackbird Pie a national health crisis and the popular dessert will no longer be served in the Castle cafeteria.
 
As the investigation continues, we remind you to be vigilant. The bylaws strictly forbid the blowing down of houses, no huffing or puffing of any kind will be tolerated. This cost the kingdom hundreds of gold coins in disaster relief. Also, the fetching of water pails at the tops of hills is prohibited, as is eating curds and whey under trees, both of which can lead to broken crowns and toppled tuffets.
 
Due to this unfortunate incident, a new proclamation has been ordered. No citizen of the kingdom will be allowed around the wall’s vicinity. There will be no squatting, perching, lounging, lying, kneeling or standing on the wall. Also, no breaching or mounting of any kind.
 
For citizens who disregard this proclamation, neither the Kings Horses nor the Kings men are qualified to a) mend someone who has fallen from the wall, nor b) to assist anyone who intends to sit on the wall. The Horses are merely ornamental.
 
In addition, the King has ordered buttressing, fortifying and extending of the wall and construction will commence as soon as gold can be procured from the disaster relief fund. Construction is expected to continue for the next hundred years or so and we appreciate your patience and that of your descendants. Per the King’s super bigly practical reasoning, this build-up is for protection of the kingdom’s people from outsiders, i.e. people who do not believe in unicorns, dragons or leprechauns.
 
On another topic: The Gruff brothers, Billy, Goat and Stinky have been cleared out from living under the main bridge. Any troll activity should be immediately reported to the King’s Men and they will remove and relocate said trolls to the social media platform of their choice.
 
Please make your reports to the King’s Men and not the King’s Horses as again, they are strictly for show. Thank you for your cooperation.

L. E. Towne is a continual student of the human condition known as real life. Her work has been published in various literary magazines and her novel, Knight of the Crescent Moon, comes out in 2019. She resides in Raleigh, NC, with her tuxedo cat, Marlowe.

* * * 

Just One More
By Francine Witte

Just One More
 
I soldier up to the bar and order another. “Well vodka, this time,” I wink, “I’m running low on cash”
 
“We don’t charge the natives,” the slinky bartender winks back. He’s a tall order himself. Skin the color of sand and a tangle of curls on his forehead. Arms of a goddamn bodybuilder.
 
It’s a good thing I don’t know yet how later, these arms will squeeze whatever is holy out of me. How even later than that, I will search the floor for the sandal his cat ran off with while we weren’t looking. How I will never find it, and end up leaving his tiny apartment, half-barefoot and walk shameful back home to the lightning stare of my husband, who still doesn’t understand me, and never will.
 
But for now, I take the squat little shot glass of the bar’s best vodka, wave it under my nose before I down it in one gulp. Watch as the bartender strokes his long, snaky fingers against the bar.
 
Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two flash fiction chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection, Café Crazy, was published by (Kelsay Books.) Her play, Love is a Bad Neighborhood, was produced in NYC this past December. She is a former English teacher. She lives in NYC.

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Art

Photography by Julia Hatch

Julia Hatch self-identifies as a bookworm, once took a literature class instructed by Maya Angelou, and plays an impressive game of fetch with her ... cat.








 
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Photography by Angie Hedman

Angie Hedman is an artist, writer, and high school art educator who resides and creates in Muncie, IN. Her work has been published, or is forthcoming in The Broken Plate, Gravel, Barren Magazine, Montana Mouthful, Superstition Review, The Ginger Collect, and Riggwelter among others. She tweets at @artist_writerAH.









 
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