Foliate Oak November 2015
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
By Jennifer Juneau
I returned downstairs to the living room to find four-year-old Charlotte standing in front of the open face of a humungous dollhouse, a foot taller than herself, with her head peering inside an upstairs bedroom. Her father Jean Pierre was fast asleep on the living room couch having just driven us ten hours, counting stoppage time for Charlotte, from Montreux, Switzerland to his holiday house in the south of France. Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was playing on Jean Pierre’s old record player. This was Charlotte’s favorite composition, its haunting melody was part of the atmosphere in which she thrived. During the car ride, she bounced up and down in her seat, “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune! Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune!” I desperately needed a drink. I plucked a Bordeaux off the wine rack. Jean Pierre rolled over and continued slumbering as deeply as I left my mother upstairs in the guest bed. Charlotte gave me a terrified look.
“Where’s Sylvia?” she asked.
“Don’t worry, Charlotte, she’s sleeping.” I popped the cork. “She nodded off about ten minutes ago and I think she’ll sleep into the night.”
She turned back around and said, “Sylvia est une sorcière!” In her hand was a six-inch piece of pink yarn.
“What’s that for?” I said.
She looked at the yarn, as if she forgot she was holding it. Then she furrowed her brow and said, as if I were stupid, “It’s for a noose.” She turned back to the dollhouse. “Cindy is going to hang herself.”
“Who is Cindy?” I asked.
“Who is Lilly?”
“Who is Kristina?”
She gave me a condescending glance. “The mother of Cindy and Lilly,” she said.
I forgot why I cared who these dolls were so I shut up and poured myself a glass of wine. I stumbled over to the couch and sat at the end by Jean Pierre’s feet and tucked my legs underneath me. Charlotte dropped the yarn and went over to the bathroom where she washed her hands with hot water and soap. She remained scrubbing at the sink for five minutes. She did this almost every fifteen or twenty minutes and by nightfall she will have washed her hands approximately fifty times.
“Isabel, could you help me tie the noose?”
“Sure,” I said. “Give it to me.” I placed my wine on the coffee table. Charlotte handed me the yarn and she sat on the floor watching as I carefully constructed a small knot and--voila!—the noose was complete. She swiped strands of hair from her face in one kick jerk and gently took the noose. “Merci.”
At that moment I wished she were my child. I was fascinated by her beauty, which was quite ugly, I could have observed her forever. She had prominent features that didn’t quite fit her face. Hair parted on the side, it fell in dirty blond waves to her shoulders. Sand-colored face with freckles, deep brown eyes that could stop any sea from rolling. She looked familiar to no one. I wondered what Jean Pierre’s late wife looked like. As for me. Well. You could use your imagination. I looked familiar to everyone.
The words “Prélude”—“à l'après-midi”—“d'un faune!” still chanted in my head.
Charlotte took one of her dolls, a Barbie doll, and put the noose around its neck. She stood in front of the dollhouse searching for a place to hang her. She poked her head into each room then stood back. She was perplexed. I could have suggested objects, like the dining room chandelier, or the tiny plant hanger that jutted out from the side of the dollhouse, but I thought it best that the little girl’s creative process develop on its own. She turned to me, frustrated. Then turned back and studied each room. I opened my mouth but it was her voice that happened: “The chandelier.”
“Good choice, Charlotte.” I took a sip of wine. She attempted to tie a knot around the metal neck of the chandelier with fierce concentration, but the noose kept slipping off the doll’s head.
“It’s too big,” she said. “The loop is too big.”
As I examined the intensity on her face, I asked, “Why does Cindy want to die?” She ignored me.
“There,” she said. She taped the loop to the Barbie doll’s neck and taped it all to the dollhouse’s kitchen wall. Barbie was standing. Her feet touched the ground.
“Cindy is dead,” she announced proudly.
“Not dead,” I said. I swallowed my wine in one gulp. “Cindy’s still standing.” I poured another glass. “What you could do, Charlotte, is bend her legs at the knees. This way she won’t touch the floor.” Charlotte examined the situation with careful precision. She cocked her head one way. Then the other.
“Her knees don’t bend,” she said.
I hadn’t noticed. Did Ken’s knees bend? I wondered. “Do Ken’s knees bend?” I asked.
“Who’s Ken?” she said.
“Never mind.” I glanced out the picture window. The rain stopped and a rainbow spread herself over the Mediterranean like a woman in heat.
“Hey, Charlotte, I know,” I was about to score points with my new lover’s wunderkind, “since Cindy is in the kitchen, why not stick her head in the oven? She could gas herself instead.” She gave me an expression that told me, once again, I was stupid. “It’s electric,” she said in a you-don’t-know-shit tone that made me want to slap her.
“The oven,” she said. “The oven is electric. Not gas.”
“It’s a toy, Charlotte. It could be anything you want it to be.”
She smirked. As I was about to suggest that the doll swallow an overdose of pills, I remembered that the doll’s mouth was painted over in plastic and spared myself the humiliation of a new label. I lit a cigarette and wondered if Jean Pierre kept a gun in the house. Charlotte rose to her ritual.
Charlotte was the most fucked up four-year-old I ever met. Jean Pierre had told me that she was obsessed by death. She didn’t want friends. She was smitten with suicide and anyone who committed it. She ate nothing but vegetables and coffee. What is Charlotte but for a character in a story? If I were to write a review on Charlotte, it might look like this: “An Exhilarating ride through childhood. A Psychological thriller.” – Isabel X, Charlotte’s father’s latest lover.
Meanwhile, Prelude rolled softly in the background.
End flute. Enter oboe.
Charlotte wanted to be an artist and paint for a living just like her father when she grew up. She reveled in a new artist each month. This month it was van Gogh. Jean Pierre read to her each night from a book about his life, she knew everything there was to know about him and could identify most of his work. Expressionism was a relief, as last summer Charlotte was a Dadaist and blasted a hideous recording she copped off the internet again and again.
She sat on my lap and flung her arms around my neck, holding her stuffed rabbit, who had half its left ear lobbed off. She smelled of violet soap. “Let’s go upstairs and spy on Sylvia,” she whispered. Her father was out cold and didn’t stir. It was going to be one hell of a week, I thought.
Back again to flute.
“Not a good idea,” I said.
“Why not?” she said.
“Because Sylvia hasn’t been well, Charlotte. She needs to rest, this is why we took her on vacation here.” I thought this was a good opportunity to bond with the girl. “You see, Charlotte…” But she shot off my lap and was halfway up the stairs before I finished my sentence. I chased after her, shouting softly, “Charlotte, stop! Charlotte, don’t! Charlotte--!” Sylvia thinks my brother Trey hanged himself a year ago. Sylvia hadn’t been mentally stable since. But how could I expect Charlotte to sympathize with that? On the car ride down, Charlotte insisted they play hangman in the backseat, where they sat side by side, to pass the time. Charlotte wins no trophy for tact, at the same time she cannot be accused of insensitivity, not because of her age, but because this precocious sea vegetable never met my brother. As it was, Sylvia went wild with rage at Charlotte’s suggestion. Spitting and shouting. She told the child exactly why she wouldn’t play and now Charlotte thought Sylvia was going to hang her too.
Charlotte was quick and she was waiting for me at the guest room door, her hand on the knob. She wanted to catch Sylvia in the midst of the ultimate form of human vulnerability: sleep. She gave me a sinister smile.
“Go ahead, Charlotte. See what Sylvia has to say.” I stood arms akimbo and challenged her.
“If Sylvia is the noise I want to hear,” she said.
“What Sylvia isn’t,” I said, “is the piece spinning calm on the turntable downstairs. So let’s go.” I headed down the stairs certain that she was trailing behind me. I went over to the couch and poured more wine. I sat a moment or two, savoring the music. Charlotte wasn’t with me. I went back up. She was still standing with her hand on the knob. I lit another cigarette and as smoke flowed from my mouth I said, “I thought you were afraid of her, Charlotte.”
“Why should I be afraid of an old woman?” she said.
“Because you talk too much.”
She peeped through the keyhole. “She looks dusty,” she said.
“Let me see.” I pushed her out of the way. There was Sylvia, recumbent on the mattress, still as water and just as deep. A grey hue shrouded her and hung independently from the lingering lamplight that cast a yellow tinge in the room from a corner we couldn’t see. I had given her a tranquilizer when we arrived, what with her outburst in the car. Charlotte, her back against the wall, slid down slowly and took a seat on the hallway floor. She looked distressed.
Large raindrops splashed, widely dispersed, on the skylights. I sat down on the floor next to her and lit up again.
“How will Cindy die?” she said.
Drop, drop, drop.
“She won’t,” I said, staring straight ahead at a burgundy painted wall, flicking cigarette ashes on the floor.
“Why not?” she said.
“Because she’s dumb.” I took a long drag. “Only intellects—really smart people—commit suicide Charlotte.”
“Why?” she said.
“Because they live in a world that’s too small for them.”
“So if I’m an intellect, will I commit suicide?”
“Ambitious, aren’t you?—but no. Not all intellects commit suicide. Only most people who commit suicide happen to be intellectual.”
She considered this.
Downstairs the music stopped. “The music stopped,” I said. “Shall I replay the record?”
“No,” she said, “it replays itself, haven’t you been listening?”
Un. Deux. Trois.
The melody began and Charlotte was lost in its maze of musical cells. A harmonic fluidity that conducted her world. I was lost in the maze of Charlotte. I grew fond of her fast. Charlotte wasn’t ill. I’d miswritten her. Charlotte’s behavior was the repercussion of a grandiose instance.
A series of clouds moved in on the eight p.m. sun.
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.
The record played over again and over again. My head rested on my shoulder and the next thing I knew I woke to a smell that I can only describe as wicked. My cigarette had been smoldering and cast a black hole in the carpet. Charlotte hadn’t noticed. Charlotte wasn’t there. Or maybe I was someplace else. I heard running water. Charlotte was back.
“Charlotte, how long have I been asleep?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“Tell me this then. How many times have you washed your hands since I’d been asleep?”
“I don’t know.” I calculated that she must have washed her hands more than once, or she would have known. Therefore, I’d been sleeping for at least thirty minutes.
“But you’ve slept through five Preludes,” she said. This was how Charlotte measured time.
“Are you hungry?” I knew she’d decline but it was my nurturing instinct to ask anyway. “Would you like me to heat up the duck cassoulet we took home from the restaurant?”
“I don’t like meat,” she said. “Je voudrais une tasse de café.” She sat back down. I could tell she was tired.
I made her instant coffee with no milk, no sugar, while her mind swam in the music that told her she was significant. Our luggage was splayed by the front door. I gathered Charlotte’s nightgown and toothbrush. We’d unpack the rest in the morning.
“Here you go.” She was about to take a sip of coffee then with a sudden bolt of energy, sprang up, having forgotten my mother and peered through the keyhole.
“She’s still there,” she said.
“I know,” I said. I was tired too.
“Come, Charlotte. It’s getting late.” I handed her her nightgown and took her by the hand.
“I’m too tired to sleep,” she said. Charlotte, I might add, does not know how to sleep. She is a diehard insomniac. What I mean is, she falls asleep, but she does not stay asleep.
To step into Charlotte’s room was to strike strange. A merriment of colors exploded about the room’s expand. Stimulating yet depressing. The walls were painted in shocking pink with lemon yellow molding. A poster of Das Kotsbild hung over her bed from her Dada days. Wall to wall carpet, a field of peridot. A throw rug in midnight blue. Tubes of pastels were strewn about. Caps missing, paint oozing. Watercolors. Oils. A half-emptied jar of linseed oil. Oiled cloth. Piles of books askew in one corner. From the works of Cézanne to Warhol. Rimbaud, Goethe, Shakespeare, Donne.
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune!
She changed into her white nightgown with yellow flowers on it and moved to the bathroom to exercise her ritual one last time before bed. I tiptoed downstairs, past the couch that cradled Jean Pierre for the night and gathered the turntable and record. When I returned, Charlotte was tucked into her four-poster bed. I set up the turntable and its speakers on a small table meant to entertain elegant dolls with tea parties that would never be. I carefully placed the needle on the album.
“Did you brush your teeth?”
A flute solo intruded whatever it was I was to say next and I sat on the edge of the bed savoring the passage with her. My attention was drawn to an easel in one corner of the room with a half painted canvas, upstrokes feverishly wincing, light blue and violet oils. A swirl of green. A smear of orange. It might have been a wheat field. It might have been the sea.
“What were you painting?” I said. She looked confused. Or maybe she was concentrating.
“It’s finished,” she said.
She turned her head in the painting’s direction, but she didn’t focus on it. Her eyes were fixed on nothing. “The painting,” she said. “It’s finished.”
I followed her gaze slowly, my eyes from her eyes and focused on nothing with her. The rain fell in sheets, drowning out the flute.
“What is it?” I asked her, staring in the same direction as she.
“My mother’s death,” she said.
I turned to her. “The painting?”
“Do you want to talk about it?” I said.
“No,” she said, “I just want to look at it.” Her eyes moved up toward the canvas and rested there.
“No, I meant your mother. What happened to your mother?”
“She died,” she said. She rolled over and shut her eyes.
“Daddy and I went to the beach one day last summer,” she said.
“What happened at the beach?”
“Nothing. My mother stayed home and when we got back she was dead.”
“Had she been sick?” I said.
“No,” she said. “She had been sad.”
I didn’t press her. If she wanted to talk, she would talk.
The rain tapered off and I cracked a window to let the metallic scent in.
“Charlotte? Can I read you a story?” She reached over, not opening her eyes and grabbed a book off her nightstand and handed it to the air. While other children her age around the world were listening to their parents read Dr. Seuss, she opted for Keats. The sound of waves hit the shore in the distance.
Darkling, I listen.
And back to flute. Clarinet.
…and, for many a time/I have been half in love with easeful death.
Violas. Violins. I read:
“ ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,/Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains…’ ”
Charlotte’s breathing became deep, in sync with the melody. As sleep closed in on her, the melody was exhausting itself to its end.
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep/In the next valley-glades: Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:-Do I wake or sleep?
Jennifer Juneau has been published in numerous journals such as Cincinnati Review, Evergreen Review, Fairy Tale Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Pank, Passages North, Seattle Review, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Fiction and The Million Writer's Award.
* * *
By Albert McManus
Stephen glared out the window of the car as it rushed down the interstate. He watched the pine trees become dark green blurs then he glanced at the painted lines on the road stretching for what seemed like infinity, moving forwards or backwards. He couldn’t tell which way. The lines seemed to be one endless stream of bleak white paint that faded a little more every day. After acknowledging this, he turned his attention back to his wife in the driver’s seat. Her brown hair looked thin and sickly, her skin was pale. It almost looked grey from the dull overcast hue thrown down from the sky. She looked at him with her piercing blue-grey eyes and frowned at him. He couldn’t think of anything to say, he was speechless.
“I fucking hate you,” Jessica spat bitterly.
“I…I fucked up. I’m sorry,” Stephen mumbled sheepishly.
“You’ll pay for it,” her icy voice croaked.
