Foliate Oak November 2014
Fiction
Winning
By Monika Becker
 
Anna was still showing off her medals on the bus ride home. She had won for best citizen and for best essay. No eight grader had ever done that before. Most of her classmates had their parents in the audience, but Anna had told her mother not to bother coming. Anna’s mother couldn’t drive, and Anna’s father would never take off a day of work. Besides, what if Anna didn’t win anything, then her mother walked five miles for nothing.

Anna’s younger brother, Peter, had run ahead to tell their mother about the medals. Anna expected her mother to be so happy, but when she got to the front door, her mother wasn’t there.     
        
“Where’s Mom?” she asked Peter.

“I told her you won all the medals, and she went upstairs,” he said. Anna thought  her mother must be preparing some surprise for her.

“Mom, look at my medals,” Anna said taking the steps two at a time. She found her mother in the bedroom, stripping the bed, but her mother said nothing.

“Mom, don’t you want to see my medals. No one’s ever won both before.”

“So you have big day?  Peter say all have family there.” She threw the sheets off the bed, beside where Anna was standing, and wiped her hand over her wet cheek.

“Mom, I thought you would be happy. Why are you crying?”

“You ashamed of me. You not ask me to come, so no one know I your mother,” she said choking on the words.   

Anna was shocked. “No, Mom, I didn’t want you walking all that way, and then I might not even win. The school’s five miles away.”                                                                                                                                                            

“Why you think I not walk five miles? In Austria, I walk more everyday.” She sat on the bed and cried.                                                                              

“I’m sorry,” Anna said and sat down next to her. She wanted her mother to say it was all right, but her mother didn’t. For several minutes they just sat on the bed.                                                              

“I just didn’t want you to walk so far,” Anna said again. “I’m not ashamed of you.”                                                                                                                                                        

“Others have someone there. I be so proud to see you win. It be best day in my life.”                                                                                           

The things Anna had worried about during the day all revolved around herself. Never once did it occur to her that her mother, who did everything she could to make her happy, would want to be there, would want to share the joy of her winning.  Anna imagined, too late, how excited her mother would have been to meet her teachers, to hear the principal say nice things about her, even to apologize for her broken English. There was no way to recapture that moment.                                                                                                                                                  

Anna took her mother’s hand and sat beside her as quiet tears slipped down her cheeks. All the joy of winning was gone.
 
* * *

Frozen Outlands
By Kathleen Brenock

He’s one of those guys who uses a person’s name all the time, yet when he tosses her name in after a “Hey there,” it makes her feel like she’s swimming in honey, and she stops and watches him as he lopes down the hall and catches up to his girlfriend, to wrap his lanky arms around her and squeeze her until she squeals “no.”

And, the fact is, she’s been swirling his name with her own in multicolored pen across her notes on Super Novas and has been spending way too much time thinking about him taking off his track shirt in slow-mo, knowing he’s not going to do that for her, because he’s in the orbit with the likes of Saturn and Mars and she’s more like Pluto.

Then walking home, she hears a beep and it’s him driving by in his blue pick-up and she wonders how he thinks of her, a lesser known and lesser endowed, and the thought washes over her that he might feel bad for her, being billions of years away from the sun; and that’s why he’s been lobbing his golden hellos in her direction.

And the thought of being pitied makes the blood rush to her face and she resolves that the next time she sees him, she’s going to let him know that the way she sees it, he’s Pluto, cold and icy, tossing people’s names around like it didn’t matter, and she’s the hot, hot sun who would have let him squeeze her and wouldn’t have told him no.
 
Kathleen Brenock has had her screenplay, “Searching for Newt Chungly” optioned to Baccus Pictures, LLC. Her comedy sketches have been produced by the Boston Improv and her fiction has recently appeared in New World Writing. She has a MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College where she won the EVVY for best comedic screenplay.
 
* * *
 
A Moment of Change is the Only Poem
By  Margaret A. Frey

He wasn't much to look at, an ordinary man dressed in blue work clothes and matching baseball cap.  An electrician, I thought, maybe a plumber for one of those handyman outfits, jack of all trades.  Still, I kept a hard, fast eye on him.  Nearly midnight, you never know who might waltz in, see a pregnant woman behind the register and think: easy pickings.

I work the night shift at Kim’s Grocery.  I've never been robbed like you see on TV, the twitchy guy in a ski mask who pulls a gun and lunges for the till.  Been challenged a few times, teenagers mostly, who shrug down the aisles, hoping I'll mistake swagger for manhood then casually ring up their cigarettes and beer.  Fat chance!

Lonnie's been bugging me to quit this job, says I work for slave wages.     

"You think those slant eyes give a hoot about you?" he says in a lazy drawl.

He's usually half in the bag when it starts.  After a few drinks, Lonnie turns ugly mean.  Last year, he blackened my eye after a disappointing Flyers’ game.  It wasn't him, he pleaded, not the real him who loves me like crazy, wouldn't hurt me in a million years.  An awful accident, he said.

My life, an ongoing car wreck.

For two weeks, I insisted I’d taken a fall down our back staircase. I included details about a broken heel, a loose riser and my legendary clumsiness.  Despite my best attempts, my friends knew.  They shook their heads at the story and looked away. My next-door neighbor Lucy was particularly dismissive.  One afternoon, she cornered me in the hallway. Her mouth twisted up; her eyes turned hard and stony.

“Why put up with this, Kara?  Why?”

“You don’t understand.”

“You’re right. I don’t. Give me a call once you’ve figured it out.”  She stomped away, entered her apartment and slammed the door.  Another slap.

Lonnie’s complaints aside, Mr. Kim and his wife have been kind and generous. They've let me name my own hours, which gets complicated with a croupy two-year old and another on the way.  One day, Mr. Kim's mother read my palm. The old woman's skin is the color of dry mustard, her spine twisted from years of stooping for children and parents and God knows what.

She took my hand, firmly but gently.  She stroked my wrist then spread my palm like a wrinkled road map. My lifeline was strong, she said, my heart line even better.  A person's good fortune was a simple matter of patience and faith.

“There are no accidents,” she’d whispered.

I thanked her and smiled.  I wasn’t convinced about the simple part.

The handyman leaned over the counter.  He asked for a lottery ticket, and then I saw a pink box beneath his long, slender fingers, one of those early pregnancy tests.

"My lucky night," he said with a smile. His voice was soft, hopeful.

I gave him change for a ten. He put a five-dollar bill in my hand, folding my fingers around the money so there’d be no mistake. "You take care now.”

Startled by the gesture, I barely got a “thank you” out before the man turned on his heel and was out the door. I looked at the bill. I tipped Abe’s craggy face to the light.  He didn’t wink or smile, so I slipped the bill in my pocket.

Then a giggling shriek outside. A young man and woman spilled onto the sidewalk from a nearby cafe.  Huddled together, they cakewalked down the street, drunk on cheap wine and crazy laughter. A siren sounded in the distance, one of those long, mournful cries.  I stepped outside. The cool air brought up gooseflesh but I stood there, staring like a loon at the skyline, bending my ear to the sound of late night construction--the squeal of brakes and gears, the groan of giant earthmovers and shapers--the songs of a city dreaming of tomorrow.

My life could be different, I whispered then laughed at the foolishness.  How silly. How perfectly idiotic. As if the world would turn on a measly fiver, a pocket full of wishes.

A car horn beeped.  The handyman, grinning widely, leaned from his window and gave me a jerky thumbs up sign. I waved.  The car skidded around the corner. The winning Lotto or a happy pregnancy?  No way of knowing. Still I hummed my way back into the store and slid behind the counter, thinking I might call Lucy about this stirring in my belly--part baby, part something else.

[A Moment of Change is the Only Poem, title attribution and hat tip to Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012]

Margaret A. Frey writes from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.  Her fiction and nonfiction has been published in: Camroc Press Review, Kaleidoscope, Foliate Oak, Flash Fiction Online, Used Furniture Review, The Dead Mule of Southern Literature and elsewhere.  Margaret's most recent work appeared in the Stinging Fly and R.kv.r.y.
* * *
The Call
By Joseph Han

“You’re toast, you hear me?”

At this point I was on my twenty-seventh call refusing appointments and already told the man that the restaurant would be booked for the next three months. This man’s anniversary was coming up in two weeks, and the threshold between pleading and demanding broke like football players running through a banner. I explained that the manager doesn’t take phone calls concerning booking and wouldn’t make special exceptions for patrons.

“We don’t serve that here sir, I apologize.”

I heard him mutter under his breath but only caught the mother part.

“It’s a phrase you imbecile. I mean if you don’t get me a table, I swear, sweet Jesus…”

“My name is Jonah, sir, not Jesus. Though I’m not even sure he could help you right now.”

