Foliate Oak November 2016
On the Beach
By Lewis J. Beilman III
Timmy walked along the beach, along the shoreline where the wet and dry sand met. He kept his eyes on his feet and put one foot slowly before the other, as if he were walking a tightrope. He struggled to place each step exactly where the two sands came together. Occasionally, the foam crept up the sand toward his feet, but it never quite reached them. The tide was moving toward the sea now, and it would be almost twelve hours before the tide would climb up the beach and wash away the remnants of his footsteps.
Timmy stopped as a hermit crab scuttled across the sand in front of him. He looked to his right, toward the water, and saw the screw-like paths of dozens of sand fleas disappearing beneath the retreating waves. He wondered what else lurked beneath the sand, what worlds lived beneath the surface on which he stepped. He knelt and scooped his fingers through the ground-up rocks and shells. The sand sifted through his fingers, and he felt a sand flea squirm upon his palm, its tiny legs kicking in his hand. He held the crab by its shell and smiled before he placed it in the water with the next incoming wave. The balmy July breeze drifted over the sea and dried some of the sweat from his skin.
“John,” Timmy heard a man shout behind him. The voice mixed with the seagulls’ cries above. He turned around and spotted a man looking at him. The man had his hand raised over his eyes to block the morning sunlight. The man lowered his hand and walked toward Timmy.
Timmy looked side to side. “I’m not John,” he said.
The man continued walking toward him. At first, Timmy avoided his eyes. As the man got within a few steps of him, he stopped. The man smiled and his teeth shone white in the sun. Lines creased his sunburned cheeks, and crows’ feet made tiny arrows toward his eyes. His eyes searched Timmy’s features from behind a pair of glasses. At last, Timmy looked into the man’s eyes. They were deep blue. They looked like the dead eyes of a shark. As the man’s face quivered, he stared without blinking.
“I thought you were my son,” the man said. “You look just like him.”
Timmy said nothing.
“Maybe you’ve seen him before,” the man said. “He’s out here a lot.” He crouched to bring his face in line with Timmy’s. “It’s amazing how much you two look alike.”
Still, Timmy said nothing. All the while, the man smiled his bright smile.
Timmy did not smile back.
The man held out his hand. “My name’s Ed, but people call me Eddie,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Timmy did not hold out his hand. He looked over the man’s shoulder, back toward the Driftwood Motel where he and his parents were staying. Timmy’s family was on vacation in Florida, and Timmy had snuck out that morning while his parents were still sleeping. He wondered if his parents had woken yet. He looked back at the man and remained silent.
“What’s your name?” the man said without breaking his smile.
Timmy stepped back. He kept his hands tight by his sides.
The man extended his arm even farther. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t bite.”
* * *
The man’s eyes carried Timmy back to a July day from the previous summer. That summer, Timmy had turned seven. A few days after his birthday, his parents had let him spend the night at his friend Mike’s house. He had visited Mike’s house often but had never stayed the night before then.
Mike’s and Timmy’s parents were friends. They often barbecued in one another’s backyards as Mike and Timmy played in plastic pools or threw footballs to each other. The families lived in similar single-story houses, a few blocks apart, on the outskirts of Houston. Their backyards—suburban islands surrounded by pinewood fencing—grew lush grass in the humid summers.
That morning a year ago Mike’s mother had gone to church and left Mike’s father in charge of the two boys. Timmy had thought the day would be like any other summer Sunday—muggy beneath a bright sun, with Mike and him spending hours catching the football before eating lunch at a picnic table on the patio. Timmy remembered being filled with anticipation—the anticipation a child feels when a simple thing like routine play reveals all the wonders the world can offer.
Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary that morning. Mike’s father, whom Timmy knew as Mr. Goodman, had grabbed a football and come up behind the two boys as they were eating breakfast. He slapped them both on their backs, causing cereal and milk to splatter from their mouths onto the table. “Who wants to play some football?” Mr. Goodman said.
Timmy laughed. He liked Mr. Goodman. Mr. Goodman would always ask him how he was doing in school and would spend hours playing games with Mike and him in the family’s backyard. Often, Timmy had wished his own father could be so much fun.
The two boys left their breakfasts on the table, flung open the screen door, and raced into the backyard. Mr. Goodman followed slowly, whistling and tossing the football to himself as he walked across the brick patio onto the grass.