Stephen felt wretched. He felt like a maggot, squirming his way into the piece of rotting flesh he now called life. He deserved to be stepped on, crushed into oblivion and he knew it. These feelings of guilt chained themselves to his heart, or what was left of it. He stewed in regret and shame for a moment that felt like an eternity.
Stephen’s mind reeled back to earlier that evening, where his life collapsed and shattered like a house of glass cards. He was sitting in his favorite diner, sipping whiskey with diet cola and nibbling at an overpriced rack of ribs slathered in smoky barbeque sauce. His mind wandered from one empty daydream to another, stumbling aimlessly like a vagabond with no place to rest his tired heavy head. Half way through his fourth drink his mistress sat down in the chair front of him. She was eager to ease his troubled mind; more eager than the seven-hundred dollar hooker he bought out the night before. He sat up in his chair and gazed in at her body, his eyes were gleaming with lust. His thirty year old body was frail and weaker than it should have been, but she didn’t seem to mind. She gazed into his eyes, peering into his dark vacant soul. Her smoky brown eyes uncoiled something inside him. Something he thought he lost forever, but he found it once again. He found something he could only call hope. She gave him a better life, one that was lively and passionate; or at least that’s what he thought. She twirled her long blonde hair with her blood red fingernails as she winked at him. Stephen pulled out a black leather checkbook and a sleek silver pen. Just after he finished writing the check for his lunch he wrote one for her, Ashley stood and adjusted the two masses of silicone that were bulging out of her low cut shirt.
“I’m ready when you are.” She whispered as she playfully grabbed his collar with one hand and led him out the restaurant. His checkbook was on the table one moment and in her pocket the next. Stephen didn’t even see her take it; she just looked at him and smiled as they made their way to his car. They were barely in the back seat of his plush luxury car before her bra came off. Stephen had just reached for breasts as he heard his wife screaming behind him.
“You fucking pig, how could you? You piece of worthless shit,” she yelled.
Stephen was in shock, he felt a cold sinking feeling rattle its way deep into his core. His cheeks burned with shame and guilt. Stephen tried to open his mouth and speak, but he couldn’t find the right words, if there were any. Ashley didn’t look Jessica in the eyes; she just cast her gaze downward at the black leather interior of the car.
“Well, bitch, get the hell outta my goddamn car,” Jessica spat venomously.
Ashley put her top back on and slithered out of the car, being careful not to look at or brush against Jessica. Ashley traipsed over to her car, smothering a devilish smirk with her hand as she drove out of the parking lot.
Jessica stared at Stephen, her eyes were gushing over with tears from the fury and pain. He thought for a moment that she might drown herself in the tears if she cried much longer. Then something inside her shifted. Her face became hardened by the pain. She looked ghastly, drained of all life and color. It was as though a colony of leeches had been attached to her hollow soul and sucked away any life she had left.
“Listen, Jessica baby I’m so sorry,” Stephen cried out, hoping those were the magic words.
He was digging his grave deeper with every syllable. Jessica stared at him with her cold dead eyes as she crawled into the driver’s seat of the car and peeled out of the parking lot, burning black tire tracks into the pavement. She began to yell over the sound of the squealing tires.
"You heartless bastard. You left your fucking phone on the kitchen counter. I took a cab here to come see your sorry ass when that whore you were about to fuck texted your goddamned cellphone. The bitch said she would be waiting here, and then she sent a picture of her tits. I hoped she had just had the wrong number, but a part of me knew better. All you ever did was lie to me. Honesty never was and hope ran away from me five years ago after my AIDS test came back positive. At first I thought it was from a bad needle, now I see it was just your prick.” Her voice was tense and cold like a corpse with rigor mortis.
It was all true, it may have been the only thing in his life that was.
Stephen grabbed his thoughts and began to drag them back into the present. He snapped back into reality when he felt the car lurch forward and heard the engine whine under the stress.
“Jessie, what are you doing?“ Stephen asked anxiously.
The speedometer was edging towards the 130 mile per hour mark.
“Something I should have done a long time ago,” she said as she crashed the car into a concrete median in the center of the interstate.
Albert McManus is a college student as well as an up and coming author. He has a passion for writing dark short stories with sharp plot twists.
* * *
Wind Chill Factor
By Jeffrey Miller
We buried Paul today.
He picked a lousy time to take his life—the middle of winter with the temperature and wind chill factor right around fifty or sixty below. It was so cold at St. Hyacinth’s Cemetery only the pallbearers, immediate family, and a few friends braved the cold, wind and steadily falling temperatures for the graveside services. Everyone else stayed in their cars, motors running, heaters blasting.
I swore that when Paul’s wife wept over the silver casket her tears turned to ice as soon as they hit the cold surface. In a black Lincoln, myself and the other pallbearers stamped our feet and blew on our hands. It didn’t do any good, but it gave us something to do before we headed back into town. I’ve never felt cold like I did today. Sure, there was that time I went ice fishing with my old man and we sat in a freezing ice shanty on the slough south of town and I cried until he had enough and we hiked back to the car. I thought that was cold until today.
Paul would have never taken his life in the summer. He would have been too busy playing softball for Flo’s Tap in the tavern league, water skiing on the Illinois River, or fishing along the shores of Lake Senachawine. And he would have never sat in the car in his garage with the motor running in spring because he would be out working in his parent’s garden every chance he got. And fall. Forget it. If it wasn’t spending his weekends watching college and NFL football he was heading off to places like Galena and St. Charles for antiquing.
At least he waited until after the holidays. With Paul, timing was everything. Something he picked up as lead guitarist of our band Shippingsport Blues. In all the years, I knew him, he never was late for anything. Except, he had to pick the worst cold snap in one hundred years to die.
His wife called with the news. I calmed her down as best I could. She wasn’t the one who discovered his body. She was spared that twist of fate; when Paul didn’t come home, she called her father. The first place he looked was in the garage. Found him inside the car. His family requested that I would be one of his pallbearers along with the other guys who had been in our band. He was your friend, she reminded me. The phone dropped out of my hands. Yeah, I told her when I finally regained my composure. Talk about your irony.
That was one word I could never wrap my mind around: pallbearer. The origin of the word is from a pall—a heavy white cloth—which is linked symbolically to the white garments worn at a baptism. The introductory rites of a funeral ceremony are done so to signify the death and rebirth of a person during a baptism, symbolically linking these two events in a person’s life. In some funeral ceremonies, the pall is draped over the coffin, reminding one that in death and before God, one was equal. Put it all together and the term “pallbearer” is used to signify someone who “bears” the coffin which the pall covers.
There was another meaning to the word—to cast a pall over something—which pretty much summed up my mood when I agreed to carry Paul to his final resting place.
The last time I talked to him was a week ago when he found me at Vinnie’s, a decrepit hole-in-the-wall haunt on the east end of town where I sometimes ended up when I wanted to be alone. I thought for sure he had found out and was going to cold cock me; instead, he just wanted to talk. He talked about how he was going to go back to school and how happy he was with Missy. And I believed him. After all, he was still my friend.
“You are one lucky dude,” I had said, choosing my words carefully. “You got it all.”
Three days later, he was dead.
At the funeral home last night, everyone talked about how great a guy Paul was in hushed voices. He wasn’t that great of a guy. He had his faults just like the rest of us. Friends who hadn’t seen him in years, even though we all lived in the same town, talked about how much they were going to miss him. When he was alive, these same people didn’t have the time of the day for him. But there they were, swapping memories, punching in digits on their phones, and promising they would stay in touch.
Not everyone was so kind. Someone mentioned how his wife was stepping out on him again; said how he had bumped into Paul at JoJo’s the night he died.
“He looked awful,” the person said. “Said he had a fight with Missy about something and went out for a drink. It was so awful cold that night. I probably should have given him a ride.”
“His father-in-law found him slumped over in the front seat with the motor running, the garage door closed, and the windows rolled up,” another hushed voice said.
“Coldest winter in fifty years,” another person said. “If you’re out in that kind of weather for any length of time, there’s not much hope.”
“I don’t understand,” one of Paul’s friends from high school said. “He had a lovely, caring wife, a good job and a good home. Did you know his wife was a former Mendota Sweet Corn Festival Queen?”
In the other room, Missy sat by herself on one side of the room; Paul’s family sat on the other side.
“I never knew what Paul saw in her,” another hushed voice said.
That was enough for me. I left the room in search of a drink.
I hurried out into the freezing night and quickly slipped into a bar just down the street for a shot and a beer. I was no better. Paul and I had a falling out a while back. I accused him of sleeping with my girlfriend while I was away at college. Of course he denied it but I had a hunch he was lying. We ended up not talking to each other for almost a year.
We all have our own crosses to bear; right now, mine was heavier than others.
After the graveside services, most of the mourners went to a reception at his house, but I didn’t want to go. It would have been too awkward. Instead, I met up with a few friends who I hadn’t seen in ages for dinner at the Uptown, this swank eatery on First Street. A few continued those hushed conversations we had at the funeral home the night before. Some even cracked a few jokes about some stuff Paul did, like the time we all did some acid and sat on the dry bridge east of town and waved to people going to work. When I was in college, one of my favorite films was The Big Chill about a group of friends who get together after the funeral of their friend. Paul and I loved that movie. He would have approved of tonight, though if he were here, he would have been pissed that grilled swordfish was no longer on the menu.
Then someone had to bring up his wife again. This person knew she slept around; heard it from her hairdresser. Paul did too when he proposed to her. He had hoped that once she met the right person, she would quit her running around and settle down. Boy, was he ever wrong about that. I motioned for another drink and was glad when someone started talking about something else besides Paul and the weather.
After everyone had gone home, promising to stay in touch for the umpteenth time, I drove down First Street to Volk’s Tap. Famous for its pork tenderloin sandwiches, it was one of my favorite watering holes. It was also the only place open. There were only two other patrons inside and they sat at the far end of the bar watching a rerun of M*A*S*H. Outside the wind howled. Forecasters predicted the temperature would drop even further and that coupled with the wind chill factor, it would be seventy-below. A cold weather advisory had been issued; State Police advised motorists to stay home.
I ordered a shot of Jack Daniels and stared at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. I looked like shit but felt even worse. I quickly drank the shot and felt the whiskey coursing through my body, but I just couldn’t seem to warm up. Maybe if I finally drank enough on this three-day drunk of mine, it would eventually numb me. I motioned for another. Damn, it was cold today. Coldest day in my life. Ever.
Jeffrey Miller has spent over two decades in Asia as a university lecturer and writer, including a six-year stint as a feature writer for The Korea Times, South Korea's oldest English-language newspaper. Originally from LaSalle, Illinois, he relocated to South Korea in 1990 where he nurtured a love for spicy Korean food, Buddhist temples, and East Asian History.
* * *
Chocolate Milk With A Pinch of Salt
By Anushree Nande
Tim had told his first lie. And now his parents weren’t getting back together. This knowledge followed him home from school, at a distance of course. Mrs. Morris, their neighbour, had come to pick him up instead of his mother, who was having one of her headaches. Tim knew what that meant. The curtains would be drawn in the living room even though Mum was asleep upstairs. He wouldn’t be allowed to watch cartoons on the telly, and would have to pretend to smile when she asked him how his second day at primary school had been. At least Tim could tell her that the spaghetti and minced meatballs she’d packed in his lunch box were awesome – and know it was the truth.
Yesterday as he played with his new Lego set, he had heard his mother vacuum Beth’s room for the second time in three days. She wanted everything to be perfect for when his sister returned in a few days. As she came out into the corridor, she was humming. When was the last time she had done that? Tim was wondering what to do when he heard her tell Aunt Susan that she and Mark (it took a while for Tim to remember that was what everyone else called his father) were going to give it one last shot. He wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but he knew it would involve talking in person. And Dad had to move back home for a while at least for that to happen. Tim wanted that very much. Even though all they had done for the past year was argue. They tried not to do it in front of the kids, but Tim was six, not stupid. He could always feel the tension, like an uninvited visitor who had plonked himself on Tim’s favourite comfy chair in the living room. So he had swallowed the confession with a glass of plain milk as punishment.
Mrs. Morris gave him his milk (again, he refused the chocolate powder to take away the milky flavour) and a few of the special oatmeal raisin bites that she always kept on hand for emergencies. Before leaving, she told him to play quietly like a good little boy and not disturb his mother. She would be right next door if he needed anything, and he knew the button to press on their phone to call her. There was a note on the table in his mother’s loopy handwriting. It had the flight details for Beth the next morning. Tim couldn’t help notice that the details for his dad had been scribbled over.
In the morning, Mum hadn’t cried into her cereal for the first time in three months. But it was all a mess again, and Tim was sure that the universe was punishing his lie. He was also worried about not being able to stop lying now that he had started. What if it was just like the urge to pick away at a scab when you knew you shouldn’t?
People lied all the time. There was even something called a white lie – a concept his parents had explained to him when his great-aunt Sophia, his grandma’s younger sister, had knitted him a too-big Christmas jumper. It itched and made him want to sneeze, but as a thank you, he had sent her a card he had drawn and a photo of him wearing it. Tim knew all about not wanting to hurt people’s feelings or how sometimes good intentions mattered more than the final result. But they also said that you should never lie and always tell the truth. All of this thinking made Tim’s head hurt. Who were these “they”? He wanted to meet them and ask them in person why they made things so complicated.
But most of all he wanted things to go back to the way they had been yesterday. Surely that counted as a good intention? Tim finished his homework and turned to the Lego fort he had been building for the past week. He could hear his mum through the wall. Low voices with the occasional sob in her throat that he knew as a sign of things not being okay. He also recognised the sharp tones in her speech that signaled his father’s presence on the other end of the line. As he fixed a watch-tower on his fort, there was a sudden silence. Followed by padded feet on their carpeted floor, and the slammed bathroom door.
When Tim walked downstairs for dinner, he felt like he was about to throw up. He couldn’t even enjoy his favourite tomato soup with croutons. That was when his mother narrowed her red-rimmed eyes and tilted her head.
‘What’s the matter with you? Are you sickening for anything?’
So Tim told her, the words spilling out of him and over the sides of the bowl of soup in front of him. About how he knew she’d been sad about Beth leaving for the summer to join Dad’s archaeological dig in France, about how he’d lied about her chicken and leek pie being delicious and much better than the ones from the stores, when in fact he had swapped with his best friend, Bryan, whose mother always made him macaroni with lots of cheese and homemade tomato sauce on Mondays. And how he was sorry that his punishment meant that she couldn’t be with Dad again.
He felt so giddy about coming clean that he didn’t immediately notice his mum trying really hard not to laugh despite herself – he could tell by the way the left corner of her mouth twitched – as she told him that it wasn’t his fault and that sometimes adults had to make difficult decisions. Tim wanted to tell her that he understood; he’d felt so crummy about the indecision of the last two days. Instead he just hugged her and took in her freshly showered blueberry smell. Over a special glass of her chocolate milk with just a pinch of salt and a spoonful of whipped cream, Tim told her all about his day, his happiness leaking out with the bubbles he blew through the straw while his mother washed up.