His huffing suggested that he was preparing what to say next.

“I will cut you up into slices of toast and burn you!”

I heard him as if he were a tiny version of himself yelling into my ear canal. I flipped through the scheduling book to pretend that I was being ardent in finding him an opening for his occasion, even though he couldn’t see.

“Well sir, as a matter of fact, it is the bread that is sliced and then toasted. Toast can be a verb and noun, but it’s the bread that is the direct object of the toast-ing.”

I thought I heard the receiver on his end slam down, wondering if it’s actually possible for the sound of the slam that ends the conversation to transmit to the other end, like if you were to feel pain from a bullet in the brain. But that would mean that he was using something outdated like a flip phone or some landline.

The restaurant I worked at was the premiere place to dine. Patrons take photos in the kitchen with the chefs. Proposals happen as often as refills of water, yet everyone claps and drinks it up the same. Those couples make reservations on the spot for anniversary dinners based on a projected wedding date. There’s a legend among the staff that a couple planned to go into labor here, but it may have just been coincidence that the water broke when their aperitif was served.    

I initially applied to pay my way through graduate school by collecting tips as a waiter, but the restaurant moved me to the phones with three other people and all we do is reject people. Majority of the time, callers will follow through and make a reservation for dinner three months later, and a lot of the time we get callers who forget about prior commitments and have to go through the wait again.

“I’m begging you,” she said. After a while on the phone, I could hear what exasperation sounded like, which came off a person’s breath as an after-taste – the smell of alcohol. “My mother is ill and this is her last wish.”

Just as I was tasked to do by the restaurant, adhering to response number seven on a list of scenario claims by callers, I forced the words.

“Is your loved one capable of sustaining the duration of a fourteen-course meal?”

Children have been born here, yet no one has died while dining. The closest it came to that was a choking incident on a meal that is suggested to be swallowed whole, which has since been removed from the any future rotation of courses. The extern who came up with the mode of consumption has been removed from the kitchen.

“I hope you enjoy what you do,” she said.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but it’s out of my control.”

The pause in the call was filled with the voices of my coworkers repeating our refusals.

“I’m sure some things aren’t.”

I wanted to tell her about the secret rules in place that made sure that the restaurant ran at such a high level of sophistication, to the point of absurdity. How even if someone arrives on time for an appointment, they will lose their seats. How a certain standard of dress is upheld as a silent law, where one gentleman was refused because he wore a patterned tie on a striped dress shirt. How children under the age of twelve are not allowed. How a single toe cannot be crowded out of your footwear. How a certain amount of oil and light that it reflects on your skin is permissible. How some of the most powerful people in the state eat here two nights in a row because they can.

“Do you ever think about what it would be like to eat where you are? I mean, actually tasting the food, not the experience.”

Keeping the conversation beyond the recommended fifteen seconds already felt like a rebellion that I didn’t plan. My ear became a throat and I drank her voice as it flowed through the receiver like cream.

“Sometimes I do. Sometimes…I just need to know.”

My coworkers looked at me when they didn’t see me put down the phone and wait for a ring, which usually arrived in three-minute intervals.

“Well how about this for an idea,” she said. “Put me down for three, including yourself.”

The surprise took me so instantly that I began weighing the options of what I would wear, imagining what she would look like. I pictured the envy worn as masks for the rest of the evening on my coworkers’ faces. I saw carousel images of a proposal, an anniversary, life coming to be, and death punctuating all of it. A whole lifetime going through courses.

I flipped through pages and hoped to find an opening among the filled slots. I flipped back and forth, hoping that I could somehow shake the finality of names and the words on the pages off so that strokes would fall like dead ants. Searching, I tried to find a place for us in the cycle.

Joseph Han is a graduate student in English at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He is also the current director of Mixing Innovative Arts, a monthly reading series in Honolulu. His work has appeared in Hawaiʻi Review, Metazen, Used Furniture Review, The Molotov Cocktail, Word Riot, and elsewhere.
* * *
I'll Be Good
By Michael P. Kashgarian

To push the boys, the leaders bragged that Dini didn’t take any crap.

“Come, Mewa, why you such a baby? You don’t see Dini crying, and he’s only eight and that’s two years younger than you,” said the soldier, who was tall and thin like the others but whose distinguishing feature was his wildly crooked teeth.

“I’m trying,” the boy said. “The gun is heavy.”

“You not trying hard enough,” the soldier said. “You want your feet beat again tonight?”

“No, no, I’m sorry. I’ll try harder,” the boy said, unable to control his frail body from shaking.

“Why you sorry? Dini not sorry.”

Mewa did not reply. He looked at the soldier, making sure to maintain eye contact and not let his eyes fix on the soldier’s crooked teeth.

“What you look at? What you think about my teeth?”

Mewa focused on the soldier’s left eye, despite the boy’s desire to look at the crooked teeth that summoned. When Mewa didn’t reply, the soldier took the boy’s rifle from him.

“Why you look scared?” the soldier asked. “You smile for me.”

The boy forced a smile, and just as quickly the soldier jerked the rifle back, then smashed the butt into the boy’s mouth. The boy immediately began crying as blood gushed from his mouth and dripped onto the dusty, dry dirt.

“Spit,” the soldier ordered.

Mewa spit on the ground, and a little white pearl of a tooth stood out among the splatters of purple.

“That’s better,” the soldier said, smiling.

The soldier held out the rifle for the boy to take, and looked down the row of little bodies practicing holding the rifles, shoving them forward and yelling, “Tell me or I shoot and kill you now.”

“Dini,” the soldier shouted.

The smallest of the boys, holding a rifle almost as long as he was tall, turned, then ran over to the soldier.

Dini stood before the soldier, looking firmly into his eyes. Dini did not have the urge to look at the crooked teeth.

“Dini, show Mewa how you talk to a captured one.”

Dini took a step back, and heaved the rifle up like an Olympian weight-lifter. He pointed the gun at Mewa and moved forward a step or two, thrusting the barrel to tell the enemy that he was ready to shoot.

“Where are your weapons?” Dini yelled. “Where? Where? ... What you mean you have no weapons? Why you lie?”

Mewa didn’t say anything as he thought he was just to observe Dini, not play the part of a captured one.

Dini pulled the trigger, and the gun clicked, and Mewa shook even more.

“Why do I not get any bullets?” Dini demanded to the soldier.

“Because you don’t need the practice,” the soldier answered, pushing Dini to go back to where he was.

The soldier turned to Mewa, and Mewa hoisted the rifle to his shoulder, pretending he was Dini. “Where are your weapons?” he yelled, his voice a little distorted as a result of the missing tooth.

The soldier stepped over to observe the next boy.

Meanwhile, Dini’s voice could be heard above all the others, demanding the submission of his enemy. Dini’s expertise was fueled by the fact that all the other boys had bullets, and he, regularly commended for his spirit, had none.

The sun was setting, signaling an end to exercises.

Dini and Mewa walked home together, as they lived next door to each other.

“You will have to eat dirt tomorrow,” Dini told Mewa as they were about to separate in front of their homes.

“You eat dirt,” Mewa replied in an attempt to be tough.

“My gun is clean. Son’s gun was dirty, and he had to eat five hands of dirt. Your gun is dirty, Mewa.”

Mewa began shaking, bowed his head slightly and rubbed his tongue in the hole made vacant by his missing tooth. Dini put a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“Mewa, don’t worry. Trade me guns, and I will clean yours tonight.”

Before Mewa had time to consider the offer, Dini took Mewa’s gun and handed him the other.

Dini nodded at Mewa and said, “There is little light left. I will go clean your gun now.”

The two boys departed, and Dini went inside his home and cleaned the gun just as he said he would.

Afterwards, Dini ate a bowl of thick-skinned red beans and stale bread, and fell asleep on the floor next to his dirty bowl and clean gun. The darkness always made Dini sleepy and the flickering light from the fire didn’t make a difference.

In the same way, Dini’s failure to wash his bowl after dinner always made his mother angry. His respect from the tribesmen didn’t make a difference.

“Dini, wake up,” his mother said, shaking his upper arm as he slept curled in a ball on his side. “You must wash your bowl.”

Dini gazed absently at his mother and didn’t reply. As he became aware that his mother once again was asking him to wash his bowl, he made an effort not to look at the bowl. Instead, he closed his eyes and put his head back on the floor.

“Dini, wake up and clean your bowl.”

“The bugs will clean my bowl,” he said, opening and closing his eyes to wave his mother away.

“Dini,” his mother yelled, “you must wash your bowl or I will get word to Santa Claus of your behavior.”

Dini opened his eyes but did not get up.

“You do not know Santa Claus,” he said.

“The tribesmen know Santa Claus, and I will tell them and they will tell Santa Claus.”

“They will not listen to you, mother. You are a woman.”

