Foliate Oak May 2013
By Colin Clancy
The white ball flew a ways then sliced hard to the right. It disappeared from view, and then they heard it crash through the trees on the far side of the field.
“I thought you learned how to golf this summer,” Pete said.
“I thought I did too.” Johnny teed up another ball and drove it into the field. This one sailed straight at a low trajectory toward the setting sun until it reached its apex. It hung in midair before falling back to earth, a tiny speck in the distance. “See,” Johnny said, “I hit most of them just like that, but once in a while they get away from me.”
He handed the driver to Pete. Pete teed up a ball and stood over it then swung the club like a baseball bat. The ball went straight and landed near Johnny’s among the dry broken stalks of last year’s corn. The field hadn’t been planted this year.
They aimed their shots at the solitary tree that stood in the absolute center of the field, an oak, wider than it was tall, and so far away that the best of their drives didn’t make it halfway. Johnny had never seen the tree close up, but its trunk must have been huge. He imagined a farmer a long time ago with his plow horse, sitting in its shade, eating his lunch.
Pete hit the last ball and Johnny grabbed another grocery bag full of them from the back of his Jeep. He dumped them on the ground.
“How many of those do you have?” Pete asked.
“I’ve got more balls than you can count.”
Pete drove another ball with his baseball swing and watched until it landed.
“You really want to hit them all?” he asked. “We’ll never find them.”
“I don’t want to find them.”
“You’re not going to golf up north?”
“I’ll be happy if I never see another golf ball. It’s like it’s a game to hit them at the guy raking sand traps.
Pete handed Johnny the club. “Have you talked to Clare?”
“Nope,” Johnny said, swinging the club hard and slicing another shot.
“She knows you’re leaving tomorrow?"
“I’m sure she does.”
“And you’re not going to call her?”
“If she wanted to see me, she’d call.”
Johnny leaned the club against the Jeep and sat down on the tailgate. Pete went inside the house. He came out with two beers.
The late August sun was now below the horizon, a red sky in its wake. They sat on the tailgate drinking. Johnny picked at the label with his fingernail. Neither one spoke for a long time, not an awkward silence, just a silence. Every few minutes one got up, hit a few balls, then sat back down.
“I think you’ll regret it if you don’t at least try to see her,” Pete said.
Pete went inside for more beers. Johnny was alone, the sky completely dark now. The stars were out. Good country stars. Not northern or western stars. They were far away, but they were good.
Johnny teed up the last ball and focused on the technique of his swing. He hit it into the darkness and didn’t care where it would land.
Colin Clancy lives in Marquette, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he teaches composition and runs a small screen printing business. He spends his free time drinking beer and playing outside. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Lake Review, Summerset Review, Word Riot, Border Crossing and various others.
* * *
By Max Detrano
The houseboat, built on oil drums, rose and fell with the water. Spiders infested the space under the floorboards. Irene caught one and pinned its eight legs and segmented body on a scrap of paper she taped outside her bedroom door. Beneath the cadaver in red lipstick she wrote, "Enter this room at your own risk. Look at your brother."
"They bite me in my sleep," she said hiking up her T-shirt to show Carl a red line of welts running like stitches from her navel to below her right breast.
"That's why I kill them."
Carl caught spiders in towels and escorted them out the door, setting them free saying, “You belong outside.”
"They just walk back in," said Irene. "And bite me! You know the females kill the males after sex."
Irene's story was simple. She was a farm girl, the last of six kids, with thick glasses, and skinny as a stick, but pretty nonetheless. She married her first boyfriend. More friendship than passion. She dropped out of college when he announced that he was moving west. She moved with him, getting married to please their mothers.
They tried to have a baby. Tried hard for a year. They had sex on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and all weekend long. She did head stands after he came, hoping his ejaculation would run down deep and hit pay dirt. But after a year of trying, she got depressed and told him, "It's not you. It's me. I have to go find myself.” And she left.
It was five years later. Carl spent most nights with Irene on the houseboat. Three geese came in through the French doors that opened onto Lake Union. They waddled into the living room honking.
" They are just rats with wings," Irene said. "Shoo!" she stamped her feet and stood on one leg, flapped her arms like an angry crane and shouted, "Don't fuck with me. I'll pluck you, and cook you for my supper."
The geese reared up, and spread their wings as though ready for a fight.
Irene charged them flapping her arms. All three geese turned and fled out the doors. They slipped back into the lake from whence they’d come.
"I love doing that," she said.
"Is there anything you are afraid of?” Carl asked.
"Yeah," she said. "You."
"Because you," she swallowed, "can hurt me."
They had a four-poster bed that Irene and Carl found at a yard sale. It was painted an ugly yellow. "They used to paint things yellow during the depression," Carl said, "to cheer themselves up."
"How smart?" said Irene. "Did it work?"
"I don't know," said Carl.
"Let’s paint everything yellow.”
"You know what you do with a four poster?” Carl said.
"No," she said.
“Spread your feet apart and stand on your toes.” She placed her feet wide and stood on her tip toes.
"Now put your arms over your head and spread them.” She put her arms up. Her eyes opened wide.
"Oh, you devil," she squealed. "Promise!"
Carl had a daughter named Ginny who was eight years old. He doted on her. Irene loved her too. She liked to dress her, and bath her, and tie her hair up in ribbons. Irene also taught Ginny to whistle with two fingers, and how to climb trees and beat up boys who dared pull her hair, or "gross you out," Irene said.
"She's not your daughter," Carl said.
"Why are you so scared?"
"I'm not scared. I'm honest."
"I think you're mean," said Irene
Irene was at Carl’s and she picked up a stack of mail. She held up an envelope, addressed by hand with no return name and address. She sniffed it.
"Who is Jane?" said Irene.
"What's wrong with me?” she screamed at Carl. "Why don't you want me?"
"It's not you. It's me," he said.
"That's my line. So I know it's a lie."
"I'm not ready to get married again. Or even to live together."
"You'll never find anyone who loves you as much as I do."
"That's what I'm afraid of," he said.
She stamped her feet and screamed, "Jane. Jane. Jane. Jane. Jane."
"I'm leaving now," said Carl.
Irene kept screaming the name, Jane, after him.
They met for coffee a week later.
"Come back to the houseboat," she said over the wiz of the espresso machines and the laughter of couples. "Make love to me. One last time.” Irene's eyes begged him. "Please."
"It'll only be sex."
"I know," she said.
So there they lay–on that yellow four-poster. His legs spread wide and tied with silk. His wrist wrapped and secured with woven yoga straps. His mouth stuffed with a pair of her white socks with little red hearts on them, taped so he couldn't spit them out. He was lean and tight–young and handsome. Maybe too pretty, she thought. Even now. His nostrils were covered with duct tape and stuffed with cotton.
It had been awful. He thrashed and made futile attempts to break the restraints.
Irene tried in the end to get the sock out of his mouth, to save him. But too late, his teeth clenched on it. He was strong. She breathed in his mouth, and pressed his chest. In the end she lay on top of him, not breathing in his mouth, but kissing him with deep, soulful kisses. Realizing, she loved him now more than ever.
The houseboat rose and fell with the rhythm of the water. A black spider walked across the white sheet in front of her. It froze in its tracks when it realized that Irene was looking at it.
Max Detrano has been a writer, a bookseller, an independent publishers’ rep, and an art importer. On rainy days he can be found scribbling with friends at coffee shops in Seattle, WA. Max’s stories have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Learn more here.
* * *
The Last Vacation
By Jeffrey Elmore
Donna Jean sat in the cool wet South Carolina sand right at the very edge of the Atlantic, sat back on her hands with her legs stretched out in front of her so that just the very tips of her toes caught the foamy trickle of waves that rolled up the beach. The ocean was black except for the white caps of the waves and the sky above the water was clear and there were stars in the sky. The wind had picked up and the humidity of the day was gone and it was cool on the beach and the water was cool on her toes. Behind where she sat on the beach with her family the sky was a wall of summer storm clouds that hung low to the earth, heavy with the collected humidity of the day.
“It’s gonna rain soon.” Her youngest son, Josh, said softly to no one in particular. He was sitting to her left, tearing a piece of seaweed into strips and tossing them into the water. Donna Jean felt the storm coming behind her but she didn’t look back. She kept looking out at the ocean and the stars and listening to the rhythmic breaking of the waves. A few yards off to her left her two grandkids were splashing around in the waves and throwing sand at one another and laughing, and she watched them playing and she laughed too.
“Yeah, I guess it’s good it’s supposed to rain all day tomorrow,” Jake, Donna’s eldest son, said, “I hate leavin’ the beach when the sun’s out.” He was standing at an angle off to the right of the rest of the group, smoking a cigarette and looking down the beach. There was a group of college kids down the beach who had a fire going in an oil drum, and the sound of beer bottles clanking and laughing and shouting could just be heard on the breeze above the breaking waves. Further off down at the pier, the arc lights illuminated the featureless forms of people fishing off the pier. They were only shadows at this distance, big shadows alongside small, father shadows and mother and son and daughter shadows. All shadows in the dark.
“Jacob, I wish to God that you would quit that.” Donna Jean said while she looked out at the ocean. “It’s going to kill you.”
Jake flicked the cherry off his cigarette and dropped it into the sand and sat down beside his mother.
“It all went so fast,” Jeremy, the middle son, said, “seems like we just got here yesterday.” He was sitting just behind his mother to her left, his arms wrapped around his wife, Bethany, who sat in front of him with her head resting against his shoulder.
“It really did.” Bethany said, “It’s so weird how time goes like that.”
“It’s because we all had so much fun.” Donna Jean said. She picked up a handful of wet sand and tossed it gently into the water.
“Yeah, we did.” Jeremy said. “It was hilarious when we got you up in that parasail, mom.”
Everyone chuckled. “We could hear you screamin’ all the way down in the boat.”
“Well heck yeah I was screamin’. Hanging fifty feet up in the air by a little rope.”
“You were hooked up to a parachute.” Josh said.
“So, a parachute’s not gonna save you when you drop in the ocean and get eaten by a shark.”
“Nana, who got eated by a shark?” Braden, her five year old grandson, asked from down the beach.
“No one, toots.” Donna Jean said. “Nana could have got eaten by a shark when she was parasailing.”
“If a shark was tryin’ to eat Nana I’d swim out dare and beat that shark up,” Brandon, the seven year old, said, throwing vicious punches at the air, “I’d say, ‘Hey dare, you mean shark, you leave Nana alone, den I’d punch him like dis and dis, then I’d stomp like dis.”
“Me too.” Braden said. “Nana, if a shark tried to eat you me and Beebee would beat him up.”
Donna Jean laughed. “I know you would, boys. You guys are Nana’s little protectors.”
The boys went back to playing in the waves and the sand.
“That was pretty darn funny, though,” Jake said, “you never would have done that before—”.
Everyone went quiet. Josh picked at another piece of seaweed and Jake fiddled with his hands and Jeremy and Beth sat looking out at the ocean. Donna Jean adjusted the padding in her bikini top, where her left breast had been. She pulled down on the bottom of her one-piece bathing suit, stretching it out. It was the smallest bathing suit she had worn since she was twenty, right before Jake was born. It was half the size of the one she had worn just the summer before. She closed her eyes and listened to the waves crashing and rolling up the shore.
“Yeah,” she said, “we can cross that off my bucket list.”
“Don’t say that,” Jake said, “it’s not funny.”
“What? It’s true.”
Josh threw the rest of the seaweed in his hands into the ocean and looked at the sand. “Mom, come on.”
“Yeah, seriously.” Jeremy said.
Everyone was quiet again.
Then Bethany started laughing. “Oh, man, BFF, that was the funniest thing ever when we were at the aquarium. When you turned around in the tunnel in the shark tank and that shark scared you.”
“Dude,” Josh said, “that thing was hunting me. I just look back and BAM!” Josh held his hand six inches in front of his face, “And it was right here in my face with its mouth open.”
Everyone was laughing hard now.
“You took off running,” Beth said, “like it was gonna break through the glass and get you.”
“Dude, it would have if it could. It sucked.”
Donna Jean was on her back now, laughing until tears were in her eyes. A big wave broke on the beach and washed up around her. Her wig washed off her head.
Beth leapt up and ran it down before it rolled back with the wave into the ocean. She handed it to Donna Jean. Everyone was silent again. Jake turned away from the group and lit another cigarette.
“I hate this stupid thing.” Donna Jean said as she fixed the wig back on her head. “I can’t figure it out.”
“It was a great vacation, though.” Jeremy said. “Probly the best we ever had.” Everyone nodded.
“And there it is.” Jake said. The rain started to fall. It fell soft and cool and blew in the breeze like a gentle mist. Donna Jean closed her eyes and felt the cool rain on her back. No one got up. Even when the drizzle became a downpour and the college kids abandoned their fire and headed back to their condo, and the shadow people on the pier ran for shelter in the bait shop, no one moved. They sat through the distant rumbles of thunder. No one moved.
And then the lightning began.
“Well,” Donna Jean said, “looks like we gotta get in.”
They all sat for a minute longer. Then they slowly rose to their feet. “Come on, boys. Let’s get inside before we get lightninged.”
The boys ran up from the beach and walked alongside Donna Jean. She held out her hands and they each took one, and they walked slowly toward the condo.
“Did you babies have a good vacation?” She asked.
“I did, Nana.” Brandon said. “I had the best vacation ever.”
“Me too.” Braden said. “Hey Nana?”
“Can we come back here next year?”
Everyone stopped walking. They stood frozen in the rain and the thunder and lightning. Josh began to sob and then he began to cry, and the rain and the tears flooded down his cheeks and dripped from his jaw. Jeremy cried too, and Bethany, and Jake. They all cried and hid their tears from the children.
They all cried except Donna Jean.
She bent down slowly and picked Braden up in her arms and smiled. “Yes, honey, we can.” She said. Her lips were quivering and her nostrils flared and her eyes were red and glassy, but she did not cry. Her voice was strong. “We can come back next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. And every time you come here, even when you’re a big boy and you have babies and grandbabies of your own, Nana will be here with you. And we will laugh and play and have the best times, because Nana will always be here.” She put her hand over Braden’s heart. “How does that sound?”
“Good.” Braden said. He smiled and wrapped his arms around Nana’s neck and rested his head on her shoulder. “I love you, Nana.”
“I love you too, baby.”
Everyone walked the rest of the way in silent tears through the thunder and lightning and rain. Donna Jean let them walk on ahead, then she turned back to the beach. Over the water the sky was still clear, and there were stars in the sky. She took off the wig and felt the cool rain on her bare head. It was clean and fresh. Donna Jean let the tears roll with the rain down her face.
She turned and walked up the beach.
Jeffrey Elmore is a twenty-six year old forklift operator in Cincinnati, Ohio. Prior to his acceptance into Foliate Oak, he was an unpublished author.
* * *
The Dangers of Hiking Alone
By Jacob Euteneuer
I found Bigfoot, or rather, he found me. I woke up in a daze after suffering a bad fall, and he was standing over me waving a hand in front of my face. It was covered in thick but short reddish hair except for the palm which was white. I’d been hiking one of my favorite trails near the east fork of the Quinault River in Olympic National Park. It winds through the area called the “Enchanted Valley.” In the spring when the mountain’s snow melts, a thousand little waterfalls pour down from every cliff face, but in the summer all the cascades dry up and are replaced by a brilliant green. The rocky gravel under my boots shifted and rolled. I remembered and tumbling once or twice, but not much else. I got a concussion in college and had done plenty of drugs as well, so I knew enough to know I wasn’t hallucinating.
He held out his hand to help me up. From the ground, he looked like a grizzly reared up on its hind legs, but once I got on my feet, he wasn’t as intimidating. He was about seven feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds. He stood there smiling at me with his torso and head in the sunlight and his legs in the shadows.
“Thanks,” I said because I didn’t know what else to do.
“No problem,” he said. I knew it was a “he” because his phallus dangled in the wind and made a pornstar’s junk seem like mine. “I’m Nuk.” He stuck out his hand. I shook it and watched my hand become goggled up by his. His breath was hot and smelled like a wet dog.
“Drew,” I said. I looked around the woods for a hidden camera or something, but we were about as far away from civilization as you could get. We stared at each other. Nuk was tall and lanky. His arms nearly rested on the ground even when he was standing. He lifted up the right one and itched his armpit.
“You can talk?” I asked. He nodded. “You’re a Bigfoot. Did you know you’re famous?”
“We prefer Sasquatch, but it doesn’t really matter. Are you okay? I thought you were dead there for a second.”
“I’m fine. Thanks for the help.” I looked around again, but the only noise was coming from a pair of chipmunks wrestling each other in a pile of leaves. “I’m a little woozy from the fall, but mainly just overwhelmed. I’d be a millionaire if I brought you back to civilization with me.”
Nuk nodded. “I helped you, and now you help me by not taking me to some lab to be studied. Okay?”
“Fair is fair, I guess. But what are you doing out here? How did you get here?”
“I’m German. Can’t you tell?” Nuk said. If he was joking, his humor was lost on me. “My forefathers lived in the Black Forest. My great-great grandfather came to America around 1880. He had been captured by a man working for P.T. Barnum and was set up to be part of his traveling circus of freaks. When he arrived in New York, he found a razor, shaved himself clean and passed himself off as a worker who had accidentally locked himself in a cage. We Sasquatch can pass for human if we shave every day and hunch over when we walk.” Nuk hunched down a bit and took a few practiced steps to demonstrate for me. It didn’t look very convincing.
“Have you ever heard of Robert Wadlow?” he asked. I shook my head. “He’s the tallest man ever recorded. Eight feet eleven inches tall and, unbeknownst to most, full-blooded Sasquatch.” Nuk looked around and sniffed at the air with his hairy nose. “This trail is popular this time of year. I have to get going. It was nice to meet you, Drew.” He waved and turned to stomp through the brush.
I did the only thing I could do. I picked up the closest large rock. It was rough and dusty in the palm of my hand. I walked behind Nuk and smashed in the back of his skull. Killing him was easy. It was dragging his corpse the three miles to my car that was hard.
In hindsight, I should have paid better attention to his story. He said that Sasquatch can pass for humans, so it only made sense that humans could pass for Sasquatch.
When I got back to town, the first person I went to see was the sheriff. He arrested me on the spot for poaching. Everyone in the whole world it seemed was pissed at me for killing the first and only Bigfoot ever discovered. They kept me in jail for fear of my own personal safety while I awaited trial. Then the bad news came in.
Turns out, there is a rare genetic disease that causes humans to grow thick hair over their entire body. And it also turns out that being seven feet tall and three hundred pounds isn’t the rarest thing to happen to a guy. The NBA is full of these people. The problem was Nuk was a combination of both of these, and I killed him.
My lawyer was able to talk the D.A. down to a manslaughter plea, and after a year in prison, I was let out on parole. Nobody in town would talk to me. In their eyes, I was worse than a murderer. I killed what could have been the town’s claim to fame. Now the only thing they were known for was raising me, a murderer.
The only way I could redeem myself was to find the real Bigfoot. He is out there somewhere, and I still have my rock.
Jacob Euteneuer currently lives in Akron, OH with his wife and son where he is a fiction candidate in the Northeast Ohio MFA.
* * *
Quick Quick, Slow
By Karen Fayeth
Vanessa looked at the bulky diving watch on her left wrist and, from a quick mental calculation, realized she had about thirty minutes of air left. Satisfied, she turned to the checklist on her diving clipboard and inventoried her safety gear.
As the only responsible member of the Atlas Recovery diving team, it was her job to make sure all eight members of the hot dog diving crew made it back up to the surface with oxygen to spare.
Atlas billed itself as an “underwater archeology” firm, but everyone knew that really, they were just doing salvage. Barry Grind, the owner of Atlas, was a fortune hunter and perpetually looking for the next big score. A couple notable finds, including a tidy pile of Spanish doubloons and a collection of ancient stone carvings, had made him famous. The fame had made him relentless. He’d both made a lot of money and spent a lot of money combing the ocean floor for treasures.
Mostly they pulled scrap metal up to the surface, but even that had value. It was enough to fund the dives while the team kept looking for riches. Each diver on the small crew was just as anxious as Barry to discover something good. They’d get a quarter of the take, and on a big find that could add up. If the find happened to be historically significant, they’d get something each of them craved even more: notoriety.
So not only were the divers risk takers by nature, but they also had plenty of incentive to push themselves as hard as possible.
There was one on the team, Dave Blankenship, who was the worst. The boys called him Hoss. Big Hoss drank more than anyone else, ate more than anyone else, and dove deeper and stayed down longer than anyone on the team.
Vanessa, on the other hand, was trained as a search and rescue diver. Barry had hired her after a long series of mishaps that had resulted in the deaths of two of his crew. She wasn’t an archeologist or a scavenger. Her role was both underwater lifeguard and corporate project manager. She kept the boys alive and kept them on schedule.
Both of these jobs made her an invaluable part of the Atlas crew, though no one cared to admit it. Only those who found buried treasure got respect.
Bad boy Hoss was the bane of Vanessa’s existence. He teased her incessantly, which she could handle, but worse than that, he had a propensity to get himself into tight spots. He’d been the one to glimpse the sparkle in the sand and pulled up that now famous pile of doubloons. That had landed him on the front page of The New York Times.
Hoss flouted all convention and pushed the edges of the envelope until they squealed. Vanessa hadn’t had to save him yet, but there had been a series of near misses. Diving with Hoss worked Vanessa’s last nerve. He could make her angrier than she thought possible, then he’d fix her with that lopsided grin, two perfect rows of pearly whites under crystal-blue eyes, and she’d blush and forgive him. Then she’d scold herself for letting him get away with it again.
Hoss somewhat affectionately referred to Vanessa as “the only bunny on a team of playboys,” and if she was more sensitive, she’d have done something about it. Despite the ribbing, everyone knew she was a necessary part of the team. Vanessa kept the dive team safe, and Barry rewarded her hard work.
There were seven boys total. Six of them were like pesky little brothers, but Hoss, he was something different. Something more.
Vanessa physically shook her head at these thoughts as she touched the speaker button at the neck of her deep dive suit.
“Thirty minutes, gentlemen. Let’s start to wrap up what you’re working on. Don’t make me come after you.”
“Yeeeees, Mooooom,” came the sarcastic reply from Sam.
“Rightio,” from Jack.
“Got it,” said Lucas.
“Roger that,” said Neal.
“Thanks, V,” said Ben.
“I’m headed up now,” said Caleb.
But that seventh diver, the bane of her world, said, “Catch me if you can, green eyes,” followed by a suggestive laugh.
Vanessa’s heart skipped a beat, and she blushed even though no one but a passing grouper was there to see. As much as Hoss drove her crazy, he also made her giddy like a schoolgirl. She hated that.
Vanessa re-gathered her composure and responded, “Catch you? In those shallows? Pfft! No problem.”
A chorus of six “woooahs” came through Vanessa’s earpiece and she laughed.
“Thirty minutes, pony boy,” she said, riffing on his nickname, and turned off her microphone.
“At the top,” Caleb reported over the speakers, and Vanessa replied, “Got it,” and used a grease pencil to tick his name off of her checklist.
“Jack and I are topside now,” Sam said, and she marked off their names as well.
Over the course of ten minutes, six male voices reported their ascent and successful return to the boat.
Six. That left one. One unchecked box on the list.
“Hey, Hoss, we’re at the end, my friend. You coming in?” Vanessa asked with as much authority as she could muster. This wasn’t unusual; he was always the last one in the boat.
She heard no answer so she tried again, “Hey, sparky, better start ascending now, no one likes the bends, buddy.”
No response. Nothing.
Normally Vanessa would wait him out, and he’d come swimming by at the last possible moment, but something made her gut feel a little tight. Today felt different.
“Hoss? C’mon back, buddy. Just give me a word to let me know where you’re at.”
Vanessa worked her flippers and propelled herself over to the sector where she’d last seen him. She was over a fairly deep trough, and the water below was dark and cold.
“Olly olly in come free, Hossy boy!” she said with a chirpiness she didn’t feel.
It wasn’t like Hoss to go quiet. Hoss wasn’t quiet, he was verbose. Now Vanessa knew for sure something was wrong.
“Barry, come in. We got a situation down here.”
“Go ahead, V.”
“I can’t find Hoss, he’s not responding.”
She waited for Barry to reply. More silence. Great; at this depth, with only a measured amount of oxygen left, silence was the last thing she needed.
Finally Barry’s voice came back, “Yeah, Jack says he was over by the Tisdale Trench. There was a half-buried boat propeller out that way. You know the place?”
“Roger that, I’m there now. No Hoss.”
Just then a flicker of light no longer than a camera flash caught the corner of her eye. It was the head-mounted flashlight on Hoss’s helmet. She was sure of it.
Going after him meant going down, much further down, and she was already at two hundred meters, which carried plenty of risk.
“Okay, Hoss, you win. I’m too chicken to come after you. Let’s go already!”
Vanessa sighed. Damn that frustrating, crazy, aquatic Red Baron of a man. Checking the gauge on her tank and calculating the reserve, she turned her body downward and swam.
The pressure became immense and her body reacted to the compression when she saw the flash again. Turning her own flashlight toward where she’d seen it, she could make out the outline of her fellow diver and he wasn’t moving.
“Lame joke, man. C’mon. You got me. You win.”
She was sure that Hoss would hoot and holler at her for days about how he got her good. He loved a practical joke.
Vanessa swam toward Hoss and as she got closer she realized something was wrong. He seriously wasn’t moving and his head was at a funny angle.
“Hoss? If you are joking, so help me, I’ll…”
She stopped short when she realized he was unconscious. He’d probably been at depth for too long and couldn’t take it. He didn’t appear injured and bubbles from his suit let her know he was breathing.
Vanessa grabbed the man by his arms and yanked. She had to get him, and herself, up to the surface fast. But not that fast.
On land her small frame wouldn’t be nearly enough to hoist his large body, but with the help of buoyancy and adrenaline, she got his limp body moving.
Vanessa swam quickly, ascending a certain amount, then stopped. His oxygen tank was low and so was hers. His size meant he used more oxygen, and between them she hoped there was enough left to share if they had to.
As they made their first decompression stop, she shook and poked at Hoss to get him to come back around.
His eyes opened slowly, as if from a drugged sleep.
“Well hey, darlin’,” he said when he saw the owner of the arms around his waist.
Vanessa hit the microphone and reported, “I found Hoss, he was in the deeps, we’re coming up now, but slow. Stay tuned.”
“Roger that,” Barry responded.
She debated telling Barry that Hoss had passed out underwater, but refrained. There was no sense in bruising his dignity. Assuming they made it back, of course.
“Let’s go, you big lug,” Vanessa said and tugged at the still woozy man.
“Baby, I’d follow you anywhere,” he said, still under the influence of deep water.
“Then kick your legs, you big oaf, I’m doing this on my own.”
They swam a measured amount, stopped again, and Vanessa felt her heart thumping in her chest. Fear. Bends. Underwater pressure. The man in her arms. All were probable cause. It was a wonder her heart didn’t jump out of her chest and ascend to the boat on its own.
“V, am I still alive?” Hoss asked in a groggy voice.
“Uh, yeah, ace. Why do you ask?”
“Uh…” he said and passed out again.
“Oh great,” she said to no one but herself.
Vanessa checked her watch, then kicked her legs hard to rise a bit more. She was pushing the edges on this ascent, not quite waiting long enough at each stop, but she’d rather suffer a little pain than drown.
At the next pause Hoss came back to consciousness. He looked at her with an intensity she’d never seen. It made her feel awkward.
“V, you saved my life.”
“And don’t you forget it, hot shot.”
“No, I’m serious. You saved me.”
“Yeah, I did.”
Hoss reached out a hand and touched her dive helmet as though stroking her hair.
“But why?” he asked.
She could see he might actually be serious. Then again, maybe not. This was Hoss, after all.
She looked at him just as seriously. Gravely. She gazed deeply into his groggy eyes and slowly said, “I have no idea.” Then she grinned.
He laughed so hard big bubbles came shooting out of his helmet.
“Hey, Hoss? Another thing?”
“Yes, pretty girl?”
“Kick your damn feet, you’re killing me here!”
“As you wish, darlin’,” he twanged and slid his arm tightly around her waist. Together their legs kicked as the interlocked pair swam upward to the next stop, like a couple on the dance floor two-stepping their way through the brine.
“Here, pause,” she said and they both stopped kicking.
“If we get out of this alive, I’m going to take you out to dinner,” Hoss drawled, back on his game.
“Yeah? Better be somewhere nice, I saved your bacon.”
“Like the Sand Pail,” he said, referring to the local biker bar.
“Where only the finest watered-down beer will do,” she said sarcastically.
“If I get you drunk enough, maybe you’ll let me kiss you,” he said, then blushed, looking suddenly shy and refusing to meet her eyes.
The bends must be in his brain, she thought.
“Maybe you don’t even have to get me drunk,” Vanessa said, feeling bold, then looked him square on. He blushed even more and she smiled.
“Hey, are we going to make it out of this alive?” he asked, showing a genuine worry for the first time.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Your tank is almost gone, and I only have a little bit more. We’re going to have to share oxygen for the last thirty meters.”