When Mr. Goodman got to the grass, he dropped his shoulders suddenly, snapped the ball to himself, and told Mike to go deep. He lofted the ball high. Timmy raced after Mike, leapt, and swatted the ball away. After that, he and Mike took turns running routes. Mr. Goodman usually threw the ball with a soft touch, and Timmy found it easy to catch his passes. Timmy caught ball after ball that morning and seemed to have Mike’s number.
“Good catch there,” Mr. Goodman said, winking at Timmy as Timmy ran back toward him. “Mike, watch how Timmy pulls the ball in with his hands. That’s how you catch a football.”
Then, after intercepting a pass intended for Mike, Timmy lined up on Mr. Goodman’s right. Mr. Goodman shouted one-two-three hut, and Timmy ran a post. Timmy faked to his right and darted past Mike toward the center of the yard. Mr. Goodman rifled the ball low and Timmy dove to catch it. Timmy floated through the air, his body parallel to the ground, before he caught the ball in his outstretched arms.
“I got it,” Timmy shouted after skidding across the grass. While he held the ball up for Mr. Goodman and Mike to see, he felt a burning sensation on his lower stomach and crotch. He dropped the football and rolled over. The front of his shorts had been pulled down when he had skidded along the ground. He screamed. He had slid over a fire-ant mound, and he saw a small sea of red racing across his stomach and into his shorts.
Timmy jumped up and pulled his pants down. He tried to brush the ants off his stomach, penis, and scrotum. He was crying from the stinging between his legs.
Mr. Goodman and Mike rushed toward him. Mr. Goodman told Mike he would take Timmy inside. He scooped Timmy up, cradling Timmy’s legs in the crook of his right arm and holding Timmy’s back with his left arm. He carried Timmy through the screen door and bolted to the bathroom. He set Timmy down in the bathtub and started running the water.
Timmy took his shorts off. As Timmy pushed his groin under the running water and washed the remaining ants down the drain, Mr. Goodman went to the open door, closed it, and turned the lock.
Timmy looked at Mr. Goodman.
Mr. Goodman smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll be all right.” Still smiling, he rubbed his hands and walked toward Timmy.
As Mr. Goodman approached, Timmy kneeled, letting the water flow against his belly button.
Mr. Goodman stopped at the sink, wet his hands, and slicked them with soap. He turned his head toward Timmy. Mr. Goodman’s eyes were cold, expressionless—like a shark’s. He looked Timmy up and down. “Don’t worry,” he said again. “It’ll be all right.”
* * *
Timmy shook off that year-old summer day and found himself once again on the beach staring at the outstretched arm of the stranger before him. He looked briefly into the dead eyes of the man who called himself Eddie. Fearful, Timmy averted his eyes and stared at his own feet. The white, golden, and pink shell-chips between his toes glimmered in the sun. The waves ebbed and flowed behind him. The terns and seagulls left their tiny footprints in the wet sand as they searched for their morning meals. Soon enough, Timmy thought, the waves would creep up the shoreline and wash away the traces of what was now and what was yet to come.
Timmy looked back toward the hotel where his parents were. They couldn’t help him, he thought, not from the comfort of their bed. He saw the scattered strangers walking the beach with blankets and umbrellas in their hands. They would be of no help either, not with children of their own in tow. Even the lifeguard, who sat high on his perch, would linger unaware and stare upon the sea while this was happening. Timmy knew all this to be true.
Still, as if to erase the moment, Timmy turned his back on Eddie. Timmy kneeled down, scooped up a handful of sand, and let the sand trickle through his fingers. The grains fell on the beach slowly, like grains of sand falling in an hourglass. Timmy again felt a tickling in the palm of his hand.
“A sand flea,” Eddie said, bending over Timmy’s back. “You never know what you’ll find when you dig deep enough.”
Timmy felt Eddie’s breath on his right ear.
Eddie stood straight. “Why don’t you come back with me? I really think you and my son would get along.”
Timmy closed his eyes and placed his hand palm-up on the sand. The foam of the next wave washed over it and carried the sand flea into the water. Timmy opened his eyes and held his breath. He knew he must go. He stood and turned to face Eddie.
Eddie held out his hand again.
Timmy placed his hand in Eddie’s. “My name’s Timmy,” he said.
“See, Timmy,” Eddie said. “That wasn’t too bad. I said I didn’t bite.”
Eddie guided Timmy away from a small group of sunbathers through a short path flanked by tufts of sea grass. They then crossed the hot open sand that led to Eddie’s motel. The breeze carried the scent of salt and suntan oil with Timmy as he placed one foot before the other.