Later, when Mum kissed him goodnight and told him that she loved him, he said it back, but didn’t tell her that he was sad that his father wouldn’t be living with them anymore. She switched off the light and closed the door. It was only then that he allowed the twinge he’d been feeling to climb out from under the covers. Was it wrong to feel a bit disappointed that he lying or telling the truth made no tangible difference to the universe? The adult world was a strange place. Only two days into the school year, Tim already felt like one of the big boys.
Anushree Nande is a Mumbai-based writer, editor and proofreader with MA & BA Creative Writing degrees from Edge Hill University. She has short stories, essays and poems published on platforms like CommuterLit, When Women Waken, Flash Fiction Online, Litro, Thresholds, Yellow Chair Review, 3AM and Cadaverine among others. Anushree also writes about football, books, movies, TV for websites, blogs and literary magazines. Her micro-fiction collection, 55 Words, is now available on Amazon as a part of Underground Voices' E-Series, found here.
* * *
Baba Yaga at the Toy Store
By Casey Robb
That toy store near our house was dark and creepy, like a cave . . . like the shadowy mouth of a monster. None of us kids wanted to go in, not ever. Not even a big girl like me, brave and already ten. Especially not this month. October felt wicked with bare branches bending over and a stinging breeze. Besides, the sky was fading and I was due home. But there was that door, propped open, its inner chamber beckoning. Maybe there was a mummy doll . . . a plastic Creature from the Black Lagoon . . . or a witch doll for Halloween. I peered in. My eyes adjusted to the inside dark.
The old cashier woman was gone. Good. I’d spied on her before, once or twice, on a dare. Surely she was a witch. I sucked in a breath. Should I step in? A gust blew. Leaves stirred up from the sidewalk and fluttered, pushed, against my back. Yes. I slipped in unseen and stalked around hunting dolls.
Along the aisles, my shoes stirred up puffs of musty stuff. Metal shelves towered above me in this cluttered den of dusty boxes—Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Dale Evans pistols, the Lone Ranger and Tonto. A blonde Chatty Cathy doll stared through a faded plastic cover, like a prisoner wanting out.
Suddenly, the cashier woman appeared behind the counter, round, hunched over, her tangled black hair hanging to her shoulders, her hook nose pointing down at her pen scribbling at a receipt book. I slipped behind a shelf of G.I. Joe’s and jeeps and red race cars, and spied on her. Trapped. Mama wanted me home by five. I slid back my jacket sleeve to check the time—whoops, no watch. Dang. Is it lost? Now I'd better be a brave girl and ask.
I tiptoed to the counter and peered up at her—I was short for ten—hoping she’d see me, yet hoping she would not. “Um . . . .” I sucked in a breath. My voice quivered, for she wasn’t just any witch. She was certainly Baba Yaga, that old Russian fairytale witch, the one who lived deep in the forest in a magic hut that moved and danced and chased after children on mammoth chicken legs.
“Uh . . . .” I breathed in again, then squeaked out, “What time is it?”
Baba jerked and snorted, as if I’d appeared out of a sudden gust of smoke. I stepped back. Her eyes narrowed.
“What do you think that is?” she snarled, waving her crooked fingers toward a tick-tock clock on the counter. Her sleeve slipped up her forearm a bit, revealing a neat row of stark blue numbers. Strange. Tattoos. But . . . tattoos are never arithmetic—not addition, not subtraction. Tattoos should only be sweethearts and blossoms and wings.
That old witch Baba yanked her sleeve back down to her wrist and watched me, her lips thin and tight. I froze, dropped my eyes and backed out of the store. Her frown followed me all the way to the sidewalk, where I turned and raced home. The stores flew by. Was her hut chasing me? I stole a look back. Almost tripped. I ran till I reached my own safe street. "Ha," I yelled, and stuck out my tongue. Back then, I didn’t know.
I didn’t know what a Jew was. Or that this Baba hadn’t always been round. That she and her tender husband had once held hands in a filthy box car to the end of the line, had slept on rags and turned into stick figures. I didn’t know, till years later, how she'd stood in the dirty snow in a dim yard before dawn and witnessed the cold gray uniforms pacing and counting, and counting and pacing— achtzehn . . . neunzehn . . . zwanzig—her eyes searching the shadows for her stick man who lingered in a distant line. A putrid smoke descended. She sneezed. She shivered. She watched an icy sun sneak up from behind gray buildings, streaking the sky with crimson, cobalt, a sudden hue of sapphire, the colors aching like a crime. She reached her stiffened fingers to her pallid mouth and pulled out yet another loosened tooth.
One dull, overcast winter day, she heard guns, remote and faded at first, but then firing closer and closer. Allies? Could it be? The camp guards rushed into the barracks--SCHNELL!—where they shoved and prodded all prisoners who could walk or hobble, onto their final death march, out the gate, into the frozen woods and gone. Within hours, Soviet soldiers filed into the camp in their white winter suits, their red stars glistening on furry caps. She was helped to a table in the yard and offered soup and bread. And there he was, propped up by two soldiers and shuffling toward her—her tender stick man.
The soldiers helped them onto a truck crammed with broken people, but she saw only him and his pale hallowed face. The face she loved. The truck bounced along mud roads and, finally, let them out at a bustling, crowded camp with boxes of blankets and tin rations. Two years they waited, restless, in one camp then another, till official forms were covered with stamps and signings and tears, and it was off to America on an army transport ship to a new life, to grow plump and strong together, and safe.
As a child, I didn’t know all this, about the train and the smoke. And the man. Not till I turned fourteen. October had whirled around again and, one day, Mom and I were sitting on the couch watching our little black and white TV when a Halloween witch appeared on the screen. And I suddenly remembered Baba Yaga.
“Mom,” I said. “Do you remember that grouchy old woman who ran that toy store?”
“Yes, I do,” she said. “Hon, she wasn’t old at all. She was about my age.” Mama stood up and turned off the TV. She sat back on the couch and told the woman’s story, of the camp and all.
She paused, then continued on . . . about the accident.
“The first month in their new apartment,” she said, “the neighbors brought food. I didn’t know much about kosher, but I found some lox and latkas at the store. Other folks brought lovely lavender sheets and a desk so they could settle in real nice.” She smiled a little. “Must have seemed like heaven on earth. Somehow, they even got a cheap used car, and her husband was driving around town, so pleased with their life and their luck.”
She shifted on the couch and leaned forward. “On his way home, a drunk driver met him at a crossroad. He died in the ambulance.”
Mama shook her head and stared down at her lap. I sat on the couch a while, stunned, holding this story in my hands like a dazzling, dangerous thing. That’s when I first knew that no amount of magic, not even Baba Yaga’s, could mend a tender spirit so perfectly crushed, like a luminescent beetle under a black boot.
Mama stood up. She blew her nose, then left to clean up the kitchen. I slipped out the door and walked down Kirby Drive to get a fresh look at this lady I’d once called Baba. I hadn’t been down there in years. The toy store was locked up. A “For Lease” sign hung on the door. I peered through the glass window, cupping my hands to kill the glare. The shelves were gone. Only the dust remained. The den seemed smaller than I remembered. Quiet now. Hollow and still.
I placed my hands flat against the window, closed my eyes, and kissed the glass.
Casey Robb’s careers have included physical therapy and civil engineering. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous journals, including The Classical Outlook, Ekphrasis, The Edge City Review, The Comstock Review, The Lyric, The Menda City Review and Fiction on the Web. Casey is a Texan who lives in Northern California with her two adopted daughters.
* * *
So Much Broken
By John Thompson
A small house stands in the middle of town though it used to be in the country. Much like the couple that has lived there for over sixty years, the house has not changed all that much.
The city has crept in little by little over the years, taking up land and cutting down trees to make way for strip malls and discount stores, high-priced apartment complexes and housing subdivisions, but that one house, simple in its construction, well-worn and full of memories, still sits on top of the hill as it always has, only now overlooking a more modern world.
An elderly man was bedridden in the back bedroom of the house, lying in the bed with the sheets and a heavy quilt pulled up to his chin. What was left of the old man, who had once been tall and strong but not the least bit imposing, amounted to little more than a bundle of sticks cinched up in a sack. He was constantly cold, even in late August, and his wife suffered the heater in their bedroom because she wanted her husband to be comfortable. He had done so much for her over the years that she felt that this little bit, this simple act of sacrifice on her part, was the least she could do.
She had spent most of the last month lying on top of the sheets, as close to her husband as he was comfortable. She wore light housedresses because of the heat in the room, but she stayed with her husband because she was terribly aware that the moments she had left with him were few. His health had been in sharp decline since the Fourth of July and he had been bedridden since the end of that month.
He had been quiet for the last several days, asking only for water occasionally. He stared at the bedroom door as if he expected someone to walk through it, and, every now and then, he shifted his gaze to his wife. Sometimes he would smile, other times he looked confused. The looks of confusion tore at his wife’s heart because, underneath the confusion, was a look of fear. Her husband had never been afraid of anything until his mind stopped working.
One time, however, he turned his head and smiled at his wife and it was the same confident smile that she had known since she was seventeen years old. It was a smile that told her he had everything under control. She had not seen that smile in so long.
“Do you remember how we met?” He asked.
She was so surprised that he spoke that she almost didn’t respond.
“Yes,” she said. “Do you?”
“Of course I do,” he said. He spoke slowly. “I remember quite a lot about our early years.”
That was the truth. The early years were easy for him to remember. Those memories were clear and colorful. It was the recent past that was black and white and hazy on a good day. The recent past, the last fifteen or twenty years, were mostly short strips of film that were muddy and garbled and probably playing in the wrong sequence to begin with.
“Of course I remember how we met,” he said again. He never broke that smile.
“Would you tell me?” His wife asked.
“We met in front of the post office,” he said. “I was carrying an armload of letters and mail-order packages for Mr. Ogle. That stack of boxes was so high and wide that I couldn’t see around or over them. I didn’t know that you were coming out of the building until I ran into you.”
So far he was remembering pretty well.
“All of our letters and boxes went flying,” he said, “and I helped you gather yours up, and you helped me with mine.”
“That’s right. Do you remember the letter of mine that you kept?”
“Yes, I promise I didn’t realize that I had it until I was resorting Mr. Ogle’s mail in the post office. When I found it, I decided I’d take it to the address on the envelope. I prayed it was your house.”
“It had a return address on it,” his wife said. “If I wasn’t at one address, I would have been at the other.”
“True, but I only had enough nerve to go to one house.”
“I remember seeing you walking up to my house with that letter sticking out of your shirt pocket,” she said. “I made my mother answer the door.”
“I got to tell you, I was terrified that your daddy was going to be the one to answer the door.”
“It would have been luckier for you if he had been home.” She laughed a little; she was enjoying this.
“Your mamma didn’t take to kindly to me just showing up, did she?”
“Not at all.”
“She snatched that letter out of my pocket and slammed the door in my face. I had planned out everything I was going to say, but she never gave me a chance to say it.”
The old man began laughing and it quickly turned into a coughing fit. His wife helped him sit up and slapped him on the back until he hocked and spat into the trashcan. She gave him a drink of water and helped him lie back down.
“Slammed that door right in my face,” he said again.
“Mamma wanted to know where he had found a piece of our mail, so I told her. The first thing Mamma asked was, ‘Why couldn’t that boy have just dropped this in the mail? He was at the post office!’”
“I have no answer to that. It took her a while to warm up to me,” he said. “I don’t think she ever approved of me.”
“You proved yourself to be a good provider over and over,” she said. “Mamma respected you.”
“That was pretty high praise coming from her.”
“Indeed it was.”
“Then there was that year that I was out of a job after Mr. Ogle died. You remember that?”
“Left the store to his son, and he turned around and sold it and turned me loose. He did give me ten dollars severance.”
“We were fortunate to have that,” his wife said.
“Yes, we were.”
“That was a tough year.”
“Yep, it was. I resorted to poaching for the only time in my life. Had to fish illegally, too. I guess we were lucky that it was just the two of us. Would have been harder with kids. That ten dollars bought a lot of flour and meal.”
His wife didn’t respond. Even though he didn’t realize he was doing it, bringing up their lack of children still hurt her. He never said a word about it until he began to lose control of himself. It now came up occasionally, but it was never meant to be hurtful.
“Did you ever hate me for not being able to have children?” She asked.
“Of course I didn’t. Wasn’t anything you could control. Just the way the Lord made you. Wasn’t meant to be.”
“You would have made a good father.”
“You would have made a good mother.”
“We could have had grandchildren.”
“But it wasn’t meant to be.”
She held back tears for a moment. It was part of their history that she tried not to dwell on, but it was so difficult. It was something that had cost her many nights’ sleep over the years. He would have made a good father; he had always been kind and patient. He had always prided himself on being pragmatic. Those were just the things that a child needed in a father.
She remembered the heartless way that her doctor told her she would never produce children: “You’re all dried up inside,” he’d said. Then he turned and left the room like that was that, nothing more to say. She remembered the look of disappointment on her husband’s face when she told him what the doctor had said. She remembered how he tried to hide it for her sake, but it showed, if only for a moment.
“I married you for you,” he said. “I didn’t marry you for babies.”
“I know. It still hurts not having been able to give that to you.”
“Don’t let it.”
Night had fallen and she could tell that her husband was beginning to tire.
“You need to rest,” she said.
“You’re probably right. Why don’t you go eat something? You’ve been here with me and haven’t eaten all day. You must be starving”
She was hesitant to leave because she knew that it was very likely that the conversation would end and not resume. His moments of lucidity were fewer and farther between, and she wasn’t ready to give that up. But he was insistent in his own way. Urging her to go with his eyes, promising to still be there when she came back.
She went to the kitchen and toasted some bread and smeared it with butter and jelly. She ate off of a paper towel over the sink and sipped from a glass of water. She took her time eating; she enjoyed being out of the heat of the bedroom, but it kept her husband comfortable and his comfort was her only concern.
After she ate, she shook the toast crumbs into the trashcan and smoothed and folded the paper towel on the counter. She washed her water glass and left it on the drain board to dry, and returned to bed.
Her husband was looking at the ceiling again. She was saddened by the look of confusion and fear that had returned to her husband’s face. She stretched out on the bed, on top of the blankets and put her hand on her husband’s chest.
“So much broken in this world,” he muttered. “You don’t find what we had very often anymore.”
“No, you don’t.”
The rise and fall of her husband’s chest slowed under her hand as he drifted off to sleep, and sleep soon overtook her as well.
Sometime just before the false dawn, her husband’s chest stopped rising and falling. The ceasing of movement woke her, but it took her a few moments to realize what was happening. She shook him, but he didn’t move. She called his name and caressed his face, but he did not respond. She cradled his head to her chest and rocked back and forth on the bed, weeping but relieved. He was better now; she knew that. She believed it.
She sat with him until the sun shone through the window blinds. Then she got up and turned the heater off. The light was on in the neighbor’s kitchen window, so she slipped on her gardening shoes and a housecoat and walked across her yard into her neighbor’s.