“The one with the crooked teeth will listen. He wants to marry your sister.”

“No, no, I’m sorry,” Dini said. “I’ll be good. I’ll clean my bowl. Please do not tell Santa Claus.”

Dini sat up and grabbed the bowl. His mother walked away. But Dini lay back down and fell asleep.

The next morning, Dini woke up and the first thing he thought about was the dirty bowl and Santa Claus. He got up quickly to wash the bowl, but the bowl had disappeared. He started to shake, but he calmed himself with anger and picked up Mewa’s rifle.

As he walked outside, Dini greeted Mewa as he did every morning.

“Can we trade guns?” Mewa asked anxiously.

“We better wait until after inspection,” Dini said, “It was dark last night, and I might not have done a good job. The gun you have was cleaned during much light.”

Mewa didn’t say anything.

As the boys stood in a row, the soldier with the crooked teeth began inspecting their guns from one end while another soldier started from the other.

The soldier with the crooked teeth smiled when he came to Dini. He had not smiled at any of the others.

Instead of handing the soldier his gun, Dini stepped back, pulled the gun to his shoulder and pointed the firearm at the soldier.

“What did you tell Santa? Tell me,” Dini yelled, squinting his left eye. “Now, now, now.”

The soldier did not answer. Mewa, a few boys down in the row, dropped his gun and ran away. Dini pulled the trigger.
Michael P. Kashgarian is a former newspaper journalist wearing down a path as a fiction writer. His fiction has been published in one literary journal, and in 2012 he published an e-novel titled John Doe Versus Death.
* * *
Waiting Room
By Daniel Machado

In the waiting room, I sat with my face buried in my hands, trying to make sense of the nightmare I found myself in the midst of. I’ve never been good at handling death, or even just the prospect of it. Of all the noises resonating throughout Saint Anne’s emergency room, none were louder than the sound of my heart pounding in my chest, as if trying to make its way out. The knots in my stomach were as much from the uncertainty of what was happening on the other end of the corridor as from knowing that I was going to have to break the most horrible news to two people whom I had tried to avoid whenever possible over the last several months.

    Just an hour earlier I had sat in the living room of our apartment, watching television while sipping coffee and eating a bowl of cereal, dreading the imminent task of having to put on my uniform and head off to work. As I picked up the remote and began to flip through the channels, the doorbell rang. It took me off-guard, since it was nearly nine-thirty at night. Looking over my shoulder, I gazed out the window and saw a storm raging outside. Then I noticed a police cruiser. That can’t be good, I thought. I hurried down the stairs and opened the front door. Two police officers stood on the other end of the threshold. The older one spoke: “Sorry to bother you, sir, but is this the home of Kristen Quinn?”

    I nodded. “It is.”

    “And you are?”

    “I’m her boyfriend.” I looked at the younger cop, then back at the older one. Neither of them was very easy on the eyes. “Is everything alright?”

    The police officer appeared to be agitated, as if I was the one who had suddenly showed up on his doorstep. He continued in a callous tone, as if he were about to hand me a speeding ticket, “Sir, we’re going to need you to head over to Saint Anne’s Hospital. There’s been an accident.” 

    As I raced to the hospital, horrid scenarios ran through my head. I had no idea what I was about face. I had received no further information from the police officers. Just that my girlfriend and her two children had been in a car accident. It wasn’t until I arrived at the hospital that I realized I still had to call her mother and step-father. I told them to come to the hospital, to hurry, Kristen and the kids had been in an accident. Her mother, suddenly frantic, asked what happened. I told her I had no idea, that I had just arrived myself.

  Kristen and I had gone to school together during the sixth and seventh grades. Although we never actually spoke back then, I had quite a crush on her, despite her overbite and excessively short bangs. However, during the summer following the seventh grade, my father moved us to Massachusetts and I never saw her again.  

  Until sixteen years later when I received a message from her on Facebook, in which she said that I looked familiar and she asked where I grew up. I messaged her back, stating that I grew up in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, until the age of twelve, when my family moved to the Bay State, where I’ve been ever since, for better or worse. She replied that she grew up in Portsmouth too and she thought that maybe we had gone to school together. She gave me her phone number and told me to call her. After a few phone conversations, we met up for some coffee, and the following evening I stopped by her house. After that, we spent at least one night a week together, usually a Wednesday or Thursday, since those were my days off from my security job. We usually just watched a movie at her apartment, since she had two children and finding a babysitter during the week was no easy task. From the very beginning, my instincts were telling me to run, that I was way over my head, since I had never dated a girl who had a child, never mind two.

  But despite my better judgment, I stuck around. Despite the earnest, almost desperate, pleas of my parents and sister, I continued to date her. After about four months of seeing her, I took the plunge and moved in with her and her kids. Up to that point, I really hadn’t spent too much time with her children. Her daughter, Mallory, was three, and her son, Kyle, was six. Kyle was a bit of a wild child, always getting into trouble in school, constantly being sent to the principal’s office. I figured that was to be expected, probably the result of never having a father-figure in his life. Kristen and Kyle’s dad had split up less than a year after the birth of Kyle, and Kyle never saw his dad again. Mallory was a handful too, as are most three-year-olds, but she was one of the cutest three-year-olds I had ever seen, with her blue eyes and her blond pigtails. Although Mallory’s father was in her life to an extent, she would cry every time she saw him. She wasn’t at all fond of him, and I loved her for that.

  Ashamed as I am to say, prior to moving in, I had more or less tried to avoid Kyle and Mallory like the plague. But that changed soon after I moved in. Although I worked the third shift, I spent a good deal of time with them, helping Kyle with his homework, throwing the football around in the front yard. I would read to Mallory and we’d watch Tom and Jerry cartoons together. Before long, the four of us were going to carnivals together, where Kyle and I would ride on the bumper cars together, and I’d win over-sized stuffed animals for Mallory shooting basketballs or firing water guns. I spent as much time with them as I could. They became the family I never had and, frankly, never wanted. I had admired kids, usually from afar, but having a family was something I never really desired. But I was glad that I had come into their lives, and that they had come into mine. As much or as little as I had given to them, they had given me so much more.

  It seems that people are sometimes shaped and defined by the obstacles they manage to avoid. But most of the time, they’re shaped and defined by the obstacles they choose to encounter and face head on, and, hopefully, conquer. And in a life where I was constantly avoiding obstacles, not wanting to deal with any unnecessary hassles, this was one obstacle I was glad I hadn’t fled from.                 

  But as is usually the case, that happiness did not last. In fact, it came to an unforeseen crashing halt. I sat in that waiting room, sick to my stomach, knowing something that was about to break the hearts of two grandparents: their grandchildren were dead. A four- and a seven-year-old, dead. On arrival. At the point of impact. A white minivan. A patch of black ice. An over-sized pick-up truck. Shattered windshields, smashed head lights, burned rubber, contorted steel. A disaster. A catastrophe. An utter nightmare come to life.

  And I was the one who had to break the news. I was the one who had to reach into their chests and tear their hearts out, the one who had to destroy their dreams. Pluck them out of their minds and stomp on them, smash them beyond recognition.

  I knew what my duties entailed, but what sickened me even more was what I didn’t know: Kristen’s condition. Was she going to pull through, be given the God-given curse of having to live on, of having to bury her own children, watch them be lowered into the ground, robbed of the opportunity to live full lives? Would she be forced to suffer through that? Or would the Selfish One take her too, there being no limits to His greed and wrath. I sat there and waited, trying desperately to hold the contents of my stomach down. For a moment, I imagined a plug at the base of my esophagus, keeping my coffee and cereal down where they should be. A quick, one-second, much-needed distraction. But then I returned, and so did the burden and worry, heavy as ever.

  I leaned over and clutched my stomach, needing questions to be answered. I shook my head, involuntarily. I had no control of it. I had control of nothing. You can plan and plan your whole life away, but it will all amount to nothing. Always it will.

  I looked up, hoping to see the doctor approaching me, needing not to see him, needing not see anyone. What I needed was to be turned off, to hit the reset button, to start over again. To fix this awful mistake that had somehow occurred.

  But I knew it couldn’t be fixed. It was a wrecking ball that would irreparably destroy lives, shatter hearts, and soil souls. Rape us and leave us where we lay, bloody and broken, hollowed human beings. Leave us stumbling through the rest of our days, not even allowing us to remember the people we used to be.

  I stood as the doctor approached. I knew the news before he even opened his mouth. She was gone too. The girl I had first laid eyes on as an eleven-year-old was no more. She would never she her thirtieth birthday. She ceased to exist. She had woken earlier that day by my side, a happy, contented woman. But less than twenty-four hours later she was gone. The woman I had kissed and touched every day for the past seven months was no longer with me. She was gone forever, never to be heard from or seen again. The woman I had loved so deeply, carried away by the wind.