Later that night Timmy would return to the beach, to the same spot he had walked that morning, and he would watch the waves lay waste to the footsteps he had made. It would be all right then, he thought. Beneath the shelter of a starry night, everything would be all right.
Lewis J. Beilman III lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his family and two cats. His stories have appeared in ArLiJo, Reed Magazine, Blood Lotus, and other literary publications. In 2009, he won first prize in the Fred R. Shaw Poetry Contest.
* * *
Time and Brevity
By Michael Corrao
Now, I’ve grown older than my mother and father. When we sit and have dinner together, they pull out the chair for me and do the serving. I don’t sleep a lot, so I think that made everything move a little bit faster for me. I remember our birthdays slowly closing in on each other. When I turned ten, they turned thirty-five; when I turned twenty, they turned forty and when I turned thirty they turned forty-two. We met up at forty-five and had coffee together.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” I said. My mother had arranged the date and set the table and made the coffee, so when I arrived I only had to sit down and wait for them. When we talked, they were holding hands—my dad was rubbing his knuckles against the table and my mother was looking at the coffee pot. “I tried to go to bed earlier, but it made me wake up earlier. I thought I just didn’t need as much sleep as everyone else, but I don’t know.”
“You shouldn’t already have bags under your eyes,” dad said.
“It’s because I’m tired.”
“Don’t get out of bed when you wake up, just lay there and wait or close your eyes and take deep breaths or listen to white noise,” mother ran her hand through her hair. Wind pushed against the shades, giving way to pockets of sunlight that formed blotches around the room. I pulled the bowl of sugar cubes close and dropped one into my coffee.
“We’ve tried all of that,” I said.
Dad nodded, “he’s right. What if we can’t do anything about it? Maybe this is just how things are supposed to go for you: they just move a little quicker.” He glanced over at mother—who was glaring at him, “we could send you to a doctor and maybe get you some insomnia medication. It might help slow things down for you. I’m not sure though.” Mother nodded and walked into the other room while we sat and waited, occasionally looking at one another. The breeze pushed a little harder. Dad took out one of the sugar cubes and placed it on his saucer—where he slowly dissected it with his fingernails.
Mother returned with the house phone. She set it down on the table, “what doctor do you go to now? How long has it been?”
“For me? It’s had to be something like a decade or two,” I said.
“How fast are things happening now?” Dad said.
“I don’t know. I think I’ll be fifty-three next year. I just feel it. Everything’s getting sore and weak.” I took a sip out of my coffee. I looked at mother, who was still waiting for me, “I don’t know who my doctor is. Last time I saw one I was still using a pediatrician. I probably just don’t have one now.” She set the phone down and sat back in her seat.
“Why am I so tired?”
“You haven’t been sleeping.”
“I don’t think that’s it though. That’s a part of it, but I feel like if I got a good night’s sleep or even like three or four good night's sleeps in a row, it wouldn’t do anything for me. Like I’m a different kind of tired—maybe that’s why I’m so old now. It’s this kind of deep, resounding tired that I can’t shake off. It’s weird,” I said.
“Maybe you should find a person to spend time with. Go out and meet someone,” mother said. She refilled her coffee. After, the pot went back down onto the table, set on top of the brown ring it’d made. The coffee swayed calmly inside. She dropped two cubes into her cup, which had created its own brown ring around the center of the saucer. “There are a lot of bars around here or you could even do one of those online dating websites.”
“I think dad’s right. I think this is just how things are. Things just move a little faster for me. I hate it and all, but at the same time, I’m kind accustomed to it now. It doesn’t make me angry or any more anxious than I already am.” I finished my coffee and checked my watch. “I have to head out now. Thanks for the coffee; sorry we didn’t really make any progress.”
My mother died in a car accident two years later and I remember sitting at the wake with my father. I was fifty-nine and he was forty-seven. We sat next to each other in folding chairs that the church found in the basement for us. I hated the place. The carpets were all dark red like communion wine—which might’ve been the point—and the walls were tall wood panels. It felt foreboding to sit under the large marble cross and shake people’s hands and smile at them disingenuously.
“Sorry for your loss.”
“She was a good woman, she really was.”
“I’m glad you could make it.”
My dad avoided speaking when he could and we tried not to look at each other unless we had to. The pastor and a couple volunteers had set out a table with crackers and cookies and two liters in the other room, which was nice because it left the two of us alone for the most part. People would walk in, give their condolences and then congregate in the other room.