Her neighbor’s house was new, only a couple of years old, and on the backside of the subdivision that abutted her property. The developers had offered to pay a premium for their land because they could have fit three or four more houses into the subdivision, but her husband had flatly refused all of their offers. Now, walking from her yard into the lush, professionally sodded yard of her neighbor, it seemed as if she was crossing from one world to another. One of memories to another of convenience.
She walked onto the patio of the neighbor’s house, past a gas grill and an expensive set of outdoor furniture, and she tapped on her neighbor’s back door.
Her neighbor had been aware of the situation across from his yard, and probably suspected the reason for such an early visit when he answered the door and saw her standing there.
“May I use your telephone?” she asked.
John Thompson is a 2009 graduate of the University of Arkansas at Monticello and is currently a graduate student at Louisiana Tech University. John’s publishing history includes the short story “A Man and his Family,” which placed third in Southern Arkansas University’s 2014 creative writing contest.
* * *
By Nathan Willis
I haven’t always done this. I used to have a job where I sat in a cubicle, answering the phone, sending emails and telling people things they already knew, but I lost that job. Between you and me, I’m sure I had something to do with it. I’m not exactly sure what; it could have been a lot of things.
After that I ran into trouble. I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do next and ended up watching a lot of TV. It got to where I felt like something was missing if I didn’t have a TV on nearby. I stopped going out unless I absolutely had to and when I did I couldn’t get back home fast enough. That screen is what kept me connected. It got to be a problem I couldn’t ignore.
Then I saw a commercial I had probably seen a thousand times before. It was for the Sampson-Kline Institute, where they say you can be successful at any number of things in a matter of sixteen weeks. All I had to do was call. That was about six months ago.
I wanted to take the Private Investigator course but there was a waiting list. It’s their most popular program. Apparently, this place is crawling with PI’s. It’s just as well because I ended up enrolling in their Ultrasound Technician program. If it sounds complicated that’s because it is. Most of the people I started with didn’t make it all the way through. But still, during the course I started to get the rest of my life together. I kept my place clean and started going out again, even when there was no place to go and no money to spend. Restaurants were the best. I would get a table for two, or on really bad days, four. I figured out pretty quickly that the larger the hypothetical party, the longer they let you wait. I’d sit and drink water, and watch the other people eat and talk. Every ten minutes or so I’d check with the waiter, or glance at my watch like I was getting nervous my party wasn’t going to show up until eventually a manager or someone would come over and ask me to leave.
That’s when I started to see how everything worked.
No, there’s no room for advancement. But it’s like the Institute says, “Advancement would be an insult. If there’s room for advancement that’s like saying what we do isn’t good enough.” That’s how I knew I was in the right place.
In the first class our professor told us to look up at the ceiling. “Not glass, is it?” he said. “It’s solid and visible and that’s something you should always remember. You’ll learn more about that once we get out in the field. First you need to be trained.”
He had us start on these realistic rubber dummies with fake insides. After that we practiced on each other. The professor had this hat full of folded paper strips with different conditions we might encounter written on them. He had us pair off and we each had to pick a paper out of the hat, perform an ultrasound and not disclose to our partners what we found. As the patient partner, our job was to get emotional and badger our partner for answers.
My partner was some girl who, as soon as the wand touched my stomach, whispered in my ear that I was stillborn. She laughed like it was a joke. I took it well and did my best to act like I didn’t know so she wouldn’t get in trouble.
Not long after that we had our first hands-on experience. We gave discounted ultrasounds to uninsured volunteers. I don’t know if it was the discount or what but none of the patients were very enthusiastic.
Then there were the field trips to out-of-town clinics and hospitals to observe real ultrasound techs. We’d crowd around these pregnant women and watch their reflections looking back at us in the monitor. I didn’t see anything except their worried faces.
At the time I didn’t understand why she did that, told me what was wrong with me right off the bat. It’s part of our job to not say anything. All we’re supposed to do is save out a handful of clear, focused images and report what we find to the doctor. He glances them over and regurgitates it back to the patient. That’s the process. It’s padding. If the patient thinks their images are being sent up a chain of command and the doctor delivers the news himself, they have more faith in it. Just like restaurants. The more people in a reservation the more faith the staff has that they’ll show up, right? I know how it works.
But then I actually got out in the field. It’s harder to do than it sounds. The things people want to know are a lot different than you’d think. I tell just about everyone who asks what I see as long as they agree to still act surprised or heartbroken when they meet with the doctor.
Mostly it’s pregnant women, but not always. And it’s not always women. I’ve only been doing this for two months and the stories I could tell you. On my first day, this lady came in and she was in her third trimester. She had been to four other doctors, had four other ultrasounds, and they all came back good. But she was convinced something was wrong. She could feel it inside and it was something serious, she just needed someone to find it. I told her she was in the right place and explained about the Institute; how I was a specialist and that I was one of the best in the county.
I scrutinized every frame. Everything looked great. I told her that unfortunately her baby appeared perfectly healthy. She got so mad she called me a bunch of names and stormed out without waiting to see the doctor. I got in trouble for that one.
Then there was this guy with a tumor on his balls. I was just supposed to check to see if it had gotten bigger or smaller or what. He was getting some sort of experimental treatment and needed to know if it was working. He asked more questions about that tumor than the women with babies. ‘How big is it? Has it moved? What does it look like? What is it shaped like?’ I don’t know why he was asking. He could see the monitor the whole time. He even tried to bribe me with a twenty-dollar bill. Can you believe that? He acted like I was holding out on him. He thought there was more to know than there really was. That one was sad. They’re all pretty sad. There’s no joy in seeing what’s inside of people.
The best one was this one woman, Miss. Paren. She lives right around here. This lady was convinced she was pregnant. The whole time I was squirting the jelly on her she kept saying she hoped it was going to be a girl this time. When I told her there was nothing there, that she was empty, she sat up and hugged me so tight I could feel her breath on my neck. She whispered, “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay. Don’t worry.” I got the feeling she didn’t believe me, which was fine. I didn’t really believe her either.
But you know what? She came back the next week. Hands clasped around her stomach, big smile on her face and she was glowing. It’s true what they say. That’s real. She lay down and wanted to know how her little girl was coming along. I asked the doctor if we could get her out of there so we could take care of the real patients. I didn’t mean to be cold but come on; I’m a specialist, he’s a doctor, our time is valuable. The doctor said to go ahead anyhow and he would join me to speed things up. We watched the monitor and saw the same thing. The doctor patted her stomach and said she was gestating just fine.
The week after that she was back again. That time she told me she was having twins. Could I see them?
After that I started feeling disconnected again so I called my professor for some guidance. He wasn’t really a professor. That was just what he told us to call him, like calling a gym teacher ‘Coach’, even though there wasn’t a team.
I told him about Miss. Paren and how I didn’t feel right lying to her. Maybe she needs some other sort of help, but I don’t think we should be humoring her like this.
He laughed so hard it took him a minute to catch his breath. He had gotten this phone call before. Once he pulled himself together and heard I was still on the line, he told me to suck it up and follow the lie. The doctor knew best. He said I worried too much for an ultrasound technician. Before he hung up I asked, “Did you ever lie to me?” When my class got certified, he had pulled me aside and told me I was going to be the best ultrasound tech in the county, so I had to know.
“Never,” he said, “This county in particular is full of the best ultrasound techs.”
So the next time a guy offers me twenty dollars, I’ll tell him his tumor is shaped like the North Star and he should stop worrying and go home. There are a hundred other men walking around out there who don’t know what their tumors are shaped like, if they even know they have one at all. Then I’ll take the money and order a pizza or buy lottery tickets or something. I mean, Jesus Christ, these people know I’m not going to invest in the stock market or anything. It’s going straight down the toilet, but that’s all it takes. That’s how things work. Give people something to waste and you get what you want.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep this up, really. Sometimes I wonder. Even though I’m a certified specialist not too much has changed. I watch a monitor instead of TV. I don’t think it would be any better if I were a PI. It might be worse. I would still be looking for whatever people are scared of finding.
That woman, the one having twins, she has another appointment tomorrow. She has high hopes for them. The last time she was in she said that no matter what they end up doing, they’re going to make a difference. They will be successful and respected.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell her everything is going well. The twins are developing at a normal rate and when they are old enough they should call the Institute. At least consider it. But if they want to be Private Investigators she should do them a favor and get them on the waiting list early.
I don’t know where they are. They were supposed to be here an hour ago already. It’s an informal little class reunion to have dinner and drinks and talk about how good we’re all doing. There were ten of us in the class. No…no missed calls. They’d probably call my house phone anyway. That’s the number I started giving out once it got turned back on. Maybe I have the wrong place. I’d feel bad if I ended up taking up this whole banquet room for myself. Yes. Thanks. I’ll just have another water and if they don’t show up soon I’ll go ahead and go. It’s not a big deal. There’s a marathon on Channel 10 that starts pretty soon.
Nathan Willis is a writer from Ohio. His work has previously appeared in 99 Pine Street and he is working on a collection of short stories.
* * *
By S.F. Wright
The bell rings, and Ryan stands up with the rest of his classmates. Other kids move together in groups or pairs in the hallway, but Ryan walks alone. His sneakers are dirty white, his jeans frayed, and his sweater is one size too small for him, so that his wrists stick out. He opens his locker and takes out his worn green coat, which is stained and smells of mold. Most of the students at Thomas Jefferson Junior High get on the school bus, climb onto their bikes, or get picked up by their mothers. Ryan’s house is more than a thirty-minute walk away, but he doesn’t like riding the bus with the other kids. He’s never owned a bike. No mother is here to pick him up.
He crosses the street, his backpack over his shoulder. He walks to the 7/11 on the next corner and goes inside.
The man behind the counter, a bald guy in his forties, eyes him as soon as he walks in.
The bell over the door jingles. Ryan walks toward the back, past refrigerators with dozens of different colored Gatorades, Cokes, Sprites, and Mountain Dews, whole milk, skim milk. He can feel the man’s eyes on him, and goes down the aisle with the candy and glances at the counter.
Sure enough, the man is watching him. Ryan walks slowly, pretending to study the candy.
The door opens. The bell jingles. Two older kids from the eighth grade come in. The man keeps his eyes fixed on Ryan. The two boys go to the Slurpee machine. One draws cherry flavored and the other kid gets cola. Ryan watches them with envy. He wishes he could have a
Slurpee, but they are too large to steal.
The two kids carry their Slurpees over to the counter. The man has to ring them up, and he looks down at the register. Ryan grabs a handful of candy bars. He shoves them into his pocket and casually walks out the door. Outside he crosses the parking lot and turns down Pine Street. He walks so quickly his legs and shins hurt, and looks over his shoulder after a minute or two. No one is coming after him.
He turns down McDougal Street and passes houses with two garages and green freshly mowed lawns. Kids play on some of them. Ryan takes a Mounds bar out of his pocket. He opens it, drops the wrapper on the street, and eats as he walks.
He turns onto the main road and walks slowly on the sidewalk. He eats the other candy bars. Cars whiz by. A yellow school bus passes with kids from his grade on board. One kid in the back of the bus looks at Ryan and gives him the finger. Ryan makes the same gesture and mouths “fuck you.” The kid smiles and shakes his middle finger at him.
Ryan reaches a corner with a traffic light. A bank is on his side of the street, and a
Catholic school is on the other. The crossing guard watches him as he approaches. She’s an old woman, dressed in a bright orange jacket. She wears a hat adorned with multiple pins, with a feather sticking out of it.
“How are you, hon?” she says. She smiles and wrinkles form on her cheeks and forehead.
She watches the light. When it changes to green, she holds her hand up and walks ahead, stops in the middle of the road, and signals for Ryan to cross.
“So long, hon,” she says as he passes.
He walks past the Catholic high school. It’s deserted, having gotten out over an hour ago.
He passes many houses, beige ones, green ones, whites ones, and then a deli, and then more houses. He reaches another traffic light. No crossing guard waits at this corner, and he goes across the road himself. He passes an empty lot with weeds growing between the cracks of the pavement. An abandoned gas station comes up next. He walks past the gutted pumps and deserted garage and turns down Winslow Place.
All of the houses on this block are small. None are well kept. Ryan’s house, though, the third one on the right, is by far the worst. Half of the white paint is flaked off. The bottom of the front door is badly dented from when his father kicked it in a couple of years ago. That had happened when his mother still lived there and she had locked his father outside. The front yard consists of patches of dead brown grass and dirt. His father’s old truck is parked in the driveway. A black tarp covers the camper, covering his father’s paint equipment, which hasn’t been used in months.
Ryan turns the knob and opens the door. The inside smells of dirty laundry and cigarette smoke. He walks into the living room. His father sits on the sofa, holding a can of Budwesier that rests against his stomach. Dozens of empty cans litter the floor. A poker tournament is playing on the TV. His father glances at Ryan and then looks back at the screen.
Ryan walks down the hall and goes into his room. His bed is unmade, the sheets and covers oily and rank. They have not been washed in months. The floor is covered with dirty clothes, a few empty potato chip bags, some dog-eared comic books. He puts his backpack down and picks up a Spiderman comic he’s read before at least a half dozen times. He lies on his bed on the bunched up sheets, his back against the wall.
He reads for hours. The front door slams shut at one point and then he hears his father’s truck starting. He reads one comic after another, although he has already read every single one, multiple times. His stomach begins to growl. He keeps reading. Only when the hunger becomes almost painful does he put his comic down and go into the kitchen.
The table is covered with dirty dishes, newspapers, and empty beer cans. The sink overflows with unwashed glasses, pots, and dishes. Dirt and crumbs and sand-like debris crunch under Ryan’s sneakers against the tile floor.
He opens the refrigerator. There is an open bottle of ketchup, a dozen or so cans of
Budweiser, a white container from a Chinese restaurant, and a bottle of mustard that’s almost empty.
Ryan opens the white container. It’s a third full of brown fried rice. Bluish gray mold furs the surface of the rice. He closes the container and puts it back.
He opens the cabinets, and finds a half package of Ritz crackers, and a jar of peanut butter nearly a quarter full.
He finds a knife and a glass and a plate in the sink and washes them, then fills the glass with tap water and takes everything to the kitchen table.
He eats all the crackers in the package with the peanut butter. Sometimes he eats the crackers open-faced, or two of them together with peanut butter in between, like little sandwiches. He takes long sips of water and gets up once to refill his glass.
He feels full when he finishes, though he knows he will be hungry shortly again, having had peanut butter and crackers for dinner many times in the past. He goes into the living room, pushes the curtain aside, and looks out the window. His father’s truck is still gone. He wonders when the truck will be back, if his father will return at all tonight, and how drunk he will be if he does.
Ryan sits down on the couch and turns on the TV. He changes channels until he finds the end of a Cheers rerun. A Family Ties episode comes on when Cheers finishes. Ryan watches one sitcom after the other. He never laughs, but what he watches enthralls him. He wishes he knew these people in real life, that he was part of their families and their lives, which seem so much better than his own.