Hoss nodded, then, showing no signs of kidding around, said, “If we make it, I can promise you, I’m going to kiss you so hard you’ll need oxygen to recover.”
Vanessa’s nerve endings tingled. Now wasn’t the time to go all schoolgirl. “Let’s go,” she said and together they rose again toward the surface. Sunlight was now visible as rays cut through the blue water. A school of bright tropical fish surrounded them for a moment, as if cued by a movie director.
Hoss looked at her intently and leaned forward in his suit, as if thick plastic and seawater weren’t keeping them apart. “God, you’re beautiful.”
“That’s the bends talking, big boy. When you’re breathing surface air, your whole tune will change.”
“Since we’ve got some time on our hands and all, and since I only just recently used up one of my nine lives, I guess it’s time for a little honesty.”
Vanessa looked at him and said nothing.
“So, well, this is awkward to say, but…ever since you joined the Atlas team, I’ve really felt that…”
“That…” He was fumbling. She tried not to grin.
“That…well…you have got a hot little rig on you, sister. Do you work out?”
Vanessa sighed loudly and punched him in the shoulder. The closer they got to the surface, the more the old Hoss returned. The woozy, charming, sweet guy was left behind in the depths.
About the time they broke the water’s surface, he’d turned on the communication line to the ship and was cracking jokes with the dive team. Vanessa let go of Hoss and started up the boat’s ladder.
“Last one in the boat is a rotten egg!” Hoss shouted and yanked Vanessa off the ladder and back into the water, then swam over the top of her to get on the boat first.
She kicked him in the leg when he swam by, then climbed up after him. As he backslapped and laughed with the rest of the crew, not a word was said about the trouble down there. Hoss acted like this was just another normal day at work.
She chided herself for being so silly. For thinking he felt the way she did. For thinking that man could be anything more than a wisecracking diversity awareness disaster.
The only answer was to do the same, to go back to the person she was before she saved his life.
Co-workers, that’s all.
Vanessa avoided the high-fiving Speedo cowboys on deck and went to her small cabin to change into dry clothes.
About twenty minutes later a small knock came at the door. She opened it to find Hoss there, filling the cramped space.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure,” she said and turned away so her eyes wouldn’t betray her.
"Hey,” Hoss said and put a hand on her shoulder, turning her around. “We have some unfinished business.”
Vanessa furrowed her brow, confused, and turned her face upward toward his.
Then he made good on that kiss.
He was right. She did need oxygen to recover.
With the eye of a painter and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth’s work is colored by her roots in rural New Mexico and an evolving urban aesthetic. Karen now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published three features in New Mexico Magazine and an essay in Wild Violet.
* * *
On Patrol in the Shau Valley
By Ronald Friedman
He’s pretty sure he’s sitting on an overturned wooden crate that had been used in the past to haul citrus out of the fields. He knows he’s holding a handgun, a Smith& Wesson .357, not official issue, but a lot of the guys carried them. It proved useful in the tunnels. But he’s certain he will not use it because he is sitting in his garage, afternoon light pouring in through the one small window, sitting on his orange crate back in the far corner of the room.
He weighs the gun in his hand. It doesn’t feel right. It might be a good idea to check to make sure it’s loaded.
For brief moments he imagines the narrow beam of light is bright enough to be tropical sunlight unfiltered by the triple canopy. He was on patrol in the A Shau Valley in Viet Nam and has just emerged from the jungle that blocked the sun. Overhead banana trees, palms, thorn bushes and banyans are laced together, tight enough in places that they blocked not only the sun, but would detonate bombs as they hit the high trees as well. He grips the pistol a little tighter. He’s not certain, but he knows he might need it. It seems light in his hand, but the grip fits nicely in his fist.
He is hot, sweat soaks his clothing. He can smell himself. Of course, it’s hot here in the garage. It’s midsummer and the air is stagnant. His attention is captured by a rustling sound beyond what he can see. The far end of the garage is cloaked in shadows. Far from the lone window, thin rays of sunlight that have entered through broken slats in the garage walls spotlight a million dancing motes of dust. He listens for a movement, watches for any changes that would signal possible enemy presence.
This is a recurring problem they all encounter when patrolling the jungle. It's easy to get disoriented. The environment is so hostile and strange that the trees, the sounds, the animals and even the occasional imaginary enemy soldier are surreal. Soon the surreal is normal.
Today, he and four others provided security for a small group of engineers. On a small rise they call Fuck Me Hill, about two klicks south of their base camp, he and the other grunts kept a watchful eye while the engineers fastened small bricks of plastic explosives to the bases of the trunks of maybe a hundred trees and then connected the explosives with det cord.
The heat, the noise, the echo from surrounding hills were stunning. He loved the explosions. He would tell others it was the precision that he admired, but that wasn't true. After the debris and dust settled they had the makings of a landing pad that was located high enough on a small hilltop to be easily defended.
He listened now for the flop flop flop of the Huey that would extract them, but the slapping sounds he heard that mimicked the sounds of the rotor blades were nothing more than a slap slap slap of flip flops smacking the the tile as someone hurried along at the side of the pool next to the garage.
He is almost wholly convinced that he is not looking at a twelve foot long cobra with a head as big as his two clenched fists. The sinuous form is a coiled garden hose or, even more likely, nothing at all. Still, it would be best to hang on to the gun for a while. He would prefer the familiar feel of his M14. In fact, he starts to reach for the pouch on his belt that holds two extra 20-round clips, but, of course, they would not be there on his belt; he was sitting in the garage ten thousand miles and 30 years from the Valley. To be certain, he shrugs his shoulders, but cannot be positive he feels the weight of crossed bandoliers of ammo, two sixty round magazines for the rifle he now holds at port arms.
But if he is in his garage, why does he smell the rank fermented shit the locals use to fertilize the fields and the rice paddies? Smells are the most deceptive. He cannot trust the smells.
Suddenly, he is no longer in the garage. He knew it. He knew it. He let his guard down.
He hears small sounds that might pass unnoticed in the hot afternoon, deep under the canopy in the A Shau Valley, but his experience allows for no mistakes. Someone is coming.
He grips the pistol tighter and turns in the direction of the sounds.
There. The garage door swings open. Light floods the room. He sees only a small figure backlit by the sun.
A garage door, he thinks as he sights along the barrel of the pistol, using the orange plastic cap at the end of the barrel to lock on to his target.
“Grandpa?” he hears. He pulls the trigger and hears C4 explode all around him, muffling the muted click made by the toy gun.
“Mommy says come eat lunch,” a small voice says.
He pulls the trigger again just to be sure.
Ronald Friedman is a retired psychologist living in Scottsdale, Arizona. He's published quite a bit of nonfiction over the years, including two books, but has only been writing fiction for two years, which he considers a short time since he is 72 years old.
* * *
Underground War and Eternal Return
By Greg Girvan
Worms inhabit my brain. I know they’re in there because they give off an odor like the one I remember from going fishing with my father early mornings just as the sun was rising.
The worms come and go at night, using my nostrils and ear canals as passageways. Not long after I drift into sleep, they depart, sliding out into darkness like top-secret spies, each one on a different mission to collect information on the ants.
“One day insects will rule the world,” Mr. Niles told our sixth grade science class.
This was during the week after Easter vacation, and I’ve been waging war on the ants ever since. Every day after school I spend my time on the patio using a sharp-pointed stone to drill their heads into the concrete. To make it interesting, I pretend the stone is a high-powered rifle. I make shooting noises and imagine myself as a sniper.
Sometimes my mother watches me through the kitchen window as she prepares dinner or washes dishes – debating, no doubt, whether or not to take me back to Dr. Seville, the quack I had to see for three full months after my father died last summer.
My sister thinks I’m whacked, too. She’s a year older than me and relishes in telling her friends how I spend all my free time murdering ants. If she knew how many ants would eventually be crawling all over her every night as she slept, I think she’d view my actions differently.
Each morning, no matter how far they venture off, no matter how difficult their nightly journey, the worms come back. Some mornings, in shallow sleep, I swear I can feel their return, their slithery but gentle wriggle back through Eustachian tubes and sinus cavities. A sensation of pressure goes along with it, a sort of stuffy-head feeling, like when I’m getting plugged up or have a cold. When the worms depart, the feeling is the opposite; as they slip out of my ears and nostrils, it’s as if they are oozing out of a toothpaste tube or giving birth to themselves.
Once safely back inside my head, they communicate to my mind whatever ant conspiracies they have discovered during the night. Then, hidden throughout the remainder of the day, they rest, nestled in the convoluted furrows of my brain.
No one else knows about the worms. When I wrecked my bike into Mr. Arnold’s car last month, not even the CAT scan or the X-rays I received at the hospital could detect them. The doctors found only a mild concussion.
Some nights I dream I’m buried deep in dark soil, and the worms merely pass through me as though I am part of the earth. If I turn my head to either side I can see large formicaries – growing kingdoms, huge underground networks most people don’t even realize exist.
Often the dream continues until it reaches it’s most horrific part, which happens when the ants discover I’m lying there, defenseless. Then, one-by-one, they close in from all sides and begin to feed on me. As it becomes clear I’m nothing but fodder for the new world order, I usually wake up, sweating and half screaming.
When I envision my father buried in the ground like that, I pray that his casket is impenetrable – solid, built to last forever. I often worry it might not be sealed tight enough, that thousands of ants might at this very moment be thriving on his remains.
This morning, after one of those dreams, I’m awake before dawn. My heart is racing. I already know I won’t fall back to sleep, which sucks, because after lunch I have study hall and will certainly crash – which means another detention and another hour taken from my mission.
It strikes me then that a surprise predawn attack could prove enormously successful.
I sneak down the hall into the kitchen and quietly open the door that leads to the garage. The cool damp air smells of cut grass caked inside the lawnmower. Searching in darkness, I find the flashlight on its shelf and locate the spade shovel and a can of Raid.
The eastern sky has begun to whiten. I head across the backyard toward the huge anthill behind the rhododendrons. I set the flashlight on the dew-soaked grass and aim the bright beam over the elongated mound. Then I attack. The ants go berserk, darting helter-skelter in every direction as I dig and chop into their kingdom and spray them with Raid.
I don’t realize I’ve been yelling until my mother comes around the rhododendrons in her bathrobe. “Gary!” she yells. “What are you doing?”
Startled, I drop the can of Raid. My mother picks up the flashlight and shines it on the hole I’ve dug. “Oh my God!” she says.
She makes me sit at the kitchen table and in a concerned, shaky voice begins asking me questions about what I was doing and why. I explain how ants are conquering the earth. But this only makes her more upset. “Remember when you thought bees were taking over the world – how you thought honey was poison?”
“This is different,” I say. And that’s when I goof by telling her about the worms.
My mother stares at me, stunned. She tries to say something but stammers. Then her lower lip quivers and her eyes well up. “Oh, Gary,” she says, all croaky. “Everything will be okay, baby.” She hugs me and starts to sob. “I’m going to get you help.”
When she blabbers on about how Dr. Seville will get rid of the worms, my whole body cringes. She doesn’t understand. Without the worms we are doomed. It’s only a matter of time.
I break into a cold sweat. Outside, the sun is rising over our ant-infested backyard.
I can feel the worms squirming inside my head.
…tripping, we talked about the perpetual metamorphosis of light, the immanent womb of the universe and the mega-earthworm of death; the cruel torment of the winter sun; the agonized souls of Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison. And I admitted that once again events happening in the world had begun to flicker by me, how I felt as though I was sitting alone in a movie theater in which the reel has ended but continues to turn and flap with deafening rapidity because the projectionist has either fallen asleep up there or left the booth unattended.
The clock cannot rewind, you said, never recovers, and then you told me to quit reading Nietzsche. Immediately afterward, you dropped your cigarette and started coughing, wolfing down time, looking at me as if I should help. The light sputtered, jagged in its quiescent sloth. We sat on the front porch, not at any movie – instead, in front of a lower-class residential tableau. Your pupils were wide, laying claim to the gray ceiling, your clumsy stare roaming over the paint chips as your head slanted back. Since I have come to know the body better, I replied, the spirit to me is only quasi-spirit. And I Swear I remember you murmuring: soothsayer, wanderer, you are all too human...
Greg Girvan grew up in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and received BA in English from Slippery Rock University. His writing has appeared in The Evansville Review, Wisconsin Review, TPQ Online, Our Stories and a number of other periodicals. He currently works as a freelance writer and editor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
* * *
By Juniper Green
When I arrive at the café all the good seats are taken and I’m left with the singles’ table next to the men’s loo. I sit and don’t complain and try to see the good in the situation. I fetch my notebook from my bag and have a look around. My legs stick to the leather seat and my notebook sticks to the table. Lots of men come by and smile at me, and one of them hands me a coin. I’m flattered until I realize they’re mistaking me for the cleaning lady, but I keep the coin anyway to use on the bus.
At the table to my left a boy and a girl are talking, smiling, sipping their mochas, sneaking sideways glances out of awkward silences. She leans over and touches his forearm and he tenses, and the forearm isn’t just a forearm anymore, and she looks deep into his eyes, smiles, and blushes a little. She takes a breath and her voice sounds so sweet when she asks if his flat mate has a girlfriend. His face falls and the skin where she touches him twitches. He shakes his head but then he says he does. Her face falls and the hand she touches him with twitches, and she shakes her head but then she says, “I hope they’re happy.”
Soon after, she leaves and the boy is left on his own. He takes a sip of his mocha and looks around the room, and then he looks at me and smiles. And the longer that look lasts the more my face twitches and he turns back to his mocha, and the conversation we could have had about his eternal love for the girl who left and her eternal love for his flat mate will never happen. I look away, too. I see the barista leaning at the counter and when our eyes meet he gives me an odd look. And I think it’s because I ordered my coffee to go and then sat in anyway.
There are a lot of people with laptops typing at a speed that makes me dizzy just by looking at them, except for one who’s smiling at his screen and must be looking at porn. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t bring my laptop because I could be looking at porn, too, but instead, I just brought my notebook and all I can do with that is write in it or rip out the pages and make paper airplanes, but I don’t know how. The pressure to write is weighing down on my mind in this café where everybody is typing or busying themselves with beverages, Black Berrys, and love affairs in the making, except for the baristas who are having a laugh at a coffee stain on the counter. And I chew my pen because I have no words to capture the commotion around me, but maybe it’s not about that at all. I try calling my friend, the one with the tip about how to overcome my writer’s block to ask her what it’s about but she doesn’t pick up. I leave an obscure message on her voicemail which I hope she’ll ignore. And I look down, study the blank page, am I immersed yet? Is this literary genius in the making? Maybe the left boy knows, so I look at him but he is texting.
That’s when the couple to my right starts screaming at each other in Spanish. I feel like an extra in a telenovela and also a bit scared because they are quite close and he is a bastardo and she is a puñetera, and I’m just me plus coffee. The barista from before walks around the counter and inches forward, hands raised, clutching a red napkin. Suddenly the couple embraces, exchanging kisses and she is a mujer ideal and he is a garañón and we are all extras in their telenovela. The women are crying and the men are cheering and everybody is giving the couple’s reunion a round of applause. The baristas are holding hands, the left boy has stopped texting, and I have a feeling that any minute now they are going to burst into song. So I start humming a tune, but then everybody goes back to what they’ve been doing and the couple goes back to making moon-eyes at each other, and I am still sitting here feeling a bit foolish. But I can’t write any of this down, because when my friend calls me back and refers to my message and I tell her about the couple and that moment of café love, she doubts this really happened. And she tells me it is not about the café, it is about the writer, and who knows, maybe someone will spot me. And I imagine literary agents lurking behind the plant by the door to the men’s loo, reading over my shoulder. And my friend says I never listen to her and I want to argue that maybe I’m listening too much but then she hangs up without another word. I’m tempted to leave another message but then I don’t because she isn’t a writer and she doesn’t understand.
I put my phone away and look back at the page, still blank but for the ornate rim I drew around it. Maybe fine art is my true calling? I hear the barista’s foot tapping, and when I look up, he is standing in front of my table staring me down. Maybe he doesn’t like people who write, or those who linger too long? Maybe he has seen the caricature I drew of him on the coffee collar? He snorts and leaves to whisper with his colleague. I watch them as they study me from afar and feel paranoia’s cold fingers creeping up my back, sliding over my shoulders, around my neck, and squeezing. I gather my things and don’t use the loo, even though it’s right around the corner, and I’ve just had coffee and the bus takes almost an hour. I head for the door and every one of my steps is taking the time of two. I can see the baristas shuffling behind the counter, the one who’s been staring me down, coming after me. I try to quicken my steps but my muscles strain against my effort to make them more like those of a professional footballer than they are. My bag wiggles and bounces, slamming into people’s shoulders and heads, spilling coffee over white trousers and making them type gibberish. As I reach the door, a hand on the handle, I feel my shoulder being grabbed, my body being turned in a direction I wished my body would not go to face the barista who smiles and asks me if I’m that writer who won the poetry slam last week. I nod and try to calm the flutters in my stomach as he asks me if I could sign the coffee collar I used. My signature is shakier than usual, but I smile and wave to the baristas and they wave back, and then the other people in the café wave, too, and as I walk down the street to catch my bus, I feel like the star in a telenovela.
Juniper Green is a writer of novels and short stories, currently based in Edinburgh.
* * *
A Ceremony of Giving
By Irving Greenfield
The year was 1939. The war in Europe had already begun, and the mood in the United States was sour. The Germans were winning on all fronts. Daily news coming over the radio was grim, except for the news from the Russian front where the Finns were winning.
It was close to Christmas, and the members of the DO RIGHT club, Florence, Doris, and Jake's sister, Rose, who organized the club at the beginning of the summer, were at a loss about what they should do for Christmas that would be unique and at the same time mirror the philosophy of the club.
The three young women, all of them juniors in Tilden High School, possessed the imagination to project, if not specifically, the various disasters that lay in the immediate future. And their small mission as defined in their mission statement was to help people, even if it meant helping a single individual, or a family who, because of the depression, was in need.
The club met every Friday night at seven-thirty. The meetings lasted about an hour and a half, including the time it took to read the minutes from the previous meeting, and make any corrections that were put forward. After the formal meeting, tea and home baked cookies were served, anything more would have been a luxury that none of the girl's families could afford.
The meeting place was rotated between the three of them, and when it came time for Rose to host, Jake usually stayed close by. He was specifically there for the tea and cookies, and didn't give a “tinker's damn” about anything else. He already had his mind set on becoming a soldier; he only had eight years to wait before he would be eighteen and could join the army. He was sure neither of his parents would sign for him when he reached seventeen. His biggest concern was that the war would be over before he could become a hero.
None the girls had boyfriends, so much of their conversation was about current events or school gossip, all of which Jake could tune out and loose himself in daydream adventures. He did this equally well in school, where he occupied the last seat, in the last row. Such a place was reserved for the dumbest student in the class, and the teacher usually ignored him. But Jake considered himself lucky; he sat close to a window where he could see the sky and the houses across the street through the bare branches of the trees, and that made it much easier for him to escape into his own adventures.
Jake's sister, Rose, was ashamed of him. She, of course, was an excellent student, and a confirmed bookworm. All of the club members were excellent students. But Doris was the best, a German refugee she could read and write in German, English and French. Something Jake couldn't imagine doing because he was having a difficult time with English grammar, not that he wasn't a reader. But the rules of grammar flawed him, and they were exceedingly boring.
Jake thought all sisters’ friends were ugly. Doris was short and dumpy, while Florence was tall and very thin. His sister was his sister. She was nothing to rave about, but she did have nice "chinky" eyes when she laughed.
When Jake wasn't in school or at home, he was in the street playing ball or on the nearby lot playing war, which he much preferred to playing ball. He was tall and rangy for his age, and though he was totally unaware of them, many of the girls in his class had "a crush" on him, mainly because he was a bad kid and though by them to be dangerous. Had he known this he would have laughed, gathered a ward of saliva and spit to show his disdain? He had no use for girls.
Jakes best friend was Ben, whose real name was Biaggio Caliendo. Ben sat directly in front of Jake. He too was considered dumb because he couldn't speak, read, or write in English. But if asked to he could do all three in Italian, his native language.
Ben, like Jake, was a wild one. The two somehow managed to get on together, and if it came to a brawl, they would defend one another. Ben was shorter and thinner than Jake, but his black hair was just as unkempt as Jakes’. Neither boy came to school clean and neat. Usually they arrived together, and after the late bell sounded. Bleary eyed from lack of sleep, they often cradled their head on the desk and slept in class.
Both boys came from poor families, but Ben's family was so poor it was forced to live in several makeshift shacks close to the railroad embankment on Remsen Avenue. The shacks were surrounded by open fields, and swamps. During the summer Jake and Ben hunted garter snakes, frogs and muskrats. Ben's father skinned muskrats and sold their skins. During the summer the swamps were alive with all kinds of life and millions of flying insects, but during winter, the land was desolate. Living in a railroad flat with a bathroom, hot water and steam heat the way Jake's family did, would have been considered luxurious by Ben's family.
On the first Friday after Thanksgiving it Rose's turn to host her club, and it was during that particular meeting a decision was made to do something that would help someone. There was twenty-five dollars in the treasury, which was a goodly sum of money. And the girls discussed the matter at great length. But the problem remained the same: they didn't know anyone who needed help, and they didn't want to give their money a general charity like the Red Cross. They wanted something more personal, something more intimate which would give them the feeling of having been part of it.
Jake, who was impatiently waiting for the tea and cookies to be served, had no choice but to listen to the discussion; which, as far as he was concerned, wasn't getting anywhere. It seemed to be going and round, until he said, "Give it to Ben's family."
That stopped the girls’ discussion and brought silence into the kitchen, where they sat around the kitchen table.
"Who's Ben" Rose asked. Jake explained who Ben was, and how poor he was.
"Do you know where he lives?" Florence asked.
"Sure, I do." Jake answered, and he explained where and how Ben's family lived in three shacks.
"There are eight children,” Jake told them, “Ben is in the middle, and the only boy in the family.”
With exception of Doris, who knew how people in desperate straits lived, Rose and Florence couldn't believe what Jake told them.
"Do we give them the money or - " Rose started to ask.
"Food," Jake said. "Ben is always hungry. Food is what they need most."
A vote was taken and passed unanimously: the Caliendo family would be given twenty-five dollars’ worth of food for Christmas by the members of the Do Right Club. Jake was sworn to secrecy, and it was decided the food would be delivered to the Caliendo family by all of them on Christmas Eve. And Jake would serve as a guide, leading them to where the Caliendo's lived.
Jake was glad the discussions were over and the cookies and tea would soon be served.
Rose and her friends made lists of food items they would consider buying for the Caliendos. Then, they discussed each item and decided whether to eliminate it or keep it on the list. Beef was expensive and scarce because of the war in Europe. Butter too fell into the same category. Poultry was still cheap, as was pasta and potatoes. Canned vegetables took the place of fresh vegetables. Margarine took the place of butter. A five pound sack of flour was included. The shopping took several days to complete. A large, fresh ham was the center piece of their gift to the Caliendos.
On the twenty-second a light snow fell. Traces of it were still on the ground on Christmas Eve, and it turned bitter cold. A brisk wind put more of a bite into the cold than it would have had.
Bundled up, and with their hands gloved, each of the girls carried to shopping bags; while Jake lead the way with flash light. Crossing the open fields, was a punishing experience for all of them.
Rose and her friends tried to have a conversation about The Grapes of Wrath, a new novel by John Steinbeck, but the wind ripped at their words and stopped them. Jake bent his head into the wind and imagined he was with Amundsen at the South Pole, and in midst of a blizzard.
The moon came up and illuminated patches of snow still there from the previous snow.
"The shacks," Jake said, waving the flashlight off to his right, where there were three low buildings. One of them looked like the back of a big truck.
The girls remained silent. They were too cold to comment.
Suddenly they heard barking.
"The Prince and Princess," Jake explained. "Guard dogs."
"What's to guard?" Florence asked.
"What little's there is," Doris said, before Jake could answer.
The dogs' barking became louder, and sounded more vicious.
Jake stopped, and shouted, "Ben, it's Jake . . . It’s Jake." A couple of seconds passed, and a light shone, a lantern was waved back and forth. Something was yelled in Italian and the dogs stopped barking.
"It's okay to go now," Jake said. "Ben is at the door."
The girls followed his lead.
They were glad to be out of the wind, but where they were offered practically no warmth. A meager fire burned in a make shift hearth of stone and brick built into one wall. The room was almost completely dark, except for the wavering light coming from the fire and Ben's lantern. The entire Caliendo family was there, gathered along the wall near the hearth where their elongated shadows splashed on the rough wood floor.
No one spoke.
Rose whispered to Jake, "Tell Ben we have food for the family, our Christmas gift to them."
"I'll try," Jake said. "But he doesn't understand much English." Jake stammered. He tried to find words that Ben would understand.
"No use," he said.
Mr. Caliendo, a tall, used up looking man, with long skinny fingers pointed to them and the bags they were still holding, while he spoke sharply to Ben in Italian.
"We're not doing well," Doris commented. "The father is suspicious. He seems to be angry."
"Show them the food," Florence said. "I'm sure they'll understand that."
Jake shrugged. He didn't like the way things were going. He felt a growing tension, or maybe he was just anxious.
Florence went to the table and put a loaf of bread on it.
The Caliendos stared at it. Ben looked as if he might make a grab for it. But he didn’t.
She put other things on the table until her bag was empty. Doris did the same, and Rose followed them.The table was piled high with food. There were even a a few candy bars and Christmas canes for the younger children.
Wide eyed, The Caliendos looked at the food; then at their father. His face was flushed; his hand clenched into fists.
No one moved or spoke.
Suddenly Mr. Caliendo shouted, “Portare il cibo a casa mia, rubano il mio onore. Io sono l’uomo dell’ Aula; Io potare il cibo per la mia famiglia" And with a swift sweep of his arm, he sent an avalanche of food crashing to the floor. What had been neatly stacked was now a confused mixture of spilt milk, broken glass and sundry food item mixed with tomato sauce, and the high pitched wailing of children. Mr. Caliendo turned his back on Jake and girls.
Ben looked at the food, then at Jake and shook his head. “You bring food to us, but take away his honor.” Like his father, he gave his back to him.
"Let's skedaddle," Jake said.
"But the food!" Rose protested.
"Leave it; the dogs will eat it," he answered, and headed for the doorway with the girls close behind him.
Out of the shack, the four of them ran until they were out of breath and were forced to stop and gulp air.
"What happened?" Rose finally asked.
Jake shook his head. "Something bad. We did something bad."
"But we - "
"Bad," Jake said. "We did something very bad."
He couldn't find the words to answer her; he didn't know the words. But he knew it was bad; and because Ben knew it was bad too, they wouldn’t be friends any more. And that made him sad, very sad; sadder than he ever felt on Christmas Eve.
Irving Greenfield has been published in Amarillo Bay, New Works review, the Stone Hobo; the Prime Mincer, The Note and Cooweescoowee. He lives with his wife in Manhattan, and has been everything from a sailor, to a soldier, and even a college professor.
* * *
By Amber Hollinger
It started as just a game. Though, perhaps, not so innocent.
Said the infamous Mr. Body to his illustrious guests, “It is true that I have almost anything any man could want. Save one thing. I secretly long for one piece: this evening to me you will bring the perfect picture. The winner gets a million cash.”
And a mad dash began as the master disappeared. The bastard was always playing hide and seek. Bit of a geek. But handsome enough. Clever. And of course, obscenely rich.
Accustomed to his sport, though not such an ample prize, his visitors finished their cocktail conversation—which had followed wine-tasting on the terrace, which had followed dessert and jazz in the conservatory, which had followed an indescribably decadent 7-course feast in the dining room—and flowed through the foyer to commence the competition. Their mission began, as each prepared their perfect pictures to present to Mr. Body.
Mr. Green crept ‘round the billiard room, smoking a glass pipe. Body entered and leaned against a table, preparing a match of Quick Fire.
“Imagine yourself fitted with your fabulous friends,” said the glittery Green. “The piles of box seat tickets to whatever fucking event you could want, jet-setting for weekend benders in Rio, naked beach houses in the south of France, hand-picking harems of the finest young models, showers of the purest cocaine in the western hemisphere.”
Mr. Body could picture it, perfectly. The figurative fantasy was ferocious. But did not floor the master, as it was not the piece he sought.
Ms. Scarlet prowled about the ballroom, toying with silk rope. Body stepped in and pulled her close, taking in her musky splendor.
“Imagine yourself lavished with your luminous lovers,” said the sultry Scarlet. “The orgies with precious Persian princesses, the plump-lipped heiresses who could suck the diamond studs from Harry Winston’s bed posts, wet weekends at sacred fertility fortresses, the gorgeous girlfriends on each arm willing to bend and open to your every whim.”
Mr. Body could picture it, perfectly. The symbolic seduction was strong. But did not slay the master, as it was not the piece he sought.
Misses Peacock lurked in the lounge, lighting Venetian candlesticks. Body entered and sank into a velvet chair, turning his pinky ring.