“I’m so sorry about your mother.”
“Thank you; she was a good one.”
“My condolences. If you ever need to talk to anyone, let me know.”
“I appreciate it.”
A week before, I had to buy a cane because my left leg was getting stiff. I didn’t tell my dad. When I walked into the church with it, he refused to look at it. He kept his eyes on me or the wall. He didn’t acknowledge it and most other people didn’t seem to either. I think they didn’t recognize me for the most part. I’m sure some of them thought I was her mother. Occasionally, when I would look down at the carpeting, I could see the spots where people had spilled the communion wine—where the floor was slightly darker. Blotches coalesced around the front row of pews.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the hospital.”
“It’s alright, I understand.”
“I’m sure she’s up there smiling down right now.”
“Thank you for coming.”
The wake ran for three hours. After the first half, most people were eating cookies and crackers in the other room. Me and my dad were left on our own while stragglers occasionally wandered in and spoke with us. I said: “it feels weird to be here. I had this feeling that I would die before the two of you. I didn’t think I’d ever be in this situation.”
“No one ever wants to be in this situation. I’m sorry you had to.”
“It’s not that. I just didn’t think I would. I thought I would get to avoid it.”
He nodded, rubbing his knuckles against his jeans, ticking his tongue.
A woman named, Jenny was at the wake. We went to high school together. She saw me and said that we should grab dinner sometime. We exchanged numbers then ended up texting for a while. Our plans escalated a little bit throughout the month then they simmered back down. Jenny said we should take a drive upstate for a couple hours.
We ended up in her car. I was in the passenger seat, hugging my cane. She rolled down the windows and turned the radio up. For most of the drive we were singing along to pop songs. My voice was weaker now. I’d let out a horse note when I could manage. She told me I was like Tom Waits and I said that I was probably older than him too by now.
I rested my face against the windowsill and let the wind push against me. Things felt relaxed and calm. Jenny shouted out off-melody lyrics, moving along to her own imaginary cadence. Every now and then she would match the song’s melody and smile.
I was eighty-nine and my father was fifty-two. We were sitting in the living room together. He had gotten rid of the dining room table after mother died. He ate at the coffee table. When I told him I was coming to visit, he had placed one of the old dining room chairs on the other side—in front of the television. He put a large pitcher of ice water on the table and set out the ashtray. I told him how I’d picked up smoking since we last saw one another.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’m doing alright. Things have been quiet around here, which is okay.” He walked into the kitchen and grabbed two cups out of the cabinets. Dad sat back down at the coffee table and poured both of us a glass of water out of the pitcher. “How are things on your end?”
“I’m kind of happy now, because they’re seeming to slow down. Age is starting to creep up on me more than surprise me. I think it’s moved in a kind of arch.”
“That’s good. How’ve you been sleeping?”
“Fine, fine,” I looked past him into the dining room where the sunlight again blotched the room like it had before, throwing the room into mosaic of shades. Droplets began to form around the neck of the water pitcher, building up until they dripped down and formed a ring around the base. Dad rubbed his knuckles against his jeans. I said: “No more or less than usual. I do think though, that things are slowing down as a whole. Not just in terms of my age. I think that I’m kind of at the very end of things, which feel weird. It still feels like you’re my dad—you raised me and all that. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve experienced more than you have. I feel older, but not really parental and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. We’re in a kind of strange, unique situation and I’m not really sure what to do with it.”
“I don’t really know. Are you happy with it?”
“With the situation? I’m not sure what other way it would go. I didn’t get to have a normal life, but I also don’t think I had that strange of a life either. It just kind of moved faster than most other people’s lives do. Whether or not I was happy feels somewhat irrelevant at this point. It doesn’t matter if I was happy. It won’t change things.”
“It’s important to me,” he said.
“Well, I think that I was happy at certain points, but at other points, I don’t think that I was paying attention to it. I remember spending a lot of time on autopilot, which I regret. I was concerned a lot with how fast things were moving.”
Mike Corrao is a current student at the University of Minnesota where he is studying English and Film. He is part of the Art House Collective, and a former artist in residence at Altered Esthetics. His work can be found in magazines such as Eureka, Potluck, and Thrice, as well as the upcoming issues of Cleaver and decomP.