His eyelids feel heavy. He knows he shouldn’t risk falling asleep on the couch in case his father does come home, but he continues to watch. Soon he nods off, and then suddenly wakes a couple minutes later. Ryan gets up to turn off the TV, but then a rerun of Mr. Belvedere, a personal favorite, begins. He tells himself half an hour more and sits back down. He watches, transfixed, as George Owens talks to his son about a bully at school, feeling more love for this TV character than for his own father, until a commercial comes on. Then he nods off for the final time and falls asleep.
The sound of the front door wakes him. He opens his eyes and sees his father. His face is ruddy, his eyes glassy and bloodshot. Ryan doesn’t know what time it is. A Different Strokes episode plays on the TV. Arnold is smiling sheepishly, and the audience is laughing.
His father looks at him, breathing heavily, sneering. Ryan wishes he had gone to bed earlier. His stomach lurches. He grips the fabric of the couch.
His father lunges at him. Ryan moves away quickly, but his father manages to grab the back of his shirt. Ryan heads for the hall, the back of his shirt stretching. Then suddenly his shirt is free and he hears a loud thud. “Motherfucker,” his father says. Ryan turns to see that his father has tripped and fallen to the floor. He runs down the hall and goes into his room, shuts the door, and locks it. Then, quickly, he pushes the bureau against the door. Now he sits on the bed and waits. The banging begins a few seconds later. The doorknob shakes. The door trembles, punched and kicked. His father swears. Ryan sits on the bed, cringing at each blow.
Finally it stops. A few seconds pass. A final loud kick shakes the door. His father curses Ryan once more, and then, silence. Ryan hears another door in the house open and close.
He’s suddenly not tired anymore, but he has to go to the bathroom very badly. He finds an empty can of Coke on the floor and urinates into it. He opens the window when he finishes, and dumps the contents outside. The piss sizzles against the ground.
He lies on his bed and curls up. A door opens and closes somewhere in the house, but after that it is quiet. Ryan closes his eyes, but he can’t fall asleep. He lies there and breathes slowly through his nose. He thinks of his Spiderman comics. He thinks of the Gatorade bottles in the 7/11. He thinks of the feather on the crossing guard’s hat.
S.F. Wright teaches at Hudson County Community College and Union County College. He has an M.F.A. from Rutgers-Newark, and his work has previously appeared in Thieves Jargon.
* * *
By Prerna Bakshi
Like a storm that
came from nowhere.
Like a newly bought clock that
just stopped ticking.
Like a pot full of food that
took a lifetime in the making,
suddenly slipped from the hands
to the ground, splattering all over the place.
Like a book
near the end
with its pages
Like a pair of shoes
but now with
one gone missing.
Like a phone with
a dead dial tone.
Like a door that’s been
Like the photo
carried inside your wallet
of that one person
you love the most
Prerna Bakshi is a Macao based sociolinguist, writer and translator. Her work’s been published in over two dozen journals and magazines, most recently in Misfit Magazine and Peril magazine: Asian-Australian Arts & Culture. Her full-length poetry collection, Burnt Rotis, With Love, is forthcoming from Les Éditions du Zaporogue. For more information, visit her Twitter page: @bprerna.
* * *
Pastoral Drawn on a Summer Bench
By Shinjini Bhattacharjee
To remember the story
of a wood made plural
and it becomes a name
runny with black incisions
on the sidewalk promising reunion.
How it sees faces cradling
wrinkles of light on their edges
slit spined with anticipation
of being lived by the tug of the
salt in a baby’s mouth.
When the wall lies down
it lies down for the white twice removed
for the lack that makes its knitting
slanted so that it can’t prepare
the bones that split ribs into half fog, half ocean.
In the evenings, it lifts its head over
colors that forget each other, over the mouth
that gives it her song, the dusk that swallows
a bird’s prayer, the background that holds too much
of loneliness before it dissolves in the frigid air.
Shinjini Bhattacharjee is the founder, publisher, and the editor-in-chief of Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal and Press. She considers herself to be a lexical photographer who loves to rummage through language to find words that smell like infinite spandex, and weave them into images to cloak her experiences and emotions. Her poems have been published, or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, DecomP, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Wherewithal, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Gone Lawn, Literary Orphans, Red Paint Hills, and elsewhere.
* * *
By Heath Brougher
Walking in on the breeze
to blurry eyes and a half-held heart.
Coming in through the window then exiting by door.
Above, a purple sky stretches out
lonesome and long into the horizon.
A flammable gust kisses the neck of the woods
as pupils stare out from the upstairs
of a house of Human Body where lunacy can be struck
instantly and bounce off the walls for hours,
especially when evening blooms and the moon
slightly peaks its silvery head out from the gathering gloaming.
The wind then thickens into a juice or jelly
of hot summer breezes, scorching gales,
as the storm churns onward, ripening in foment,
raging in biting and burning whorls of fire
running across czarina dresses, stealthily through unborn days,
like apricot shrubs that dance but don’t.
Heath Brougher lives in York, PA and attended Temple University. He recently finished his first chapbook, with two more coming soon. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Third Wednesday, Mobius, Main Street Rag, *Star 82 Review, Indigo Rising, Rust + Moth, BlazeVOX, and elsewhere.
* * *
By Katie Gleason
There we were, my husband and I, in the crowded hamburger restaurant,
our friends sitting to the left and right of me –
they were visiting from out of town, delighted to see us again -
me sipping my chocolate milkshake, trying not to make eye contact,
my husband shoving greasy fries in his mouth while chuckling at someone’s joke,
and we pretended like that all night.
Behind the screen of our laughter, what our friends didn’t know was everything -
that our marriage had reached a precipice, my husband was heading one way, and I another,
and we had finally confronted the edge together and peered over -
it had happened on our couch the previous evening, while we watched
a reality show about a middle aged couple selling their house.
The couple on the show were both abandoning their professions –
they had decided to travel the world, or follow their dreams, or both -
and I imagined myself packing up, too, going on a trek of my own.
My husband scoffed the couple’s decision, and he launched into a monologue
scolding them for their irresponsibility - he kept talking on and on
about how silly their quest was, building his case –
and that’s when my vision blurred - I saw the shadows on the walls expand and darken;
the delicate, blue-grey paint we had chosen a few years before slipped off
and was eaten by the floor – and the high ceilings we loved so much
when we had first toured the home, they started to collapse –
they dropped lower and lower until they hung
not an inch above my head, plaster cracking and sprinkling on my hair –
and my husband kept watching the show, as if nothing was falling,
prattling on, lost in himself as he often was.
I tried to listen to him dutifully, his arm slung around my shoulder like a cast,
and then I turned away from his droning voice - away from the shadows,
the blackened walls, away from the floor’s mouth gaping like a hungry hound.
I turned away and closed my eyes and swallowed each crumb of his words until I was full
and then I cried, “No!”
Startled, my husband drew his arm into his chest, his voiced finally lulled,
and because my stomach was bursting with words, I cleared some out –
I don’t know if I’m in love with you anymore.
It was my turn, and my voice kept surging forth –
my husband looking on, nodding, not saying much, eating my words,
and part of me wondered what he was thinking
and when he would be full.
Katie Gleason lives in southern Arizona with her husband and two greyhounds. A graduate of Portland State University, she has been a social worker for ten years and currently specializes in counseling for addiction and behavioral health issues. She is a student of The Writer's Studio.
* * *
By Dennis Herrell
He was simply a purveyor
of goods, necessities, you might say,
for a deserving life
not to be deprived of certain pleasures,
exhilarations of the mind and body,
fulfillment of a spirit’s quest,
explorations of the soul
into the mysterious unknown,
all quite basic urges
common within the origin of the species,
a compound of spirit and mind and energy
mixed in the mortar of generations,
served like caviar to village peasants
and city folk alike, DNA linked
to Columbus, Magellan, Cortes,
Plato, Homer, Dante, Michelangelo,
and the like.
When you needed him,
he was there, the purveyor
to look out for you,
find for you, get for you,
any facilitating chemical to speed
your dreams above the street,
out of your neighborhood,
away from office humdrum
and household tedium,
away, away, far away.
Always a better place,
forever in a bright new world.
Dennis Herrell writes both serious and humorous poems about his life in this civilized society. (Poking fun at himself is almost a full-time job.) He especially likes to look at the small things in everyday life that make us (him) so individual and vulnerable. Recent acceptances by Atlanta Review,
Aura, Aurorean, Christian Science Monitor, Confrontation, Connecticut River Review, Pearl, Poem, Poet Lore, and others.
* * *
By Eddie Krzeminski
He says one day I can have it all:
the house with the paid mortgage,
the lawn with the carefully trimmed hedges,
the business and the trucks and the lungs
full of wood dust.
Under his wing, he shows me the finer points
of woodwork; coaching me on the inherent
crookedness of walls, teaching me to trust
my eyes more than the tape measure.
These days he knows I've been waking up hungry,
yearning for the kind of life where I can rise
with the sun and put in my penance — a day's worth
of hard work that will scar these silk-soft hands.
The same hands of my father that I saw as a child
pointing to something I needed to notice,
that familiar bend in his index
where the table saw wouldn't give
even an inch, leading my eyes.
Eddie Krzeminski lives in Florida and falls in love on a regular basis. He’s currently working on a B.A of English at Florida Gulf Coast University. His work has previously been published in The Mangrove Review.
* * *
In Her Web She Still Delights
By Tennae Maki
What will this woman's fate be?
Just as a gypsy pawns fortunes upon the willing, young and dying. There this woman did stand with her palm cradled in her left hand. She is yours and she is a vagrant. She is the stranger that you'll never meet.
Mindlessly, she drew circles with her thumb. Just there, there where the veins in her hand told tales of her future 'stead. Her lines of life, love, and logic. These webs, feint and strong, were just as she knew them to be: hers, a duplicate that belonged to no one.
Without guise or instruction, this woman's thumb left her palm and began to brush her right index finger from side to side, slowly migrating over to the other three tips. A motion with the intent to find the prints that she was bound to leave behind.
A far weighty task it was, one of focus and strict intent, searching for these lines best read from behind a scope of science, or after they'd been brought to ink and paper.
So it was, she couldn't say where she cared to wander with her thoughts. Her daydreams where set on nothing but the near invisible lines that had always been with her. The fault line seemed not to be embedded in her skin. Surly you'd pardon her if you thought the stars could speak of her future. The cosmologist's tale is far more lucid and true.
The day you met her, was the same day you missed her. The sky wasn't clear. It was blushing. The sun and the moon, they both hid behind clouds. Yet even these great languorous masses couldn't conceal the horizon line, nor the pink hues of dawn and dusk.
Surly now, you can see that these moments of searching and fateful questioning, lapsed the moment the hands on the antique wall clock stopped.
Finally, her thumb did press the vulnerable space, the one that harbors air when hands meet for prayer.
The pendulum is still swinging.
That is the only gold.
Tennae Maki is a weekend writer that works for an architecture firm. To pass the time and while sitting at her desk, she giggles at her own jokes. It's an open office.
* * *
From My Window
By Debasis Mukhopadhyay
I wanted to catch your eye. I bought you a horse called Cinnamon. You smiled. From my window, I imagined you only felt free when you rode that beast. That said, you had to grab a crop of loneliness. All in a daze, Cinnamon never understood what was at the end of your smile.
I wanted to make you mine in the world of feelings. I fed hysteria to my words and showered upon you. You shivered. From my window, I imagined your map of feelings could not see the boundaries of the castle that my words let rise inside your head. That said, you had to give yourself some lonely room in that castle. All high on their spell, my words never understood at the end what made you close your eyes.
I wanted to forget you princess mine. I unraveled the seam and the wild poppies afloat in my eyes bled to death. You looked into my eyes. From my window, I watched your body of dust becoming a body of poetry as my past wrote my present. That said, you had to realize how separate I was from you when I used to imagine you from my window. All in a daze, you never understood what was at the end of my retreat.
Debasis Mukhopadhyay is a poet from Montreal, Canada. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Snapping Twig, Eunoia Review, Yellow Chair Review, With Painted Words, Silver Birch Press, Of/With, Fragments of Chiaroscuro, I am not a silent poet, The Bitchin' Kitsch, and elsewhere. Find him here.
* * *
A Blackened Eye
By Andrew Scott
Her eyes dart around
while waiting in line
at the grocery store.
She feels all the questioning.
The looks of concern and pity.
Some are nods of judgement
without knowing the story
only assuming a fake truth.
Gripping the hand of comfort
she looks with her head down.
Trying to mask away the thoughts
that are circling around.
The faces that are telling a story
of what has happened to her.
Inside she feels all the knots
of how to move forward.
Confusion of what she is seeing
and the horror inside.
Wondering where to go
after the blackened eye
is a bruise no one can see.
Andrew Scott is a native of Fredericton, NB. During his time as an active poet, Andrew Scott has taken the time to speak in front of classrooms, judge poetry competitions as well as published worldwide in such publications as The Art of Being Human, Battered Shadows and The Broken Ones. His books, Snake With A Flower, The Phoenix Has Risen and The Storm Is Coming are available now
* * *
Three Poems by Ruth Towne
Twenty seasons of pressure pair
with twenty seasons of ease--
but this night, the trees neither laugh nor dance.
From inside the kitchen, we observe
the way they purpose themselves
against wet crystal and cast their boughs like stones
into the north-east wind. The squall pauses--
they collect themselves, gather the rubble
of their branches again. But the sleet coerces
them. So you pluck your coat
from where it grows dry next to the front door
and sow yourself where the wind rends,
where your birch trees labor.
Perhaps you still may heal the piths,
perhaps revive the spring and summer wood, perhaps
arouse the cracked cambium, perhaps--
Inside again, hours later, you conclude
your vigil. Since the branches and bark travailed
before, Why, you ask, why do they break
after living for so long? So I wonder
the weight of snow and the burden of each season.
Perkins Cove Port, Ogunquit
Tonight, the sky is a galleon,
a woman as she pulls billows of sailors
across the soggy hem of her skirt,
an admiral as he rolls his dirge
to the tide of seagulls. The gulls cargo
the notes that wave from under his tongue
across the restless harbor.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, you said over.
Beside you, seagulls constructed an altar
of sturgeon fins and oyster bellies, danced
around their shrine, and parsed their feathers
as if they flayed their own flesh.
You said, maybe soon rain will come.
Tonight, the sea weeps
like a mountain that climbs to heaven, reaches
toward the outstretched hands of the late dead.
And the sea, now a granite precipice, sculpts
between tectonic plates the relief
of those who once birthed their songs
in shallow bays of breeze.
Tomorrow, we will drift
a shadow’s length from today
and think we have voyaged
anew. We forget that we orbit
our anchor. Perhaps, gulls never venture
beyond where the harbor surveys either.
The storm soon forgets the way footbridges
and peers offer empty platitudes,
their planks and joists lighter
than trinkets and as idle.
And the dry space gulls lap
with their wings dissipates
as rapidly as we do.
The Red Paint Grave
A man filters his throat-heavy song
through handfuls of silt. His neighbors, a reef
of Etchimin with their arms flared
open toward their sea, anchor their thoughts
on their sister. Prostrate, she undulates
between the shallow walls of the embankment.