“Imagine yourself trudging through your tremendous treasure,” said the prideful Peacock. “The chateaus in every nation of the European Union, silver screen yacht trips to the not-so Virgin Islands, an exquisite collection of classic cars to rival the ostentatious armoire of Imelda Marcos, pocketing politicians and policemen like skipping stones to play on a slow day.”
Mr. Body could picture it, perfectly. The poetic poison was potent. But did not pulverize the master, as it was not the piece he sought.
Colonel Mustard skulked around the study, fingering a nineteenth century revolver. Body sauntered in and stood attentively, admiring the armament collection.
“Imagine yourself enthralling your enormous empire,” said the malicious Mustard. “Learning the tricks of trade from masters of industry on every continent, buying up blocks and banks like a goddamn monopoly game, having world leaders bow to you and bend on knee to borrow, wielding the power to squeeze blood from stone and coin from bone.”
Mr. Body could picture it, perfectly. The metaphoric malevolence was mean. But did not murder the master, as it was not the piece he sought.
Professor Plum hid in the library, studying a priceless sculpture that resembled a wrench. Body wandered in and lounged at the desk, flipping through financial reports.
“Imagine yourself immersed in your innovation and intellect,” said the perceptive Plum. “Private school days when you valued library books over the dirty magazines your roommates passed around, club meetings with sons of tycoons and dignitaries – debating everything from Hedonism to Hegel, the prestigious research grants so elite they remain unknown to the pedestrian president, days you were ignited by your work and the burning desire to contribute something of consequence.”
Mr. Body could picture it, perfectly. The witty word was wonderful. But did not win the master, as it was not the piece he sought.
Mrs. White waited in the kitchen, chopping vegetables with a shining knife. Body entered, greeted her and folded his arms, watching.
“Imagine yourself through the eyes of the only one you ever loved,” said the wise Mrs. White.
“Before the slow friends and fast women, before you turned your father’s millions into billions, before you stopped looking your mother in the eyes – except to boast of fame and fortune. Remember… when you knew true love? Remember yourself before you were shrouded in shadow?”
Mr. Body nodded, silently. And suddenly fell to his knees. For he could picture it, perfectly: an image so clear and bright that it blasted though him.
Mr. Body felt terribly unclean and unworthy in its presence. Consumed by the need to rid himself of the darkness, he took the dagger from her gentle hands
and cut out his own heart.
Here he found his missing peace.
Mr. Body. In the kitchen. With the knife.
Amber Hollinger hopes to contribute something good by sharing her work, which has appeared on PoetrySuperHighway.com, in S/tick, Rose Red Review, and is forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal. She holds an MA in International Relations. Amber recently completed her first poetry chapbook, (S)urge, and is working on new fiction and non-fiction.
* * *
By David Howard
“Nothin’ like toaster strudel,” my father said almost every morning. “’Specially the strawberry one.”
He would make them before I left for school, dropping two slices in the toaster, watching they browned properly. When they popped up, he’d put them on a paper plate next to the toaster and carefully inscribe the pieces with a saying for the day with a cake decorator. He would not use the small packet of strudel topping that came in the package. “You can’t write with that stuff,” he’d claim.
I’d sit at the kitchen table sipping an orange juice while he wrote. He never used notes, though maybe he had memorized the saying.
“Here’s some advice,” he’d say, placing the toaster strudel in front me. The saying that day was “If you are lucky, you won’t believe in luck” – Nick Rodelo.
“Who is Nick Rodelo?” I asked after reading my strudel.
“I think he’s a musician,” my father said. “Or maybe a gambler,” he added, laughing. “Eat, you don’t want to be late for school.”
My mother worked four to midnight at the hospital, so I rarely saw her until the weekends. As far as I knew my father didn’t work, since he was always there to see me off to school and welcome me home. When I asked him if he had a job, he’s say, “Sure, I do this and that.” He must have done those things on the weekend, when he was usually gone.
I thought my father was an artist; his toaster strudel printing was so beautiful. Each letter clear and perfectly formed. Weekend breakfasts were different. Sometimes my mother made them, usually pancakes or eggs, served in silence to my father and me, while she drank coffee. There was never strudel on the weekends, until yesterday, Sunday, when my father was in the kitchen.
He said, “Your mom is sleeping.” He put the strudel, blueberry I think, into the toaster. The saying was: Wasting time is not a waste of time – Henry G. Bossman. When I finished, he said “We’re going to the zoo.” We spent most of the day there and laughed a lot.
At home, my mother was reading in the living room. I heard my father and mother in the kitchen, and when he came out he looked sad. “I’m going out for a while; be a good boy for your mother.” He turned quickly and was gone before I could say anything.
The next morning in the kitchen, my mother removed two slices of toaster strudel from the microwave.
“He made these for you before he left,” she said, placing the plate in front of me. They were strawberry, topped with the saying: In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back – Charlie Brown.
David Howard lives and writes in Rhode Island. He has published fiction in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Boston Literary Magazine, Apollo's Lyre and Blue Lake Review.
* * *
By Samantha Lemmerman
Marie Cavanaugh sat in the hospital waiting room glancing at the clock. Four hours, three minutes, and twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three seconds since she kissed her husband’s sweaty forehead. The surgery, a double bypass, should have been done an hour ago. Yet no one had come to retrieve her.
She grew claustrophobic in the close quarters of the waiting room. Small children with sniffling noses left their winter coats partially unzipped, pressing their faces against the fish tank. Their mothers sat thumbing their phones. One heavy push and the fish tank would be shattered on the floor.
Hand sanitizers and purple latex gloves mixed for a nauseating scent. She pulled out a travel size bottle of coconut hand lotion.
Patients came and went, some clutching purses in their laps, others working away on their tablets, paperwork in hand. Nervous eyes glanced at every swing of the emergency doors.
Marie sat waiting, her face masked with patience.
The two-month-old magazines lay spread out on the tables around her, their covers bent. She’d been tempted to busy herself with reading, but realized how many sick people had handled them. Then she spotted the morning newspaper, untouched at the front desk.
“Mind if I borrow this?” she asked the nurse who frowned over her paperwork.
She nodded without as much as a glance.
Before she could settle into reading, however, a surgical nurse approached her.
“Mrs. Cavanaugh, your husband is out of surgery and in recovery. If you’d follow me please.”
“Actually,” Marie said, the paper twisting in her hands, uneasy at the thought of seeing her husband in overly sterile recovery ward. “Would it be alright if I waited in his room?”
She followed the nurse’s lead to her husband’s room.
A bouquet of flowers from the university sat along the window sill, the largest of the bunch. Balloons stretched above, trying to reach the ceiling. Cards were stacked in every available sliver of space. An oversized stuffed bear in a football uniform sat on the table next to the bed.
She plopped down on the chair. The paper flattened in her hand.
The coverage of the winning sweep the university had during homecoming took over the entire metro city paper. The volleyball, rugby, and soccer teams had fought hard and won by a few points. But the Division I football team had dominated, winning 57 to 5.
The journalists filled the pages with photos from all the events. The players were photographed in mid battle cry. One player had his tongue sticking halfway out of his mouth. On the bottom corner of the last page, Marie spotted one of the cheerleaders. Moving her thumb, Marie’s heart sank.
The girl was wrapped in Marie’s husband’s arm, both all smiles. Her long dark hair was in curls, tied back behind an oversized bow. Pom-poms sat crunched in the crook of her elbow, their stubby streaks of metallic paper stuck to her uniform. A flawless smile, her hands perched on Coach Cavanaugh’s chest, enough to take the breath from Marie’s lungs. It’d been after the melee out on the field, the coach’s smile spread wide across his face, his arm wrapped tight around the cheerleader’s tiny waist. Her stomach lurched.
The edge of the hospital bed appeared in the doorway, and a nurse wheeled in Tom Cavanaugh, his eyes closed. She situated him along the wall, next to monitors that beeped and whirred, tracking vitals. The sheet was pulled up to his elbow, covering his barrel chest, which rose and fell almost imperceptibly. In forty-five years Marie had never seen her husband look so pale.
“Nurse?” Marie rushed out into the hall. The nurse stopped a look of worry on her face. “Could you please make sure my husband doesn’t see the paper?”
The nurse gave her an odd look.
“Too much excitement in the sports section,” she added. The nurse nodded in agreement, and tucked the paper under her arm.
Marie returned to the room. Tom’s eyes were still shut, resting.
Inspecting each bouquet, she read the attached cards. Wishes of a speedy recovery and bright future left her feeling broken. A small box of chocolates in the shape of a football rested at the end of the sill. The envelope was signed to Coach Cavanaugh in a girlish script. Marie picked at the corner, bending its perfect lines. The card was stamped with a loving but generic phrase on it. She lifted the card, greeted by a scent of jasmine and mandarin. A young, perky perfume. Inside, ‘B,’ signed in a loopy, clean handwriting. Out slid a color print of Tom with the cheerleader.
Flexing his hands above the stiff sheets, Tom blinked his eyes open. A small, barely audible cough escaped his lips.
“Tom,” she whispered, slipping the card into the wastebasket.
Samantha Lemmerman has always included fiction as a part of her life. Inspired by current events, she explored hot button topics. Through her writing she explores issues in a more personal, intimate way.
* * *
Happy Birthday, Thelma
By Brittany Little
Thelma stood at the edge of a large rectangular table. She peered across from her at the v-shaped arrangement of cups. Intensity poured from her eyes as they moved slightly from side to side. With each blink her gray eyes filled with excess water. Out of the corner of her peripheral Thelma noticed her five great grandchildren running around the house. They all carried one rainbow colored balloon tied around each of their tiny wrists. Everyday spent with her family was a blessing. Normally at any other birthday party Thelma could be found running after them screaming ‘Tag, you’re it!’ This year was different. She made a bet exactly one year ago today on her ninety-second birthday, and she intended on keeping it.
Thelma never imagined living past the age of eighty, let alone ninety-two. Her eighties seemed to be as distant as her adolescence. The many inventions that she lived to experience left her nostalgic. She took nothing for granted and lived life to the fullest. Last year on her birthday the youngest grandchild, Stephen, brought to her attention the game of Beer Pong, saying, “It’s a young people’s drinking game. You wouldn’t get it.” Stephen didn’t mean anything negative by his comment. He respected his grandmother very much. Thelma made him a bet that in one year’s time she would be able to make the first shot of the game, hands down.
There stood Thelma, staring at Stephen from across the table on her ninety-third birthday contemplating which red plastic cup to choose as her hole in one. Her focus was broken from laughter exploding behind her where the family sat finishing up the birthday feast. Thelma snapped her head around.
“Keep it down. I’m trying to concentrate.” Specs of spit sprayed out of her mouth. “God dammit,” she said. She screamed out and grabbed her neck in pain. “Now see what you made me do? I threw out my neck again.” Thelma had always been a feisty, independent woman. Her attitude didn’t change with age. Silence seized the voices of those sitting at the dining room table. Thelma’s son, Gerald, rose from his chair putting his finger over his mouth and gestured in a sarcastic manner for everyone to be quiet. The family let out a small giggle.
“Mom, maybe it’s time to take a break,” Gerald said.
“Nonsense, I haven’t even started yet,” Thelma said, “It’s just a spasm. It’ll pass.” Gerald’s sister, Patricia, along with others, helped with clearing empty food plates from the table. Everyone else sat with their legs spread open and their pants unzipped relieving themselves and giving them space to breathe.
“We should really go and support Mom. This is a big decision for her to be making alone,” Patricia said to Gerald. The two shared another laugh. The family collectively gathered in the living room behind Thelma and chanted in support.
“Sink it! Sink it! Sink it!”
Thelma reached for her hearing aid to turn it off and drown out the cheering. She was encapsulated in silence. She took a deep breath. The smell of beer and leftovers put a smile on her face. She had made her decision. She arched her right hand, flicked her wrist, and released. The ball flew through the air and looked to travel in slow motion, Thelma thought. Just as she made the bet confidently, she sank the ball as expected and won her bragging rights. She reached back towards her ear to turn her world back up.
“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!” everyone sang out. Thelma held her hands up in victory.
“Chill out. I told you I had that.” Thelma said. “Now someone bring me my glass of wine so I can show this young man how to play a game of Beer Pong.”
Brittany Marie Little is new to the writing scene, but considers it an exciting and thrilling journey. She is currently seeking her BFA in Creative Writing for Entertainment. As an author, her goal is to become a Suspense Fiction writer, but she enjoys dabbling in every genre.
* * *
Star Struck By Winter
By Nick Marcantel
It was Christmas Eve as I lay out in a field with my father next to me. We gazed up at the twinkling stars above. I didn’t want to be here at all, but my dad insisted I come. “The best Christmas present is creating an experience to remember forever,” he always used to tell me. I didn’t think so. I wanted presents under the tree and a warm cooked meal surrounded by my family, but times had changed.
“Son, I’m really glad we could do this,” my dad said to me. I laid there in silence brushing him off. I was upset that things had changed. “Look there’s Orion’s Belt right there,” he said pointing at the star cluster. Still I sat in silence. We drove out here to camp for one night, and the whole time I only thought about what could have been.
“You’re mad at me aren't you,” my dad said. My heart sank now as I laid there in silence. I felt bad for my old man. I knew he was trying the best he could.
“I just miss the way things used to be,” I replied with a great sigh.
“Things will get better, son, I promise.”
“Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s supposed to mean exactly what I said.”
At that moment I saw a shooting star soar across the sky. It was the first time I had ever seen such a thing. I heard my dad get up next to me and walk back to our tent. I laid there for a few moments by myself observing the dark sky above. My parent’s divorce really took a toll on my father. I knew this Christmas wasn’t going to be the same.
I got up, and headed back to the tent where I saw my dad sitting on his cot, as he fiddled with something in his hands. He looked at me, and I saw the hurt in his eyes. It weighed on me – his glassy-eyed gaze – it felt like somebody was pushing against my chest.
“I was saving this for another time, but I want you to have it,” he solemnly said as he held out a wad of cash. “It’s all I've got right now, but you deserve it.” I didn't know what to say, or what to do. I froze in place as the weight of his offer nailed me in the gut. I thought about the shooting star, and why my father brought me out here.
“No, dad, you keep it,” I said as I sat next to him. “Like you said, Christmas isn’t about the things you get. It’s about the memories you share with the ones you love.” He hugged me as he sobbed on my shoulder, and I held him back. It was the Christmas that I never saw coming, and was the one I surely wasn't ever going to forget.
Nick Marcantel is a student at Full Sail University in the Creative Writing Program who is looking to tell great stories.
* * *
Little Miss Fairy
By Richard Ong
Once there was a fairy who roamed the quiet suburban Street of Glenhoe on Sunday afternoons. She was a cute little darling who wore a pink dress with tiny wings at the back.
“Hello, Mrs. Carmichael,” she’d say to the nice elderly lady on House Number 32.
“Oh hello, there! I’m so glad you stopped by,” said Mrs. Carmichael as she straightened up with a grimace on her face.
“What’s the matter?” asked the fairy.
“Oh.. it’s just my back. All this gardening has given me pain all week for having to bend down so much.”
“There, there, now,” said the fairy as she reached up and rubbed Mrs. Carmichael’s hips with her tiny hands. “Go have a seat. I think the garden looks good already. You should rest.”
“Why thank you, little one,” smiled Mrs. Carmichael as she sat down on her stool beside her geranium flower pots. “I think I will do just that. Thank you very much for your advice.”
The fairy smiled till her dimples showed on her face. She went off to visit Mr. de la Cruz on House Number 34.
She found him crawling on all fours patting the lawn with his hands. The sprinkler was on and he was getting wet.
“Mr. de la Cruz! What are you doing?” she asked.
“Oh, little miss. Thank you for stopping by. I seem to have misplaced my glasses. I can barely see without them!” He looked so distressed that the fairy grabbed both of his hands.
“Don’t worry, Mr. de la Cruz. I will find them for you. But first, come with me away from the water.” She pulled at him with all her strength while Mr. de la Cruz slowly got up and allowed her to guide him away from the sprinkler.
Afterwards, the fairy looked around and dodged the sprinkler until she saw a reflection of light on the patio steps nearby. She picked up the pair of glasses and handed them to a grateful Mr. de la Cruz.
“Whatever would we do without you, little miss!” waved Mr. de la Cruz as the fairy hopped and skipped down the street before disappearing inside House Number 35.
“Good heavens! Look at the state of you,” said Mrs. Dearborn. “You’re all wet and where did you get all those mud on your shoes? Here, let me take off your dress before you catch a cold. Marry Anne Dearborn, whatever will we do with you?” She sighed as she pulled the dress up over the golden hair of her six-year-old daughter.
“Our very own Little Miss Fairy of Glenhoe Street.”
Richard Ong's painted artwork, stories, poetry and photos have appeared in several issues of bewilderingstories.com, yesterdaysmagazette.com and The Blotter Magazine. One of these stories has been republished in print as part of an anthology titled, “Toys Remembered” (compiled and edited by Madonna Dries Christensen).
* * *
That's Why I'm Here
By Michael Onofrey
No, I’m not blaming this on my parents. If you think I’m blaming this on my parents, you’re badly mistaken. This is about my failings, not my parents’, stepfather included.
This is just the way I smile.
I got this crooked smile when I was four years old. I fell off a swing. A nerve got pinch and the left side of my face is paralyzed, you know, the left side is flaccid and the right side moves, just like everyone else’s, the right side that is. But the right side looks a mess when I smile or laugh or squint, but it’s only because the left side is flat, which creates an imbalance that distorts the picture. But what does this have to do with my drinking?
No. Why should I blame my parents for my face?
Are you saying I was trying to get back at my parents?
Yes, my father died when I was ten years old, and yes, alcohol was involved.
Yes, I suppose he was.
Well, yes, my stepfather died of alcoholism.
My mother in all respects was levelheaded, except when it came to husbands. She didn’t drink at all, and, according to what she told me on several occasions, hadn’t had a drink, not even a token sip of champagne during the holidays, since the time when she was twenty-one years old and blacked out after drinking a quantity of Scotch. My mother was against drinking, an anti-drinking person. She sometimes said that the only problems in our household were those related to booze.
Wait a minute, now. My parents, stepfather included, didn’t pour any alcohol into my mouth. I don’t know why you keep coming back to that.
Yeah, well, I know you’re just asking questions. I know that. And I know you’re trying to get to the root of the problem. But . . .
No, I don’t see any connection—a fall from a swing, which I can’t even remember, and the crooked face and the drinking?
Yes, I tried AA.
That’s right. I didn’t get past a few open meetings because I didn’t want to get involved. You know, commit to the program—have a friend and then a sponsor and the twelve-step deal. I don’t like programs. I don’t like groups. Besides, that book they read from is boring.
It’s just the way I am.
Genetic? You mean, like in my genes?
I haven’t looked at my genes. How am I supposed to know? Can people do that, look in a microscope or something and see genes? Can they like say, ‘Hey, that one there is an alcoholic gene.’
No, I’m not trying to be funny.
Yes, I . . . I want to tone it down. You know, I’m having problems. That’s why I’m here.
No steady girlfriend right now.
There’s this woman I see sometimes, or she sees me sometimes. Whichever way you want to look at, we see each other.
Well, I wouldn’t say—relationship. It’s more like . . . a convenience. Or an urge, you know, you know how that works.
Well, no. What I’m trying to say is that she calls me when she wants to see me. But sometimes we run into each other at this bar.
Yes, we drink together.
Well, since I drink almost every day it stands to reason that I always have sex when I’m drinking.
I don’t know when the last time was.
As far as I know, yeah, she’s like that, too.
Her name? Linda.
No, we’ve never talked about it.
She says she likes my smile.
I don’t know why.
Yeah, I liked my stepfather, most of the time.
Of course I liked my father. I was ten years old when he died, so I have that boy-father image. It’s a good image, but I don’t think about it too often.
Yes, I liked my mother. Why shouldn’t I have liked my mother? Don’t you like your mother?
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . . I’m sorry. I apologize.
I suppose because I’m bored. I go to work, as I told you, an auto parts warehouse, which, fortunately, provides health insurance. And-
No, I wasn’t trying to allude to the money thing. I was just . . .talking.
I go to this pub-like place. It’s got a British atmosphere, or maybe Irish. No, it’s not Irish. It’s British. They got a picture of the queen.
Yes, on my way home. And, yes, or rather no, I don’t drive. I do most everything on my bicycle. I don’t have a car.
No, I didn’t lose my license. I have a valid driver’s license. I just . . . don’t want to have a car. They’re a hassle. They’re expensive.
Well, yeah, I suppose you could say that. You know, I don’t think anyone wants to get a DUI.
Well, of course, I don’t want to be driving drunk and get in a wreck and kill somebody or something. Who would?
The bar/pub? No, I didn’t stop there before coming here. I came straight from work.
No, I don’t drink at work. I tried that once, you know, at lunch break. It didn’t work out.
Yes, sometimes Linda is there, at the bar/pub. Actually, that’s where we met.
Well, no, I don’t exactly go there to wait for her.
Sometimes I talk to other people.
Sometimes I read the newspaper or watch people play darts or look at the TV. They have soccer matches on.
Soccer? It’s boring.
Well most anything becomes interesting if I have a pint of good ale in my hand.
Vodka or rum.
My mother? How in the world can you connect Linda up with my mother?
Okay, okay. I’m sorry.
Yes, I’m here for . . . guidance.
I don’t know if the men at the bar/pub are like my father. I hardly knew my father.
Perhaps they’re like my stepfather. I don’t know, they’re just men.
Some I suppose are white-collar, others blue-collar, others no-collar.
No, I didn’t mean that. There are men, and women, who work but they’re not what I’d call blue-collar. Like myself, I wouldn’t consider my job blue-collar.
No, Linda isn’t the only woman who comes to the bar.
Yes, after the bar I go home and I drink there.
My cat’s there, and sometimes Linda’s comes over.
Yes, I’d say drinking with my cat and the TV constitutes drinking alone.
My biggest problem? Hangovers.
Like most every day, and I think that’s part of the problem. You see, that first glass of beer takes that proverbial edge off. I can hardly wait to get to the pub because that first golden sip is there, waiting for me, and about halfway down my first pint of beer my hangover begins to ease up. You know, the headache and that uncomfortable feeling all over.
Yes, you’re right. It’s like a dog chasing its tail.
Well, ah . . . like what I was maybe thinking—Maybe you could give me something for the hangovers.
Okay, okay. I know. No, I wasn’t trying to do that. I was just . . . I don’t know. Hey, let’s just forget about that, okay? You think I got to stop drinking completely, huh? You think that’s the solution?
Michael Onofrey is from Los Angeles. Currently he lives in Japan. His stories have appeared in Arroyo, Natural Bridge, Outside Literary & Travel Magazine, and Two Hawks Quarterly, as well as in other fine places.
* * *
By Brian Rodan
“Pop got arrested. He tried to kill someone.” That’s how Lil Ruby started the phone call. She didn’t ease into it. There were no preliminary pleasantries like “Hello, how are you doing.” Or maybe even “How’s Molly and little Eggbert.” Kid’s name is Edward, not Eggbert. But, that’s just how she is.
Lil Ruby is Jack’s older sister and she doesn’t give a rip about Jack and Jack is just fine with keeping it that way. Lil Ruby only called every couple years and it was always bad news or just to rub Jack’s nose in how good it’s going for Tex, her and the twins. Molly tried to warn Jack as she handed the phone to him. Holding the phone to her stomach to muffle her voice, she mouthed as she whispered, “It’s your sister.” Lil Ruby was always a couple ingredients short of a complete recipe, and she would say the same or worse about Jack.
“Pop got arrested,” Lil Ruby repeated. “And, what are you going to do about it?”
“Hello to you too, Sis. And, hello to that hubby Tex and the girls,” was all that Jack could say before Lil Ruby cut him off.
“It’s Martin, you know that, not Tex. You insist on saying things like that, hurtful things. Pop’s arrest couldn’t come at a worse time. The twins, Becca and Bella, they’re 13. This is a big year for them. They’ve been taking Cotillion lessons for two years. Learning about dresses, etiquette, manners, speech lessons, hair, nails, flowers, learning to dance, more dresses. This is the year they will be empowered as women. Their debutante balls are in May. That’s just 2 months away and now this. We were hoping Pop could come to his granddaughter’s ball. Instead, Pop is arrested, orange jumpsuit and the whole thing. What I want to know, is what are you going to do about it. You have to handle this,” Lil Ruby said.
Jack wanted to say, “what the hell is this with Cotillion”, but he didn’t say it. That would just start an argument. Even though he never leaned away from an argument especially with Lil Ruby, there was no upside in arguing with Lil Ruby about this. She’d just tell him he’s lazy, Tex is making boat loads of money in wireless. And, what was Jack doing, that business of his, selling kayaks. There just can’t be much money in that.
Yes, Jack had been misinformed about the kayak business, but everybody makes mistakes. Jack thought it would be exciting, it wasn’t. He’d just stands there listening to customers, pretending to be interested as they go on and on about the morning mist over the water and getting in touch with nature. Blaah, blaah, when all Jack wanted to say to them was “Just go ahead and buy the gear already, shut up and get out of my store.” But, Jack didn’t say that either, no upside. Smile and look interested.
Lil Ruby grew up in the same house that Jack did in Pottstown Pennsylvania. There was no cotillion, there were no debutante balls. Lil Ruby almost didn’t graduate from high school, telling Mom and even Pop to f-off or f-this or go f-yourselves. Back then Lil Ruby still spoke with her god-given Philly accent, like Jack, like everybody in Pottstown, except the old Germans and there aren’t many of those still around any more. Now she’s got this southern accent. Its “yall this” and “yall that” instead of “you guys.” Like she could fool anybody. But, Jack always weighed the upside, and there was no upside in arguing with her. If there’s no upside, then you zip it.
“Pop’s in jail. He called me. He was all worked up, screaming into the phone. He always was a hothead. Finally caught up to him. Shouting about a worthless public defender assigned to him. Some guy named, Mitchell, Mitch something. Pop called him a little shit.”
“Little shit, that part sounds like Pop. But, they arrested our dad, Tom Ruby. What’s he, like 81, 82? They arrested a Korean War veteran. Things must be slow for the Pottstown police.”
“Pop is more wacker doodle than usual the past couple years since Mom died. I think he’s gone fundamentalist something or other, Martin calls it fundie. Pop goes on about redemption and forgiveness for his sins. I don’t think he’s all there. What are you going to do about this, Jack?” Lil Ruby said.
Jack just couldn’t see the point in all that fundamentalist fundie stuff. Like, what’s the upside? What’s the end game to going that way. With your pecker tucked away and strapped down in place, that’s the only version of fundie that Jack knew about. Anyway, what’s the point in living or even dying like that when your junk should be out there roaming free without restrictions or additives. Though Jack was not above an occasional dose of those blue pills to add a little graphite to the pencil. You can have your standards but if something works, it works.
Pops was always this angry grumpy guy and Jack could see him digging a bunker in the yard and stocking it with guns and ammo. Or he could see Pop as one of those angry old guys that young mothers see and then instinctively pull their kids closer to their skirts. But going fundie? Jack just couldn’t see the old guy going that direction, no matter what Lil Ruby told him.
“You keep asking me what I’m going to do. But I live in Seattle and I am 3,000 miles away from Pop and Pottstown, and you live in Richmond and you are just 200 miles away. Why don’t you and Tex handle it? Just write a check or something like that.”
“Sometimes I can’t believe you are my brother. You are so insensitive. Martin is very busy providing a very good living for the girls and me, a lot better than Pop did for us or you’re doing for Molly and Eggbert. I’m lucky to have him. The girls and I are completely swamped preparing for Cotillion. There is so much to do. The twins are not like you’re Eggbert.”
“Edward, not Eggbert,” Jack said as he corrected her again.
“Whatever. He just sits there playing video games all day. I bet he still wears all that dark, goth clothing, and paints his fingernails black. That’s fine for Eggbert but my twins are planning their future, they are becoming empowered young women. Not like Mom, the way she put up with Pop, I don’t know why she stayed. My twins will be prepared to conquer the world, poised and in control. What’s Eggbert up to?” Lil Ruby said.
Jack wanted to say “just a phase” and tell Lil Ruby that she was wrong about Edward but he didn’t say it. That would just start another episode of her-life-is-great-your-life-sucks and he has seen that show before. There was no upside to that for Jack. Jack wished that Molly had not included all those details about Edward or the picture in their Christmas letter.
Worse still, Edward had started kayaking. Edward was 13 and the same age as Lil Ruby’s twins. But, Edward was a big one. Even Jack had to admit that Edward was rotund. The kayak sat low in the water when Edward was on board, after Edward squeezed and scooched into the kayak cockpit opening. Jack could see Edward struggling to stretch and snap the water skirt around his Saturnal orbiting mid-section. And, Jack’s neck and jaw tightened up involuntarily when he thought of Edward with black eye liner and black painted finger nails sitting in the kayak in the morning mist, communing with nature like the rest of his customers. Jack loved his son, but he hoped this was just a phase for Edward.
“Lil Ruby. I don’t know if you recall but I have a business to run here. I just can’t take off. I’ve got some big irons in the fire, big deals happening right now,” Jack said.
“Pfff. That little thing. Kayaks? You’re kidding. I thought yall’s business was way down with the recession. Yall were on the verge of losing the house,” Lil Ruby said.