  But I was here, stranded, alone. Alive. But not really. Breathing? Yes. But alive? No. I turned away from the doctor as he continued to speak. I couldn’t hear him anymore anyway. My head was filled with a loud humming. All around me, people were walking about, talking, but all I could hear was that humming.

  I knew it was only a matter of time before her parents would arrive. I wasn’t sure that I could manage to utter a single sound, never mind speak an actual sentence. I lowered my head, placed my palms over my eyes, tried to pull it together. Or at least that which still remained.

  If there was one thing I didn’t wish to be, it was the bearer of bad news. I didn’t want to bring sorrow to anyone. My whole life was pain, be it real or imagined, and I didn’t wish for anyone else to feel that same hurt. That unbearable sting, which always leaves a mark, perhaps large, perhaps small, but always indelible.

  I sobbed into my hands as tears slipped down my face. I wanted to run out to my truck, slam the door shut, and pound my forehead into the steering wheel. To shout questions that no one would ever hear. To cry and sob and pound my fists.

  But I remained seated in the waiting room, reluctantly standing by to carry out my unfortunate duty. And, ten minutes later, I did just that. Graceful and poised I wasn’t. But the necessary words emerged from my mouth. I told them how sorry I was. They embraced, sobbing into each other’s shoulder, and, not knowing what else to do, I rubbed Kristen’s mother’s back for a few moments. I lowered my head, wiped at my tears, then patted Kristen’s step-father’s arm. The news had been broken and, for some odd reason, I felt a bit lighter.

  My hand dropped as I lifted my head and, with blurred vision, spotted the exit sign overhead. I meandered towards it, taking my time, thinking there was no hurry, that all had ended anyways. And though the humming returned suddenly, it seemed as if it had been with me my entire life. And that it always would be. It seemed as if it were the most natural sound that existed, a subtle, yet mighty vibration that could accomplish anything, bring entire universes into existence. I welcomed it, wanted it to always be there for me, to comfort me.          

  Through the glass double doors I saw the rain falling furiously, violent gusts of wind getting tangled up in flags, blowing them every which way, forcing the branches of trees to shake and bend. I didn’t speed up, I didn’t slow down. I knew the storm awaited me, and that I would get there as I should. Like everyone else, I would enter into the storm the moment I was meant to.      

  As the doors slid open and I stepped through, onto the pavement and into the storm, I was immediately assaulted by the heavy rain and gusting winds. As I tried to navigate my way through the parking lot to my truck, which I spotted just ahead, my forearm pressed to my forehead, staggering this way and stumbling that way, I realized that, for the first time in a long time, I was free; and, at the same time, completely lost.    
Daniel Machado works as a correction officer in Massachusetts. He studied at Rhode Island College.
 
* * *

Slipping Away
By Sharon Sees

Midnight, breathless.
I am floating floating floating.

I am free.

The day I first arrived, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t speak. My back against the cracked concrete walls, I fixated on nothing but my trembling hands, a hangnail on my left forefinger. I couldn’t feel the stone-cold floor against my legs and I couldn’t hear Big Jane’s cackle three cells down and I couldn’t see the mold growing between every crack on the wall--a web of pain and loss and regret and time wasted.
One, two, three freckles on my left palm.
I know nothing else.
I know nothing of fists, nothing of scratching, nothing of screaming, nothing of blood. I know nothing of anger, nothing of hatred, nothing of revenge, nothing of power.
Look at these hands. Look at these hands. I pick at a callous and tell myself to forget.

The worst part was the hiding. I hadn’t expected it. You stare at the body and you know that you’ve won and you’ve proved that you’re stronger. Smarter. Better.
And now what?
Now you run. Now you’re scared. You do all this planning and preparation and then what do you have? Congratulations, you did it! Take a look at yourself- aren’t you proud?
Yes, very proud. Now hide from who you are.

And that’s what I did: that night, I ran. I whisked through the wooden front door, still hanging wide open; I stormed down the rickety porch steps. I faced the dark, quiet street and the peaceful breeze brushing my cheek. Onward, it said, nudging me forward. And so I followed the wind.

That’s when my hands started trembling—they haven’t stopped since. In a panicked haze I drove 300 miles north; somehow I landed in the woods in New Hampshire. For six weeks, that’s where I stayed--cooped up in my rusty red car, the one my father bought for me when I was sixteen.

Ah yes, my father. The man with the perpetually messy hair and a gleam in his eye.
I wondered if he’d be proud of me too.

And then I stared at my hands.

It wasn’t long until they found me and took me away. I hadn’t hidden well; I was too agitated to stay in the car. I would pace around the highway by the woods and stare at my hands and tell stories to myself—shh, Carolina. Calm down, calm down.
Remember that time you tripped during the school play in third grade? I would laugh to myself. And remember that time you went to the beach with your friends? I would smile and nod. Shallow breathing. There you go. Remember that time you won that award? How about that time when you started college? Happy thoughts. Good. And remember that time when you flunked out of college and remember that time when your parents kicked you out and remember that time you got fired from your job and remember that time you lost your apartment and remember that time your father got cancer and remember that time no one cared to even tell you and remember that time he died and you cried and remember that time you killed a stranger just to get back at God

I remember, I remember.
And I stare at my hands.

And so I sit here each day, intoxicated by the sickly sweet aroma of bodies and sweat and the realization that I am not strong, I am not smart. I have nothing to be proud of.
I just listen to the clock as it ticks and it tocks. Coward, it says, hanging from the wall.
Coward.

“Carolina,” the prison guard snaps at me today. I see his pasty skin and slimy mustache from behind the crusty iron bars. He has always kept his head held high, spitting on the gates as he saunters by.
I wonder if he knows he is a coward too.
“It is time,” he says. I notice a strange, solemn tone hidden beneath his words. Sure, buddy--now you have a heart. He clutches my arm and leads me down the prison corridor, slowly passing each inmate and cell. There is silence. Pure silence. Not even Big Jane lets out her usual cackle.
Step, repeat. Step, repeat.

The guard and I enter a small, dark-lit room, lined top to bottom with gray stone. Am I shivering? I am shivering. Yes, I am shivering. Step, repeat. Step, repeat.
 
The guard leads me to the chair in the middle of the room, a single dangling lightbulb hanging above it.
“Carolina Dodge, Prisoner 00324. First degree murder. Be seated. Thank you. Now, don’t move.”

And I stare at my hands and they are no longer mine.
They are the chair’s.
They are God’s.
They are the hands of my guard and my inmates and my victim and my father and my sins and I am strapped in and what have I done what have I done what have I done

And suddenly-
Midnight, breathless.
I am floating floating floating.

I am free.
 
 Sharon Sees is a college student who spends her free time writing. She lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania and recently published an essay on thisibelieve.
* * * 
Cover Girl
By Linda Wisniewski
Bobbi slid her black and white patrol car to a stop in front of Hagey’s House of Hair.  She knew that taking the empty parking spot might discourage walk-ins but what could she do? She needed a haircut and the side lot was full.

Annie, her favorite stylist, smiled when she saw Bobbi push on the glass door and enter the little shop. Beams of sunlight poured through the floor to ceiling front window, even shining through the posters taped on the glass. The soccer team fundraiser, the beef and beer for an injured neighbor, the bingo at the senior center: Annie said yes to them all. She had a hefty mortgage on the shop, but it was hers, and she was proud of it. Pink and gold wallpaper, white track lighting above the mirrors at the six workstations, pink ceramic sinks, Annie had chosen them all when she took over from the previous owner five years ago. A whole new look, and a whole new start, Bobbi knew, after her divorce. Annie was not shy about sharing her story, and her customers loved her. She was a kind and generous boss, and the other two stylists, though she could only give them part-time hours, loved working here.   

Bobbi had come to know these things over the year she’d been coming here for haircuts. Though she was a short and muscular cop, Bobbi felt comfortable amid the feminine décor, and the local women chatting around her. Two of them wiggled their fingers at Bobbi then returned to reading magazines, their foil-wrapped heads under bullet-shaped dryer hoods. A young woman smiled at Bobbi as she swept hair from the floor into a dustpan. 

Annie waved the scissors in her hand toward the washing section of the shop. Her other arm was wrapped in a thick gauze bandage from elbow to shoulder.

“Take a seat at the sink, there. I’ll be with you in a sec,” she said.

“Thanks, don’t mind if I do,” Bobbi answered. She strode to the shampoo chair and lowered her body into it with a sigh. Bobbi had a woman’s figure but you wouldn’t call her slender. That would be Annie, an ash blond with soft tendrils of hair framing her heart-shaped face. “Boy, do I need a haircut,” she said.