But when the brackish sand swells
beside her, she will not tide
to meet the damp rise.
An after-feast of split oysters, each a half-carin,
mark that the living retain
of the dead only what they internalize--
her black hair after rain as it pearled
mothlight but never again the beads
where the heavy ends waded; never
his Etchimin, never again.
Soon, the man will pigment
his dark melody with ochre. Soon,
he will reconcile his refrain—he will saturate
the silence, embellish the space above
her, between them, pour paint
into her black basin. And soon,
he will address his land as a different man.
In the expanse, he will seek
her in corners where land breaks
from slack water and crests
against blue ice and frozen sky.
He will pace the soft cirques
where floe striates the mountain flanks,
but he will distrust the barren rocks
and boulder clay since it rushes
too quickly into the gravel deltas
where the surf banquets
the sand. And though the sea allots the land
no monument, he quarries
what he can of his Etchimin in veins of oysters,
in blank water, in bright strokes of russet earth.
Ruth Towne is an emerging author from Southern Maine. Referential Magazine recently featured her poem "From Behind the Second-Floor Dormer." Her creative nonfiction works such as "Nine Months of Conflict Taught Me How To Say No" and "Sun Fungus" have appeared in The Magnolia Review and Burning Word Literary Journal. She spends her spare time helping high school and college students improve their writing, and she also enjoys hiking and running in New England with Gunner, her German Shepherd.
* * *
Two Poems by Sheri Vandermolen
The white-horned, round-red-faced, mustachioed demon
who sticks his tongue out at me,
from his perch above every construction site in the city,
has seemingly made his way into my migrained brain.
Defying all objections, he screams through my tortuous cortex,
pushes into my forehead,
no mystic Shiva seer
but mridangam-beating, sword-swinging maniac
intent on stabbing his way
through my third eye.
If only a highly caffeinated chai could subdue this drishti-bommai beast,
keep his grimace from becoming mine.
The potable-water reserve --
trapped deep beneath city streets
or evaporating from lakes
contaminated by man-made hazards --
diminishes by the day,
as the heat-strained population
begs for reliable supply.
While the state of Karnataka
haggles with its neighbor,
over damming rights
for the liquid gold of the Kaveri River,
the ravenously slick members
of Bangalore's borewell cartel
sit ready to gouge every buyer,
even as they blame extended drought.
They rub their greedy hands together,
eager for the negotiations
to run as dry as my tap.
Sheri Vandermolen is editor in chief of Time Being Books. From 2008 to 2014, she resided in India, exploring the subcontinent via camera and pen until her repatriation to California. Her verse has appeared in various international journals, including Contemporary Literary Review India, Muse India, Papercuts, and Taj Mahal Review.
* * *
By Tori Bond
A gelatinous orb washed up at Iris’s feet, a softball-sized gift from the sea. She nudged it with her toe to reveal a cobalt blue eye peering up at her, capturing her in its gaze. She imagined a giant squid inching along the ocean floor in search of his precious sight. Or did some horrific event cause this tender creature to abort its own eye? She had days like that. More like years of blindly searching for the elusive thing just beyond her grasp—Ira.
She worked as an assistant to a handsome doctor, who loved eyes so much he became an optometrist, a tragic man who couldn’t look a person in the eye when he spoke. Could he not withstand the ocean of pain floating in the vitreous chamber? A glowing emptiness only he could see upon exam. She baked obsessively for him. He refused, patting his belly to indicate he was dieting. Could he not see the chunks of love she folded into her cookies and drizzled over the spiced Bundt cake? Iris was the only one to nibble her treats.
Their hushed conversations involved patient care, locating and updating records, requests for instruments, gels, liquids, and tissues, all communicated with his back to her. Their intimate moments consisted of her shimmying between the counter and his chair, her widening hips bumping his elbow or shoulder. Such an occurrence thrilled her. Ira responded by moving his chair two inches.
She set out to get fit and walked the beach daily, daydreaming about their rendezvous at the end of her journey to slimness. It was a long walk. Ten pounds lighter, no noticeable noticing. Twenty pounds gone—Ira failed to lose his composure with her in the darkness of the exam room. Thirty pounds lost left her feeling small.
The grey ocean rocked at her feet. It had rained that morning and clouds crowded the horizon. The wind frazzled her hair. A baseball cap flung at her and plastered itself to her thigh. Not a soul was out walking. No one shell hunting, no fishermen casting lines, no children building sandcastles. The storm had scared them home. The macrocosm of the beach laid bare the microcosm of her heart.
Her imagined life with Ira had kept her company for so long she didn’t know herself without his adoring gaze across the candlelit table set for one, his invisible arms wrapped around her as she fell off to sleep in her lonely bed. His affection was a ghost of a wish haunting her day and night. Wrapped in her own arms, she let the hungry waves devour her sneakers and ankles.
Iris gathered the eyeball and rinsed it in the waves. She coddled its slippery wetness like an infant fresh from the womb and stared into its blue stare. She sank deeply into the world of squid eye and imagined an ocean so blue it hurt. Watery illusions of super jellyfish danced to an invisible rhythm, house-sized whales lumbered weightlessly with ballerina grace. A perceptive organ this large must’ve been capable of penetrating the surface of things; seeing their invisible essence. The thought sent an erotic current through Iris’s body. What would it feel like to be embraced by eight arms? Hundreds of suction cups, like little kisses, nestled in the crook of her neck, across her thighs and breasts. Could she stand the gaze of a love that big? What would the squid think of this large land creature staring back at him? Perhaps shy like the doctor, he’d squirt ink and race into the murky darkness. She shuffled home with the eyeball and the intent to find a lovely way to present it to the doctor.
She imagined giving Ira the eyeball floating in a glass canister, decorated with electric blue stones, seaweed growing skyward, and her love bubbling up out of her. “See how much I love you?” Her imagination turned on her, twisted her fantasy into the reality she could not face. He stared at his shoes, refusing to see her gift.
Tori Bond's short fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Funny anthology, Monkey Bicycle, Extraordinary Gifts anthology, Wilderness House Literary Review, Every Day Fiction, Bicycle Review, and others. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College.
* * *
By Stephanie J. Cleary
El conserje en UPS me está enseñando español. I tried to write that line all by myself, but after several variations of, “¿Cómo se dice…’teach,’ like you are teaching me?” Francisco was as lost trying to answer as I was to ask.
He pointed his blunt callused finger at my computer screen and said, “Escribe.” I minimized the Excel spreadsheet I was working on and opened an English-to-Spanish translator. When two options for “janitor” came up, conserje and portero, I asked him if there was a difference. Our focus shifted from the screen and back to each other, and then we played an impromptu game of charades. This happens often.
When he demonstrated the subtle difference between conserje and portero, he first mimicked himself, but with great big movements. In the hallway outside my office, he pantomimed sweeping the floor - like he really had to put his back into it, mopping the hallway at a breakneck speed, then pretending to spray my face with imaginary cleaner and buffing my forehead. Then he bowed himself backwards a few feet and did the same motions in a much smaller way, like a mouse going about the business of cleaning while avoiding the watchful eye of a nearby cat.
I didn’t understand the significance of the difference. He went through the play again, then, as the second character, he tipped his hat to me. That was it. That little gesture was the key. Conseje is a cleaning person, portero is more like a doorman. I think.
I’m sure it was quite a spectacle. Francisco is barely as tall as I am. We wear the same shoe size. I know, because he nagged me for weeks to get him a pair of combat boots like the ones I wore to work in winter, “Stephanie, cuando you bring me las botas?” We probably even weigh within twenty-five pounds of each other, but we are so different.
He is built for work, his arms are thick with muscle and his chest is barreled. He reminds me of my bulldog, or an old boxer who quit jogging but still lifts weights. Every day, he wears the same thing to work - blue tee with the logo for the janitorial company he works for, faded black jeans, and my old Army boots. I wear a dress to work, and bought my shoes at Von Maur.
A black baseball hat with the same company logo as his shirt covers a mop of thick dark hair peppered with grey and white. I use salon conditioner and an anti-frizz balm in my professionally dyed blonde hair. There are two different face-washes in my shower caddy, while Francisco’s face is pockmarked and wrinkled, but most of the lines on it look like they were earned with laughter. His eyes are always on the verge of smiling. Twenty-five years my senior, he is nearly sixty now, and married. I’d bet a dollar that he did alright with the ladies when he was younger.
I wanted to look back at the computer screen and search deeper for the true difference between the words, but Francisco says that is cheating. He told me when he came to America nobody told him how to understand English with a computer. He had a book his friend gave him with some common phrases, but that was it.
We keep a notepad with translations we have figured out between us in the top drawer of my desk. There are alternating lines of text. After his A/C went out last week, I wrote “Espero que tu acondicionador de aire es fijo. Su super caliente,” in curvy print. His line, “Wash your car. It’s very dirty,” is written in all caps, pen pushed hard into the paper, and slanted to the right.
After this session, I recorded my new information. In blue ink, my neat printing reads, “Un mexicano amigo mío me está enseñando español.”
Stephanie J. Cleary is a Writer's Workshop student at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The 13th Floor, The Metropolitan, Nature's Companion, NEBRASKAland Magazine, Gravel, Crab Fat, and These Fragile Lilacs. She's a great wife and an awful housekeeper, a two-tour veteran, a girl who sings to her naughty dogs, and an unapologetic book addict.
* * *
A Dying Day
By Carrie Grinstead
The old schizophrenic with end-stage renal disease puts his clothes on, escapes while we are on rounds at the other end of the ward, and dies in the drifted snow just north of the zoo. Local TV reporters visit the hospital, and my favorite charge nurse loses her job. Still, in quiet moments, my heart lifts and my eyes light up.
I imagine I’m 76, and my brain, already fraying at the seams, suffers a stroke. After a few days in critical care, I am confused but conscious. I remove my needles. I am both awake and dreaming; I move without effort or intention. A door opens, and I enter the living world of dry cleaners and fast food restaurants, youth league soccer and violin lessons.
Maybe, a few days later, they find my body, and my family, if I have one, sues the shit out of the hospital. Distressed floor nurses, crying into the phone, question their experience and competence and career choice. How could I have left without being seen? Who was to blame? The Head of Security meets with the Chief Nursing Officer. Documents are reviewed, a root cause sought. Policies are analyzed, criticized, revised.
But in the last hours, I walked with no shoes, and grass curled thick into my toes. What a beautiful evening it was, clouds painted across the sky as little girls raced home on bicycles. Squirrels flickered up tree trunks, and gentle breezes played across sidewalk puddles. Crows hunkered on telephone wires, holding up the threads of my life, stitching together the years I spent on this planet. All I had done and all I had failed to do gathered in visions before me, like old friends meeting for dinner, like books in a quiet room.
And I felt so lucky because, lying in the hospital with my brain all torn to shreds, I did not expect this to happen.
Carrie Grinstead works as a medical librarian and lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, Daniel, and Pickle, their rat terrier. She has an MFA from New Mexico State.
* * *
The Speaker, After the Pope
By Eric Howerton
The Speaker left the capitol teary-eyed and ready to reform. He was so lost he unlocked and entered the right side of the car. Realizing his mistake, he climbed over the gearshift and nestled into the grooved driver’s seat. He blew his nose.
Hearing the Pope speak to Congress had clarified the Speaker’s thinking; the Pontif and his pointy hat had proven to the Speaker—with nothing less than a righteous elegance—that his party was one that had soured the punch. They—no, HE. Take responsibility, John! HE--had failed to protect his fellow man from the world’s foggy darkness. He had failed to care for the poor and feed the needy.
At a red light, the Speaker turned the radio on. “Blinded by the Light,” a near-classic by Manfred Mann that didn’t make lyrical sense before now bathed the Speaker in a clarity not dissimilar from the effervescent direction and resolve that filled him after the Pope bowed and took leave.
“Revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.”
The light turned green, and the speaker knew what to do. The messages he’d received synergized him. He would call in sick tomorrow. And the day after. He would quit his job, cash out his bank account and be free of it all. All the arguments. All the entanglements. The favors. The guilt. Guilt for not passing this bill fast enough. Guilt for allowing these millions to be marginalized. First thing in the morning he would empty his bank account and head to the airport, retiring to the sandy beaches of Mexico, drinking and tipping generously. If he was going to be blinded by the light, ok. He could handle a little revelation. He’d take the heat of God’s wrath for the things he’d done. He’d sweat under rising temperatures and toss at night. But if the world was going to be so clear from here on out that he had to squint and dab his brow, he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to have a world-class tan.
Eric Howerton is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, a doctoral graduate of the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, and a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast. In addition to teaching and writing, he is vice president of the non-profit Writers @ Work, an avid skier, and vocalist for the loud-music project Crisis in Consciousness.
* * *
By Anthony Kane
I recognized the solitary figure at the bar. He had been at the wake a few hours earlier. I had never seen him before, figuring he was some distant relative of the Tolberts. Then again, he didn’t really talk to anyone if I remember correctly. Perhaps he was a friend. Chuck hadn’t lived in town for almost thirty years. There were bound to be people from out of town coming in.
Perhaps he was a former teammate. He was blocky, sturdy, like something out of stone. On his granite torso sat a square head, the shape clearly influenced by his flat-top haircut. A light neatly trimmed mustache accentuated his square jaw. He wore a gray sport coat over his broad shoulders. Pale brown chinos covered his trunk-like legs. The appearance was one of straight lines and right angles. His shoes were shimmering, pristine like they were lacquered. He was built like a lineman. Possibly he was one of those guards pulling in front of Chuck, protecting him while he shattered the Naval Academy record books and became an All-American halfback. He certainly looked the part.
I took my glass and occupied the empty seat next to him. He gave me a quick, cursory glance and slid his elbow over to give me more room. We sat taking sips of the crisp, refreshing beers in front of us.
“Friend or family?” he asked, extending a hand in my direction. I extended mine and it became swallowed up in his brawny grasp.
“Friend, I guess,” I answered. “I’m Tom Busby. We grew up together. Well, my brothers were in Chuck’s grade. I was a bit younger. Kind of followed them around I guess.”
“Name’s Donaldson,” he answered, letting go. There was a joviality to him that didn’t quite match his imposing stature. He took a sip of his beer and smacked his lips appreciatively. “So, what do you do Busby?”
“I’m a journalist.”
“Anything that I would have seen?” he asked.
Knowing that this was an Annapolis crowd and that Donaldson looked like an Annapolis man, I didn’t feel all that comfortable saying that I worked for a liberal magazine. Normally, I don’t mind being called a muckracker by those who don’t agree with me but if I was lucky, that would be the kindest name this crowd would have.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, taking a drink to gain time to think of a diversion. “So, did you play at Navy?”
“Nah,” he answered. “But I always heard that Chuck was a fantastic football player, mostly from Chuck himself.” He let out a wheezy laugh and continued. “Always told of how he single handedly beat Notre Dame back in whenever it was. Always ended by saying they haven’t beaten those damn Catholics since.” He laughed again and one of his immense hands locked onto my shoulder. This feeling of solidarity between us had snuck up on me. “No, we worked together for years.”