Jack realized these must be more morsels of information from the Christmas letter. Jack wished now that he actually read the letter when Molly gave it him before she sent it out. Next year, NO CHRISTMAS LETTER. Jack would tell Molly when he got off the phone.
“Ruby, you seem to forget that Pop hates me. He hasn’t talked to me since Mom died,” Jack said.
“That’s what I thought to. You hit him up for a loan to that failing business of yours,” Lil Ruby said.
“It all started long before the loan. It started at birth when Pop named me Jack Ruby. Nobody names their kid after the guy who killed the guy who killed JFK. And that was just the beginning of Pop’s war on Jack,” Jack said.
“So he gave you a weird name. Get over it. You’re always so dramatic. Pop is a hothead. Just the same, Pop asked for you. Said he signed a bunch of papers giving you a power of attorney, over financial stuff, medical stuff, sounded like over everything to me. Well Pop doesn’t have that much, maybe the house and a little cash in the bank. But, he doesn’t hate you. Even said you get $3,000 a month to do it, but you have to actually be there, in Pottstown, to collect,” Lil Ruby said.
“I don’t trust the old guy. I’m not flying all the way back East just to get jerked around again,” Jack said.
“This little talk with you is taking much longer than I wanted. Look, I have to get back to the twins. The Cotillion planning group is meeting this afternoon and the twins and I are going to a fitting for their dresses. I just can’t be bothered with you and your problems. You have to take care of this thing with Pop,” Lil Ruby said.
“Afraid not, Sis,” Jack said.
“Jack, I didn’t want to have to do this, but you left me no choice. Does Molly know about that Snatch-It-Mart girl? Personally, I would be humiliated by all this, but I never know about you. She didn’t mention her in your Christmas letter,” Lil Ruby said.
“What are you talking about?” Jack said. That whole thing in the Snatch-It-Mart convenience store, not one of Jack’s finest moments. Sometimes, better living through negotiation doesn’t work out so well.
“Denial. That’s cute coming from you. Molly would probably find it interesting to find out about a video on a website which prominently features you, Jack my brother. Just searched for my brother and there you were. Disgusting video, truly disgusting. I didn’t think that there was that much space in the back of a milk and beer fridge in a convenience store. I’m guessing that Molly has not seen it. I’ve got the whole movie saved on those little thumb drive thingies, convenient for mailing,” Lil Ruby said.
“Looks like I’m going to Pottstown. Hated the place when we were growing up. But anything for dear old dad,” Jack said. Jack hated the long plane trip, the rental cars, the drive to Pottstown.
When Jack got to Pottstown he decided to stop by the old house first before going to see Pop in the orange jump suit in the Pottstown city jail. It was the same house that he and Lil Ruby grew up in. Pop probably still kept a key in the same spot under the steps in the back. Pottstown hadn’t changed since he left over 20 years ago, except that the town has continued to decay even though Jack would not have thought that any further decay was even possible.
Maybe the Old Guy left some cash around the house. Just small amounts. Pop used to do that years ago. Just a little cash infusion to assist Jack in his fiduciary responsibilities. Just enough to cover some pass-through items, cover expenses.
When Jack drove up to the house he could not believe what he saw. The entire front yard of the house and the whole driveway which separated the house from the Allen place next door was covered in stacks and piles of trash and debris. Six to eight feet high. A system of walkways, shoulder-width walkways, cut into the piles of debris like narrow canyons. The debris was more than a pile of trash, it was a collection, a catalogue of trash and debris eight feet high over the front yard and driveway.
Pottstown city jail was one of those old Eastern Pennsylvania gray stone buildings looking like a Dickens workhouse with a coating of 100 years of soot. Jacked liked to think that the soot was coal dust but he knew better. Pop walked up to him, standing on the other side of the bars of the holding cell, a pathetic old guy in his orange jump suit, with a big zipper down the middle, a pecker pincher for sure if the old guy was forgetful on the down zip.
Jack thought about starting with a “Hello, how you doing.” Since he hadn’t talked to the old guy in years and it still stuck with Jack the way Lil Ruby started right in on him the other day. But “hello” just seemed silly under the circumstances.
“I went by the old house, Pop, before coming here. I couldn’t even get out of the car. I like what you’ve done with the place. You going for that post-apocalyptic thing there. Or are you auditioning for a reality TV show” Jack said.
“Jack Ruby, you always were a smart-ass punk. Promise me you won’t touch any of my stuff there. It might look like a mess to you. But, every single thing there has been carefully placed,” Pop said. The old guy always referred to his son by his full name, Jack Ruby, just to twist the knife a little more in his son, Jack thought.
“Pop, you’re arrested for trying to kill somebody. Let’s start there,” Jack said.
Pop tapped his index finger to his head. “It’s all catalogued up here, all my stuff. Swear to me you won’t move anything. That’s years of work you’re looking at. Years.”
“Hold that thought on the crap-piles, Pop. You haven’t talked to me in like forever, then you try to kill somebody and its me, only Jack Ruby can help you,” Jack said.
“The charges are nothing,” Pop said.
“Right, attempted murder is nothing,” Jack said. “You remember I’m the one with the GED, cause I couldn’t finish high school.”
“Even that dumb-ass lawyer Mitch thinks the charges are nothing,” Pop said.
“You’re attorney is a dumb-ass?”
“Yeah, he’s got this beard, short-trimmed up thing on his face. He looks like Abe Lincoln or Freud in their 30s. Mitch is big about saying “accused” this and “alleged” that. He’s got this pointy chin and he is always pointing that bearded chin right at you. All he needs is a pipe and tweed jacket with elbow pads. Just a little shit,” Pop said.
“What’s Mitch say?” Jack asked.
“It’s all a big misunderstanding. I see somebody in the backyard at night. I think the guy is stealing my stuff. So I chase a burglar. That’s it. Nothing to it,” Pop said.
“You left out all the details Pop. Like, how you had a gun and you shot 6 times at the guy. Like, how he wasn’t even in your yard, he was in the Allen’s yard, next door. And, he wasn’t breaking in,” Jack said.
“Didn’t hit nobody. My eyes are so bad with the cataracts anymore, everything is a blur,” Pop said.
“Not exactly, Pop. You nicked him in the leg. You were lucky, only 2 stitches. You don’t remember the blood all over you, all over him, everywhere. The pictures of you and the squad car look like a bloodbath. Scared the crap out of him. You coulda killed himk, Pop,” Jack said.
“But I didn’t hurt nobody. No harm no foul,” Pop said.
“They did a psychological evaluation on you. You told police that your trash piles were talking to you,” Jack said. “You are an old hothead, Pop. Mom always knew what to do with you how to calm you down. But, she’s gone now.”
“Jack Ruby, that’s the thing. You have to help me. You’re mother’s not gone, not yet,” Pop said from the other side of the holding cell bars. Pop hung his head down, chin resting onto his chest and resting on the big pecker-pincher zipper of his orange jump suit.
When Jack met Mitch, the Public Defender, he wanted to be serious, he tried to be serious. Jack started off that way with him, but he must have been smiling too much for the circumstances.
“Mr. Jack Ruby, is there something humorous in this situation?” Mitch asked twice and Jack just told him “No” since there was no upside in telling Mitch the truth since he would just get bent out of shape. Pop was right, though. Mitch looked like Abe Lincoln or Freud. And, he kept sticking that pointy bearded chin out as he spoke just for emphasis.
But Mitch was helpful. And, working with Mitch, Jack managed to get Pop released on bail and into Jack’s custody. Jack was the guardian ad litem, that’s what Mitch called it. Jack liked the sound of that.
In the car ride from the jail back to the house on Oak Street they were both silent, not a word between the two of them. They just watched as the old familiar Pottstown streets clicked by, many of the shops were closed now. Jack parked the rental car on the street in front of the house since the debris and trash, Pop’s debris piles, filled the driveway. Then, Jack turned to Pop and asked him, “Tell me about all this trash you collected.”
Pop did not respond. Pop got out of the car and walked into one of the footpaths which cut into the piles of debris and trash on the driveway. Jack followed a few steps behind.
Jack caught up to Pop in one of the narrow shoulder-width canyon walkways which were cut into the trash and debris which was piled 8 feet high above them. The sides of the canyon looked as if they might collapse onto them at any time.
The debris piles oozed out in pieces from the side of the pathways. The debris piles looked like a disorganized collection of random trash teetering on collapse. There was a washing machine with boxes piled on top, with magazines piled on top and then empty flower pots, there were blankets and pillows out in the weather, a bicycle helmet, then more boxes and papers. On-and-on with trash and debris covering the entire yard and driveway.
Jack was nervous walking or even standing in the debris canyon. When he caught up to Pop he saw him bending down and reaching into a box at the bottom of the stack, resting on the concrete of the driveway. Pop opened the box from the side so as not to topple the items which were piled on top. Jack feared that this simple retrieval could bring the whole mass of trash down on top of both of them. Pop reached in and pulled a small piece of cardboard. Pop’s hands were purposeful and knew exactly what they were searching for. Pop stood up and wiggled the small piece of cardboard in front of Jack’s face. It was a printed card, there was a picture on it.
“Jack Ruby, these piles don’t mean anything to you. It’s all just my penance for people I treated like trash like your Mom, you and Ruby,” Pop said as he held the cardboard in front of Jack’s face.
“Don’t hug me , Pop. That would be creepy in the middle of all this trash,” Jack said.
“This is all stuff that has been thrown away. I threw too many people away,” Pop said, continuing to hold the cardboard in front of Jack’s face.
“I couldn’t remember her voice anymore. She was still alive as long as I could remember her voice, but then I couldn’t hear her anymore,” Pop said.
Jack took the small piece of cardboard from Pop’s hand. It was a memoriam card.
They buried Mom in Ephrata on a cold, crisp Autumn day. Mom always liked to visit Ephrata with the old Cloister. Most of the leaves were off the trees and had fallen and tossed and swirled on the ground in the wind. On that Autumn day when Jack drove from the burial ceremony at the grave site hundreds of leaves swirled around the car and in the air as Jack accelerated the car. In the mass of hundreds of leaves that swirled around the car there was one crisp, dried Oak Leaf which defied gravity and danced there in front of the windshield, right in Jack’s field of view, and remained there even as the car accelerated. At first he did not notice this one brown Oak Leaf motionless among the many which swirled all over the ground and around the car.
But then Jack took notice of this one Oak Leaf which stayed in front of him in the middle of the windshield even as he accelerated the car. This one Oak Leaf was calling him, demanding that Jack pay attention to it, to listen to it, to see that it was not flying away like all the other leaves. Then, once Jack realized that this one leaf demanded his attention, the Oak Leaf seemed to twist slowly back and forth like a hand slowly moving in the air. The gesture seemed to be releasing Jack, or beckoning him.
Then Jack left that Autumn day and returned to the present. And, Jack watched as Pop turned and walked down the pathway further into the debris pile. Jack realized that it takes two people to release an embrace. He took his phone out of his pocket. Jack wondered what Molly was doing, how Edward was doing. Jack would call them. He could see the upside now.
Brian Rodan lives in the Pacific Northwest on the wet, west side of the Cascade Mountains. From his window he overlooks a mossy regrade slouch toward Puget Sound.
* * *
The Blue Sundress
By Alyssa Ross
I know my grandmother – the shape of her, the smell and the feel of her. When I was a kid I’d rub her cold, soft ears, my grip loosening as I drifted off to sleep. Even as an adult, I find comfort in the warmth of her hand on my leg, her arm around my waist. I know her in a tangible way, and I know her life, her history, but I’ve always felt like I was missing something – a piece of her lost somewhere. Something about her stuck in my headspace.
My search for that something began with a knee length, sleeveless dress made of thin cotton. The pale blue fabric is pleated around the breast and accented by cream-colored trim and buttons. Although it is slightly faded, the dress is timeless. I’ve often tried it on, slipping my arms in ever so delicately as not to damage it. As I felt the white teeth of the zipper biting into my skin, I imagined what my grandmother must have looked like in her youth. She must have been tiny, possibly malnourished, because the dress fits firmly against my small frame.
I spent a lot of my youth with Grandmother, Ila Sue, out on the family farm. This was the place where she grew up, and where her mother lived until she passed away at 92. The farm was filled with golden rows of corn and wheat, fenced in herds of cattle, and a make-shift fire pit for burning trash. My cousin, Matt, and I often played together while Grandmother shucked peas or corn, or whatever else was in season. We ran in between the long, green stalks while she shot the crows so they wouldn’t demolish our corn crops. I heard a pop from the shotgun and watched as black spots dispersed into the sky. This didn't bother me at all. Growing up in a farm culture, you learned to love the inherent beauty of death. The decay of the corn crops each year, their stalks melting into the rich soil.
We watched as the birds flew away, their blackness beading through the bright blue summer sky. But I certainly hated it when I came across the carrion. The bird carcasses would usually get covered up by fire-ants - nasty little red ants that thrive in the Alabama heat. I hated to see those ants’ gnawing and exposing the bird-flesh hidden under those silky black feathers. People always complain about the mosquitoes in the South, but for me it was those fucking ants, all over everything.
Ila Sue wore the blue sundress, which was far from a white, silk gown, on her wedding day. She went to Mississippi at age twenty-six to elope. Traditionally, this story would end with her parents disowning her, but my family had a knack for deviating from traditional plot lines. Her parents, along with most of the family, were actually relieved that she had finally gone through with it. At that time, twenty-six was verging on old maid status, and the family worried that she’d end up a spinster.
Not that Ila didn't receive offers. In fact, she was quite popular during her youth and went through several suitors. Her suitors often took her to the Red Pig drive-in for a milkshake. One boy, named Vernon Brown, even made a formal proposal. He was an established member of the town who ran a business of hearses. In those days, the hearse was often used as an ambulance as well as a carriage for the dead. She once told me, “I might not have liked to be seen ridin’ round in a hearse.” Ila may have been turned off by his business, but when I asked why she had refused the proposal, she simply said, "Well, I never did think enough of him."
"So you didn't like him," I asked, trying to get more out of her.
"Not enough," was her only reply.
By the time I was born, the Red Pig drive-in was closed, but it didn’t matter because my grandmother preferred to cook her own meals. I grew up with my legs glued to her kitchen floor, watching her as I sat bare-legged on those sticky, plastic tiles. I wasted entire afternoons on that cold floor, wrapped in an oversized T-shirt, staring at my grandmother’s long fingers as they hypnotically swirled batter in a bowl. Her short blonde hair was stiff and coarse from years of curlers and hairspray. The wrinkles on her face might have looked stern if it wasn’t for her soft, blue eyes. I watched as she smashed out the lumps in the batter and tilted the bowl beside a baking pan. Once she was pleased with the consistency, she took a spoon and layered the batter into the pan. When the last drops trickled out, she skimmed her finger across the edge of the bowl to stop batter from dripping on the counter. I watched with delight as she rinsed her finger under the faucet. I knew that the aroma of the cake would soon fill the house.
She used to carry me with her everywhere she went. At times it felt like I saw her more often than my own mother, who was often flying out to D.C. for work.
One night, while Grandmother was trying to make dinner, I begged her to pick me up. I reached up and squeezed my tiny hands open and closed.
“Maw Maw,” I called, smiling up at her with my fat, dimpled face. I squealed as she threw me across her hip. She opened the freezer to grab the peas and then remembered the boiling water. Her head turned towards the stove for just a second, but it was one second too long. I heard a thwap as I swung open the freezer door, hitting the side of her face. We both watched in amazement as a small white particle fell from her mouth to the ground. There, on the black and white linoleum floor, sat a tiny white tooth. I stared wide-eyed at the particle, waiting for punishment. Without saying a word, she sat me on the floor where I promptly picked up the tooth and handed it over with a tentative smile. My grandmother, being a religious woman, tried not to cuss. Instead she said, “Well, shhht,” as if leaving out the vowels made it okay. She said it in an almost whisper, as if she was saying, “Shhh, be quiet.” I found her non-cuss cusswords funny and often laughed when she got upset.
The South is famous for its bravado, so I knew it couldn’t be a true Southern story, the kind my grandmother was so famous for, without a little exaggeration. As an adult I became curious about the validity of this tale. When I asked her about it, she said “Girl, you knocked it out all right, just like they said.”
Despite her wrinkled grin, I suddenly felt overwhelmed with guilt. She must have seen the frustrated expression on my face, because she quickly added “Oh, honey, it wasn’t my real tooth. Only the cap, my dear.”
When I was a kid, we called my grandfather “Grandaddy Beard.” I later learned that this nickname was another one of my grandmother’s little white lies. My grandfather’s real name was JT, but people always called him “Beer.” He got the nickname, Beer, because of his affinity for a certain southern treat. Ila made it by combining beer seed (what we now call hops) and grapes into a jar. Beer liked to grab a handful of the grapes as they were just beginning to ferment. But my grandmother didn’t like the idea of her grandkids saying, “Beer did this, or Beer did that,” so she cleverly tweaked his name.
Ila Sue dated a series of men before falling for Granddaddy Beer. Unlike most women in the town, Ila didn’t rush to marry, but instead courted her future husband for three years. Lots of people in town rushed into marriage because, well, they wanted to have sex. I wondered if my grandmother had stayed a virgin for those three years. If she had, then she must have been the picture of self-control. If she hadn’t, then she was one hell of a transgressive woman. Either way, it was an impressive courtship for the 1950s. But I didn’t know which scenario was true and probably never would. I felt that asking might somehow violate the terms of our relationship. So I instead asked why she chose to wait so long.
“Were you unsure about Granddaddy Beer? Did you like other boys?”
She laughed, “Well heck no. We were poor as dirt back then. Your Granddaddy Beer and I couldn’t bear the thought of havin’ a family and not bein’ able to feed ‘em, so we made a deal. I told him that if he saved enough money for a house, I’d help by savin’ enough money to furnish it. Once we had both done our part, we agreed to get hitched.” I looked at her model and knew I could never marry for anything less than a true partner, no matter how much time it took, no matter if it never happened at all.
It wasn’t until she told me the story of how her marriage was almost prevented that I really began to see her as a woman, more than just my grandmother. She was always someone else’s before she was mine, and even after.s
In 1952 and Ila was living on the Buchanan family farm, which encompassed several acres of lush Alabama land. The little wooden house was located across the pasture adjacent to the corn field. All of the Buchanan family had gone to town for the day, except Ila, the eldest daughter. Inside the house, Ila carefully removed a black, used suitcase from underneath her bed. She dusted off the front flap with the small of her hand. After tossing it on top of her bed, she opened the door to her closet. Bending her torso slightly, she ducked into the small, dark space. Ila's head barely cleared the closet doorframe. Waving her hand, she felt for the light cord. She tugged at the string and heard a click. Her eyes took a second to adjust to the bright, dusty mesh of clothes. She scuffled through the closet, looking for her best outfits to take on the following day's journey. Sliding the wire hangers across the pole, she examined the colors and textures of each garment. Her heart dropped; there was no silk, no chiffon. It was all cotton. Cotton was everywhere in the South, she couldn't get away from it. Could she really get married in cotton? She could ask a friend to borrow a dress, but they would surely want to know what it was for.
Frustrated, Ila threw the clothes on her bed. Yellow, pink, and grey dresses spread out before her. There was not a white dress among them. But her eyes stopped at a thigh-length, sleeveless sundress made of sheer cotton. It would show off her long, skinny legs. JT adored her legs. The dress would also serve her well in the hot Mississippi sun. The pale blue fabric had tiny pleats around the breast. The dress was accented by cream-colored trim and buttons. It reminded her of the Alabama sky, clean and cloud-studded. It fit tightly on Ila's small frame, but tapered at the waist.
This was the one.
A soft smile spread across her face. She packed a few more outfits, ones that she knew JT would like. She knew his taste well; after all, they'd been dating for over three years. After replacing the unwanted dresses in the closet, she fastened her blonde hair in soft, sticky rollers. Taking a good look in the mirror, she noted that she was not a blonde bombshell. No, she definitely wasn't a Marilyn. If anyone in the family was a Marilyn, it had to be her sister, Calla. Calla worked hard to transform her farm-girl looks. Her full lips had crisp lines that she accented with coral lipstick. Her eyes had that sleepy, seductive characteristic. The lashes, lengthened with mascara, fluttered and cast shadows across her cheeks. Her beauty, and perhaps her affinity for a good time, made her the center of attention. Sensuous and passionate, she became a young bride while Ila kept the family farm going.
But Ila was handsome in her own way. Her hair was the color of wheat gleaming in the sun. Although she rarely blushed, when she did her cheeks took on the color of a summer sunset. She observed her straight, small nose, which was not displeasing. But her eyes were surely her best feature, wide and bright blue.
She spread cold cream across her face, minding any stray hairs. The tingling made her feel fresh and young. But her family was always quick to remind her, half joking, "You're no spring chicken." It was true; she was twenty-seven and had passed on previous proposals. But tomorrow would be different. She was an adult now and ready for the full, overwhelming weight of love. Tomorrow she and JT would leave Guntersville, Alabama and head to Mississippi to elope.
She thought about their plan as she carefully folded each dress. She and JT wanted just a few moments of privacy. Ila didn't want to share this moment with the whole town. JT was also a private person, which was what initially sparked Ila's attraction. When he asked her to marry him and suggested that they elope, she was elated. After the dresses were packed, she looked around the room. Her gaze stopped at the family portrait on her dresser. All three sisters stood in a row, she in the middle with the younger two on each side. The picture was taken before Margret and Calla were married, before Ila had met JT. They posed outside, with the stretch of grey hills in the background. Her sisters showed their teeth with wide, fake smiles, while Ila's mouth remained slack. Margaret and Calla looked straight ahead at the camera, but Ila's attention was elsewhere. She looked off into the distance, to some faraway place. Ila turned the picture face down and began rummaging through her drawers. The plan had proven harder than she expected. She had to hide her anticipation from the family, Calla especially.
Ila began packing her toiletries: perfume from Paris, rollers, rouge, and a soft pink lipstick. She delicately placed each item in the side pocket of her suitcase. The marriage wasn't a secret she intended to keep forever. She planned to tell the family as soon as it became official. Comforted by that thought, she continued to fill her suitcase, gently folding her undergarments. These she tucked at the bottom of the suitcase. Suddenly, Ila was startled by the quick click of heels coming down the hall. Calla flung open the bedroom door to find Ila packing.
"Ila, what are you doing? Where are you going? I knew something was wrong."
Ila looked at her with disappointment. She took a deep breath a quietly said, "Well, I guess you might as well know. You'd find out sooner or later."
Calla removed a cigarette from her pocketbook, resting it between two fingers. Her bright red nails glittered against her tan hand. She lifted the cigarette to her lips and lit the end, sucking in slightly. When she pulled the cigarette away, Ila noticed that her nails and lipstick were perfectly matched.
"Don't smoke that in here. Go outside. You know I don't like the smell."
"Not until I get an answer. Are you leaving us?"
Ila pursed her lips and looked at Calla with cold, hard eyes. Ila was always so responsible, responsible for everyone. She just wanted this one moment for herself.
"Oh, Calla, don't be so damn dramatic. I'm not leaving. JT and I are getting married in Mississippi. We'll be back in a week’s time."
"But you're making a huge mistake."
"Just because your marriage was a mistake doesn't mean mine will be."
Calla's short, bleach-blond hair flickered around her face as she flung the clothes out of Ila's suitcase and onto the floor. Ila didn't try to stop her. Soon, skirts, dresses, and undergarments lay crumpled beneath their feet. Calla collapsed on top of them and began to cry. Tears trickled across her cheeks, smearing mascara down her face. She cried out, "You can't get married. You're all I have."
One night, Calla’s husband gave her a serious scare after he'd finished off a quart of whiskey. He began yelling, telling her how she couldn't keep a house – couldn't cook or clean. Their argument escalated and he threw her against their newly-papered kitchen walls. After he passed out, she called Ila to come and pick her up. That night, Ila had promised that she would always come, no matter what the circumstances. Calla wondered if she'd keep that promise once she had her own family, her own husband.
Ila sat down on the floor beside Calla. She held Calla's chin in one hand and used the other to wipe her cheeks.
"Look at you. You're a mess," she said tenderly. Ila paused for a moment and considered the situation. Calla needed her, but she needed JT.
"You know, Calla, I want to leave and never come back. I want to see new places, meet new people, start a life of my own. I want to leave this dry, desolate farm and see the big city. Just me and JT. The sad part is that I will come back. I will always come back."
One night, my mother showed up at Ila’s house with me and my sister. Mom was cussing under her breath and her eyes were a glassy red color. Ila asked, “What the heck is going on?”
“David has threatened me for the last time!” she exclaimed.
“What?” Ila replied with an astonished look. She could see that my mother’s marriage was going badly, but she couldn’t get her to talk about it. Mom was private and independent, which made it hard for Ila to tell what was going on.
Mom glanced over at me and my sister and whispered to Grandmother, “Keep your voice down, mother. The girls will hear. He said that if I left him, he’d kill me. He said he would get a gun and shoot me in the head.”
In that instant, many would have succumbed to fear, but not Ila. She put on her glasses, picked up the phone, and calmly dialed.
"Hello, David, this is Ila speaking,” her words were slow with a careful determination.
“Well, hello there. Have you heard from my…”
Ila cut him off, “Listen here, now. I am a God-fearing woman, but if you threaten my baby girl ever again, I will get my shotgun and, son, I will blow you into the next world.” With that, she clicked the phone back on the receiver. The next week she ordered my mother to get her things from the house and move in with her until she found a place of her own.
Ila never moved outside of Guntersville, but she and Beer spent many loving years together raising their two daughters, Aleeta and Angie, until one unfortunate day.
From the living room window, Ila watched Beer fall to the ground as he suffered a second major heart failure. She ran out to the cow pasture where he had been standing. The dry grass was crushed around the area where he had stood only moments ago, leaving a dark imprint in the field. She had told him not to work out there, not in this heat. Why hadn’t he listened?
After his funeral she went to see his doctor, searching for answers. He told her, “There was nothing you could have done. During his last visit the x-ray showed that his heart had swelled to three times the normal size. He knew he only had a few months left.” He’d lied to her, to the girls, for those past months, pretending everything was still the same. But Ila didn’t feel betrayed by the lie; she felt relieved. Their last days together were not marred by the looming despair of death. Still, it was hard to shake the guilt she felt at not being there for him in those final dark moments. Over time she accepted it, realizing he had committed an act of grace in sparing them the knowledge of his dark secret. When she got older, she was even able to laugh about it.
That man’s heart was just too damn big.
My grandmother was a tough farm girl, which made it hard for me to accept that she was getting old. It was particularly hard when she broke her femur and couldn’t walk for several months. At the time, she was living by herself in an old, two-level house. She had to walk down stairs that were six inches wide to get to her laundry. The family knew it was an accident waiting to happen. Luckily, two of my cousins were there with her when she fell. They called the ambulance right away, but she still had to be hospitalized for several weeks. When she was finally discharged, she stayed with my aunt and cousins. I knew I should go visit her, but I was scared to see her like that – so weak and vulnerable. I finally convinced my sister to go with me. We waited until midnight to make the drive – it was always easier at night. The drive from Virginia to Alabama took eleven hours, and it gave me time to think, to worry. Would my wild, energetic Ila Sue be replaced by a sad, weak old lady?
By the time I came to visit, she was able to hobble with a walker down the hall. Most of the day she sat in a lazy chair near the TV. I sat beside her and got up every now and then to get her water or a snack. She still couldn’t bend down to use the toilet, so the hospital gave her an uplifted one that she could use in her bedroom, but it had to be rinsed out after use. Once when it needed to be cleaned, my grandmother called me over and asked me to do it. She laughed and said, “I used to clean up your poop, now you’re gonna clean mine.”
Her friends called frequently, stopped by to check on her, and sent her several homemade pound cakes (her favorite). In fact, they sent so many pound cakes that she made me take two back home to Virginia. She asked me how I was doing in school, how my career was going, what my boyfriend was like. But I was taken aback when she asked, “When are you two getting married?” I quickly changed the subject to a movie I had recently seen – The Divinci Code.
Grandmother may be somewhat unconventional, but there is one point on which she would not budge. She was a devout Baptist, so devout that she refused to read or even watch The Divinci Code. I tried to explain that it was a work of fiction, but she stubbornly shut me down.
“Alyssa, Jesus is immortal – the son of God.” When she got like that, there was only one thing to do – shut up and nod.
One afternoon, I was sitting with her, wearing a light, flowing skirt, similar to her sundress, which fell past my knees. My long hair was wavy and uncombed. My aunt and cousins started laughing, “Doesn’t Alyssa look like one of those holiness girls?”
My grandmother didn’t hesitate, “Y’all stop pickin’ on her. It ain't nice to make fun of people.” She shot each of them a stern look until the laughter subsided.
During the visit, I learned that her broken femur wasn't the only bad luck she'd had. While she was in the hospital, someone had broken into her house.
"Well, what did they take? The TV? Jewelry? Money?"
"No, they mostly just took pillowcases full of food. They stole my costume jewelry and some other knick-knacks, but nothing worth much."
"How weird. Do you think they were crazy people?"