“Yes, you do, my friend. Same style as always?” Annie spoke while brushing loose hairs from the neck of her customer and handing her a mirror.

Bobbi chuckled. “You know me well.”  Her gaze swept over the mirrors and larger than life photos of glamorous-looking young women on the wall across from where she sat. Models, she reminded herself. No one walks out of here looking that good, and I’m fine with that.

Annie swept the black plastic cape from around her customer’s shoulders. “All set, Mrs. Supsic. Candy will take that over at the register.”  She arched her lower back and massaged it with both hands. Then she walked over to Bobbi’s chair.

“Busy today?” Bobbi said. Then “I know…” and both women laughed as they said in unison, “Busy every day!” Bobbi lowered her head back over the edge of the sink. She enjoyed the shampoo, the vigorous way Annie shampooed her head and rinsed it with warm water, soothing and relaxing. She felt her shoulders release inside her black uniform shirt.  The hum of the hairdryers and the low buzz of traffic outside lulled Bobbi into a moment of peace. For this bit of time, her lunch break, she could let her guard down. She was technically off duty.

“Guess I won’t get robbed today,” Annie joked.  “Not with that cruiser parked out front.”

“Not while I’m gettin’ my haircut, anyway,” laughed Bobbi.

“And I guess the rest of the neighborhood’s safe.  You’d answer a call even if your hair was wringing wet, wouldn’t you?”

“Chief Haber doesn’t take kindly to excuses,” Bobbi said, “especially from his only female officer. And wet hair is no excuse when duty calls.”

“Well, let’s finish you up, just the same, and you can be on your way, protecting Plum Grove from crime and corruption.”

“Do my best on the crime, don’t know about corruption.” 

Both women laughed. The other two customers and their stylists smiled into the mirrors on the wall. It felt good here, Bobbi thought, among only women and safe; a woman’s place.

Annie threw a cape around Bobbi’s shoulders and snapped the Velcro snug around her neck. After running a long comb through the officer’s short hair, she picked up her scissors.

“You do pretty well with that arm,” Bobbi said. “What happened?”

“Yeah, the one-armed hairstylist, that’s me.”  Annie dropped her eyes from the image in the mirror.  She took a second to lightly touch her left arm where the bandage was, wrapped around it just above the elbow.  Then she gave the answer, the practiced answer. “Bumped into the door jamb when I was closing up last night.” She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Gave myself quite a whack.”

Later that day, Bobbi cruised by the shop, though it was not on her regular route. She would have been hard pressed to say why, only that she had to do it, had to satisfy that odd feeling things were not quite right. A cop with women’s intuition, she laughed to herself, better not let that get out.   

Over the next couple of weeks, she dropped by the House of Hair to just say hi, checking in with the pet shop next door and the couple who made custom blinds upstairs to make it look official.  Nothing wrong with that, she thought, just being the “friendly police presence” the Chief talks about so much.

When she was ready for her next haircut, Bobbi walked into the shop and noticed a long scar on Annie’s arm where the bandage had been.  Annie tossed her head, as if to show she was fine, but her hair fell back to reveal ugly purple marks on her neck.  Bobbi stood just inside the door, her boots planted wide.  She recognized these marks.  She had seen them before, on other women whose husbands or boyfriends had put their hands there and squeezed hard.

“Annie, oh Annie.” Bobbi sighed. 

“What?” Annie muttered.  When her eyes met Bobbi’s they filled with tears. “What, you’ve never seen a bruise before?  I fell, okay?”

“Annie, stop.  You didn’t fall on both sides of your neck and leave fingerprints.”

“It’s my private business.  I don’t interfere in your life, do I?”

“You don’t deserve this, Annie, no woman does.  Let me call it in.  He can be arrested for doing this to you.”

“Get out. Just get out.” Annie turned away and strode toward the back of the shop, pushing aside the pink drape that led to the storeroom.    

Bobbi left, slamming the cruiser’s door as she got in and drove out of the parking lot. She had to report this. The evidence was on Annie’s neck. But what if it didn’t stop him? What if it made him madder, and he hurt Annie even worse? She drove around for a while until her heart rate felt like normal. She finished her shift without incident, though she almost hoped for something to happen, to justify her lack of action on Annie’s case. 

April turned to May, prom season. On Saturday morning, a shy sixteen year old walked into the shop.  “I have an appointment for my prom do,” she whispered to Candy at the front desk. Even though the day was warm, her arms were covered in long sleeves. Her hair fell over her face but not far enough to cover the purple splotch below her right eye.

When Annie saw her she felt her stomach drop. She ran to the bathroom and retched into the sink, dry heaves of spit and bile.  Holding onto the sink, she took a few deep breaths and saw her face in the mirror. Horrified, she looked down, splashed water on her face and hands, and turned to the towel dispenser. The paper stuck as she pulled on it, tore into shreds she used to mop her face, then tossed into the basket. She pushed open the door and walked back out into the shop.

“Okay, how shall we do your hair for the prom?” she said, feeling tender as she washed the girl’s hair, massaging her scalp.  A flash of memory took Annie back to high school, the boyfriend who hit her in the face. She could not remember why.  Why he hit her, why she went out with him.  Why she kept dating him until another girl hit on him and he ditched Annie.  Today, she remembered how free she had felt when he was gone.

Annie cut the teenager’s hair and styled it to fall across her face, and recommended makeup to cover the bruise over her right cheekbone.  She showed the girl how to apply it to her pretty young face.

“It’s not your fault, you know, whoever hit you,” she said.

“I know,” the girl answered, shocking Annie into silence. She remained quiet while the girl gave Annie a small shy smile.

She watched out the front window as the girl walked to her car and drove away alone. The shop was empty now, the other stylists long gone. Annie sat down at the counter and picked up the phone. Her hands trembled. She had to concentrate hard to push down the three numbers.

“911, what is your emergency?”  Annie’s body was so heavy, and her mouth so dry. “911, what is your emergency!” She had to place the receiver back in the cradle but her fingers didn’t work and it fell to the countertop. “911! What is your location, please?”

Emergency? Annie’s mind went blank. Location? Not here. Not her business, their livelihood.  What if they could trace her call? Mark said he was sorry. He hadn’t meant to hurt her. She had to do something to stop this now. She had to turn things around before …

She picked up the receiver and held it to her mouth. Her voice came out in a high squeak, but it came out of her, thank God. She could stop this.   

“Sorry, my mistake.”  
 
Linda Wisniewski lives in Bucks County, PA where she writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her book, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press.
* * *
Creative Non-Fiction

Camaraderie Collage
By Andrea Martinson

1.     4:00 pm July 12th, 2014, standing in the front of the sanctuary of Shiloh Bible Church in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, wearing a deep-purple bridesmaid dress and witnessing my brother speak his vows to the woman he loves. It feels like a dress rehearsal, another practice run through the ceremony. This isn’t actually happening, right? I shed no tears, but my fingernails are digging into the stem of the bouquet in my hands.

2.     7:10 pm July 20th, 1993, entering the world and filling my lungs with oxygen for the first time at Community Hospital in Springfield, Ohio. My mother says I was a quiet, teeny-tiny newborn. She also says that the next morning when my father came into the room with my three-year-old brother in tow, as soon as my brother saw me he toddled over to my mother’s side, clambered up onto the bed, and kissed my soft forehead.

3.     Four years old, my eyes glued to the square T.V. watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in our small apartment living area. From looking at a picture Mom has surreptitiously snapped that day, I can see that he has his arm wrapped around me as we sit side by side on the brown polyester carpet. When Mom first shows him the picture, he explains with the solemn-ness that can only come from a seven-year-old older brother, “I was protecting her, Mom.”

4.     Fall of 2005, exploring the woods in our new backyard. Our old, tiny backyard had butted up to a dermatologist’s office, and we relished in our newfound freedom of twenty acres. I was always the trailblazer, finding openings in the thicket to plunge deeper into the woods towards our mission, and he would always be the rearguard checking that we left no trace for our enemies to follow us. We would talk about life, invent epic adventures pretending we were Legolas and Aragorn, or sometimes let contented silence reign as our feet crunched the crisp leaves underfoot.

5.     Thirteen years old, bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet in Dayton International airport next to my mother, scanning the multitudes of faces for one person. A figure in the distance walks toward us, pulling a black suitcase behind him and sporting a tan that I know was acquired from two weeks in Mexico. We make eye contact from 50 yards away, and I abandon all formalities, running towards him with arms outstretched before colliding into him and squeezing him around the waist as tight as I can. It was the longest time we had been apart.

6.     Ten years old, wielding a pitch-black, wooden katana and wearing an impressive black cape that cascades around me as I duel with him in a choreographed fight he had created, inspired by the Lord of the Rings and the Matrix. Our fluid, practiced motions are saturated in deadly grace, and when we clash blades with a sharp thwack, chipping wood as we grind down to the hilts and stare at each other, the thrill of story-creating and epic sword fights shines from my eyes and mirrors in his.