From what I had been able to piece together from my brother and a couple of Tolbert relatives, Chuck has spent quite a bit of time in Central and South America over the years, working for a series of corporations, a few names but the details unknown to just about everyone I asked.
“I know Chuck worked for ITT for while. Were you there with him?”
“It was a bit more complicated than that Busby,” he said turning towards me. I could now tell that he had more than a few drinks, his face flushed and waxy.
“I’ll let you know but I probably shouldn’t,” he garbled into my ear. “ITT was only a front. Me and Chuck were CIA. We were down there helping to overthrow that commie in Chile, Allende, back in ’73. In fact, we were all over. El Salvador, Nicaragua. Fightin’ the good fight. Keeping the Reds out of our backyard.” He flashed a drunken smile and tapped his index finger to his forehead, as if he had outsmarted us all.
“Is that true?
“Yep. Chuck Tolbert is an All-American hero. Write a story about that.”
Donaldson removed the hand from my shoulder and slapped me hard on the back. The force of it propelled me into the bar and the remnants of my glass spilled and quickly ran down to the floor.
“Write a story about that,” he repeated putting on his coat on his way towards the door. Upon opening it, the stiff January breeze hit him. For a moment he was stunned, then righted himself, and staggered off into the light coating of snow until the streetlamps on the square no longer found him.
Anthony Kane was born and raised in Binghamton, New York, where his fondness for the Northeast often shows in his work. He received a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. His work has previously appeared in Corvus Review. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.
* * *
English as a Second Language
By Gary Lester
At 21, Wi Xi was admired for her quick wit and contagious smile. First in her class, and annually exceeding her parents’ academic expectations (as well as her own), she had unshakable confidence in everything she did. Her brother maintained that she was too self-assured, even smug. But this trait had supported her in getting to where she was on her life’s path. She had landed a prestigious scholarship to study international banking in the US at the University of Texas, Austin campus, where she was enrolled in Finance, Accounting, World History (a humanities course not required for her degree), and English for non-native speakers. Having two parents that learned English when they lived as graduate students in London, and who spoke the language at home, and who expected all their children to be fluent in it, she moved easily between the Queen’s English and Chinese, the language of her birth country. She excelled at languages, and had dabbled in French and Portuguese as well. An international banker must be versatile! With reference to the English class, she deemed herself “above it”, but resigned herself to the “easy A”. After all, she was the person her friends came to for translation of English words and interpretation of rules of grammar. She did not share with these people the fact that she was on the roster of such a beginner’s class, however. This was the US, after all, and this was not her native language, and there were rules, however absurd, that had to be followed.
College life was smooth-sailing, and Austin was an exciting city. It had a reputation of being a music town. Jazz, country-western, pop, and more; all were nearby. Depending on her mood, she could sip the jazz, swig the country-western, or slug the pop. She could satisfy her thirst with the genre that pleased her. Wi loved the diversity of the music, and could be found frequently in the clubs, with or without accompanying friends. Her slightly rounded porcelain face featured pronounced almond eyes and cinnabar lips, and invited much attention from young men. Her svelte figure drew potential dance partners even closer. Her smile and grasp of English often rewarded her with free drinks from bar patrons and pleasurable evenings.
One night found her without a friend in tow. She had been wowed by progressive country. It wasn’t easy to understand the songs, though she focused her attention on each syllable. The English spoken by people of Austin was a challenge! Was this English? They held their vowels, and supplemented syllables. Five dollars became fi-iv doll-erz. Nothing had prepared her for this!
She absorbed the rhythms until it was time for her to return home. It was Thursday, and tomorrow would be another day of early class. She scaled her neighborhood until she slowed to catch her breath. It was early in the evening, and laborers from nearby docks were turtling home to crimson brick dwellings saturated with their kids guzzling post-school periods. Open doors and windows spilled laughter and pot roast odors. As she passed a slight bungalow with avocado trim, the side door flung open and a corpulent woman clutching her robed midsection and fixated on the house across the drive bellowed over her shoulder “Gotta run; got loose bowels!”
Wi was baffled. “Loose vowels? I don’t know that phrase!”
Her smile did not return until next morning during English class.
Louisiana native, Gary Lester, is a good egg, who spent his career as a biologist in that state. He currently lives in Seattle, where he spends his time reading, writing, and riding his bike. His travels have taken him to 50 states and 26 countries, providing fodder for his stories.
* * *
For Sale, Baby Never Used
By Will Sadleir
A young woman was walking past a clothing store in a mall when something in the window display caught her eye. She did a double take. “It can’t be!” she thought, and walked up to the display to make sure she was not mistaken. Sure enough, among the stylish blouses and leather bags, there it was – a baby! Not a mannequin, but an actual baby. A living human baby. “I don’t believe it!” she exclaimed, looking down at the child. The baby smiled at her and kicked its chubby, little legs with excitement. It was dressed in a red and white baby romper, and on its head was a green beanie embroidered with a tulip. Fresh paint on the store window touted: “A woman’s outfit is not complete without a fashionably dressed baby in her arms.” The young woman looked down at her empty hands. On the baby’s sleeve was a price tag: $79.00. “That’s not much for a baby,” she thought. A man walked up to see what had caught the young woman’s eye.
“It’s a baby!” the young woman said.
“Where did it come from?” the man asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s its birth certificate?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“Ha!” the man smirked. “You can’t buy a baby if you don’t know where it comes from!” and he continued on his way incredulously shaking his head.
A couple holding hands approached the window. “Look how fat it is!” the boyfriend remarked, looking down at the baby’s plump, pink flesh. The girlfriend cast him a disapproving glance. “Well, errr, I mean, not fat, but, uhhh, pudgy!” he sputtered. “Well no, not pudgy, exactly, but, uhhh, pretty! Yes! Look how pretty it is!” he finally concluded.
By now a crowd was beginning to form around the window display and the curious shoppers discussed the mysterious baby for sale. “Who’s its mother?” one person asked. “Does it go with denim?” another shouted. One woman nodded toward the advertisement and commented to her friend: “They’re reinforcing traditional gender roles! It should say, ‘A person’s outfit is not complete without a fashionably dressed baby in his or her arms!’”
A small boy, not much older than ten, wiggled his way to the front of the crowd and plastered his face against the window. He banged on the glass with his fists. “Do something!” he screamed. The baby lay still, looking inquisitively at the boy. “Do something, baby! Move!” He banged on the glass again. Frustrated by the baby’s inactivity, the boy grunted and navigated his way back out of the crowd.
“Of course they’re selling a white baby!” a bearded man scoffed. He shouted indignantly into the store at no one in particular: “You know, there are more Chinese babies in the world than all other babies combined!” He was not sure whether that was true, but it sounded right.
A wife asked her husband whether he wanted to buy the baby. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied, “I have never bought a baby before, and I don’t plan to start now.”
“Well, I think I am going to buy it!” the wife said playfully.
“And I am going to do everything in my power to oppose that!” the husband laughed, snatching the wife’s purse away from her.
Five men in blazers with matching pins stood on their toes at the back of the crowd. “Baby for sale?” one of the men said curiously. “I wouldn’t risk buying a baby without a satisfactory warranty,” another one snorted. “Oh yes, absolutely,” the other four heartily concurred, “You mustn’t buy a baby without a satisfactory warranty!”
“What’s the warranty on that baby?” one of the men yelled into the crowd. Nobody responded. “I say! Does anybody know the warranty on that baby?” another one cried. Still, nobody answered. “Hmm! Too risky without a proper warranty,” the five men simultaneously concluded, and departed for the Chick-fil-A in the food court.
Just then a store employee picked up the baby. The boisterous crowd fell silent. She tore the price tag from its sleeve and brought it along with the baby to the sales counter. In unison, the crowd shifted to the store entrance to get a view of the patron who was buying the baby. A frail woman with knotty fingers, a beige raincoat, and a Burberry scarf stood at the counter: “My granddaughter will just love this,” she said. “Oh, could you gift-wrap it for me, please? It’s a birthday present and I don’t wrap as well as I used to.” The employee sheared a long sheet of sparkling, silver paper off a roll and placed it on the counter. She adjusted the baby squarely on it, and with a few neat folds and a little tape, the child was smartly wrapped. She arranged a bow on top and handed the gift to the old woman, who then placed it securely in her shopping bag.
The old woman walked out of the store, passing the young woman who had first noticed the baby and who also happened to be wearing a Burberry scarf. “Oh! Look!” the old woman exclaimed, pointing to the young woman’s patterned fabric, “We’re twins!” She chuckled and continued through the crowd with her shopping bag in hand.
Will Sadleir lives in Seattle, WA. He is a trained linguist and lawyer.
* * *
By Maria Shanina
For the second morning Anny was trying to get away from a traditional buy-buy kiss, but her husband was opening and closing the doors of the wardrobe so frantically that she had to stop pretending. Trying to look smiley and sleepy, Anny shuffled into the corridor where George was lacing his shoes. When George stood up, Anny shuddered. Strong sweaty smell struck her nostrils. George moved to her and closed his eyes, but Anny quickly kissed him on a cheek. A thought of tasting his smelly saliva made her guts burn. Looking uneasy, George moved to the door and went off to work. Not wasting a second, Anny rushed into the bathroom.
Feeling life again, she opened her laptop and typed I can not bear the smell of my husband into a search bar. She felt relieved as she was not the only woman whose husband made her sick. The Internet advisers were there to help. Change his perfume, bathe together, send him to the dentist, change his diet. All these ideas sounded right, but definitely could not work in Anny's case. Every hair, every millimeter of George's skin was exhaling poison.
But Anny was a good wife.
“Georgie, why don't we have a hot bath together? It's ready waiting.”
It was not difficult to seduce George for a bath. He quickly took off his office suit and jumped into bubbly flavorful water. Anny yelped.
“You hurt, honey?”
“It's water. Too hot. Sensitive skin, you know. I'll wait in bed.”
Anny took cover under a thick blanket. She pinched her hand, then squeezed the skin harder. She tried to reach the level of pain a soft touch of her husband had given her. No result.
In several minutes George found his wife sleeping. He wished her good dreams and with a minute hesitation added that the next day he was flying on a two-day trip to the capital. The rest of the night he was peacefully snoring, while Anny was secretly crying. She was addressing thankful tears to all the gods she could remember.
George always took an early flight to the capital and never woke Anny up when leaving on business. It was sunny outdoors when she opened her eyes to the warm September day. Anny took a shower, put on the coziest onesie and went into the kitchen. She was putting on the kettle when the breaking news startled her. Georgie's usual flight fell. Accident, they said. Nobody survived.
Now she knew what she'd felt. She had smelled the death. The feature death of her husband.
Another wave of nausea. The stink of death came back. Anny screamed, cried, broke the glass vase. She wanted to crush everything in the house. The damn TV-set first. She madly ripped the wire.
Her last thought was that her nostrils'd deceived her. A second ago it was not the death of George she inhaled. It was gas.
Maria Shanina is a literary translator and a university lecturer from Russia, who is really fond of reading and writing short fiction.
* * *
Real Realism: An Art Manifesto for the Disenchanted
By Mark Blickley
TO THE PUBLIC:
In this 150th year celebration of Civil War’s end while presently in the era of Post Minimalism, Neo-Plasticism, Transavanguardism Stuckism, Cynical Realism, Neo-Geoism, Remodelism, Transhumanism, Hyperealism, Neo Expressionism and Maximalism, WE DEMAND conspicuous ethereal and raw depictions of emotion linked to a hard humanity through voyeuristic flashes that glimpse intoxicating reveries celebrating gratified indulgence and vulnerability in a dream archeology of symbolic imagery and concrete observations that define unfilled yearnings for wholeness in the dizzying orbit of eternal circles that allows a view of life at every possible angle.
Before the disembodied slapping of tweets that have nothing to do with song, a demand for contact with absentees using letters of recommendation, condemnation and reconciliation,
Before a muddy mixture of colors, referee between bright and sallow by shunning standardized tests through greater reliance on sense of smell,
Before denying energy transformation renders sound waves eternal, make gasping sounds that swallow silence, thus mocking it’s very definition,
Before drawing conclusions or any other expressive form of scratching, first identify the itch by observing hand movements that unify a dualistic mind and body,
Before perverting a sense of beauty with ironic disdain, supplement medication and meditation with somersaults in the nude,
Before fading into despair over non-incubated ideas, ignite creative experimentation by doing unusual things with eggs.
WE THEREFORE PROCLAIM
Real Realism reinforces the premise that everything transitory is merely a smile. All that we see is a proposal, a possibility, an expedient. The real truth, to begin with, remains invisible beneath the surface. The colors that captivate us are not lighting, but light as the graphic universe consists of light and shadow. The diffused clarity of slightly overcast weather is richer in phenomena than a sunny day where simple motion strikes us as banal.
Real Realism acknowledges yesterday and tomorrow is simultaneous. We obliterate this time element by a retrograde motion that would penetrate consciousness, reassuring us that a renaissance might still be thinkable. This conviction is already and always present.
Real Realism tracks the evolving, living alteration of a higher aesthetic based on nature. For what could be more natural than the transformative decay of time crystalized into the present?
Real Realism dramatically echoes a suffocating nightmare that forces one to battle through visible layers of chaos and isolation, creating slews of ethereal night watchers on the cusp of a mortal dawn.
Real Realism is convinced that all indications support that the demonic melts with the celestial. This dualism will not be treated as such, but in its complimentary oneness, for truth asks that all elements be presented at once.
Real Realists join philosophy, psychology and theology in the universal quest for an understanding of dualism’s relationship to humankind. Humankind, the kinds of humans we console and confide, avoid and attract, intimidate and inspire, love and loathe, support and suspect, pardon and punish.
Through Real Realism, the conceptual becomes visual, a vision not rooted in perceived differences as much the connective links that will enable a prostitute to sell her body for money and then offer it gratis as an artist model for life drawing classes, or a tough prison guard, working the roughest penitentiary in New York City, devoting his free time to sing in a classical chorus that releases the beauty of Mozart, Handel and Britten to the public.
Above all, Real Realism is about human beings living a twofold existence, whose key word is fold. Dictionaries define fold as entwine. And this is the purpose of this manifesto--- to offer up an attempt at understanding how contrary, conflicting behaviors and actions often entwine via invisible threads of experience and conscience that wrap us all in a shrouded swaddling that simultaneously echoes and muffles artistic exploration and expression.
THAT IS ITS FUNCTION
Mark Blickley is a widely published author of fiction, nonfiction and drama. His most recent book is Sacred Misfits (Red Hen Press). His new play, Beauty Knows No Pain, opens in November at NYC's 13th Street Repertory Theater. He is a proud member of the Dramatist Guild and PEN American Center.
* * *
The Old Man's Morning Ritual
By Francis DiClemente
The old man leaves his nursing home in the grayness of early morning, walking up the steep incline of South Crouse Avenue in Syracuse, New York, as a stiff wind smacks him in the face. He swings his right arm out to the side—pumping it in rhythm—almost as if he is matching the beat of a marching band playing in his head. He has gray-black hair, balding in the front, and he wears a light blue jacket, tan pants, and gray sneakers.