"Well, maybe not crazy, maybe just down and out. If they really needed it, then I'm glad they took it, poor dears."
While I was in town, my aunt, cousins, and I went to check on Grandmother's house. Upon inspection, we found two boxes of stolen goods sitting out in the backyard. The presence of these boxes creeped me out. My aunt said, “Maybe they left it out here planning to come back for it.” She called Grandmother's gardener, who had been by after the burglary, to see if he had noticed the boxes. He told her “No way,” there hadn’t been any boxes there when he came.
When we told grandmother, she said, “Well, I'll be. I bet they heard I was in the hospital and brought some of it back. Don't that beat all?” It was possible, considering that Guntersville was a small town and most people knew Ila. But I still doubted it.
My sister, my cousin Katie, and I stayed at the house to discourage anymore burglaries. We flipped the lights on and off, made noise, watched the TV on loud. When it came time for bed, we all decided it would be best to sleep together. The beds weren't big enough, so we made a pallet of blankets in the middle of the living room floor – just like Grandmother had done for us when we were kids. If a burglar had broken in, he would have had a good chuckle at our expense – three grown women sprawled on the floor amongst a pile of blankets when there were two perfectly good beds. Despite being huddled together, my doubts about human kindness kept me awake that night. I knew that, had she been there, Grandmother would have slept like a baby.
When we had to go back to Virginia a few days later, I was sad to say goodbye. I wanted more time with her – more time to figure out who she really was. In the end, I left knowing that my love for her as a Grandmother – first and foremost – would always obscure my understanding of her as a woman.
In some ways, she would always be unknowable.
Alyssa Ross was born in rural Alabama but relocated to the outskirts of D.C. after her parents' divorce. She painted at VCU's art school for a year before changing her artistic focus to writing nonfiction. She now teaches writing at Auburn University while pursuing her PhD.
* * *
Bubble Gum Caper
By Marcia Szymanski
“Why do I always wind up in the slowest line at the market,” Shannon wondered, aggressively chewing her dried out bubble gum. She watched the young woman in front of her helping her little girl blow her nose, then shove the used tissue in her jacket pocket. The woman finally began to wade through her Texas -sized pocketbook looking for money. “I know my wallet is in here somewhere.” Just then the little girl started tugging at her mom’s sweatshirt.
“Mommy, Mommy, can I have some gum?”
The woman stopped her search and bent down toward the girl.
“No Brianne, we don’t chew gum.” Her eyes looked up over the girl’s brown curls and stared into Shannon’s eyes. “Gum’s not good for your teeth. You can have some strawberries when we get home.” Shannon glared back at the woman and blew a huge bubble. Just then the cashier broke the silence. “Do you have any coupons ma’am?”
“Oh yes, I do,” the woman responded, turning away from Shannon. She dumped the entire contents of her pocketbook on the belt. “Let’s see. I know I have a coupon for juice."
Shannon felt rage building. She looked at her watch. Her brunch guests would be arriving soon. She only needed yogurt for the granola and cream for the coffee. Shannon started to put her two items on the belt. She looked down at the little girl, who was staring up at her. Shannon opened her purse and took out another piece of bubble gum. She held it out toward the young girl.
The girl peeked at her mother, who was busy putting her things back in her own pocketbook. Shannon smiled and put her index finger over her lips signaling silence. She continued to hold out the gum. The little girl reached out and took it, put it in her pocket. Just then the woman grabbed her daughter’s hand and her packages. “Com’on honey.” She looked back at Shannon with a scowl. Shannon turned away and blew another bubble as she handed her debit card to the cashier.
Marcia Szymanski is a member of the Fine Line Poets in Massachusetts. Her poems have been published in The Berkshire Review and Bridges.
* * *
By Dane Zeller
From the boarded-up Tastee Freeze a mile east of Springer, New Mexico, to Cox's Stop and Go, it is 71 miles. Unless you count a small cemetery on county road AA, a hawk perched on a telephone pole, and a dead '54 Studebaker in a ravine, there is nothing of interest along this route. The only mystery on highway 56 in this northeast portion of New Mexico, is why Cox has high hopes for his convenience store.
Cox examined a small bag of M&M's, looking for its expiration date. Too young for bifocals, the proprietor held it at arm's length. A film of dust covered the package suggesting that the date had passed. It had.
The humming of the cooler at the back of the store competed with Cox's voice for Mrs. Trumbull's attention. The elderly woman was searching the dairy products for a pint of skim milk for her raisin bran and for her cat, whose increasing weight was causing Mrs.Trumbull an increasing concern.
She backed out of the cooler, her woolen hat and scarf still in place and worn to protect her from the chill of a February morning. The garments also came in handy in her search for the skim milk.
Cox had moved on to the chocolate-covered peanuts, seniors themselves, on the candy rack.
"I've got a sale on M&M's today."
"How much?" she asked.
"No thanks. You got any skim milk in pints?"
"No ma'am. When they build the wind farm, I'll have more business. I'll have more variety in the store. More turnover."
"I'll guess I'll take the quart. I'll tell Old Man Foss you got the sale on."
"Thanks." Cox nodded his head because he knew Old Man "Foss", Bill Foster, would be in at 2:45, and would take the deal on the M&M's because he won't look at the date, or, if he does, he won't be able to see it, or, if he can see it, he won't care what it says.
But, other than Foss and a few more regulars, Cox's candy sale was at the mercy of travelers who thought highway 56 east out of Springer, New Mexico, would provide a shortcut to Kansas City. Or, the good price would interest tourists who incorrectly thought the beautiful mountains and plateaus of northeastern New Mexico would continue east, at least to Kansas. Little would they suspect that points of interest along highway 56 would only be Cox, Mrs. Trumbull, William (Foss) Foster, about ten more older people of similar habits, Mrs. Smithson, the former librarian of the former library, and a hound dog named "Possum."
Cox is the youngest of the group, although it could be contested that Possum is younger. At one time, the store owner considered getting an associates in business at the community college in Trinidad, Colorado, but he doubted that his 1986 Chevy pickup would make it the two years, covering the round trip several times each week. Or, maybe he'd wait for the price of gas to go down, given that the pickup traveled every eleven miles on a gallon. Or, maybe the new wind farm rumored to be coming to this part of the state would bring business so he could hire another employee to free Cox up for his studies.
Mrs. Smithson, the former librarian, encouraged Cox to advance his education. She told him he'd learn about marketing and management and something called human resources and asset management. She did not mention inventory control because she saw that Cox had already reached his quota of new words. But Mrs. Smithson had nothing to fear. The seed was planted, and the idea would grow on Cox, as did the dust on the empty shelves of her former library.
Cox possessed good business sense, the expired M&M's notwithstanding. When the irrigation equipment and supplies business failed out on the highway, Cox bought the building and turned it into "Cox's Stop and Go," as it says on the business license hanging on the wall of the gas station that is always called "Cox's" by its customers. Next to the license was a certificate from Golden Lanes Bowling Alley showing he had bowled a 300 game, and next to that, a photo of a black Mercury Grand Marquis.
When he installed the three pumps in front of the building, he didn't squander good cement in the driveway surrounding the machines; a layer of gravel was sufficient for the traffic. And, to serve his curiosity, Cox placed the cash register in the front of the building so he could look out the windows east and west to see customers approaching and guess the nature of the traveler. Because his business was located on a rise in the road, he could see miles each way, and first notice the approaching motorist by the small speck they made on the horizon.
Old man Foss came in at 2:45. He bought four packages of M&M's and asked if gas was half off, too.
"Foss, you don't drive any more. You wouldn't buy any gas at 10 cents a gallon."
Foss handed the final penny of the transaction to Cox, happy that he finally found it at the bottom of his pocket, hidden beneath the nickels and dimes.
"I still have the old Buick. I could get it goin' again and drive to church if I had to."
Cox pitched the penny into the March of Dimes jar. "I'm not worried by that threat."
Foss looked offended. "I mow my yard with my gas-powered mower."
Cox smiled. "You got me on that, Foss. How many gallons you want?"
"Don't need any right now."
Cox handed the sack of M&M's over to Foss. "You got grass in your yard?"
"Depends what you call 'grass'."
"That's what I thought. You haven't had any grass for the last twenty years, have you."
"I ain't been countin'."
"I have. It's been twenty years."
"Maybe so." The gentleman harrumphed.
Foss headed out the store and stopped when he reached the edge of the highway. He looked slowly to the east, and then back to the west. One more glance east and he put his first foot onto the pavement. Then a glance west.
"Cox?" An older person's voice screeched into the convenience store phone. Cox knew it was Daisy Foster, Old Man Foss' wife. "Mrs. Foster, he just left."
"Is Foss at your store?"
"Yes Mrs. Foster. He just left. He's safely across the highway, heading home."
"He's coming home?"
East down the highway in the direction of Dodge City, Cox noticed a small point on the horizon. He watched it to see if it grew larger. It did. Miles away, it would take a long time to discover the nature of the traveler. He formed his first guess: a pickup. He knew it would stop at his store. They all did.
It was blue.
Then, it was an older vehicle, a Chevy.
It was Butch Riddick's 1997 Chevrolet Silverado, extended cab.
Butch works for the corporate farmers who plant crops around the area. Crops that depend on the irrigation equipment that Butch maintains. He passes Cox's several times a day, this time with three strangers in the back seat. Cox pulled a 5-gallon gas container from the utility closet, guessing correctly the problem Butch's riders had met.
"We thought we could make it," said the strangers.
Cox filled the container with gas.
"Where you all coming from?"
"That's too far to make it on a tank. Unless you got one of them highbirds."
"Nah, it's a Ford Windstar, a minivan."
Butch loaded up the strangers and the gas, and pointed the blue Chevy back to where it came from. Cox watched it grow smaller, but let it go on its own to become a speck on the horizon.
There were other specks that day. Indeed, the next one appeared on the western horizon. It was black, maybe dark green. And, unlike all of the others, it came quickly into sight.
The sun was lower in the sky during the winter, making it more difficult for him to play the game. But it was black now, for sure. A car, not a truck.
"You got any 10 weight oil?" asked Tim Abbott, the second oldest man in the area, next to Old Man Foss. "Need it for my old Ford, for the winter, you know."
"Uh huh." Cox looked down the road. The car was traveling fast, in his opinion.
"Can't be caught with heavy oil on a cold morning."
Geezus, Cox thought, it's low to the ground.
"How about some 10w40?"
God, he must be doing a hundred.
No hood ornament, but a black grill and a black front bumper. And then, he could tell it was slowing. No dipping of the front end. Just the slowing. Cox went out the front door, in case the sleek black panther chose to dash past the Stop and Go.
The car came nearly to a stop and turned into Cox's. It was a 180 degree turn at about 10 mph, without leaning. It came up to the first pump, barely breathing. The tinted windows kept him from seeing inside. As the driver stepped out, Cox made his way to the back of car.
Could it be? Damn. It came up too fast to be an ordinary American sedan. Yes, there it is. On the black bumper, embedded with black letters: "Maurader." God oh mighty.
Cox thought, just sitting there, it looked like it was going 70. It was just like uncle Henry's car, the one he used as county sheriff, but his was a dark blue one. Henry's car had no words embedded in the bumper, but on the trunk were the words "Police Interceptor."
Cox collected his thoughts. The car at the pump was built for purpose. Designed to go zero to a hundred in seconds. Built to corner at high speed with no lean, no slide. It was built for purpose, but in spite of this, or because of it, it was made for beauty.
The driver walked around the store and stopped at the candy rack. He picked out a package of M&M's to go with a carton of milk.
"The M&M's are half off, today."
"What year is your Marquis?"
"Two thousand and three."
"God, it looks new."
"Twenty three thousand miles on it."
"Had it long?"
"About a year. Got it from an old guy in Denver."
Cox, looked down at the counter and away from the driver. "Two things I've wanted to do in my life."
"Bowl a three hundred game, and own a Maurader."
The driver smiled.
"What more could a guy want?"
The sedan started up, taking a deep breath through it's K&N air filter system, and exhaling through the two stainless steel exhaust pipes. The floor shift clicked back two notches, and the tires spun slowly in the gravel. When the back tires reached the pavement, they spun, leaving some of themselves behind. The exhaust pipes cleared their throats. A rush of air passed over the open sun roof and sucked up an empty pack of M&M's and then laid it back down on highway 56.
Dane Zeller writes fiction, mainly, though he will make an attempt at writing an opinion piece. Humor can be found throughout most of his writing, including his detective novels, and romance stories. He's been published in Hobo Pancakes, Tuck Magazine, The Kansas City Star, and various other publications. Recently, he has also been attempting serious fiction.
* * *
By Tamera Adelman
That he wanted me to touch him made me feel special. I wasn’t though; it was my job to touch him. I’d touched him everywhere—well, almost everywhere—for years. There’s a code to being a massage therapist, and once a person becomes your client you’re not supposed to have a personal relationship with them. Healing is best accomplished when coming from a place where the therapist does not have an agenda.
But with Ryan I had an agenda. I wanted him to like me. He was one of my favorite clients even though he was always late and not a great tipper. He had such a hard time scheduling and showing up for appointments, that when he asked for my cell phone number so that I could assist him more than the receptionist could, I gave it to him. I gave it to him twice because the first time he lost his phone. I gave him special treatment. He came in every couple weeks, or not for months, but he only saw me except for one time when he saw Monique, who said he was precious in a way that underscored things.
I’d always liked him, probably too much, and for the wrong reasons. I would try to compensate by stepping up my professionalism—looking at my notes from our last session and following up with him about whatever had been bothering him at the time. He’d learned to surf and play guitar since I met him and that gave him a sore lower back.
He was sensitive—the smallest move across his muscle fibers made him jump, but he often fell asleep and was good at relaxing. He was easy to work on. It was like all I had to give sank right into him.
He’d been a tennis player like my dad, was self-absorbed like him too, but when you’re coming in to get a massage the focus should be all on you, so he was entitled. The more I pretended to be detached the more he seemed to like me. He would ask, “Mara, how are things with you?” when he settled in on the treatment table. I didn’t say much—nothing too personal—but I’d told him I was a triathlete so sometimes I told him if I had a race coming up. My athleticism was a credential in his eyes.
I liked to think that I was special because I knew he had a pencil-mark freckle on the bottom of his right size-thirteen foot.
When he told me he and some tennis buddies got a lease on a private teaching court, I told him I was thinking about starting to play again. He said I should. So I got a new racket and left a message for the court director. Before he got back to me, late on a Saturday, Ryan texted to ask if I would be able to come to the court where there was a massage table we could use. I didn’t usually do massage off-site, but I said yes. Why not let Ryan feel like king for a day? Plus, I could see the court which he’d said had been resurfaced just like the ones at the U.S. Open.
It was nestled behind a storefront—the kind of place you had to know about. I heard the ball machine firing and stepped though the sliding glass doors of the office onto the court where a tall young boy hit crosscourt forehands which Ryan returned down the line. It was a moment full of boy: the young boy, and the older boy with the young boy inside.
“I didn’t mean to get all sweaty,” Ryan said when we were in the office as I set up.
“It’s nice you were helping him,” I said.
“No, I wasn’t. I did that for me,” he said. “That kid’s gonna be a great player.”
I brought the sheets and some oil. He sat on the stoop making a playlist because he didn’t like massage music.
“I wish we had a candle,” he said.
The only illumination came from the lights over the blue court. I worked on Ryan’s back. My goal was to get some blood flow into the tissue, not to hurt him, but his traps were pretty tight and it did.
I kept looking out to the court like it was a private lake for waterskiing and once Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” started playing the massage table became a raft and I could almost feel it bobbing.
His playlist included the song, “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” which seemed intimate for massage, but then so does every song with words.
In another song he said it’s him playing guitar while Daryl Hannah sang. He’d been playing a lot of gigs; I should come to a show sometime. I finished up and went in the bathroom to wash my hands while he got dressed.
“Thanks, Mara.” He said it like he really meant it. I folded the table up and put it back in the corner where it was when I got there.
“How much do I owe you?” I said don’t worry about it. He said let’s trade, I’ll give you some privates, and reached for a court schedule. He pointed to some clinic days and times.
I was interested in the court and spending more time with Ryan even though I knew he was unreliable and probably a bad person to trade with. But I would do anything for him.
He said let’s trade every week. I was out of my comfort zone but had been granted something I have always wanted: access. As a massage therapist you are not supposed to hang out with your clients, but this trade thing opened things up. I still planned to be a professional, but we would be spending more time together.
Bonnie Raitt sang, “Angel from Montgomery,” a song I hadn’t heard in a long time. “I am an old woman….” He cut it after the first line, shut off the lights, and locked the door. For a second there was an awkward silence between us, but I just smiled and said good night, let’s be in touch.
The next time we got together it was a Friday night. The court was dark when I arrived and I wasn’t surprised when Ryan was late and said he was on fumes. He had to go to Starbucks to get his dinner. I got the tennis lesson first.
“Mara, slow down!” He said it like I needed to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. He called me Mara because that is the version of my name that I used at work. I told him my real name is Tamara, but he never made the adjustment. I took it as an endearment.
I’d been practicing, and hoped to impress him as I bounced the yellow ball on the blue court.
“Your serve is the only thing you can control on the tennis court,” he said. He was a lot taller than me and spoke into the air above my head, where I tossed the ball before striking it.
“It should be your best shot,” he said with the authority that comes only from telling ladies in the Pacific Palisades what to do.
He said that in tennis balance is important.
“That’s what players are doing when they bounce the ball right before they serve—they’re getting their feet set.” He demonstrated by placing his foot close to the service line, bending over, and bouncing the ball a few times.
“Why would you rush that?” he asked. Ryan was the last person who would ever rush anything.
“Maybe you only have thirty seconds, but it’s your thirty seconds,” he said. I was struck by his awareness of time.
“What is serving, really?” I said nothing. He had the patience of a savant.
“Mara, you OK? I’ve never heard you not talk before.”
“It’s rhythm, like in music. It’s the part that moves.” He began to demonstrate his serving ritual. “Now, I’m not warmed up right now, but you get the idea.”
I looked up at Ryan; his bottom teeth seemed big. He moved from the deuce court to the ad court as if the surface was made of moss. His body softened and bristled at the same time while he worked the grip with his fingers. It was as if the racket became his arm. The round white light above us became the full moon as he approached the baseline. In the shadow of a graceful predator, the racket trailed behind him like a tail about to whip.
When I worked on him I asked him if he missed playing all the big tournaments. What I miss is everything being done for me, he said. I took it as an invitation. From now on, I would do things for Ryan. I would try to meet his needs above and beyond the call of the massage therapist’s duty. And I would do it without having needs of my own just to prove how truly amazing I was as a massage therapist and person.
The next time the court was busy so I invited him over to my place where I had a table I never used. Before, I offered him a shower and afterward something to eat. I lit candles. He said he would stand naked in front of a window, but he wasn’t good around mirrors. He always wore his underwear around me. I felt safe around him—probably because he didn’t like me.
He asked me to tell him what I thought of his body. Was it more or less muscular, what felt tight, what can I tell about it, what does it seem like, how does it compare to last time. I was willing to put up with this.
When I went to the grocery store, I picked out things I thought he would like: kale crunch, dark chocolate, and coconut water.
There was another massage thrown in there when it rained, and another when I had a trail-running race the next day, and another when my legs were tired from other training I’d been doing. So he owed me tennis.
He had his own way of speaking. “If you’re still up for it, let’s crush for a crisp hour,” he texted. “My parents are in town and I have to pick up dinner for them,” he says.
I’m not really up for it, but I’m glad to hear from him even at the last minute so I rally.
“Dress warm!” he added. I think it’s cute.
We wore knit caps and stood together on the backcourt. He brought some Charlie Brown Christmas music on his iPod that he played on an outdoor speaker, but the music ended. Cold slowed us like molecules, and he held his hand to his mouth, expelling breath to warm his fingers. He rolled his eyes and grabbed his calf every time he had to move. His shorts dropped low like he’d gotten skinnier since he put them on.
I spent more time working on him than I’d had on the court with him. I could have cut him off until tennis was scheduled. But I liked having him over, liked having him come to see me. I liked making him feel important. He, apparently, liked being late and canceling a lot. We stopped trading, and I tried to move on quickly and graciously, like it was the next point. I’d stepped out of bounds but came back. Sometimes you have to lose your balance to find it.
Tamara Adelman is a massage therapist, triathlete, and freelance writer living in Santa Monica, California. She has been in Ironman races in Brazil, South Africa, the Canary Islands, and Europe. Her work focuses on travel, fitness, and action sports. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Clackamas Literary Review, Ducts, Folly, Forge, Hospital Drive Magazine, International Walk Review, North Dakota Quarterly, RiverSedge, This I Believe, Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Verdad, and Waterski.
* * *
Gross and Sorry Stores
By Sasha Carter
So I was in the pantry pulling my bother’s hair one day when it occurred to him to ask me, “Where does it say that you’re supposed to pull people’s hair?”
It was a good question, but by virtue of our fight occurring in the pantry I had a quick answer, “Brother, it says so right there on the grocery bag.”
And indeed in large green letters on the brown paper bag was written, “PULL PEOPLE’S HAIR”
This was the motto for WaldBottom’s, the supermarket where my parents did their grocery shopping: “At WaldBottom’s we pull people’s hair to give you lower prices.”
The commercials for WaldBottom’s would then feature something like a gallon of milk being run across the scanner with a voice over announcing something like “One Gallon of HoodieShire Farms vitamin D whole milk: $3.50 - Arrrggghhh” or maybe “USDA choice lean ground beef $3.00 a pound -- Ouch! Ouch!”
The camera would cut to a close up of the man behind the voice over. The store manager would have him in a headlock and be pulling on his hair, until he agreed to some lower prices. Then the customers viewing this exchange from the supermarket floor on the other side of the glass partition would all erupt into cheer. The manager would go on to face the camera and give the viewer a reassuring “thumbs up.” In later years, when the voice over for this commercial went bald, the manager would just noogie him incessantly.
Nobody seems to remember this ad now a days. When I try to mention it the first question that comes us is usually along the lines of “Why would any supplier in their right mind have done business with WaldBottom’s?”
This, too is a good question, to which I remind that the Price Chopper logo of that time is period featured a woman getting a hatchet buried in her head. If that doesn’t convince them, then I start listing some of the dirty names that Stop and Shop used to hurl upon their competitors. This usually ends the conversation.
The near pathological competition between supermarkets was not lost on Mrs. Karhu’s first grade classroom. I still remember our lesson on counting and produce identification: Mrs. Karhu had us all sit in a circle while she dumped a bowl full of paper cutouts each of which contained various images of fruit. She then told us that we were each going to be our own supermarket today and that it was time to gather our fruits. Through the ensuing fog of elbows, claws, and headbuttings we each then gathered our own pile of paper fruits. Mrs. Karhu the explained the rest of the lesson plan: “Now I am going ask you for a fruit and a certain number of that fruit. So if I ask for ‘two bananas,’ I want each of you to give me ‘two bananas.’”
Being the young math wiz that I was, I quickly produced two bananas, before Mrs. Karhu laughed, explaining that the first statement was “just an example”. I was ready however. The exercise then began in earnest when she asked us all to give her “3 strawberries” at which point we rifled through our piles of “fruit” and each pulled out 3 strawberries. It felt good to be doing my lesson right, and hear the soothing “thank yous” of Mrs. Karhu’s voice. However, as the lesson progressed a distribution problem began to emerge. When Mrs. Karhu asked us for “6 apples”, it turned out that I only had four apples. When I asked what I should do, Mrs. Karhu suggested that I just use a fruit that looked similar to an apple. After all the searching for two more apples, I was already behind the rest of the class and beginning to stress out. I was barely able to supplement the order for 6 apples with 4 apples and 2 peaches before Mrs. Karhu was asking us for 7 grapes.
Rummaging through my pile I managed to scrounge up 4 grapes and 3 blueberries. By this point however the rest of the gifted children in the class were busy giving Mrs. Karhu “9 blueberries.” I was down to two blueberries at having used the others as substitutes for grapes so I raided the oranges, however I only had 6 of those so I also tossed in a banana for good measure. Of course the next thing she asked for were Oranges, and while she only needed five of them, I had to give her three lemons and a lime. I completely missed the call for “6 raspberries,” and ran out of breath putting together an order of “8 cherries” comprised of 3 kumquats, one, peach, two bananas, and a nectarine. It was great relief when I was down to two peaches, three bananas, and a couple of kumquats, that she announced that we she was now done shopping with us. She concluded the lesson by telling us, “It has been a great pleasure to shop at all your supermarkets.”
Mrs. Karhu was clearly lying to me. I mean who goes to WaldBottom’s to buy five oranges and walks out with three lemons and a lime? So while all the gifted children went around proclaiming thing like, “I have a real super supermarket!”
Or, “I have a super duper supermarket!”
I declared, “I’m just a plain old grey market, with nothing but rotten apples.”
While a few of my classmates giggled, one kid the nerve to declare, “You just don’t know how to sell groceries.”
Within seconds he found himself on the receiving end of some serious hair pulling, and I found myself on the way to the office. This is the last time I ever considered a career in the grocery business.
Sasha Carter is a frustrated artist who researches Antarctica for his “day job.” He is curious about the subjective nature of reality and memory, often trying to photograph what he sees in his dreams. He has never been under the employment of a supermarket.
* * *
By Jay Duret
“What do you want me to do with the mustache?” she said.
“Can you trim it up?” I asked.
“Sure… How come you have a mustache?”
“I don’t know. I have had it for a long time.”
“A long, long time.”
“You should take it off,” she said.
“Really? You want me to cut it off?”
“Er, I don’t know about doing that today. You really think I should?”
“Well, why don’t I just clean it up? You probably should cut it off, but you can wait for another day for that.”
“How come you have it, anyway?”
“I don’t think there is a reason.”
“My dad has a mustache. A big red handlebar one. He got it because he had sleep apnea.”
“Sleep apnea? What does that have to do with a mustache?”
“He was really bothered by the sleep apnea so he went in the hospital for this treatment and they broke his jaw for a radical approach but it wasn’t supposed to break the jaw into all those little pieces.”
“Oh my God, his jaw broke into little pieces?”
“Yeah, and so they had to wire his mouth shut.”
“Oh God. I would hate that.”
“And then he lost all the feeling in his mouth.”
“What, he lost all the feeling in his mouth?”
“Yeah for like over a year but he has got it back now.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah and you should have seen him when he ate. Like his food would fall out halfway through the bite because he couldn’t feel it in there.”
“Yeah it was pretty bad. He aged like 15 years.”
“Oh God, does this ever stop?”
“No it was pretty bad.”
“I still don’t understand the mustache though. How come he has a mustache?”
“Well, he couldn’t feel in his mouth and he somehow thought he could feel better if he had a mustache.”
“Yeah, he just thought it would make it better.”
“How did that work for him?”
“Didn’t help at all, but he loves the mustache.”
“That is one of the worst stories I have ever heard.”
“Yeah, he’s a lot better now though.”
“Where did this surgery happen?”
“In the VA Hospital. I didn’t think it was really such a good idea.”
“I mean his jaw wasn’t supposed to break and everything but it was supposed to really help out with the sleeping.”
“Well, how does he sleep now?”
“Well, he had to have his jaw wired shut for all this time and so he couldn’t sleep very well.”
“Yeah, we had to feed him through a straw. I mean it was really bad. I’ve never seen my father cry before but he was crying. It was just really bad.”
“Well this has been a real pick-me-upper of a haircut."
"Your hair looks good. Do you want to see the back?”
“I’m not sure why I even came here. I just wanted a haircut. I wasn’t counting on the story about your father.”
“Yeah, it was really bad.”
“Plus, now I hate my mustache.”
“We can cut it off next time.
“No, I need it to sleep.”
Jay Duret is a San Francisco based writer.
* * *
By Yinka Reed-Nolan
On a Sunday morning in January, 2002, 27-year-old Wafa Idris, a volunteer ambulance medic who cared for the wounded, took her niece a container of fruit juice before going to Jerusalem, where she carried 22 pounds of explosives on her back. She detonated herself on a crowded downtown street, killing herself and two Israelis, while wounding over 100 others. Wafa was the first female suicide bomber in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She was a Martyr.
Martyr is a beautiful word. The way it flows from the tongue in one determined and frothy breath – martyr. “Constant sufferer” (1550). “Exaggerated desire for self-sacrifice” (1920). Adopted directly into Germanic languages from Greek (martyr), but pislarvattr (“torture-witness”) in Norse. A martyr is one who sacrifices his or her life for the sake of a principle, or to sustain a cause. Being a martyr is an identity, a way out of the daily squalor and emotional turmoil, most simply a way to feel some agency.
In images of war, women are casualties, widows fleeing combat, and victims of militant rapes, while men are the aggressors, the militant rapists, the ones fighting for a cause, fighting to prove a point. For male suicide bombers, their reasons and motivations are assumed to be clear and grounded in religious and/or political ideation, but analysts have a hard time explaining the phenomenon of militant females that challenge the typical expectations of women. Female suicide bombers challenge the notion that women are physically and emotionally weak and incapable of determining and defending the course of their lives. To explain this deviation from the typical female gender role, which suicide bombers like Wafa represent, journalists often search for an individualized psychological explanation to explain their actions. They claw through a woman’s history for any possible personal reason that explains how she could have been enticed into becoming a human weapon.