7.     March of 2011, standing together on the wall of Jerusalem, Israel. We’re snacking on a cinnamon sweet roll he bought at his favorite bakery in the Old City as we gaze out over the rolling landscape of fresh green foliage that only the end of a productive rainy season can provide. The fact that we can meet together across the Atlantic even as he’s studying abroad in college and I’m on a ten-day tour with my school is sweeter than any roll in the world.

8.     Fifteen years old, playing Lord of the Rings Risk with me being the green forces of elves, Rohan riders, and eagles, and him being the black forces of goblins, Ringwraiths, and cave trolls. We are familiar with each other’s strategies, always trying to guess what the other’s next attack will be while scrambling for a creative counter of our own. I rarely win any of the numerous strategy games we play, but when I do I make sure he never forgets it.

9.     Senior year of high school, lying in bed and day-dreaming of graduation when I catch snatches of a low conversation he’s having with my parents downstairs about taking a girl in his major out to the Greene for dinner. I stiffen, not believing my ears. He has never dated before. I stay still and silent until I hear the front door shut and his car engine start, the signal of him heading back to Cedarville for the night, before screaming for my mother to come upstairs and demanding her to tell me every word she had just heard.

10.  One month later, sitting in the parking lot of Olive Garden on Bechtle Avenue in Springfield, waiting to meet her. My brother’s car pulls up, and I can feel the blood pumping through my body faster and harder. Then they are standing in front of us. She could be nice, but she wouldn’t be good enough for him if she were Mother Teresa’s twin. They sit down on the opposite bench of my parents and me. I don’t remember what we talk about. All I see is that he has his arm around her shoulder the entire time.

11.  Five hours after the wedding ceremony, standing out on the steps of the Rolling Pines Golf Course Club House with sparklers in my hands to join the crowd in sending off the couple. A car idles at the base of the stairs, filled to the brim with colorful balloons courtesy of the groomsmen. There’s a cheer at the top of the stairs, and all eyes swivel up to see him and his new wife run down the stairs through the shower of shouts and sparks. They pass me by, slip into the car, and are gone.
Andrea Martinson is from Springfield, Ohio, where she's grown up her entire life. She's been a voracious reader since she could talk, and has been writing ever since second grade in elementary school. She is a junior Biology major at Cedarville University studying to be a Park Naturalist.
 
* * *
Hard Tests
By Billy Pullen

I suppose one of the steps that led me into teaching is that I have always liked being a student.  I certainly loved being in college.  Even after I received a BA in both English and theater in the normal four-year span, I decided to go back for an extra semester in order to certify to teach.  I wasn’t quite ready for graduate school in theater because deep down I knew that I  would never be a professional actor, nor was I ready for graduate school in English because my fingers were still numb from typing literary papers. Actually, I went back for a teaching certificate because I wasn’t quite ready to move on from being an undergraduate.  I was content to stay where I was. 

Nevertheless, my student teaching was a pleasant surprise, and when I finished that semester in December, I accepted a teaching job for the sole reason that it was twenty-five miles from the Norman Rockwell-like Arkansas college town where I could still live.  This decision made me feel secure, because I could still have one foot in college and the other foot in the “real” world.

The job was to teach four sections of senior English and one section of speech.  I found out later that the school district had to hire a teacher who was certified in both English and speech, a rarity in those days.  In other words, I was probably the sole applicant.  After they hired me, the principal gave me a folder left by the parting teacher who got that call from God that told him to leave the classroom and to become a missionary in Zambia, not wait until the end of the school year.  At least, that’s what they told me. 

Anyway, the folder contained the usual information about the curriculum he had covered, and a couple of class leaders in maybe three of the five classes.  (Turns out, there were no class leaders in those other two classes.)  For one class, he left the briefest note: “All my creativity ran dry with this group.  Good luck!  And God bless you!”  I assume it was the same God that told him to get the hell out of that Arkansas classroom and run off to Africa. It was just the bait that an idealistic, naïve teacher like me swallowed and never bothered to chew.

“You must be firm and flexible,” the principal told me.  I assume he meant for me to be demanding but nurturing, or maybe to be compassionate but to always carry a big paddle.  I don’t know what he meant, but I do recall a professor in the teacher-certification classes repeat, “A good teacher must always be flexible.”  What was it with the f-word? 

The first test of being flexible involved the pronunciation of my name.  It was more of a test on patience and perseverance. The “n” was never articulated in my name.  Instead of Mr. Pullen, I became “Mr. Pulley.”  Here’s a brief scenario of the first few days:

“Hello, my name is Mr. Pullen,” I announced proudly and I wrote my name on the board just with the best teacher-like penmanship that I could muster. 

“Mr. Pulley, what time we get outta here?”  Valenica, who was named for the orange, asked.  She volunteered the information regarding the orange after I had politely asked her if “Valencia” were a family name.

“Mr. PulleNN.”  I corrected her.

“Mr. Pulley, when the bell gone rang?”  Valencia inquired.

“Mr. PulleNNN,” I was almost singing.

“Mr. Pulley, where you from?”  Cidney, as in Poitier but whose mother couldn’t spell,  wanted to know.

“I grew up in—that’s Mr. PulleNN.”

“That’s what I say, Mr. Pulley,” Cidney was convinced.

“Mr. PulleNN.”

“You a nice teacher, Mr. Pulley,” Areta, not Aretha, smiled.

“Mr. PulleNN.”  I really wanted to win the first round, but bigger battles were raging.

For the first three weeks, I did a strenuous review in grammar.  According to the file, they had not used the grammar books, and according to what they knew about grammar, it appeared they had never used them in the history of their twelve years in school.  However, I proceeded in subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, case usage, even parallelism from what is now considered an ancient textbook, the old Warriner and Griffith Grammar and Composition Series.  I was on a soapbox.  I knew this stuff and was rather ostentatious with my use of colored chalk, “sophisticated” bulletin boards, and theatrical spontaneity of making up sentences using the students’ names, such as “Natasha like chocolate milk.”  I was so smart in leaving out the “s.”   Yes, they would learn the correct use of present tense.

“Does anyone see the grammatical error here?”  I even waited a few seconds.  “Or is it correct?”  I inquired.  No response.  “Should it be Natasha LIKES chocolate milk?”  You should have heard me emphasize the “s” in “likes.”   “L. I. K. E. S,” I spit that S out like a rattlesnake. Annie Sullivan, eat your heart out.

“Natasha ain’t here, Mr. Pulley.  She take her baby to the doctor,” Jeremiah, who was not a bullfrog, volunteered.  


One day I thought it would be fun to diagram sentences, a decision that some might call suicidal.  Ambien would not have worked any better in getting these students in such a comatose shape.  The cockeyed optimist in me was grateful for no discipline problems, because they were either asleep or fighting to stay awake.  When a couple of students were awake enough to ask, “When we gone do ‘litterture’?”  By that time, I had stopped correcting any mispronunciations. I was now sanctioned “Mr. Pulley.”   As to literature, why not?  I thought teaching Macbeth would be some kind of cosmic solution to my dilemma.

I approached teaching the Scottish play with my usual gusto.  The students actually remembered to bring their “litterture” books out of gratitude for leaving the grammar books in their lockers.  I was excited about the witches because I thought that any teenage would be excited about the witches.  I showed photos and posters of the witches and then I launched my “lecture” about the role of the witches in the play.  I did all my spiel about Shakespeare complimenting King James with the use of the witches, the whole take on the word Weird when referring to the Weird Sisters, the explanation of “Wyrd” from Beowulf, and the whole concept on fate.    I was all over the board and running out of colored chalk.  “So, class, just what is the role of the witches in this play?  Is it sheer entertainment?  A compliment to King James?  Do the weird sisters have something to do with destiny?”  I was really into asking lots of questions in those days. “Come on, no one has anything to say today?”  Silence.  And then a minute or two later, a six foot six, two-hundred-and-fifty pound football player Cordarius Gillespie raises his hand.  “Yes, Cordarius.”

“I tell you who them witches is.”

“Oh?”

“Miss Thompson, Miss Hall, and Miss Smith.”  All three of these seasoned teachers were notorious to my students.  These teachers had tortured all the minority students with false accusations of stealing their classroom scissors, staplers, and even their pencil sharpeners.

I didn’t immediately laugh at Cordarius’ answer.  I held my breath and raised my eyebrows, but I exploded in laughter and then gave Cordarius and the rest of the class a facial gesture communicating, “You have a valid point, Cordarius.”  They did not laugh when I laughed, but when I gave them that “look,” they guffawed.  That was an unusual way of bonding with the students, but that bond launched the beginning of a rather successful semester.  A sense of humor and simply being human became an effective teaching tool.