I often see him sitting on the steps outside Bruegger’s Bagels near Marshall Street, sipping a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, a blank expression pressed to his face. What does he think about as he sits there and watches the world rush by? What goes through his mind as he observes college students chattering in groups, nurses starting or ending their shifts, and cab drivers pulling over to the curb to pick up or drop off a fare or grab a quick cup coffee?
Despite his age the man asserts his independence as he escapes the white walls and the fetid smells of the nursing home. Each day he goes to Bruegger’s his creaky legs carry him up the hill and his lungs circulate oxygen. He remains alive, connected to the outside world as he savors the simple pleasure of a drinking cup of coffee and a smoking a cigarette in public.
No one seems to notice the man sitting there; he’s a faceless figure taking up space on a crowded street. I see him, recognizing his existence, and I am tempted to stop and talk to him, to find out about his life. But his blank expression dissuades me, as I don’t want to disturb him or cause him to become frightened, thinking that I may want something from him.
No, I do not say a word to the man. But I preserve his image in my mind, recording
his likeness in detail. I do this because I think he foreshadows my existence 20 to 25
years from now, if I am not already dead.
If I am still able to walk then, I hope to mimic the old man’s movements, making an attempt to cling to a normal life despite being confined to a nursing home. I too will leave my bed in the morning, walk to a coffee shop nearby, grab a cup coffee or a bagel, and then sit down somewhere and say to the world, or only to myself, “It’s another day and I’m still here.”
Francis DiClemente is a video producer and freelance writer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of three poetry chapbooks, In Pursuit of Infinity (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Vestiges (Alabaster Leaves Publishing, 2012) and Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010). His blog can be found here. He’s on Twitter @FranDiClem.
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By Rick Hartwell
I feel the hurt of my 3 a.m. son, with a cracked voice and tears scoring his cheeks.
“No. There’s nothing wrong,” in response to her as I awake, and which quickly turns to dust in his mouth and bitterness towards his questioner. He knows, she knows, I know, that his mother only wants to succor him, to hold him close against her breasts again and shield him from the harm and hurt and hunger of the world.
His appetites, like the appetites of all young men turning old, are un-sated and seemingly un-satiable. How can he possibly answer his mother? How can you describe or satisfy a craving when you don’t even know what it is you want, desire, or need. It is ridiculous to ask him “What’s the matter?” as if a single declarative could answer that question.
“Nothing,” he responds. Everything? No thing? All things? Who’s to say? She might as well ask the cats why they sharpen their paws on the furniture; they’ve all been de-clawed.
However, his mother continues to be the catch basin for his sorrows. She is awake at all hours, alerted to his tears and frustrations. She has filled this role for years, but has never overflowed, never been sated by his pains, whether from the bumps and bruises of youth or from the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Now there’s an interesting conundrum: when does adolescence end? Eighteen? Twenty-five? Forty? Ever? As for me, I’m still waiting. I still have the 3 a.m. tears, but the reasons are skewed to the left or right and somehow don’t seem quite so immediate as those of my youngest son.
He can’t explain his tears, but that makes them no less real. Images from a faded nightmare still repel us from sleep no less urgently because of their furred and fuzzy edges. A blunt knife is often quicker to slip and stab than one honed to sharpness, whetted, and known to the entire household. Justin’s needs and desires are unfocused, diluted, like the blood oozing from a cut and held under the faucet seems to spread quicker and faster with an urgency that belies how superficial the wound might be. His bleeding heart and soul are sliced just deep enough for pain and mess, but not so deeply as to require the stitches of his mother’s love; not this time; not yet. Those needs will probably come with his own family, and loss, or indirection of his life, when he needs and seeks the help no one can give him because he is no longer the child from whom the pain may be taken, transferred to the mother, empathically distributed to others; borne by the older generation, knowledgeable that survival will occur. No. His childhood is not over, but is ending; and the cistern of his sorrows is emptied into his mother, in the shadows, in the dark, at 3 a.m.
And then he is gone once more as I hear the front door close behind him.
Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school (remember the hormonally-challenged?) English teacher living in Southern California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his "druthers," if he's not writing, Rick would rather be still tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon.
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Prelude in C
By Alice Lowe
Every morning—after my fresh-squeezed orange juice and vitamins, two cups of coffee, toast and fruit; after I finish the Sudoku and the Times crossword puzzle, my limbering-up exercises and five-mile power walk—I enter my study, full of energy, ready to get to work. And there I’m confronted by alluring alternatives that vie, like jealous siblings or American Idol contestants, for my time, energy and devotion.
My workroom is a cheerful alcove with windows on three sides that juts out from the back of the house. My desk—a prized relic given to me by a friend whose father built it for her when she was in high school forty years ago—sits on the right under a west-facing window. Beside it are sliding-glass doors that open onto a sunny deck filled with potted succulents and ringed by rangy palms and eucalyptus in the adjacent canyon. My laptop computer perches in the corner of the desk. Papers, files and books are nested around it, everything at arm’s reach as I settle into my wheeled cherry-red Ikea chair. My eyes drift up to a cloudless sky. Crows bicker and finches twitter in the eucalyptus branches. I flex my long, supple fingers, line them up at their designated stations on the keyboard, and will them into action. Sometimes they seem autonomous, and I look on in wonder as they combine letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Other times we’re united in creative struggle.
My piano is an artifact that goes back forty year too. A hundred of these small spinets were produced each year by a local music store for a children’s piano festival. After group lessons and practice sessions, two hundred children—four hands to a piano—would bang away in near-unison on an outdoor stage, their proud families cheering in the stands. The store would then sell—marked way down—the seldom if not gently used instruments. I had played in the festival in my youth, so it was a joyful day when my eight-year-old daughter participated. I bought one of the pianos to encourage her continued artistry, but her interest peaked and plummeted in a short space of time. Now the piano occupies the east-facing opposite wall from my desk. Sheet music crowds the music stand, and framed family photos—my daughter and grandson, myself at age ten in my first solo piano recital—sit on top. The morning sun streams in through a high window as I sit down and scoot the bench up close to the keyboard. I stretch out my nimble fingers, spanning over two octaves. I take a deep breath, narrow my eyes, and focus on the loose pages in front of me. Bach's Prelude in C. I wait for my hands to translate the obscure hieroglyphics into music, to bypass my brain’s painful efforts at comprehension.
Words and music, a sublime pairing. I thought these two pleasurable pursuits would complement each other, but it hasn’t happened that way. You’ve heard of the rack, that archaic torture device that pulls its victim in two directions at once? That’s how it feels. It never occurred to me that they would oppose one another, yet that's what has happened. Literally. When I write, my back is to the piano. When I play the piano, my back is to the desk.
As a child I was accomplished in both. I wrote poems and stories, had columns with my byline in both school and community newspapers. I thought I would become a journalist . . . or a pianist! I played in concerts and competitions, basked in family praise and public accolades. My future looked promising until, as a rebellious teenager, I succumbed to hormones. Temporary insanity. I abandoned non-required writing and quit piano lessons, closing the lid resoundingly on the potential of both paths. “You’ll regret it,” my parents and teachers said. Of course they were right, but nothing could have changed my mind or prevented my mutiny.
As an adult, having seen the error of my ways, I tried at various times to recapture both talents—a creative writing class here, piano lessons there—scribbling or plunking to no avail. I wasn’t willing to commit the time and effort needed to get past the initial period of struggle, and I wasn’t able to rediscover the ease or the pleasure of either. Throughout my working life, music and literature were passive pursuits. I read a lot, listened to CDs and attended concerts.
When retirement appeared on the horizon, I thought, Now, at last! Without distractions and with time at my disposal, I would live in harmony with my words and music. Instead it became a contest—dueling banjos, or more accurately, clashing keyboards. I sought equilibrium, a formula that would enable me to balance the two, but I had to concede defeat. Maybe I waited too long; maybe I’m too single-focused, unable to divide my energy. Writing—the more compelling urge—came to dominate my newly-liberated hours.
The piano sits across the room—I still feel its tug, an invisible arm that reaches across the room, yanks my collar. I haven’t given up the dream of once again making music; its absence creates a hole in my soul. Now and then I yield to its charms, turn left instead of right when I come into the room. “Bach for Beginners” sits at the ready on the music stand, but I stumble over the simplest passages. My brain and fingers don't speak the same language. Bach deserves better. I close the lid, muffling its rich warm tones. I’ll keep trying until its call becomes more insistent and I’m able to rise to the challenge.
Alice Lowe writes about family, food, Virginia Woolf, and life in San Diego, California and blogs here: Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including: Permafrost, Upstreet, Hippocampus, Switchback, Phoebe, and Foliate Oak in 2011. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal.
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Life Lessons of the Periodic Table
By Levi Andrew Noe
Bryan and I should have decided much earlier on that it was in our best interest and in the interest of the preservation of the world at large to not hang out. Some elements, when combined with other elements just have a way of exploding or corroding or poisoning or causing lesions. It’s the way of nature. Hydrogen, for example, is essential to so many necessities of life, but it’s highly flammable, and when combined with sulfur and oxygen it makes sulfuric acid.
But other elements are just plain nasty alone or merged, like fluorine, mercury, arsenic. I don’t know whether Bryan and I were like the more harmless, inert elements and we just created the wrong kind of reaction, or if we were the toxic elements and we just multiplied our deadly effects. At that time of our lives, in our unstable, highly reactive teens, I would lean toward the latter of the two.
The first strike was a pocketknife to the throat. It was a direct hit, small, pointy end first, but it barely left a scratch on my throat. It wasn’t Bryan that flicked the knife, but he was in the room and I think our rudiments had already started intermingling. Landon had dealt the near fatal wrist flick as he was trying to open a small knife “like they do in the movies”. But Landon and I were just like any other two ignorant, self-destructive elements on the periodic table, licentious but not lethal. Though he had been the one who first introduced me to the lady Mary Jane, and he was in the passenger seat when I broke the axle of my Pontiac Grand Am doing donuts on our lunch break, I don’t think it was his noxious nuances guiding the knife.
The second strike came later on, the same day as the misfired pocketknife. Landon, Bryan and I had a jovial afternoon of violence shooting each other with small balls full of paint, propelled at vicious, stinging speeds. Bryan had a house in a then undeveloped area where there was plenty of open prairie, small ravines and boulders to have a great time playing war games.
The game was done. We wore our welts and bruises with pride. Protective masks were off and we were all ready to call it a day. But not before I got one last shot in. I was walking toward Landon and Bryan from my side of a small growth of trees. I was perhaps a hundred yards away, a very long distance, a distance that most paintballers would not expect to hit even a large target, let alone a bull’s-eye.
I lifted up my gun in jest. I called Bryan’s name from afar. He looked up and I took careless aim and fired. The paintball was not meant to come anywhere near Bryan’s person, perhaps within a few feet at best. Just a final, wisecracking shot we could laugh about later when we recounted all the great plays of the game. But it hit its target. It was so accurate in fact that Billy the Kid would have likened it to shooting a fly right between its wings. Bryan went down.
My little joke, our amusing day, my stomach all went sinking down to the bottom of the Marianas Trench as well. I ran over to Bryan with a feeling of abysmal dread. He was holding his face and groaning in distress. Lance was crouched down next to him asking if he was all right, but getting no response through the moaning and doom in the air. Our parents would never let us play with paintball guns again.
We got Bryan to a hose and helped him wash out his eye. I couldn’t tell if it was blood or paint in his eye. We rinsed it off, it was blood. Bryan’s eye had become a bulging, scarlet orb, a horrific contusion. He couldn’t see through it at all. I almost threw up, thinking that I had blinded him. We took him inside and after he was in somewhat stable condition we confirmed the lie that we would tell his mother. I left in shame and shambles. I couldn’t even take pride in the shot of a lifetime. Bryan’s sight returned later on that same day, but he still has little to no depth perception and probably won’t for life, all from one wicked shot that should never have made its mark.
Bryan and I didn’t consciously choose to not hang out after that, but I think we both understood there was something dangerous about our alliance. We steered clear of close, prolonged contact for a while after that. But a year or so later, after the optical wound had healed, we decided to go up for a day to snowboard. The day went great. No one came to any near death conclusions during our high speed game of tag in the trees. Neither of us broke anything as we risked life and limb jumping 10, 20 high off jumps in the terrain park. Even the rails proved bloodless.
It was on our way back that the third strike struck. Bryan was driving his small Honda Civic. It had snowed earlier in the day, but the sun was shining on our triumphant return home. There was a bit of slush and snow on I-70, but it was nothing we hadn’t driven on a thousand times in Colorado. Bryan was passing people in the left lane at 70 or 75 m.p.h. All of a sudden the car started to turn. I assumed Bryan was just changing lanes. But then the car started to turn more. I looked over at Bryan and his mouth was open in a soundless “Oh shit!” I knew something was wrong. We continued to turn and turn until we were rotated 180 degrees.
We screamed and wailed in unison. The traffic was now coming directly for us like the bulls of Pamplona. Except these bulls were made of metal, filled with combustible liquids and traveling between 60 and 75 m.p.h. We had no time to say our prayers or recount the deeds of our life, both righteous and wicked. There was only time to scream and spin and hope for a quick end.
But the car continued its trajectory and rotated a full 360 degrees. We came crashing into a snow bank on the shoulder and stopped dead in our frictionless tracks. The car stalled, we stepped out like hostages from a plane expecting to have to be towed home. But there was not a mark on the car that we could see. When we got back in after jumping and shouting and praising the names of our numberless gods and guardian angels, the car started with only a hesitant whine. We drove home a bit slower, with a little more reverence for life. We never spent time together one on one again.
I imagine that each of us has a thin thread of life that the Fates hold in their hands and fray or singe or gnaw on continuously until they snap. I don’t know what my thread is made of, or Bryan’s; it’s either some thin, but indestructible metal like Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton or its some rare unearthly silly putty with properties like flubber. Whatever it is that we are composed of, life and near-death showed us that some elements should not be combined.
Levi Andrew Noe was born and raised in Denver, CO. He is a writer, a yogi, an entrepreneur, and an amateur oneironaut. Levi won first prize in 2011 and 2013 in Spirit First’s international poetry competition. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Connotation Press, The Harpoon Review, Five2One Magazine, LitroNY, 101 Words, Twisted Vine, Birdy, River Poets Journal, among others. He is the editor in chief and founder of the podcast Rocky Mountain Revival, Audio Art Journal.
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Photos by Lauren Jonik
Lauren Jonik is a freelance writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. More of her work may be found here.
David Klugman is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Program, and has been a practicing psychoanalyst for the past 25 years. In addition to appearing recently in this journal, his work has appeared in Empty Sink, Postcard Poems and Prose, Black Fox and Crack the Spine.
Pushcart nominee Bruce McRae is a Canadian musician with over 900 poems published internationally, including Poetry.com, Rattle and The North American Review. His first book, ‘The So-Called Sonnets’, is available via Silenced Press and Amazon. To see and hear more poems go to ‘BruceMcRaePoetry’ on YouTube.