Western media theorized that Wafa was unhappy with her life because she was infertile and her husband had recently married another woman so he could become a father. Perhaps infertility made Wafa’s life unworthy to her. Perhaps she was a victim of her own grief.
But this is not how I imagine it.
It was fall when she felt the bloodshed finally starting to get to her. The two hottest months of the year had passed, leaving the sticky air of Palestinian turmoil stuck to her skin. Wafa found herself walking through the devastated streets of her neighborhood on a Friday night, unable to shake the image of an armless man she had tried to save earlier in the evening while volunteering as a medic for the Red Crescent Society’s emergency medical response. She always volunteered on Fridays because it was a peak time for riots after prayer.
On her last run, Wafa’s ambulance had picked up a man whose left arm had been blown off. It wasn’t just a finger, or a hand, but his entire arm. In the back of the dark and poorly stocked ambulance, Wafa pressed a towel of gauze to the gaping wound where his arm should have been. Covered in his own blood and screaming, he resisted Wafa’s effort to hold him down. Wafa tried to stop the bleeding, but blood continued to spurt out of his body, quickly soaking the towel and Wafa’s hands. She tried to apply more pressure and gauze to the wound with one hand, while pressing firm on his chest with the other, trying to keep him down on the cot.
His screams were deep and guttural, coming from an abysmal pain. Wafa couldn’t help but stop and think, a silly thought of course, that his pain came from something deeper than his missing arm. She thought for a moment that his voice carried the same pain that she felt. And even once she took her bloody hand away from his wound to grab her throat, thinking that the screams came from her voice, and that she was crying out for all the pain in the world.
The screams eventually stopped as Wafa’s efforts to control the bleeding failed and he drifted in and out of consciousness. Too pained to speak, Wafa said nothing, even though she wanted to plead for him to stay with her. By the time they got to the hospital, which wasn’t much of a hospital at all, Wafa had grown cold. It was like she had been the one drained of blood, even though she was covered in an ample supply of it, and her own blood still pumped through her veins. After they had carried the man into the hospital, Wafa snuck out around the side of the building and threw up in the weeds before walking home.
When Wafa got home, her husband was in a bad mood. He sat in the dark on their couch with his legs spread apart, one foot thumping impatiently and his arms crossed. He was always in a bad mood because he didn’t understand Wafa’s need to volunteer. He didn’t see why she was so wrapped up in the cause and the idea of helping people. “Where have you been?” He asked coldly, even though he already knew the answer.
“You know where I was. The same place I am every Friday,” Wafa responded, walking past him into the adjoining kitchen where she opened the refrigerator. She was in no mood for an argument, but her husband got off the couch and followed her into the kitchen where he stood towering over her from behind.
“I know where you should have been,” he barked.
Wafa rolled her eyes as she pushed aside a jar in the refrigerator, looking for something worth eating.
“You should have been here taking care of me,” he went on. “Instead of playing nurse and kissing tiny scrapes and bruises.”
Wafa turned around, her jaw gritted tight in frustration. “I wasn’t playing nurse!”
Her husband moved closer on her, backing her into the refrigerator. The cool light from inside illuminated her face in shadows, making her eyes look sunken and her jaw stronger than it really was. Her husband saw her as weak, too idealistic, and ridiculous, on a mission to save the world. He extended his arm and pushed his hand against the edge of the refrigerator door. “If you want to play nurse, you can start by taking care of my needs.”
Wafa ducked under his arm, escaping. “You’ve got two arms, take care of your own needs,” she said coldly and headed to bed.
I remember the year, the morning, the very moment my life as an anorexic and bulimic began. When I was 12 years old I saved enough money to order a weight loss plan called “The Final Solution” from an advertisement in the back of one of my Seventeen magazines. Reading Seventeen made me feel grown up, and when I sent $15 off in an envelope, I knew I was going to get a miracle in return. I waited for a magic weight loss cure by mail, something big, but I wasn’t sure what. Most of all I was waiting for some hope in a world where I was “too pretty to be fat.”
I learned that juice has calories earlier that year, and to my disappointment, that it could make me fat. Sometimes I used to drag the bathroom scale into my bedroom when no one was looking so I could stand on it while I ate cookies or cheese wrapped in bologna, or anything else that was bad. I wanted to know the damage. I wanted to see how much weight I would gain by eating this or that. But the scale didn’t move. What a disappointment. No concrete results, just another cookie wasted, another piece of lunchmeat I didn’t need to eat. That’s why I wanted to order the The Final Solution. If I could just lose weight, if I could just be skinny, then my mom wouldn’t hide food from me, my dad wouldn’t tell his friends how much I weighed, and I could drink as much soda pop as my grandma, as much as I wanted. I thought when I was thin, my family would leave me alone.
When the package containing The Final Solution finally arrived, it came in a small box. I picked it up off the porch one day after school before anyone else saw it and snuck it into my room, excited and eager to open it. But I knew I had to wait until no one else was around. I had to wait until there would be no interruptions. It was my secret. I knew this wasn’t the first package I’d ever gotten, but for some reason, I can’t remember any of the other ones or what they contained. This was the first thing I spent my money on, though, the first serious thing at least. I slid the box under my bed for later and went into the living room to be social. I had gotten a bit antisocial lately and my parents hated that. My dad was always coming into my room and he didn’t even knock, which was super annoying. This was part of the reason why I had to wait until later to open the box.
When I was finally alone in my room later that night, I stretched out across my mattress and leaned over the edge to grab the package from under my bed. I pulled it up slowly like it was fragile, breakable, magic. Since it was late and I was supposed to be sleeping, the lights were off and I had the blinds in my room open, so the illumination from the apartment building next door could shine in my room and offer enough light to explore my miracle. Once I straightened myself up in the bed, I held the box between my hands, excited, nervous, hopeful. I was overcome by an anxious feeling in my body. It was like the blood tried to leave my body, rushing down into my arms and legs, pooling at my finger tips and toes, looking for a way out of me. I wished fat would do that, but the world didn’t work that way. I always felt this way when I got anxious, but this wasn’t the bad kind of anxious, it was the good kind, the kind where I wanted to squeal with excitement. I told myself enough with the suspense, and I tore open the box like I’d torn the wrapping paper off a pair of lavender overalls my mom had bought me for Christmas the year before. But this was much more exciting. This was life changing, and the stupid overalls didn’t fit anyway. I dug through the box, but all I found at the bottom of it was a book.
To my disappointment, The Final Solution wasn’t even half the miracle I thought it would be. Instead, it was a book with a black and white picture of a girl, a little older than me, on the cover dressed only in her underwear. I held it up to my window and examined the inside of it, but I didn’t understand how a book was going to help me lose weight. I didn’t even like to read—probably because I wasn’t good at it and had to have extra help and tutoring after school. But I wanted to be skinny enough that I was willing to stay up half the night reading this book, hoping that the miracle was somewhere inside.
I searched all the pages and between every line. I saw black and white photographs (before and after pictures) of legs, how they used to be so fat that they touched, but didn’t anymore. I glanced at meal plans, instructions that were useless because my mother cooked my meals. And being the picky eater that I was, I didn’t like most of the things the book suggested – grapefruits and cottage cheese? Yuck! I found no miracles, and The Final Solution became just another book that was going to be left forgotten on my bookshelf, unless I wanted to look at some pictures of legs that didn’t touch and girls with concave stomachs. Oh how I wished I was one of those girls.
This was the moment that anorexia and bulimia were loaded in me, the moment when I realized that there were no miracles and no other options. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I made the conscious effort to become anorexic. It would be too simple to say that I woke up one morning and decided I wanted to have an eating disorder, but in a way, it was also that simple. I was fifteen when I made the choice. Surprisingly it wasn’t because I thought it would help me fulfill the desire I had to be thin and attractive, but instead it was about the fact that I had the desire. I thought about twelve year old me with that stupid book, and how I could still see that picture of that girl’s legs when I closed my eyes. My mother had always told me that she wanted me to lose weight, but she didn’t want me to develop an eating disorder. The image of thinness, the image of ideal, was etched into my mind, and I knew it shouldn’t be. So I made the choice to not eat because I wanted send a message; I was going to be anorexic to spite both my parents and the society that fostered the idea that thin equals beautiful and worthwhile. I thought if I died on the outside—starved myself, became scary skinny, nothing but bones—that everyone would finally see how much it hurts to feel fat and imperfect. I wanted to tell the world how much the push for thinness could really tear a person up inside. But I didn’t have the words, so I decided to sacrifice my body for the greater good. I didn’t want any other little girl to ever feel the way I did.
Wafa wouldn’t have told anyone about this because she wasn’t the kind of woman to talk, and she felt some things were best kept private, but she felt powerless. Not about her life, or her marriage, or her family, or even her role as a woman, but about the state of the world, the world she lived in. She hated the conflict with Israel; she hated the militancy of it all. She probably wouldn’t have used a word like hate, but that’s how she felt. She wanted her people to have their own state, she wanted them to be free, but the struggle had become too much. There was so much violence, and most of it went unacknowledged. All the death she had seen was overwhelming.
She remembered being a young girl, playing outside with her friends. She had chased a ball through some brush when she saw two Israeli soldiers gun down an innocent woman from behind, who had been rinsing her clothes in a stream. But no one cared about that. The world didn’t care about the Palestinians who were dying every day. Terrible, violent, painful deaths. No one cared that Palestinians had their land stolen from them. They were only fighting for the right to belong. No, the world viewed her people as the militant ones, the ones perpetuating violence, unwilling to compromise. Palestinians were the ones who killed innocents, not the innocents who were killed. But Wafa knew different; she saw Palestinian casualties every day. She was the one trying to save them, but usually failed. It infuriated her that no one cared about the deaths that she saw. That no one cared about the Palestinian suffering. She wished the world would see. If only the world would see, then maybe there would be less suffering
It’s fall of my junior year in high school when the eating disorder starts to get to me. What started out as a juice fast, and a mission to prove a point to the world, has become overwhelming. I didn’t think it would take this long to starve to death, and I wish that I could just lie in bed every day and not eat. That would be perfect. But of course I can’t do that. I have to go to school, which means I can’t lie in bed all day, and my mother has decided that I’m losing too much weight, so she has been trying to make me eat lately. She’s also been really mad at me about everything, which isn’t helping at all. I think the only one who is actually enjoying this process is my best friend Jo-Jo, who has been spreading my secret around school, or at least she spilled it to a couple different people who asked her why I always look so pale.
I imagine that Jo-Jo smiles when anyone asks her about me because she likes the idea of being associated with losing weight and not eating. “Well,” she probably says, taking a long pause, drawing things out for suspense. “She never eats and she takes all kinds of diet pills.” Jo-Jo’s answer is met with “Wow!” and “That’s so cool,” and she smiles in satisfaction at these responses. I wish what Jo-Jo says was true and that I never ate. Life would be so much simpler if I never ate, but instead I have to count calories and make it look like I eat.
Last night I cooked dinner for my parents. I made smothered pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and salad. I was trying to be all nice and make some yummy food so my mom wouldn’t have to cook when she got home from work, but it turned into a big mess. As soon as I handed my parents their plates, which I had gone through the trouble of fixing, my mom looked at me all evil-like and accused me of not eating.
“So you’re not going to eat anything,” she said harshly.
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. And that probably should have been my cue to disengage, but I fed her the lie I had been working on all afternoon. “I ate while I was cooking.” It wasn’t a complete lie. I had nibbled a bite of macaroni and cheese, but don’t even get me started on how big of a failure I am for that.
“No you didn’t,” she pronounced.
“Yes I did. I had mac and cheese.”
“That’s all?” She sounded disgusted. “You have to eat more than that.”
I might have lost it a little after this and maybe I raised my voice a little. “I told you, I already ate! I’m not hungry. What do you want, to make me eat when I’m not hungry?”
“Don’t yell at me!” My mom was yelling now. “You need to eat.”
“Fine,” I said and grabbed a plate of salad and stomped off to my room. I put the salad in a plastic bag and shoved it under my bed. I’ll throw it out on trash day, along with the other food, I’ve hidden. My mom was pretty mad for the rest of the night, even after I tried to be nice and make up with her. She even snapped at me when I offered to do the dishes as a peace offering.
The day after the man with the blown off arm, Wafa was in the ambulance again when her friend, and fellow volunteer, Habib, approached her.
“Wafa,” he said low and quiet, putting the emphasis on the ‘w’ in her name, like music.
She looked up from where she was doing an inventory of supplies.
“How would you like to do something to help your people?” Habib asked. He knew about Wafa’s frustration with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they had discussed their concerns in the past.
“What do you think I’m doing now?” Wafa replied as she wrote down the number of bandages on board the ambulance. Volunteering as a medic was only Wafa’s most recent effort to make a difference with her life. As a teenager, during the first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, Wafa served on the Am'ari refugee camp's women's committee where she assisted in food distribution and helped prisoners’ families. Volunteering was her calling.
“No. I mean something amazing,” Habib responded.
Wafa laughed. “Like what? Kill a bunch of Israelis? Blow up the Israeli government? Put Palestine on the map?”
Habib was silent for a moment, as he studied her. He looked at her round eyes, the hair pulled back and clipped behind her ears, and her chapped lips still in a slight grin from laughing at the idea. After a brief moment of consideration, Habib continued, “Yes.”
Wafa’s lips lost their grin. “What are you talking about?” she asked, almost startled.
“Just think about it,” Habib said, backing off slightly.
“Think about what?” Wafa demanded.
“Just think about it,” Habib said again, crawling over a seat to return to the front of the ambulance.
Habib knew that Wafa would think about what he had suggested. He knew Wafa better than she knew herself. And the truth was that Wafa couldn’t stop thinking about what Habib had said. He had piqued her interest, but she wasn’t sure why. She wasn’t even sure what he had been talking about, but part of her wanted to find out more. She agreed to meet with Habib, so he could tell her more, but she was having second thoughts and didn’t know if she would really go.
Habib wanted to be secretive about it, and insisted that they meet outside of work. He arranged for them to meet at a back alley café that Wafa had never been to. It was on one of the routes that their ambulance sometimes took, so Wafa figured she wouldn’t have much trouble finding it, but it still seemed out of the way. On the date of their meeting, Wafa was still deciding whether or not to go, when her husband walked in from work. She had been avoiding him since their argument a few nights prior.
“I’m sorry about the other night,” Wafa’s husband said as soon as he saw her.
Wafa shrugged, unimpressed with his apology.
He squeezed in next to her on the couch where she was sitting. “I didn’t mean that what you are doing is unimportant,” he continued. “I just think that maybe you could get a real job.”
“Being a medic is a real job,” she informed him.
“No. It’s a volunteer job. You don’t get paid for it. And it’s starting to take over your life.”
“Is that what you’re worried about? Me getting a real job? What do you want me to do, waste my life serving food at some restaurant? Well I don’t want to waste my life. I want to make a difference with it.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said putting his arm around her shoulder. “I just want you to be happy.”
“I am happy.”
“I’m glad. I also want us to be happy. I mean, what about kids? I thought we wanted to have kids.”
Wafa pulled away from him. “Do you know what’s going on around you? Look outside. I can’t in good conscience bring a kid into this world.”
“Listen to yourself, Wafa. This is exactly what I mean—volunteering is taking over your life. You are becoming obsessed with this shit.”
She got up from the couch. “I’ve got a meeting, can we talk about this later?”
“What kind of meeting?” he demanded.
“Just a meeting,” she reassured him. “I’ll be back later.”
Wafa grabbed her purse and walked out the door.
The day after the dinner argument with my mom, my dad wakes me up at 6am and I slowly struggle out of bed. I start by sticking one leg out from under my pink follower-print comforter where the cool morning air creeps up towards my thigh. I lie like this for a minute before I work up the motivation to stick the other leg out. I’ve only gotten to this point of getting out of bed, and I’m starting to drift back to sleep when my dad yells from outside my door that it’s 6:05am and he doesn’t hear my feet hitting the floor.
“I’m getting up,” I yell back as I roll my feet onto the floor and pull myself out of bed. I give myself my usual pep talk as I fumble around in the dark for clean clothes. Today is a new day, I tell myself. There will never be another day exactly like it. If it’s a bad day, it will be over soon enough. I really shouldn’t hate getting up this much, but I do. Living is such a chore. Sometimes breathing is a chore. Not to mention putting on my clothes. One foot in the right pants leg, one foot in the left, all while maintaining my balance, especially when I’m usually dizzy in the mornings.
After I get my clothes on, I head to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I figure I’m clean enough otherwise. After I finish brushing my teeth, I begin arranging my breakfast. I go to the kitchen and pour myself half a cup of red Gatorade, which I take back into my bedroom. I set the cup on my desk as I open a drawer to pull out a Ziploc bag containing three fourths of a chocolate nutrition bar. I take the bar out of the bag and break off another forth of the bar, then seal up the rest and put it back in my drawer for tomorrow.
Mornings aren’t so bad. I get to eat a little bit. I’ve found it tends to work out better if I do. At least I have a little energy to make it through the day. I also get to nap on the bus ride to school, or part of the way to school. I get off the bus early and spend 30 minutes on the swing set at Washington Park, alone with my Discman and earphones, then I walk the rest of the way to school. Usually it’s a 15 or 20 minute walk, depending on how fast I go. This is by far the best part of any day, then it starts to get bad with boring school and homework and my mom being in a bad mood when she gets home. I should be excited that this is the last day of school for the week, and tomorrow I plan to get ice cream since I’ve been good and saved up my calories all week, but I’m not looking forward to spending the rest of the weekend with my mom trying to force me to eat.
When Wafa arrived for the meeting, she found Habib sitting with another man that she didn’t recognize in the back corner of the café at a booth. Habib waved Wafa over when he noticed her standing awkwardly at the front of the café. Once she made her way back to the booth, Habib scooted over and Wafa sat next to him.
“Do you want something to drink?” he asked quickly.
Wafa shook her head, and then took note of her surroundings. She looked up at the light dangling over their heads above the booth. It was just a light bulb in a socket hanging from a cord, and a dirty bulb at that. Wafa was nervous; she didn’t know what she was getting herself into, and the decrepit mood lighting and dingy booth weren’t helping.
Habib proceeded to introduce Wafa to the man sitting across from them. “This is Wafa, the one I’ve been telling you about,” he said. “She is eager to obtain greatness.”
The man nodded while sizing Wafa up. He thought her eyes were a little too small, and her nose slightly crooked, but he figured she would do. He wanted someone pretty, someone the newspapers would love. The newspapers might not love her, but they would like her; she was pretty enough, and it’s not like there were women lined up, giving their left arms to blow themselves up. As he looked at her, Wafa timidly examined the man as well. He had light skin and oily, dark, curly hair, with moldy stubble covering his jaw. She wasn’t impressed, and wondered where Habib had met a man like this.
“Wafa works on the ambulance with me,” Habib informed the man, as if to reassure him that she was trustworthy.
The man nodded and took a sip from the cup in front of him, which smelled like beer. “She’ll have to stop that,” he informed Habib, referring to Wafa’s ambulance work. “She needs to devote herself to the cause. And you two should not be seen associating.”
Forgetting her nerves, Wafa raised her voice, “Excuse me? I will not give up volunteering on the ambulance!”
Feeling a tension about to grow, Habib jumped in to remedy the situation. “It might look suspicious if she suddenly stopped volunteering,” he stammered. “So maybe she should continue working.”
“Fine, she can work,” the man said, brushing the issue aside. “But different shifts. You two must work different shifts. No associating.”
Habib nodded in understanding while Wafa, still riled up and getting tired of being talked around rather than talked to, raised a brow at the man.
He liked the fire in her eyes, and thought that she might work out better than he originally imagined. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?” he asked Wafa.
“Exactly what is this?” Wafa asked in response.
The man took another sip from his cup and smiled. “We’re going to give you a bomb, and you’re going to strap it to yourself, and then KA-BLOO-EY!”
“KA-BLOO-EY?” Wafa raised her brow at him again.
He laughed, “Blow yourself up and the one hundred Israelis next to you. You’ll be in all the papers. On TV.” He paused to admire the ingenious of it all, and then continued, “A female suicide bomber, you will bring the Palestinian cause to the world.”
What the man said made sense. No one paid attention to male suicide bombers other than to use them as proof demonstrating that Palestinians were the militant ones, the cause of all the conflict with Israel. But the world would look at a female suicide bomber differently. For a woman to detonate herself there had to be some greater reason besides militancy, or a violent nature. A female suicide bomber would garner attention, make people think and reevaluate their opinions on the conflict. Maybe a female suicide bomber really could bring the Palestinian cause to the world.
Wafa nodded. For the first time in her life, she felt a warm knot of hope starting to form in her chest, and it felt good. She was ready.
Sometimes I get irritable when I don’t eat. And angry. And depressed. And sometimes I snap, especially when it involves food. Today I had a bit of a meltdown. Let me start by saying that I was really good and I even got away with not eating two days this week. I saved almost all of my allotted calories (which isn’t many) for the week just so I could have ice cream today. Yes, even girls on anorexic missions eat ice cream sometimes. My mom was supposed to take me to the Baskin Robbins near my house this afternoon, but she went out with some friends and said she was too tired when she got home.
It was dumb, but I might have freaked out just a little bit when I found out that I wasn’t going to get the ice cream cone I wanted so badly. I went to my room, slammed the door and lay face down on my bed. I just got so frustrated and sad. Before I knew it, irritation bubbled up inside of me, turned to sadness, then overflowed from my body in a soup of hot tears. I cried heaving tears until my nose started bleeding. I let the blood run down my nose and lips and into my mouth that was gasping for breath for a minute before I stopped crying. I’ve been getting a lot of nose bleeds lately, especially when I cry. Or maybe I’ve just been crying more, or harder, lately. Sometimes I just let the tears and blood run until it feels like my body can’t give up anything more, and then I gently stop crying and shove a cotton ball up my nostril to stop the bleeding. But tonight, I headed to the bathroom and tried to clean myself up quickly. I blew my nose hard to try to get most of the bloody mucous out, and then I washed my face with cold water before sticking a cotton ball up my nose and pinching it shut. Within a minute, I watched in the mirror as blood escaped my nose and ran down my face. I stuffed more cotton up my nose and pinched it harder. It took 10 minutes for the bleeding to finally stop.
I shouldn’t have been so upset about not getting ice cream. I don’t need ice cream. I don’t deserve ice cream. I mean, my mom tries to pretend like she wants me to eat, but she doesn’t want me to eat ice cream. I’m too fat to deserve ice cream. I obviously haven’t proven my point yet. Starting Monday, I’m never going to eat anything else again!
After her meeting with Habib and the unnamed man, Wafa stopped volunteering on Fridays, so she would not be seen associating with Habib. She decided to pick up extra shifts throughout the week and on weekends, and quickly found herself spending more and more time on the ambulance, giving as much as she could, before her final act of giving. Of course, her husband, who knew nothing of her larger plans for martyrdom, was less than pleased with Wafa’s intensified devotion to the cause. He did his best to put an end to her volunteering.
“I forbid you to spend every minute of your day volunteering for a lost cause,” he announced at the dinner table one evening.
“You can’t forbid me from doing anything,” Wafa snapped.
Her husband felt the rage building between the temples of his forehead and he tried to calm himself. He took a deep breath, and forced a smile towards his wife. “If you love me, you will stop volunteering.”
“But I don’t love you,” Wafa said bluntly.
“This is exactly what I’ve been talking about, volunteering is making you crazy and unreasonable,” he hollered and slammed his fist on the table.
In that split second, Wafa realized that she had truly lost all love for her husband. She wondered if she had ever loved him at all. “No. I really don’t love you,” she said.
The rage rose in his body and he wanted to smack Wafa across the face. “That’s it. You’re done volunteering!”
“No,” Wafa said raising her voice. “I’m done with you.”
Her husband jumped up from the table. He threw his dinner plate to the floor, and then knocked his chair over before calming himself slightly. “You know what? I’m done with you and your crazy obsessions. We’re over.”
He grabbed his coat and his car keys and walked out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him. A few days later he came home, collected all of his belongings, and left a note on the kitchen counter that read:
Keep your volunteer work. I found someone else.
Wafa rolled her eyes at the note and the fact that her husband always had to think he was getting the final say, but she was glad that she could finally devote her full attention to training for the mission at hand.
The first day of my fast is the hardest because it’s the easiest point to turn back. I tell myself to be strong and that I just need to make it through today. By the beginning of my last period chemistry class, I am hot and clammy despite being lightly brushed with dampness from walking across the quad in the rain. It has been cold and dreary all day, but the rain just started, so I was caught off guard without an umbrella. I know the clamminess is a result of not eating, rather than the first symptom of a cold, so I sit in my assigned seat at the end of the table closest to the door, and try to shake the fevered feeling from my body and prepare for another day of fuzzy chemistry.
My chemistry teacher, Mr. Ferriter, is an import from Roundup, Montana, which seems to be a place of transit as he starts with his weight planted firmly on his left leg when he says it, but ends with it planted on his right leg as he emphasizes the “-tana” with a wink that aims for rugged, but misses. Instead of teaching chemistry, Mr. Ferriter likes to talk about Montana. Most of the students in my class like to listen to him tell stories because as long as he is talking about Montana we don’t have to learn the periodic table.
Personally, I think he likes to talk about Montana because he doesn’t know anything about chemistry. Whenever anyone asks a question related to chemistry, he stands still and thinks for about the answer for a while before responding that we don’t need to know that because it won’t be on the test. But I’m not really complaining.
When Mr. Ferriter enters the classroom today, he’s wearing a white lab coat, goggles on top of his head and an excited grin on his face. He announces that we will be doing an experiment and instructs us to pair up and grab Bunsen burners, test tubes and safety goggles while he writes instructions for the experiment on the board. I end up working with Megan, who is a soccer player, pretty and popular, but nice enough and funny. After Mr. Ferriter finishes writing the instructions on the board, he goes around the room handing out the rest of the supplies we will need for the experiment. I watch as he places two jars of barium chloride, a white, powdery chemical, in the middle of our table for Megan and me to share with the other two pairs at our table.
My heart speeds up slightly when I see the barium chloride. I’ve been researching poison at home on the internet, usually when I’m sad and frustrated at the prospect of not eating for the rest of my life. The idea of poison is really just a backup plan, in case I can’t fulfill my starving to death plan to completion. I think killing myself with poison would still prove a point to the world, but I don’t entertain the idea too seriously. I ordered a couple of hypodermic needles from a pet catalogue, but I haven’t invested in poison yet. In my research, I recently came across barium chloride, so I can’t help but think it’s a sign when Mr. Ferriter puts it down in front of me.
Trying not to seem too excited about the chemical, I focus my attention towards Megan and the experiment at hand. We snap on our goggles, hook our Bunsen burner up to the gas, and begin the experiment. Once we have a beaker of boiling water, we set one of the test tubes inside of it and then slowly add the barium chloride to another substance inside. The test tube is supposed to turn colors, but ours fizzles, starts bubbling over, and explodes sending tiny pieces of glass flying across our table instead. Megan lets out a girly scream and we jump back from the table, as Mr. Ferriter notices our explosion.
Mr. Ferriter is clearly puzzled by our explosion. He spends at least 5 minutes scratching his head when we explain that we followed the instructions written on the board exactly. He finally suggests that perhaps we put a pinch too much barium chloride in the test tube. His experiment wasn’t foolproof. When he leaves, Megan and I start giggling. Somehow blowing up a test tube makes me feel happy and alive.
After the experiment is over and everyone has returned their supplies to the carts at the front of the room, Mr. Ferriter begins collecting the jars of barium chloride. He starts at the other end of the room. My heart begins pounding; there is a jar right in front of me and I can’t help but feel that this is a sign. I casually look around the room. No one is looking at me. I know this is my chance to take the barium chloride. Mr. Ferriter is two tables away when I make the split-second decision and grab the jar off the table and drop it in my backpack between my history book and pencil case. As Mr. Ferriter approaches my table, my heart is beating out of my chest. I try to act normal, but my leg is shaking and I’m sure I’m going to get caught. He picks up the two jars of barium chloride, then pauses, looking for the third. A look of confusion crosses his face briefly, but he turns and walks away from the table with only two jars. He does a quick recount of the chemicals at the front of the classroom, then shrugs. I guess he figures that he had one less jar than he thought.
The bell rings and I leave the classroom as fast as I can. When I get home, I hide the jar of chemicals at the bottom of my underwear drawer in case I decide I need to use it.
For three weeks, Wafa met in secret with the ones orchestrating the bombing. She never learned their names, where they came from, or even their motivations. The last time she spoke to Habib, before they stopped associating at work, he told her never to ask questions; it was dangerous to ask questions. So she assumed that everyone was involved for the same reasons she was: because they were sick of the violence and bloodshed and wanted to send a message that it had to stop. Despite not asking questions, which was sometimes hard for her, Wafa learned the details of what she was supposed to do.