Sometimes, I was the sole person to find humor.  A couple of weeks into the semester I gave a ridiculously difficult grammar test in which the students were given pages of sentences that might contain grammar errors.  The test takers were to circle the error and then correct it.  Some of the sentences contained no errors, but I did not reveal the number of sentences that were correct.  I was diabolical.  Sweet Valenica stared at that test for several minutes and suddenly yelled, “Mr. Pulley!  What we supposed to be doin’?” 

I explained in a tone like Mr. Rogers of television fame: “If you find an error in the sentence, circle the error, and in the space below, rewrite the sentence with the appropriate correction.”

Valencia nodded.  She scrutinized a few more of the sentences.  She silently mouthed some of the words.  She circled nothing.  Then suddenly, Valencia proclaimed, “Mr. Pulley your testes be too hard.”

I froze.  I held my breath.  I wanted to laugh.  Why weren’t the students laughing?  Did she say what I thought she said?  Was the intercom on?  Surely, Valencia wouldn’t be that graphic.  I gazed at the class.  They were all still trying to take the test, a single test.  Their plural of test was “testes.”  Why wouldn’t I know that?

I stayed at that school in rural Arkansas for a year and a half.  Eventually, I received a phone call from a school in Memphis summoning me to teach speech and drama.  It wasn’t a call from God, but I yielded to the attractions of the big city.   I was not only able to teach, but I could also act and sing in community theatre where I repeatedly told the tale of the testes to fellow actors.  After a long sabbatical from the theatre, I lost contact with most of those actors but recently, a fine actor who had laughed most infectiously at my tale was smitten with terminal throat cancer.  Unable to speak, he enjoyed emailing and texting his actor friends.  I hesitated when I first contacted him.  What do I write?  I sent a feeble message with something like “hello.”  He immediately responded:  “Mr. Pulley, your testes be too hard.”
Receiving an MFA in creative writing from Sewanee May 2014, Billy Pullen is an IB English and creative writing teacher at Germantown High School. His writing explores the entire gamut of the human spirit: the triumphs, the vulnerability, the unpredictability, the joys, and the woes. 
* * *
Poetry
 
Cutting Berries
By Pat Anthony

I open her
voice admonishing smell
every one—there’s so many bad
ones—smell, then taste. She was terrified

of food unless it was field greens, wizened
apples, the occasional rosined peach.
Melons were threatening with mint
green interiors glistening like a lie beneath

beguiling names like honeydew.
Plums were not to be stolen
from iambic refrigerators, and none
could be trusted beyond prune, no
damson or green gage, no black gold.
 
My father brought gooseberries once
and she tried to hide them in a pie,
buried them in sugar so thick it turned
to brittle glass encasing each green globe
all sourness preserved much like the

cake she made one day without baking
soda, somehow become almost sky
blue and making us eat it until we
broke pieces off and took them

to the chickens where they became
rocks petrified like the bunch of us
never having enough but not knowing
what to do with what we had.

Pat Anthony is a teacher in Kansas. Former poetry editor of Potpourri: A Magazine of the Literary Arts, Prairie Village, KS. Published in The Hollin’s Critic, Kansas Quarterly¸ Room, Shorelines, Waterways, and Mainichi Daily News, among others. 
* * *
Incestuous Infatuation
By Clemencio Bascar

yes
we are physically free
no bars
no walls
no trenches
around
us
we go about without barriers
like monsoon winds

likewise
countless are locked
behind bars
many through no fault of their own
but more are hopelessly shackled in the dungeons of
their souls
prisoners all we are
of one sort or another
for crimes nothing to do with laws
but for desires gone berserk
just look around and you'll get what i mean
we are all prisoners of conscience
for incestuous infatuation
with our own
egos

Former Vice President for Corporate Affairs, Western Mindanao State University. Writes poems, columns, articles, plays and books published locally, nationally and internationally.
 
* * *
Bored of the Show
By Jesse Back

an old, bald doctor
laughs with a young nurse.                                                                             
his teeth a light shade of green
with black in between.

ten feet away
fifteen people fit into a small room
working away at a dead woman,
mid 60’s, heart attack.


a pretty, blond nurse
performs chest compressions
with a big white smile on her face.

as she presses down
the dead woman’s stomach pops up.
it pops up and down
with each compression
her gown goes up as well.

if she were alive she would be mortified
but she is dead
so everyone laughs and works
and no one quite cares.
 
i stand watching it all.
everyone mostly smiles
not hurried in their work.
i don’t care
i don’t know the family
crying out in the waiting room
i don’t know her.

it is some mad carnival
with Death standing and waiting
for the chest compressions to stop
so the last corpuscle of blood will cease
and he can take the cold, leftover remains.

bored of the show
i go into an empty room
and turn on a baseball game

some pitcher
has a no-hitter going into the fifth.

Jesse grew up in southeastern Ohio and started writing poetry a few years ago.
 
* * *
 
Independence Day at Uncle Bill's
By Brandon Diehl

"Sorry to hear about your girl," he says,
adjusting his apron, pointing at me with a spatula
covered in chunks of tortured cow.
"Want a hamburger? You'll feel better."
"No, thanks," I reply.
My uncle has a beer-gut.
And something about it makes me feel like a child.
Maybe it reminds me of Santa Claus ––
or brings me back to the days when Santa Claus existed.
Of course, that was long before you waltzed into my life,
bewitching me with your wardrobe of magnetic masks,
wringing me dry of my smarts ––
then handcuffing yourself to my heart,
swallowing the key, shitting it out,
and flushing it away to the sewers of Hell.
I keep telling myself that it's not Independence Day.
I can't appreciate "independence" when I know you stole mine.
(Ever since you left, I can barely even dress myself.
I can barely even answer a phone or write my own name.
I keep telling myself that it's not Independence Day.
But right now, in the Southern Hemisphere,
the streets are booming with Christmas-in-July celebrations.
I've stolen this tradition and locked it in my brain.
So…watching my uncle on the grill,
his beer-gut bouncing with every movement he makes,
I'm ignoring the heat. I'm ignoring the far-off sounds of M-80 blasts.
And when I start hearing screams from about a mile away,
I even stop myself from wondering if some kid just lost a hand.
"Want a hamburger?"  I'm asked again –– this time, by my aunt,
approaching me from nowhere with a beer in her hand.
"No, thanks," I repeat, mentally dressing her in elf slippers,
erasing the blue from her red-white-and-blue t-shirt,
replacing it with green, casting snow in her hair.
"How about some sausage?"
"That's okay."
"Well, then…let me go grab you a hot dog,"
she says, disappearing into the house.
And then my uncle throws a curveball,
nearly knocking the teeth from my stupid grin:
"Hey, by the way, I saw your ex-girlfriend today!
She was at the liquor store with a group of MEN!
What a SLUT, right?! HAHAHAHA!"
Suddenly, he no longer looks like Santa Clause ––
just an overweight guy with his liver out of time.
Another firework explodes on the other side of town ––
this time, too loud to ignore.
And when my aunt comes back, shoving a hot dog at me,
all I can see is her red-white-and-blue.
"Would you like some ketchup?" she asks.
"I'm not really sure," I mutter,
staring at a brown patch of grass
between my worn-out shoes,
pulling out a cigarette,
and giving in to the itch of wondering
who you'll be fucking tonight.

Throughout B. Diehl is a twenty-four-year-old poet from Phillipsburg, NJ. He is currently working on his first collection of poems, Zeller’s Alley, a book which he aims to have published by the end of 2016...even if that means self-publishing.
 
* * *
Death Called, We Answered
By Caseyrenée Lopez

                 I scratched your skin, down the length of your back,

    feeling it give and break apart, cutting so deep

                that my fingertips are bloodstained.

    You released a hollow whimper, moan.

                It’s the terrible pain of the terrible pleasure that drives me,

    that drives us, into these depths, into these casual courtly gestures.

                It’s the despondent horizon that cradles our fleshy desires,

    a play on reality, giving in to the crushing resentment created in life.

                Overwhelmed and collapsed together,

    colliding into a gamma ray burst, erupting,

                our skin melting to form a singular molecular bond,

    forever unbroken until the radiation leaks through our pores,

                infecting every cell within 100km.

                But it’s not enough. And it’ll never be enough

    to contaminate every ounce of your life with parasitic passion.

                It only results in pure destruction,

    in utter destruction.

 Caseyrenee Lopez is a writer of many forms, the editor of Crab Fat Literary Magazine, as well as a grad student working on her MA in English and Writing. Her work has appeared in Reflections Literary Journal, Pegasus Literary Magazine, Gay Flash Fiction, and is forthcoming in Poetry Pacific.
 