The bombing was planned for January 20th. Wafa would be taken to Jerusalem where she was to detonate herself on the crowded streets. She was to make sure that she was in a well-populated location with plenty of Israelis. If she even thought that someone suspected her, which was unlikely because she was female, she was to detonate herself right away. If she could not detonate herself and was caught, she was to say that she was Layla Al Massri from Rafah and that she was working alone. Once she got the explosives on there was no turning back, but Wafa was ready.
After seven days of not eating, I’m too weak to go to school, so I pretend to be sick and convince my parents to let me stay home. I feel too weak to do much of anything, and I try to spend my day lying in the bath tub. But after my second bath, I find that getting in and out of the tub is too much of a struggle, so I make myself content to lie in bed. I can’t believe I’ve gotten away with not eating for 7 days. I feel terrible and dead, but I lost 20 pounds, so maybe it’s worth it. I know it’s mostly water weight, but I don’t care. Any weight loss is good weight loss.
I watch TV—daytime talk shows mostly, Sally Jessy Raphael, Maury Povich, Jenny Jones—as I lie in bed. During commercial breaks I force myself to do sit ups in bed until I get dizzy and decide to take a break. Somewhere between Maury Povich and Jenny Jones I fall asleep and dream of drinking a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. The dream is so vivid that I can feel the orange juice in my stomach, and I wake up from my dream in a panic, terrified that I ruined my fast. I look around for an empty cup, any sign that I drank orange juice. I see none. I move my tongue around mouth; there is no juice residue. I’m relieved and I start crying. And then my nose starts bleeding, but I’m too tired to get up, so I let the blood run down my face and pool on my pillow.
The morning of January 20th came faster than Wafa had planned. She awoke with knots in her stomach and a nauseous feeling in her chest. She went about her morning as usual, showered and washed her hair, and she wondered if she was doing the right thing. She was so distracted by her sudden uncertainty that she merely swallowed breakfast rather than eating it. She barely realized that she’d even consumed food when she put her bowl in the sink and rinsed it out. She considered aborting the plan and hiding out in her apartment forever. What was the worst that could happen if she didn’t show up? With second thoughts chewing her up, Wafa decided that she needed to see her family one last time, even though she wasn’t supposed to. Just in case she decided to go through with the plan, Wafa took anything out of her purse that could identify her before she left her apartment for her sister’s house.
When Wafa got to her sister’s house, her niece opened the door and threw her arms around her. Wafa leaned down and kissed the young girl on the forehead. She had stopped on the way and bought a carton of juice, which she handed to her niece once their embrace was over. The niece reached out her hands, gratefully taking the juice from her aunt. She opened the carton quickly and poured it in her mouth.
“Mom’s at the market, and dad is in the back yard practicing with his shot gun,” the niece informed Wafa after a few swallows of the juice. “But you can come in.”
Wafa smiled as she looked at her niece for a short time before responding. She studied her big eyes and their youthful innocence, the sweet smile and joy on her face, and the juice dripping from the corner of her lips. It was then that Wafa knew that she had to go through with the bombing so her niece, and the rest of her generation, could have a future free from turmoil and war.
“Just tell your mom I stopped by.” Wafa leaned down again and hugged the girl goodbye. “I love you.”
“Love you too,” the niece responded. “See you later, ‘k?”
Wafa waved as she walked away from the house and headed to the café where she had met with Habib and the unnamed man. She would be picked up there and driven to Jerusalem.
On the ninth day of my fast, I can barely breathe. I stupidly convince myself to eat and I have a cheese sandwich. I feel better as soon as it touches my mouth, at least physically, but emotionally I’m exhausted and angry and depressed and I just want to punch a wall or stick a knife in my stomach. I don’t think I can take it. I don’t think I can do it anymore. I’m just so unhappy. The whole eating disorder, the not eating to prove a point to the world, has spiraled and control is slowly slipping out of my grasp. As the cheese sandwich digests, I make an impulse decision to inject myself with barium chloride.
I take a pen and my prettiest pieces of stationary paper and write two notes, one to my parents that says it isn’t their fault and one to the world that says: Look what you can do to a person. Look what pain you can cause. I’m dying so no one else has to feel the pain of not measuring up to standards of beauty. I’m dying so no one else wants to die because they aren’t thin or pretty enough. I put the notes under my pillow where they will be found.
I don’t know what I really think is going to happen. Maybe what I always wanted to happen, that my tragic death from self-starvation, from suicide, will be noticed—in the newspapers, on TV, maybe even in an article at the back of Seventeen magazine—and people will start to rethink all the pressure society puts on women and girls to be thin and fit into the pre-prescribed mold of beauty. Somehow my death will make a difference and be a catalyst for change in the world.
I dig the jar of barium chloride out from my underwear drawer. I set a small cup of water on my desk and add the chemical. I’m not sure how much I should add, but a teaspoon seems good, and I stir it around in the water until it is mostly dissolved. I fill the syringe with the mixture, leaving the cup more than half full. I suppose I will have some of the mixture left over in case this doesn’t work. I look at the needle in my hand, as I move it towards the vein that is visible in my left wrist. I hope this is painless. I hope I only feel a small needle prick.
I push the needle into my wrist.
Wafa walked down the crowded streets of Jerusalem with 22 pounds of explosives strapped to her back. Her reason for doing this—her niece, that she would know freedom—was fresh in her mind. Wafa was no longer afraid of her destination, just slightly afraid of the pain that would take her there. She spoke quietly to herself, looking down at the ground as she walked. “It will be over before you know it. This is for the greater good. It will be over before you know it. This is for the greater good. You won’t feel a thing. This is for the greater good.”
Quietly, Wafa pulled the cord hanging from her backpack and detonated herself
The pain is incredible. It flows all the way up her arm to her spine, and all the way down her spine to her arm. The pain burns like fire across her skin. Her arm is on fire. Her whole body is on fire. The chemical reactions, the atoms igniting in her blood, cause a buzzing in her head. She sees flashes of light in front of her and the world begins to spin. She falls slowly until she hits the ground. It feels like she is exploding into a million pieces.
* * *
I Am Hawaii Five-O
By Jeannette Ronson
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, thirty-eight percent of people living in Hawai’i are Asian, twenty-four percent are white, twenty-three percent of them are two or more races, and ten percent are native Hawaiians. It is the only U.S. state in which Asians, mixed-race Asians, and Polynesians dominate. I’m not sure whether I like watching Hawaii Five-O because I like to watch people who look like me speaking articulately instead of in broken English, gaze at the breath-taking scenery and remember my brief childhood in Oahu, or drool over Alex O’Loughlin, the guy who plays Steve McGarrett. It’s probably a little of all these things. Watching that show pulls deep into my DNA strands with a sense of belonging, even though I wasn’t born there and don’t have any Hawaiian ancestry. I did, however, get to first, second, and half of third grade in that wonderland. My father, who worked as civil engineer for the U.S. military, was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base from the summer of 1964 through the winter of 1966.
Discounting the first two months of my life in Pennsylvania, Hawai’i was my first experience living in the United States surrounded by Americans. In between those two months in the Land of Quakers, my first five years were spent in Tokyo, my mother’s hometown, where I fit in like a sandy-haired mongrel in a litter of sleek, black purebred Labrador retrievers. In 1964, Hawai’i was a mish-mash of Hawaiians, U.S. military, and Asians, both pure and mixed-bloods. Sugar cane and pineapple plantations were the dominant enterprises, and American military men under the guise of conquering heroes from WWII swaggered everywhere. There were six U.S. military bases on the island of Oahu alone. Mixing in with the natives and Americans, there were thousands of Filipinos, Chinese, and Japanese who’d come to work on the plantations during the first half of the twentieth century.
Thus, by 1964 the streets were filled with American men in military blues, whites, or khaki walking past Chinese restaurants, Japanese kimono stores, and Hawaiian wood shops with carvings of their gods, plants, or women made out of polished driftwood. When we moved to Hawai’i, my dad told me we were now in America. So it’s no surprise that I thought America was about military men, rice balls with nori, and the Lono god with his big scary mouth showing his pointed teeth that stood vigil in my living room. America was so sunny and warm that I never wore anything except a t-shirt and shorts even in January. I got as brown as a walnut racing around on my bike with my older brother who taught me to ride downhill standing on my pedals with my hands in the air. I learned the hard way that it’s better to keep my hands on the handlebars. I also eventually learned that Hawai’i was not the REAL America.
It is a fantasyland, a vacation spot, and place of immodesty, decadence, and impropriety. It is the Las Vegas of U.S. states. What happens there doesn’t count. The uproar over President Obama’s American-ness is rooted in this notion. He was born in fantasyland. Perhaps it’s because, unlike the rest of the continental U.S., there are natives still walking around and native culture interwoven into everyday life. Just imagine walking down your favorite street in Manhattan and seeing that one out of every ten people you see were Native Americans. What if about half the people on Fifth Avenue were wearing Native American clothing. In Hawai’i, the native culture still thrives as a dominant force.
Upon leaving Japan, I thought nobody would question my background once I was an American living in America. My dad told me so. My dad was a white American who could trace his roots back to the French Huguenots that settled in the New Jersey area when it was still owned by the Dutch in the 1600s. My mother, born and raised in Japan, spoke broken English since she lived all her life in Japan up till 1964. To this day, she still refuses to learn any more English than is necessary to get by in the grocery store. It’s her way of spitting in the face of the enemy that defeated her country in WWII. So, I was half-baked in the English colonies’ America and half proud Japanese who spits in Americans’ eyes.
With my slanted Japanese eyes and deep brown skin in 1964, I felt right at home in the streets of Honolulu speaking in a mixture of English and Japanese with a sprinkling of Hawaiian. Unlike when I was living in Japan where everybody had straight black hair and a Japanese father, I felt snug as a bug in Hawai’i with my sandy brown hair and very loud American voice that I was supposed to take outside because I was giving my mother a headache. It was not until I met David in first grade whose family had just come from Ohio that I understood what a REAL American was.
David was in my first grade class and begged me to go to his house to watch cartoons afterschool. Walking into David’s house, I couldn’t help but notice that the inside looked like those pictures in the Dick and Jane books. There was not one piece of Asian or Hawaiian art or furniture in the living room. It was not like my house with a Shinto shrine and incense burner sitting in a prominent location in the living room next to the wood carving of the scary Lono with his large mouth. No, this was an “American” house.
Shortly after we let the screen door slam behind us, in walked an “American” housewife who looked like June Cleaver’s double. No muumuu or kimono like my mother wore, this woman wore an “American” dress with pleats. I noticed that David’s mother crossed her arms tightly across her chest as if to protect herself from an onslaught of savages.
“David, who is your little friend?” I watched David’s mother look me up and down with a crease deepening between her eyebrows. I tried to cover up a ketchup smear on my dress by twisting the stain with fingers that were dirty from digging for worms in the schoolyard during recess.
“This is Jeannette. We’re going to watch Gumby.”
“Well, nice to meet you Jeannette.” David’s mother stuck out her right hand.
My mother had taught me not to touch strangers and to bow to adults. So I bowed.
“Oh, are you a Hawaiian?” The crease in David’s mother’s head got deeper while she withdrew her hand and tightened both arms across her chest. “Do you speak English?”
My face stung as if she slapped me in the face. I was confused and a little hurt.
When I was in Japan, the kids taunted me by calling me “American.” My mother constantly berated the Americans for all the troubles in the world. My dad often bragged about how the Americans “kicked some ass” in WWII. We pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America every morning in Mrs. Wurderman’s first grade class. I was six and had no idea what to think. My head spun with all the conflicting ideas that were too big for my head. One thing I did know was to feel humiliated that this woman didn’t realize that I was an American who could speak English.
I realized much later in life that Hawaii is not the REAL America. The real America in 1964 was Ozzie and Harriet, Dick Van Dyke, and Petticoat Junction. The one popular TV show that had Pacific Islanders was Gillian’s Island, but those clowns in grass skirts don’t count because they were white buffoons in blackface. Today, Asian Americans are typecast in TV and film as the hot chick, the smart chick, or the nerdy scientist as Kunal Nayyar’s astrophysicist character in The Big Band Theory and Grace Kelly’s hot chick with a gun character in Hawaii Five-O represent. Since I’m not the hot chick with the gun type, I’ve strayed more toward the smart Asian chick that drives a little slow stereotype. I’m not sure whether I am naturally smart and drive slow, or whether I am and do because it’s expected of me. As a grown adult with grown children, I still feel unattached to the real America as I don’t see myself in Desperate Housewives or Modern Family. I understand that Asians are just three percent of the population, and we should be happy that we dominate attendance in prestigious universities. I also know I shouldn’t complain because, as my mother always said as she twisted my arm, “You stay quiet and smile in their face.” At least I have my Hawaii Five-O even though I’m not a hot chick.
Jeannette Ronson is an MFA student in Creative & Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University. She also teaches creative writing and English composition at Southern Connecticut State University and Norwalk Community College.
* * *
Back to Bolingbrook
By Jim Ross
I was yelling. I was crying. I was sitting at the kitchen table inside my home in Bolingbrook, Illinois on a warm Sunday evening in August 1986, the summer after my freshman year away at college. My mom was listening to me. She was silent. She had never seen me so angry. I had never been so angry. I was 18, and I had just fought with my father for the first time in my life.
I spent that Sunday at a pro golf tournament with some friends. Afterward, we went to one guy’s house to eat pizza and watch the Bears pre-season game on videotape. Perfect.
Then my mom called the guy’s house. Your father and I want you to come home. You haven’t been to Mass yet. You need to go, and you promised your brother you would take him with you.
I burned with humiliation. She was right. I hadn’t been to Mass. But I was responsible. I never missed Mass once at Northwestern. No one told me to go and no one checked my dorm room. No one needed to. Couldn’t my parents see? Couldn't they let it slide? No.
And Danny? Someone else could drive my brother to church, couldn’t they? I helped my parents and siblings that summer, juggling rides and running errands. Couldn’t someone help me? No.
A friend drove me home. We didn’t talk much. He’s Catholic, too.
I stormed into the backyard, yelling. My dad was standing in front of the garage. He stayed stern: Get to Mass, and keep your promise to your brother.
My anger took him by surprise. We didn’t fight like some fathers and sons do. I wasn’t a rebel and he wasn’t a tyrant. We always got along. I struck out a lot in Little League and I usually cried while walking back to the dugout --- even during my last year, when I was a bit too old for such displays. I remember one game, early evening in the summer, at the field off Rockhurst Drive not far from our house. My dad consoled me behind the backstop. I buried my head in his chest, ashamed at my failure, ashamed at showing the shame. I remember his strong arms around me and the discordant sounds of the game carrying on behind us.
My dad didn’t console me that Sunday night. I didn’t back down and give him the chance. I raged inside the kitchen and wailed at my mother: I’m never going to live here again. I won’t live with people who don’t trust and appreciate me.
Then Danny and I got in the car. I cried and yelled for the whole drive to church. It just poured out. We were alone, and Danny is my kid brother, but I think he was embarrassed for me.
I was wrong that night. I knew it at the time. But I was self-righteous and stupid, and I seethed at the people who dared point out my mistake. The result was my pathetic display of contradiction: Behold the crybaby, all indignant that his parents wouldn’t treat him like an adult.
But I was right about one thing that night: I never lived in that house again. One month later I was back at Northwestern for sophomore year. During summers I worked newspaper internships in other states. After graduation I drove south for a job and never came back. I am 45 now and I haven't returned home for more than a week at a time. My dad and I never fought before or after that evening, and we’ve never talked about that fight, either.
I came back to Bolingbrook that summer after being away for nine months. But I didn’t know how to live there. I had been on my own and changed more than I, or my parents, realized. I wish I had recognized this at the time and moved on gracefully. Instead I waited until the season was over, and then I just stopped trying.
Jim Ross is city editor and columnist at the Ocala Star-Banner and a journalism instructor at the University of Florida. His journalism and essays have been published or are forthcoming in the Star-Banner, the St. Petersburg Times, the Gainesville Sun, Clockhouse Review and the online component of Little Patuxent Review.
* * *
My First Crush
By Rachel Sarrett
The title misleads. It was a first, but not the first. My last crush actually occurred in a prior millennium, so this, my first in the twenty first century, felt like heretofore unexplored terrain. Occurring two years after my marriage imploded, crushing equaled a novel concept. This new crush occurred at work. I teach English, he teaches math. Occasionally, we’d pass in the halls. I can’t pinpoint the moment Paul—tall with the smile that could disarm hordes of rapacious, barbarian pillagers—transitioned from a coworker to someone I wanted to fuck. Words often punch through my lips and escape my mouth without my consent—when I was younger, I liked to shock people for attention and despite the fact that I’m supposed to be a professional adult now, I sometimes revert and say stupid shit. And that’s where this story leads, to me saying stupid shit. But I’m getting ahead of myself—EVERYONE at school knew about my crush. And despite the temptation to have someone approach Pete on my behalf, maybe with a note like those passed in junior high which stated: “Do you like Rachel? Check one: yes, no, maybe”, I decided behaving like an adult might appear more attractive—especially to an older man. I first employed a stealth approach—I altered my route to the bathroom so I could pass closer to his classroom. I brazenly outfitted myself with the accoutrements of my gender—the skirts, the lipstick, the perfume. And of course the fuck-me shoes I wore daily to show off my one asset, my legs, and so my ass would sway a little more as I sashayed past his classroom. When I walked by him in the hallway, he smiled and my heart rate increased, while a wave of nausea swirled through me, completing the cliché.
The stealth approach produced zero results, so on a workday without students, I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and sauntered down the hallway into his classroom. I invited him to The Sound of Music (I was the assistant director), offering him a free ticket. I also found enough courage to friend him on Facebook. He accepted my friend request (which as a rational being I know I shouldn’t read into because who doesn’t accept friend requests?), and he showed up at the play, saying as he picked up his ticket, “See? I told you I’d come,” whilst assailing me with that blazingly fabulous smile. During Act II, I seated myself in the vacant seat next to him. He whispered compliments on the production to me as I regressed to the teenager in the movie theater wishing the cute boy would hold my hand. However, since it was closing night, I was called on stage to accept congratulations from the cast. By the time I made it offstage and through the crowd, he’d already disappeared into the night like Cinderella. My vision of celebratory drinks leading to a mad make-out session dissipated. With the end of the school year looming, I feared I’d never get the chance to consummate my crush.
Two weeks prior to summer break, Pete and I ended up invited to the same barbecue, taking place on May 27th. I know it was May 27th because my Facebook post, dated May 27th, reads, “Now I remember why I don’t drink. FML.” (This bit of foreshadowing lets you know that this story doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending). I sent out positive vibes to the universe. I visualized “good things” (which some might call sexual fantasies, but whatever). I arrived smelling pretty. And he was there. And he looked delicious. And I couldn’t stop imagining us naked together. So I drank a few vodka and crans because I was terrified of talking to him. Mellowed by the drinks, I finally sat next to him near the fire pit outside. We spoke, about his new iPhone and I think his shoes…
All too soon, the intimate crowd began the dispersal process, offering farewells and admonitions to drive home safely. I followed him out the door, into the twilight. We were alone, and he was about to leave without fulfilling any of my lurid fantasies. So fortified with about four vodka and crans sans dinner, I finally spoke, directly, without equivocation, and remarkably without slurring: “You know I have a huge crush on you, right?”
He took one step back. Oops. Too direct, I guess. “No, I didn’t know. I’m flattered. I’m just not emotionally available right now, for reasons I don’t really want to get into…” We exchanged a few more sentences, and then he slipped into the night, away…
Since I possessed a higher than legal blood alcohol level, I went back inside and waited for sobriety. While waiting, I reflected on the phrase, “I’m flattered” and cursed my stupidity at speaking of my enormous crush. However, at some point as I leaned against Brandy’s kitchen island drinking coffee, I decided to accept the fact that I am biologically incapable of keeping my mouth shut, and then progressed to examining my feelings: disappointment and embarrassment. To my pleasant surprise, that was all. I was accustomed to rejection leading to a black spiral of self-loathing where I rehash all of the rejections I’ve faced in my life: boys, men, my parents, publishers, employers.
But this night I didn’t end up as a puddle of self-loathing. My culminating feeling was a mental shrug and a “whatever.” So although I had to again alter my bathroom route at school to now avoid Pete, my first crush in this millennium left me feeling elated rather than crushed. So one man didn’t want me. Perhaps fifty is too old for me anyway. Although I’m a little embarrassed, and thankful that I can pretend it was all because I drank too much, I’m also grateful for the experience. First, it tells me that for once in my thirty-seven years, I’m probably emotionally mature enough to handle dating someone because I don’t expect him to validate my worth. Secondly, it shows that the money I spent on therapy to quit hating myself coupled with a steady supply of prescription drugs works. Lastly, It shows that I have an innate need to stay stupid shit, and I had better embrace all of the inevitable awkwardness as growth opportunities—otherwise, I’ll end up with such circuitous bathroom routes that I’ll never make it back to my classroom before the bell.
Rachel Sarrett teaches high school English in Oregon while working toward her MFA in Creative Writing through Goddard College. She earned her BA in Creative Writing and Literature from Pacific University.
* * *
By Nancy Scott
“Smell.” Mina held the playdough to my nose.
“Yes,” I agreed. “It smells wonderful. But you can't eat it. It will make you sick.” That seemed like the best threat to give a 3-year-old whose brain was elastic but whose English was still a bit limited.
“Not taste nothing,” Mina said.
I smiled, remembering that she was right, and I knew that because I'd tasted playdough when I was a kid. It would still be that way, because the smell was exactly the same. And that smell still conferred magic that I was happy to know kids still loved.
We were sitting outside on the summer-nights bench. Mina's mother had to run an errand, so my neighbor Marie and I were watching her for a few minutes.
Mina quietly climbed up next to me and opened the can. It was a smaller can than in my youth, but that was the only difference. She calmly flattened the clay into the lid. “Pancake,” she explained.
“Good,” I said. “Can you make anything else?”
“Pancake,” she tried again.
I reclaimed the flat circle. I began rolling the pancake into a ball. “Ball,” I defined.
“Oh. Well, okay, we'll make raindrops.” And we did.
Next I showed her how to roll long and thin. “Hotdog,” I decided (better than snake).
Mina laughed and rolled long and thin. She hadn't moved off the bench for 15 minutes. Serious fun and focus squished in our fingers, and the oil made our hands softer.
I could have sat there for a long time, but it was getting dark and Marie was not as spellbound as we were so the clay went back in the can and the lid was tightly closed to keep in something and keep out something.
I hope for more playdough sessions. We didn't make rings or bowls, let alone Martians.
Nancy Scott's over-600 bylines have appeared in magazines, literary journals, anthologies and newspapers, and as audio commentaries. An essayist and poet, she has published three chapbooks. Recent work appears in Breath and Shadow, Contemporary Haibun Online, and Thema. She won First Prize in the 2009 International Onkyo Braille Essay Contest.
* * *
To Fish, Perchance to Dream
By Steve West
Just moments ago, I realized what I have missed by not buying a fishing license. Or maybe it's what I have missed by being stingy. It's not, of course, the fish itself, although landing a live, vibrant fish, whether it be a trout, as iridescent as summer itself; or a bass, green big-mouthed aggression glowing like flint behind seemingly dead eyes; or even a carp, jaundiced yellow mealy mouth not giving a true impression of sullen power running down it scaly flank.
No, it's not the fish, which I always release anyway; it's the experience. Because I have balked at the $15 or $20 for a license, I have missed present tense moments of life, akin to those Anne Dilliard writes about. Those moments of one-ness when, like for Nick Adams in a Hemingway story, the river, the line, the fly, and I become one in an instant of the right now. In my mind, I can see the fly disappearing as do my thoughts of tomorrow, or of life insurance, or the price of gas. In a moment of illumination, I grieve for time lost, sitting at home simply because I have been too tight fisted to buy a permit. I will rummage through my stuff and get out my rod and reel and buy a license a go fishing. I will wade knee deep in cold water, feel the slick rocks under my feet, and wait for that first moment when the line becomes tight, and I enter finally into the present.
* * *
I caught a catfish one day from the pond by the golf course. I have fished there a few times because it is on private property, and I don't need a permit. I had hooked the fish before, by one particular rock where I presume she, (or is it the he who tends the nest), was guarding the horde of eggs, keeping other fish, crawdads, turtles, away from the eggs. It broke off quickly that first time. I'm not used to big fish; I usually catch pugnacious sunfish less than a pound. This fish was large, about 12 pounds as it turned out. I came back the next day, armed with fresh line and sure of my knot.
Sure enough, the plastic bait stopped short just as it splashed by the rock. I played the fish for 15 minutes, enjoying the power at the end of the line and the small fear I might break the line again if I got too aggressive. I finally slid the fish, not even sure my monster was a catfish until I saw its gray flat head glide into the mud at the the bank.
I hoisted my prize and immediately thought of Elizabeth Bishop's great fish in her poem. My hook from yesterday was still there. She (he) was scarred, tail raw, and right between the blank eyes a dented scar, almost as if someone had taken a hammer to the head. I quickly weighed her, bragged to nearby golfers about the size of the fish lurking around our golf balls, and put her back into the water. She just lay there a while, too tired to move. I grabbed the tail an pushed back and forth to run fresh water over those 'terrible' gills, and she slowly disappeared, exactly on a course for the rock. I didn't try to catch her again though I knew she was there. I had abused her once; I would not do it again.
Steve West teaches at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee. He also recently had his golf clubs stolen. However, he still has a fishing rod.
* * *
Imagine a Tree
Standing solid, alone
The stories it would tell
With every swinging branch
The initials carved
All the secrets it would keep
The scenic view as winter turns to spring, summer into fall
Flash of light
Generations of life
Home to many
The wind it whispers
Leaves gallop, Fall
Nights of many moons
Rise of Sunsets
For miles it could see
Imagine a Tree
Stephanie Angel's passion for writing—poetry in particular—was inspired by her dad. Although he passed away in 2010, she plans to continue writing in his memory.
* * *
By Urlene Boisette
Pile on the coverage and erase those battle scars.
Hide behind the concealer so they will think that’s a beauty mark-
idolize celebrities’ makeup techniques and attempt to emulate.
Looking glass tells a different story from the face it saw before,
adore an illusion of who you thought you could be.
Defile self-worth and place that rosy blush to forge a sense of joy,
embrace the newest version; slave to the trends and social ways.
Lavish in soy based products promising a youthful glow,
pity yourself because the fine lines of time are approaching.
Hurting the sex appeal concept; add another layer of liquid foundation-
injuring any form of individuality, she sits in her beauty chair with her vanity
Appealing only to this pseudo concept of what a women should look like.
With a M.A. in Community Leadership from Alvernia University, Urlene Boisette understands the concept of leadership resides within a soul that has experienced various complicated life experiences. Notwithstanding, her ability to express her stance on self-expression – via poetry and abstract art- she embraces her Haitian ancestral background (which is demonstrated in the majority of her work).Lelene currently resides in Philadelphia. She is requesting for a chance to be heard and to live out her reality in this format: creativity.
* * *
Poems by Chanel Brenner
THE PERFECT KISS
I am walking in my house, picking up fragments of our lives
an arm here, an ear there.
He comes at me like a football player,
but then slows down at the last second like a humming bird
and places the most gentle kiss atop my kneecap, over my jeaned leg.
He holds my leg in place with each little hand purposely placed to hold me in place.
And it's perfection.
Without instruction, without request, without question
and for me in that moment every thing is altered, my worries,
my focus shifts,
transcends the minutia of the day
and I am reminded by this 2-year-old of Love, the essence of who we are
stripped of limbs, eyelashes, bone marrow
and other necessities we think we might need.
I aspire to kiss so freely.
I wonder what happened to
the blanket your dad lay
over you like his body, but feathered
and winged, while the man in the uniform held you
in his anonymous arms and walked out
our front door. It used to keep
me warm while I sat in the black
chair in front of the television, watching
other people’s lives.
I’ve been waiting for the blanket to come back, for you to cover me
with its baby blue skin and say those regal words
you learned in kindergarten and said so proudly, “For you, my fine lady.”
I imagine you wearing it now, over your shoulders like a cloak,
a crown of six stars upon your head like a halo,
your two front teeth sticking out
like golden trophies you won in a contest.
Death becomes you, my King Riley! I hail you,
my mighty ruler of the afterlife.
Today I stumbled
upon an unfamiliar photo,
a boy with his mother, mouths turned up,
his ash blond hair without a crown.
I stood staring at the relic until I remembered the faraway people.
THE NEGLECTED VOW
On the way to a friend’s wedding reception,
my husband says, “I think our wedding could
have been a little more serious.”
I was thinking the same thing
during their ceremony as I listened to the
traditional vows, in sickness and health
and in good times and bad,
the bride and groom’s 40-something-year-old
faces heavy with the weight
of time it took them to find each other.
We, just barely 30 when we wed,
laughed our way through
the ceremony, like teenagers
at a prom.
The judge, not rabbi,
relayed stories we told him
about our relationship,
like nachos that were eaten
with a fork and knife
and how to get the last
Tic-Tac out of the container
without slamming it on
the nearest hard surface.
Our vows consisted of promises
such as sleeping by each other’s side
and laughing together.
We offered ourselves to each other lightly
like happy hour hors d’oeuvres.