* * *
How a Single Word
By Jesse Millner

These days I reflect upon my strange youth: thirteen schools
in twelve years, growing up in California, Oregon,
and Washington.  But each summer I found myself
back on the Southside of Virginia at my grandpa’s
farm, tying up June bugs with twine,
watching them orbit the skinny planet that was myself, their emerald
bellies so beautiful in hot August suns, reflecting back
the mystery that is bug, light, and the buzzing symphony
of insect wings slicing the humid southern air.

These days the soft Virginia dusks have sunken further
into memory and the only way I can reach back is through
the steady beat of syllables, that become words, that summon
scenes, that become the surprising cloth of whole worlds
spinning through another century, summoning my great-great grandpa,

Sam, buried alive at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia in 1865
as Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia struggled to survive
in the bloody days before Appomattox. His wife, Annie,
lost five infants after childbirth, so she never
named a daughter until she’d lived for a month.

Annie knew we have to be careful with names, how a single
word, blue, when added to another, ridge, becomes a whole
chain of mountains filled with oak, cedar, and tulip poplars
that spread their wings like angels in the greening spring.


I Watched Grandma's Hands

as they tapped the black upright’s keys
she played sometimes in the unheated hallway
where I first listened to the music of this world.
When she sang “In the Garden” during that
sweet, early time, I could imagine Jesus looking
down from the frothy cumuli stirred by the early
sun that spoke from the Virginia sky.

This was the truest hymn, sung by a human
voice, shaped by breath and tongue into
a real prayer. And I wondered where the
singing went after it rose past the high
ceilings of the farmhouse?

Yesterday, someone said someone else said
prayer is the breath words are spoken with.

I've breathed a lot as I accrue my earthly
allotment of prayers, little birds
sent out just before the dusk descends
onto my sleep, just before the dream
of little birds ascending rustles leaves
in the forest where the accumulation
of prayer and wing beat settles, and
at last a true thing is wistfully spoken.

Yesterday, someone said someone else said
why breathe words that aren’t prayers, then?
 
Jesse Millner's work has appeared most recently in Real South Magazine, Squalorly, and The Best American Poetry 2013. He lives in Fort Myers, Florida with his wife, Lyn, and dog, Henry.
* * *
After Prayer
By Mark Mitchell

Palms unfold
into burnt photographs

showing young men in
a theater of war
who never fire a shot.

Fingers lead
to ravaged countries

over the edges
of  blackened paper.
 
* * *

Afternoon to Evening
By Tom Montag

We have birds at the feeder,
two black cats in the window,
a pane of glass between.

We have light on the rug,
fresh-baked bread in the kitchen,
our hands reaching for the other's.

And soon enough night will come.
The light will fail as it always does.
We will lay down into one another.

This is the way it always ends,
the way it always should.

Tom Montag is most recently the author of In This Place: Selected Poems 1982-2013, as well as Middle Ground, Curlew: Home, Kissing Poetry's Sister, The Idea of the Local, and The Big Book of Ben Zen. Recent poems will be found in Hummingbird, Stoneboat, and Digital Papercut. He blogs as The Middlewesterner.
 
* * *
Desert Death Monologue
By John Roth

These vulture’s shadows glide
           between valleys of loose shoulder
           bone.  The sun’s red glare rising
over a famished riverbed reminds
           me of how many miles I’ve walked
           with a fierce thirst for the unattainable.
I feel my animal tongue withering inside
           my mouth like a tree root, but I’ve sucked
           all the nectar from this sweet cactus flower. 
Dust tucked in the corner of my eyelids,
           I step wearily as though this body will crack
           into the hot earth that swells beneath my feet
or collapse among these swirling braids of sand. 
           As if the spirit could evaporate from flesh,
           the color in my pupils draining of their bluish
light like water from a dead oasis, like the world
           I see and everything else in it: a twisted mirage.  

John Roth is currently enrolled as a first year student in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. His poems have appeared in Red River Review, The Eunoia Review, Toasted Cheese Journal, and Bird's Thumb, among others.
* * * 
My Mother Was Buried
By David Sapp

My mother was buried,
but I don’t know where
in Saint Luke cemetery;
after the turn at Jelloway,
I drive up and down Ohio,
small, green mountains
of alfalfa, cattle, woods, barns,
a crazy carnival ride so steep
I can’t see who’s coming
over the crests of hills.

My mother was buried,
but my search is slowed
by Amish journeys to the dollar store,
buggies brimming with smaller versions,
black, broad-brimmed hats
and white, starched bonnets,
poking through window flaps;
they seem to ask, “What’s the hurry?”
A little loony, I reply, “Do you know
where my mother is buried?”

My mother was buried,
but I wasn’t there
when my sister planted her ashes.
Would she come up next spring? Damn!
“Here I am!” She could be
just a few doors down from Dad,
the man she clawed at, crazed beast
shredding shirts from his chest,
buttons popping like snapped bones,
her mouth spitting caustic magma.

My mother was buried,
but I must confess, I can only think:
no more shrill epistles
oozing dread in my mailbox.
With no stone, no thoughtful bouquet,
no charming, little cherub perched,
I examine each, fresh scab,
but no mound of dirt and rock
seems to fit her temperament;
at each plot, “Are you my mother?”

My mother was buried
long before Eisenhower or Buddy Holly,
her innocence deeply thrust in the soil
by her father, an uncle. Who?
Who stole her knack for
loving, nurturing, mothering?
My mother is buried,
but I am content with this ignorance
I’ll not lift my shovel
to dig and solve this puzzle.
 David Sapp is a writer and artist living near Lake Erie. He teaches at Firelands College in Huron, Ohio. His poems have appeared in The Alembic, The Chattahoochee Review, The Cape Rock, The Licking River Review, The Hurricane Review, The Bad Henry Review, Meat Whistle Quarterly, Red Cedar Review, RiverSedge and elsewhere. Additional publications include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior; Chapbooks, Close to Home and Two Buddha; and his novel, Flying Over Erie.
* * *
Submitting Poems

by Paul Van Peenen

Little fledglings, we push them
From the nest, knowing the odds
Are stacked against them.

Cats prowl, hawks circle.
Wind and rain darken the sky.

We retreat into our homes.
All that nurture, we mumble,
Wringing our hands --

All the while, steeling ourselves
Against the day we hear
That dreaded knock on the door

And their sad return, in body bags,
Wings bent, necks broken.

The writer lives in Eugene, Oregon and has been writing poetry and short fiction for many years. He has had work published in Seattle Review, Trapeze, Resin And Valley Voice.
 
* * *
Sweetness
By Mark Vogel

In this stark bright frightening room
          the nurse is professional checking
vital signs, while I am statue in squeezed
silence helping a thin needle pierce the vein
to draw forth evidence of past sins.
          You are nervous, she announces,
watching pricked blood ooze in a drop
carrying sugar too rich to be quiet.
Who knew in the donut shop wild excess
          the sweet would so control?
Who dreamed as a child subtle chemistry,
extracted, could be mapped, the bile analyzed,
the trail of stored poisons followed?
          In the green commons tradition
still lingers, mixing with run-off in gutters,
and children with fly away hair believe
          the rich red intelligence binds the living
machine’s individual mysterious story.
Even though today digitized doctors can read
from afar the ravenous racing pulse,
          gauging to what degree the addicted
mad engineer begs for a fix.  So why wait
for the problem when every action touches
a responsive river?  Despite story and
          science, how little has been
understood for so long, forever even in
blinking clarity—nothing focused on at all.
Only that defiant clouds drift to the north and
          east.  I rise knowing sooner than
expected someone will again check liquids
like dark fermenting wine.  Only puppies and
the very young don’t know that once stoked,
          the appetite rarely dulls.

Mark Vogel has published short stories in Cities and Roads, Knight Literary Journal, Whimperbang, SN Review, and Our Stories. Poetry has appeared in Poetry Midwest, English Journal, Cape Rock, Dark Sky, Cold Mountain Review, Broken Bridge Review and other journals. He is currently Professor of English at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and directs the Appalachian Writing Project.
* * *
Artwork

Art by Kitty Oberly
Kitty Oberly is a current student at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, majoring in Illustration. She enjoys creating art, reading, learning about the world, wishing she could make a million graphic novels, trying to write, and talking to animals. Her art can be seen everywhere from schools, art galleries, and other planets.
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A Victorian Fantasy
By Richard Ong
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). He was also an executive producer of a promotional movie short, A.R.C. Angel: Kalina
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Tenuan Church, Chile
By Colleen Purcell
Colleen is a freelance photographer living in Santiago, Chile. Her photos have appeared in The Meadowland Review, Subliminal Interiors, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Ken Again, Off The Coast and a few other publications.
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