I think about the vows
we would make today
and wonder if a dead child
would reside in the clause
until death do we part.
RILEY DIED AGAIN YESTERDAY
We ordered food from an old place
we used to get delivery,
The doorbell rings and there she is,
glowing and smiling like the sun.
"How are your two boys?" she asks.
Desmond is standing to my right, close,
his resemblance to his brother striking
like if you squint it could be him.
My hand is on his head as I say,
"I have some bad news
She goes dark, like a cloud passing over.
She looks at me with her hand over
her mouth and starts to sob.
She says, "I am so sorry,"over and over again.
I hug her, comfort her,
tell her it's okay,
tell her he was a beautiful boy,
tell her how much we miss him,
my arm wet with her tears.
She tells me she saw our address on the order.
How excited she was to come see him.
How he used to come to her, hug her, and
tell her all about Spider-Man.
How she can still see him running around our house.
"I've had my own stuff," she says.
"My cancer came back. It almost got me."
I picture the last time they
saw each other,
Death's finger pointing,
Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.
You are further down the tunnel
narrowing as you ascend.
Blurring around the edges,
your essence tests the open space
of your new home
or steps to trip on
you gracefully float free.
No longer confined by blood vessels,
motor skills, and the optical sense
you race like a cheetah
through the jungle.
You are faster
than you ever imagined.
You are home.
Chanel Brenner received her bachelor of arts in communication studies, with a minor in journalism, at California State University in Sacramento. She took a detour from my passion and worked in the computer industry as a product manager, after which she raised her son. Chanel studied “method writing” with the poet Jack Grapes, and is a member of his Writers and Poets Collective. Several publications—L.K. Thayer’s Poetry Juice Bar, ONTHEBUS, and various others—have published or are in the process of publishing some of her earlier works. Chanel recently won the nationwide Words For Riley Poetry Contest for her poem “What Would Wislawa Szymborska Do?” and, as a result, it was on display at the James Whitcomb Riley Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana.
* * *
I Really Like You
By Brenda Bell Brown
I needed to write this to let you know that I really like you.
Like that emanates from a place comparable to sleep.
As in like, like a well that is dug deep and widened and widened and rounded, only to find that, not just water comes from those hills,
the valley also yields precious oil that is like no other.
You drilled clear down to China, baby,
and I didn’t have to turn on a dime.
Like, do you know what it’s like to like to the point
that you like yourself
like yourself can reciprocate fully.
Like your reason for living became your living.
Like, you leave off being a slave to love,
because like is all you truly need.
I like you when I lick you on your lips, your lobes, your lids, your love, like, like, licking, liking, and liquid come gushing and I drink it all up like that.
My like, lick, lips, like you know how we do and like it because,
like my Mama told me,
If it feels good to like him then like the shit out of him, baby
said she when she struck the match as lit her cigarette
with it dangling from her lips, like so.
And I do as she did tell me.
I like you like I like the morning,
whether it wakes me with bird’s song or the sunshine or the clouds and rain.
I like you that much.
I like you like I like dark chocolate and black coffee,
like I like my men, you, he, them, all.
So, liken me to you ‘cause you know what I like
and like ain’t love ‘cause it ain’t like fire. It is more intense than that.
Because the more that we touch, your fingers in me,
we both like the connection of this great feeling.
Don’t try me on love, because I’m not guilty,
like I ain’t ashamed
and that makes me like you even more.
Brenda Bell Brown is a native of Memphis, Tennessee. After receiving a BA in Theater Arts from Brown University, dedication to the study of Black American life and culture led her to pursue a MA in Museum Studies at Hampton University. Brenda received a 2010 Minnesota State Arts Board Cultural Community Partnership Grant and recently completed her second term as a Cultural Liaison to the Minnesota State Arts Board. She had the honor of performing at the first annual Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis in August 2012. She currently serves as a Minneapolis (MN) Arts Commissioner and music host for free press radio KFAI-FM.
* * *
Poems by Lance Calabrese
An abrupt, blistering
of coals drove great pistons
pumping fire for two
who'd long moored
But heat turns tepid
when lingering on months -
vessels slow at the chop
of waves beyond
the first urge
from known shores
into foreign waters.
where motion seems to cede.
We've one room's clime,
and metaphors have drowned
in the hard work
of swab buckets,
(though ghost ships may
run the lanes for years).
Two bodies side by side
atop their bed
companions in sleep
undisturbed though one
seems to stretch
toward the other hoping
to share her pillow.
A creak from floorboards
that the child stirs
then curls nuzzles closer
to his mother's breast tiny fingers splay across
the sculpted contours
of her body she feels
fitted for this purpose
her fleshy ply to his.
The awkward charm
of a burrowed chin
while they doze while
within the doorframe
gazing into the scene
as if it were
a water-filled globe
as yet unshaken
by his tightening grip
(his cheek pressed
to the cold glass he stands
the threshold against
the curving partition.
He'll clear his throat
if necessary raise his voice).
Lance Calabrese was born and lives in California. He has been published throughout the U.S. and elsewhere. He is self-taught.
* * *
The Blessings of Flight
By Alicia Cole
At dusk, grey bats careen across the lake's face,
their hungry mouths gaping. The bats, shadows
stealing the length of the lake, ensnare us also.
In the morning, aerial displays. Barn swallows,
rufous throats catching light, skim the air,
chattering. I lie in the lake and admire their
forked tails, two roads diverging, matter and
spirit bundled at the juncture of the heart.
My arms, outspread and floating as they are,
cannot raise me any closer to God than this:
the great mouth of the sun on the expanse of
the lapping lake; my body like the swallow's
tail, knowing both journeys, straining to
catch every drop of light;
the pass of my trembling hand on the water,
always moving with the pull of some great
Alicia Cole, a writer an educator, lives in Lawrenceville, GA, with her photographer husband, their cat Hatshepsut and two schools of fish. Her poetry has been previously published in Eclectica Magazine, Abramelin Journal, Clutching at Straws, and This Great Society among other journals.
* * *
Schönheit in Her Room
By Joshua Gage
My father hawked me to my husband like a horse
who needed breaking, but whose saddle bags
would ache with gold to pay the fearless rider.
We were wed, and I moved to his stable,
a mansion carved of ivory and plushed
with silk and velvet. Every morning, gold
bells chime to wake me. I am trimmed in lace
and sent to breakfast, then waltzed through halls of mirrors
or chambers of music and libraries choked with books,
too many to be able to read in one lifetime.
But my husband is an animal who grows
roses against my ribs with his fists.
I will find a necklace among his treasures
only to have him rip it against my neck,
the gems and gold dispelled across the tiles
as my collar stains with blood. He'll storm away,
leaving me to gather up the stones
as though it never happened. I'll retreat
through the gardens in the morning, fountains
splashing away the sound of my sobs.
My husband will offer me a goldfinch over dinner,
then a starling, a thrush, a woodlark, siskin
after quail, dove after nightingale,
until the aviary surges with song.
I creep in after the candles dim themselves,
and knowing what my husband's claws could do,
the silent bodies with snapped necks,
I open tiny doors until the room
is but scattered feathers and empty cages.
He locks me in my room again, away
from the meddling eyes of clerks, claims me ill
until the bruises dissipate. I live on
scraps he leaves for me, but hunger is part
of the punishments, and I wane as deep as the moon.
Some nights I swear I hear the house speaking;
candles confide in me through smoke, clocks
knell their miseries, even the rug
unravels its remorse. My husband is deaf
to this gossip against him, the way the tapestries
plot themselves to nooses, the armory
eager to wage a war of liberation.
I know. I know the wardrobe will not stand witness,
the Meissen service cannot testify
on my behalf. Still, those nights when my back
is so contused I cannot lay down to sleep
or my eye is so swollen I cannot see the stars,
I listen at the door, hoping to hear
the cleavers in the kitchen block, the secrets
only they could whisper against my wrists.
Joshua Gage is an ornery curmudgeon from Cleveland, His first full-length collection, Breaths, is available from VanZeno Press. Intrinsic Night, a collaborative project he wrote with J. E. Stanley, was recently published by Sam’s Dot Publishing. He is a graduate of the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Naropa University. He has a penchant for Pendleton shirts, rye whiskey and any poem strong enough to yank the breath out of his lungs. He stomps around Cleveland in a purple bathrobe where he hosts the monthly Deep Cleveland Poetry Hour and enjoys the beer at Fat Head's.
* * *
Poems by Brad Garber
He walked off the yellow bus
the young “black” man
the first, his pack
full of what a mother would pack
to taunts, surrounded
gulls around a struggling fish
coyotes on a newborn calf
sharks ready to clean things up
this was Wisconsin
not Birmingham, Selma, Biloxi
No one called him “African-American”
I remember him as cute
I remember him as friendly
I remember him scared
I remember him gone
What word, what experience
The proud father, craving peace
warm earth, simple animals
fresh green plants from the soil
protection for his son
Sold the farm and returned to Chicago.
When the kernel popped
when the steam blew it open
when it became more
it hadn’t thought of
It hadn’t thought
while in the shell
just felt fine, thank you.
No color preference came to mind
its yellowness an artifact
of genetic chance.
It felt instant and blazing freedom
erupting in naked glory
filling the air.
Its orientation changed
with the addition of butter.
the kernel, now liberated
fell into the comfort
of what fate had devised
melting into the mouths of acceptance.
Brad Garber has published poetry in Cream City Review, Alchemy, Fireweed, Uphook Press, Front Range Review, theNewerYork Press, Ray’s Road Review, Flowers & Vortexes, Emerge Literary Journal, Generation Press, Penduline Press, Dead Flowers, New Verse News, The Whirlwind Review, Gambling the Aisle, Dark Matter Journal, Sundog Lit, Diversion Press, Unshod Quills and Mercury. Nominee: 2013 Pushcart Prize for poem, “Where We May Be Found.”
* * *
Eating An Apple With No Noise At All
By Conor Gearin
Because I don’t want to give the impression
to the young woman reading several yards away
that I am the thoughtless sort of scrub
who makes enormous chunky chewing sounds
when eating an apple, proclaiming his God-given right
to make all the smack and slosh of a washing machine,
I slowly slide my teeth through the doughty
sweet appleflesh, like the huge tunneling machines,
secretive, parsing through Cambrian shale
before realizing that, to most observers,
it would appear I was giving the blushing apple
a long, fierce home-coming kiss, eyes wide.
A loud moist pop when the large bite parts from the apple,
and I am horrified by the grating work of my mouthparts,
and again uncertain of which face I wish to turn to the world.
Conor Gearin is pursuing an English B.A. and Biology B.S. at Truman State University in Missouri, and aims for a career as a writer. At Truman, he is Prose Editor at Windfall, the school’s literary magazine, where his poetry and fiction was published before he became an editor.
* * *
Poems by John Grey
The Maitre 'D
The laws in his head are paramount.
The restaurant behind him is sacrosanct.
The best I can be is an annoyance.
At worst, a criminal.
His first inclination is that
I must not eat here at all costs.
Behind his superior stare, he relents -
one course, one wine-list, at a time.
It is important that I realize that everything,
from the table linen, to the drinks, the food,
I will owe to his beneficence.
In earlier times, he would have been a judge,
deciding who lives, who dies,
by the trim of their beard, the color of their eyes,
their stance, the gold coins slipped from palm to palm.
Now, the life and death is sate or starve.
But still it's haughtiness that bangs the gavel,
cocks the finger, utters, "This way - come."
Will it be the chopper, I wonder?
Will it be the chefs specials for the day?
He's more than the arbitrator in all things culinary.
He has the influence. He has the upturned nose for who he is.
All I want is a table for two. What he wants more
than anything is my subservience. Impatience
has a hard time with deference. But I thank him when
he ultimately seats us. And that's not easy for a headless man.
Young girl rubs perfume
into her wrists,
sprays sweet smells
down her throat,
paints her eyes
with her big sister's shadow...
Young girl in her
black spangled dress,
eager, anxious hands,
from breasts to waist to skinny legs,
a ten fingered safari
hunting for shapes.
He'll be there at seven,
must have her home by ten.
Her image fills the mirror
but can it fill three hours.
John Grey is an Australian born poet, works as financial systems analyst. He has recently been published in International Poetry Review, Chrysalis and the science fiction anthology, Futuredaze, with work upcoming in Potomac Review, Sanskrit and Osiris.
* * *
By Alejandra Guerra
You sighed in your sleep.
I bet you never noticed
the sounds that you made
while you drank your
morning coffee. You
took it black just like
everything else. And
I bet you never noticed
the way your eyebrows
slouch when you are sad
or how your knees hug
your chin in the summer
when you sit on the curb
in front of your house. And
I bet you never knew that
your hair is always parted
a little to the left in the
mornings or that you listen
to Bon Iver when you are
anxious or that your eyes
turn black in the evening
light in your kitchen when
you read the new issue
of your favorite comic book.
But you never noticed how
my cheeks flush when I am
angry or that I clasp my
hands when I am nervous
or that I count the number
of times I blink in one
sentence whenever I am
talking to you or that I
wanted to tell you that I
loved you when I told you
to leave that night.
Alejandra Guerra is a 20 year-old journalism student living in Boca Raton, Florida. When she is not writing articles for her college newspaper, she is scribbling down poems to post to her blog.
* * *
Poems by Thomas Miranda
I’d rather say the
gentle white blooms
are phantoms. But
void has as
We sought God,
but in inquisition,
found his corpse.
Blue and red swirls frozen in a pipe.
Shaped like a curvy exclamation,
fresh red green grass the point.
I kiss cool glass, dazzling spark and
blue embers embrace eager herb. Heat
glows gold. Halted coughs.
Two smoke streams delicately drift in
open air, lofty gray Chinese dragons,
benevolently bending, sage eyes cleansed
of malice by regarded centuries passing
like red rows of ants, each secure of
significance, the serpents languidly loop through
black infinity, world wandering, curving in
constellations,delighting delving deviating but..
Another dazzling spark.
Thomas Miranda is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
* * *
The Doctor Appointment
By Denise Mostacci-Sklar
When you are older
and the doctor’s assistant
rushes you along with instructions
as if you were a young child
who is just learning how to follow
When the truth of it is
you’ve lived for 85 years,
raised five kids, learned how to drive
and got a job after your husband died
when you were only forty four and now
this middle-aged woman asks questions,
barks instruction, voice loud and jarring
with a cheerful impatience that
cuts at your dignity and suddenly
every request seems complicated
and you lose the fluidity and grace that
carried your aging body in to this room.
She has prepared you for the doctor and
leaves you with white paper johnny
as you sit childlike inside, old outside,
and you wonder who you are as
the doctor arrives, looks into the computer
so serious and quiet instead
of your eyes.
He holds the power to slow down
your failing body and mind, keep you alive
and you are so grateful. You know
the natural order of things
and you don’t mind.
It’s just that at 85, you have years
of experience, understand how it feels
to get old and you’re open
to understanding it further with this doctor
who sees you more and more often.
You know the routine and yet
each time you sit on that table,
in that small room of paper and
metal so sterile, follow
the routine, wait for the report-
a tally of your personal numbers
and medicines that define you,
to take home. You walk away
relieved with thoughts of a fresh start
and make your next appointment
smiling, always feeling
so damned powerless, inferior.
Denise Mostacci-Sklar began life as a dancer and has recently had the good fortune to discover writing as another way to move through life. She particularly enjoys the stillness ...waiting for words to make an entrance. Some of the journals her work can be found in are Dark Lady Poetry, Wilderness House Literary Review, MFT-The Valley Review, BRICKrhetoric, Haunted Waters Press and in the upcoming issue of Emerge Literary Journal.
* * *
Poems by Minh Pham
After Macklemore’s song
When I was five
Playing soccer in Saigon
I realized I liked him
Instead of her.
On the playground
I tried to find a boy
Who could build me a house
Like the one my father built.
Most kids could not
Pick up wood
With their scrawny arms.
They scooped mud
Behind my house
I found a beautiful
Boy who brought me caramel
Spun on a coconut leaf stem.
I thought I found someone
Like my father.
I ate all the honey colored sugar.
If I would rather die
Than live as a straight man.
My father said he would
Protect his son from bullies.
But how could he protect me
I knew he wanted to leave
Since I was eight.
PTSD riddled his skull
With bullet holes.
When the wind blew
He heard the sound of metal
He left the house each morning
So I wouldn’t hear him cry.
I walked to my backyard
Built a piggy bank from
Took out nickels
And incense ash
To patch up the holes.
I didn’t have enough.
The Beauty of Blackened Eyes
Your hands are not as soft as they used to be.
The calluses tell me the number of times
You have rubbed someone’s feet
For the catfish on our table.
Each morning you look into the mirror
And see how your red lips have darkened
From drinking dirt water so your sons
Can eat coconut meat.
You thought if your lips had not faded
Your husband, my father, would not have left us.
This is not true; his eyes did not age with wisdom
Foolishness made his iris blind.
You hated the dark bags under your eyes
Thinking they made you look ugly.
I must admit
I lost sight of beauty.
The swollen bags remind me of
The number of times you took my father’s fists
Against your face, so that your sons
Could have a father in their lives.
Once a year
Santa would climb down the chimney,
Drop a present,
Eat my cookies,
Leave the crumbs
My father would leave a fruit,
Take a hug,
And with the scent of tobacco
And rinds of cherimoya remaining
Slip out the back door.
When I grew older,
No matter how much I wished
For Santa to appear
He would not.
A house is left in shambles
And chaos when
An owl with
Peppered salt feathers
Visits a home
With no fence.
My mother calls the woman
An owl monk.
She visited our house
Once, and ever since, you have
Not forgotten her,
An exile from the
Temples of the Nine Mountains.
You used wood from our house
To build her a fence because
You think she is a worshipper
Of Buddha. Her hair is shaven,
But the tips of feathers’ shafts
Can be seen by everyone
She has lost many homes-Temples.
She cruelly schemes
Men – Fathers.
But she is scared that
She is running out of her own
To make a new nest
On top of the next home
Left to crumble.
You sat and watched as
Flies to a
Minh Pham is currently working towards an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside. He was born in Saigon, Vietnam and became a Riverside, CA native at age eight. His poetry has been published in Yes, Poetry, Verdad Magazine, and Mascara Literary Review.
* * *
Poetry by Douglas Polk
her eyes were the color of carmel,
except when mad,
then black like night,
catch myself looking into ladies' eyes,
as I walk by,
hoping to see the color of carmel,
but I never do.
Work Week Blues
the bathtub draining slow,
don't know why she can't just take a shower,
her voice today at full volume,
often wonder where the sound control,
wish a switch existed to turn the volume down,
concentrating on my presentation due in an hour,
I realize too late,
she was talking to me,
as she yells my pet name,
and slams the door,
my work week begins in less than an hour.
when our romance began,
Saturday our favorite day,
and cup of coffee,
in the park,
reading the paper,
leaning together in the grass,
sharing smiles and sections of the paper,
after ten years together,
too tired to walk in the park,
I want to watch sports,
and she to do her crafts,
knowing what the other thinks,
we stop trying to communicate,
just sit in somber silence,
she with our magazine,
and I the television,
Douglas Polk is a poet living in the wilds of central Nebraska with his wife and two boys, two dogs and four cats.
* * *
By James Rash
Will you be my Valentine, will you be all mine!
As time flies and and I get older by and by.
Keep the thought of me high in the sky.
As love soars through the days of old, our actions at times so bold.
The day you were brought in my life all time went on hold.
As eternity is in sight, our future is just as bright.
One day I will find this love that I seek.
At that time I will be at my peak.
Happiness is what I will reap from this wonderful woman that I speak.
James Rash is twenty-one and has been working in the United States Army for the past three years. He is a country boy from Arkansas, born and raised. James doesn't write poetry and isn't a philosopher or anything, but does from time to time have fun playing with words that turn out to be great sayings or poems.
* * *
What the Sad Fool Sings for the Carnival
By Sam Silva
Our art reflects the dead whom we have loved
...necklaces and chains that bind the heart.
In nervous pity so my song calls out to Jove
desperate for such an inner word.
Or as my lover's paintings lift the feast
...all summer sun and tropical
amid the flowers and beast
but trained to abstract glory
like the feast within a tear.
Eternally in presence is the prayer of all such art
made in a sense to a God which never was.
For in being so we learn and die and come apart
...whereas the sacramental ghost is alive and always here
having never a need for the lessons of such death.
And yet, we fools believe the bounty of our cause!
To live forever! To exhale and speak a final breath...
Sam Silva has poetry in print magazines including, but not limited to Samisdat, The ECU Rebel, Sow's Ear, The American Muse, St. Andrews Review, Dog River Review, Third Lung Review, and various others.
* * *
Poetry by Jennifer Stasak
THE EARTH HELD ITS BREATH
she pulled apart a cotton ball
and draped it in the sky,
called it a cloud.
below, he dug with freckled hands
in elbow-deep puddles of mud
for a secret passage to take him home.
she tucked her knees toward her chest,
buried her ashen face in sap and bark,
and covered herself with crackling leaves.
then two and three,
and four and a hundred and a thousand,
traipsed across the watercolor
horizon, the sinking molten sun,
the maroon and violet paintbrush strokes.
somewhere a cat mewled
and a bird wailed.
the earth held its breath.
“I said my dress is pretty, Mama.
Don’t you think so?”
she lifted her head,
from between her knees.
a prayer escaped her lips
to a God she didn’t think cared.
“Baby, you look like an angel.
You’ll always be my little bit of sunshine.”
nail scars, little crescent moons
were carved into her palm now.
she couldn’t breathe.
“Can I wear your pearls?
I want to be a grown-up!”
she leaned against the door,
trembling and teeth chattering.
exhaling through her nose,
vowed to change.
the dingy bathroom
absorbed her promise.
“… No, baby.
You can’t grow up too fast.”
she opened her eyes slowly,
long feathered eyelashes beating
like hummingbirds. one.
blink. two. blink. three and –
a hand stretched out, grasping
at the ceiling, no… at the dust
that leapt through pale prisms of light.
she turned her head, buried her nose
into the pillow and inhaled musk.
but beyond the glass pane
her companion cooed, then retreated
further into the orange blossoms.
inside, she sniffed and wriggled
then pressed a hand to her moist face.
and closed her eyes.
hairs on her arm –
but she waited under
because she believed
of his promises.
We were rebels,
as we could in our
print dresses while
our mothers sipped
And we giggled and
kicked the tufts of
dandelions and spun
under ribbons of
We wished on stars
long before we even knew
their names, and
grasped the night wildly,
wriggle around in
And we pinky-
swore we would
never grow up,
or turn into our mothers,
or worry about the
our ring fingers acquired
diamonds, and bassinets
congregated in the corners
of our master suites. So
but never our vows.
And our children
swing now from
Jennifer Stasak is a writer living in Central Florida. Her work has been previously published in Living Waters Review, The Anemone Sidecar, Words, and Epiphany Magazine, among others. She currently serves as an intern for Narrative Magazine, and this marks the fourth literary journal she has served alongside. When she isn't writing, Jennifer works full-time as an Internet content writer/researcher, and also enjoys watching copious amounts of "Doctor Who."
* * *
Poetry and Music from: Prometheus The Fire-Eater (A Tragical Comedy In One Act)
By David Swartz
*archive currently unavailable
* * *
Poetry by Harlan Wheeler
Crashing ships in saltwater passion,
as our black souls sink into silence.
A satisfied drunk pulls out his gun.
He swallows his heart and slowly chews
on an old scar. Cold eyes, gray moon,
a frozen field of translucent jellyfish, and
ground as hard as metal.
Graves covered in death grow fast,
when the enemy is dreaming. Bottles
leftover bread, living death below
naught….don’t change my linen, I will
not cry as the mirror breaks, for I will
crash my own damn ship.
The green tapestry of trees fades into oblivion, as the mountains
Like a giant crushed Oreo cookie, dirty colors of mud and snow
blanket the hillside.
Safe from the storm in shadowy skin,
I hunker down through thick storm windows, as the white monster
attacks one hill after another, shooting its white salt from the belly of
its giant popcorn maker.
Pajama tucked in my mountain bunker, the fireplace now becomes
my companion, speaking to me as it devours my wooded crop. The
glowing illumination of the charred cedar skins from the fireplace
belches out for more as the crimson crackles.
Hissing into a wall of flames, winking with its amber eye, like Jupiter’s
hot spot; it pulls me in.
Staring into a fire raises the fire spirits.
As my skin melts to ash, I become entranced by the fire, like a
prehistoric man, listening and watching, with each crackle and pop.
I slide back into yesteryear, carbon dating my thoughts of
mankind……fire dances, eating woolly beasts, and pulling women by
‘There is some rum in the house,’ I shout, leftover from a dead friend.
I saved it for a miserable day or the end of the world.
I slam open the wooden cabinets and yell, ‘oh yeah, there it is.’
Thinking of my dead friend, I uncork the trophy bottle and take a big
swig, and then slowly pour a few shots into my metal camping cup, a
souvenir of warmer days.
Back at the fireplace, watching it growl with its intelligence, I wave
another piece of cedar skin and tease the fire with my arsonist
behavior, asking the burning demon, ‘Do you want some more of this?’
My dog Madison, with her elongated icicle face, cuddles up on the tail
of my blanket. Melting away her winter cares, she sits by my side,
obedient and unafraid of the white monster outside. I bend over and
gently stroke her head and offer her my brandy; she answers by
backing away, and with her fire-reflective eyelids, she flicks her snake
tongue with dog determined disapproval.
I tried for a few years to save that tree and I actually dug a hole
around the base and planted some new dirt and fertilizer, my idea of
a band-aid I guess. I was warned by the Mexican tree guy, Octavio,
that someday it’s going to fall on my house, and now....
It’s chopped up dead skin of reds and yellows fade from wood to ash;
it’s kenneling my memories of summer as it smolders on.
After a few more shots of rum, I challenge the fire spirits by throwing
a shot of rum into the fireplace and as it explodes into a giant ball of
flames, I see the face of my dead friend come out through the fire,
and I tell him, thank you my dear friend for life and death, and thank
you for the rum. You were a very good friend.
Helium of Red...
Fortunately, she was hot-wired for death and that’s
what drove the cat insane. Only a fleshless death can
eat the living, as the cat captures the tiny footsteps
without a heart. Lavender feathers covered in blood,
green eyes reflect the remains of the chickadee,
cleaning teeth and claws are a daily thing. Radiant
helium of red lipstick marked the trail of her unholy
heart as she dragged the cat with her. Masterminded
her masterpiece in the gleaming moonlight with a
shovel, champagne and a cat on a leash; her ghost is
devoted to her abandoned dreams.
Releasing luminous fireflies from her eyelashes, they
light up the tombstones and show her the way, and
even though she was hotwired for death, the lunar
intoxicants crawled in her brain and so did the cat;
with shovel in hand, she proceeded to dig up the
dead sheriff. Moon grass and mushrooms stained the
Coffins are usually unfriendly, but not tonight. Make
no mistake about it, this is a picnic, this is an
anniversary, and it takes two plus a cat to eat the
sardines and drink the champagne.
A Beautiful Lavender Death....
I see I am the one that’s raining
death today, for it has come,
evaporating my lucid dreams of
lavender. I am the storm,
pretending, weeping with ice as the
ocean swells inside of me. Into the
deepness like a strong moon, with a
glint of blinding reflection, I am
unburdened by my frozenness, as I
stroke my own soul, and the
luminous reflection of my life
shoots moonlight towards the stars.
I am floating with the sunlight.
But in the meantime...my death turns to poetry.
“Birds no longer weep and cats no
longer creep. The old dog rustles
with his fleas, he kicks them into
the fireplace to watch them ignite;
the smart old dog grins, grins with delight.” OR
“And now solar flares of life are
but a moonless glass of freedom
with fragments of my birth. I am
just a teardrop to a shipwreck.
Perhaps my bright light was whiter
when it was alive, now its fading
glow is leaving my fingertips as I
sink below the undertow. My bones
capture the frostbite and carve me
out my perfect ghost.”
Take your pick, but I remember my
warm blood and the sun unrobing
its orange and heating up the icicle
locusts that descended down from
their frozen dollhouses. I remember
burying my hot rage into my garden
beneath the frozen roots as I
screamed; “Fuck off!” to the evil world.
As my calmness sinks into place
now, the lights are lit and the
musical stars and the jellyfish are
dancing all around the underwater
museum. A carnival of mackerel
ride the merry-go-round as my flesh
starts to harden. Groups of singing
mermaids gather my tears and store
them in sapphire glasses, hiding
them in the giant clams. Black
angel fish stand guard and redirect
the suicidal salmon that keep
jumping through my stream and
interrupting my chosen music of
death. Shouting to them, “Only the
frozen can pass through here!” As
I sink deeper and deeper into
death, the mermaids smile and
swim through my reflection,
offering me one final dance in my new death.
Harlan Wheeler is an Author, Poet and Inspirational troublemaker, his-books include: The Art and Science of Success volume 3, The Gratitude Journey: from Jellyfish to Bigfoot, Tipping is a City in China.” And “Think more like the mountain not like the climber”
* * *
to make espresso
By Michael K. White
when i first saw your eyes in Heidi's video