* * *
This Artificial Eternity
By Joe Davies
There was a column of smoke ahead. Curtis could see it clearly enough. He was already past the Simonds-Whitehead turnoff or he would have taken it. It was too late now. When he’d had the chance, when the tail-lights had started coming on ahead of him, his thoughts had been some ways off. Now here he was, stuck.
He’d been thinking about money. Not how there was never enough of it or how quickly it seemed to slip away, but about how reluctant he’d been when younger to earn it, to play the game. All that had changed. He’d bought in and his hands were on the steering wheel of a car which was only partially his. He owed money on it and other things besides and this, he knew, was normal. He’d allowed himself to become indentured. This was what it felt like and what he’d been thinking. About the betrayal of his younger self, the desire not to become trapped.
The traffic stood still.
To his right was a cube van, to his left some old beater, a young man behind the wheel singing his head off. What he sang Curtis couldn’t hear. Curtis had the air-conditioning on and his windows were closed. The young man turned and met Curtis’s gaze and the young man smiled wryly, knowingly, as if it was to be expected. Yes, some people would look. And Curtis did. He held the man’s gaze a moment longer before a horn sounded. A space had opened ahead and Curtis edged forward into it.
His phone rang and he slipped it from his pocket. It was Nora.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“Stuck in traffic. Something’s on fire. Looks like I’ll be a while.”
“No idea. We’re not moving at all. Barely.”
“Where are you?”
“Somewhere between boredom and death.”
“I might go ahead and eat without you.”
“Can you pick up a few things?”
“I’ll try and remember.”
“Milk. Bread. Lettuce? And nine volt batteries. The smoke detector at the top of the stairs keeps chirping. It needs a new battery. Might as well change them all.”
“Let’s have a baby.”
Curtis glanced to his left. There was a different car beside him now, a newer car. In it was a man about Curtis’s age. He was smoking a cigarette and the smoke drifted around the interior of his car in strata before slowly seeping through a window which was open just a crack. The man smoked intently, nodding his head, as if quietly agreeing with himself about something.
“What?” said Curtis, into his phone.
“You heard me.”
“I guess I did.”
“And you’re in shock.”
“I... I have no idea what I am.”
“You must have an idea.”
“Not really. I guess I just wasn’t expecting I’d be thinking about this right now.”
“You’re saying it’s bad timing?”
“I’m saying I wasn’t expecting I’d be thinking about this right now.”
“And you don’t want to.”
“No. It just doesn’t feel like how I... I just wasn’t...”
“It’s okay, Curtis.”
“It’s okay. Hurry home.” And she hung up.
Eleven years earlier he could never have taken such a call. Eleven years ago he had no phone. No phone at all. What had changed? And was it important? Did it really matter that it had been easier to give in? And instead sit here stuck in traffic.
A horn sounded. Again Curtis moved forward.
He looked at the phone still in his hand and wondered if he should call Nora back. He knew the answer to that. But call her back and say what?
He would call. He knew he would. But not yet. He would wait a minute.
To his left now, a trailer with two ATVs, on his right, another car, this with a man just edging past mid-life. Was there a discernable pattern evolving here? Here in stalled traffic? The man had his hand on the wheel and sat perfectly still, but his posture said something about carrying weight. Or did it? Was Curtis making it up? A second look showed the man was slightly hunched, his fingers drumming continually on the wheel. He was anyone, everyone.
Up ahead, the plume of smoke went on with its business, as dark and thick as ever, a looming symbol of too many things.
Curtis sighed and the phone rang. He answered it quickly, knowing it was Nora, but when he said “Hello” there was no one there.
He should call her, he knew he should, but he was reluctant. In a minute a horn would sound and in a minute he would move forward and see an even older man in another car, a man in the twilight of his years, his life nearly over, and there would be no sense of why things had gone so quickly, why there had been the need to stick to the same program as everyone else, to have endlessly funnelled his time and energy into the pockets of others. And for what?
Then in an instant he saw it. A way out. A gap between two cars. An open field. This is how it could be, how it should be. All he needed to do was turn the wheel and apply a little gas and he’d be through. He could see the way. It was open. A field and nothing beyond it that he could make out. A horizon that was unpaved and undetermined.
And there really was a gap. There really was a field. But Curtis didn’t go. Because in the same instant he saw it, nagging reason kicked in and he envisioned what would really happen if he or anyone else turned and tried to speed across that field. The ground was soft and the car would never make it. Before that there was a fence. Before that there was a ditch. And he could picture it, his car, nose down in that ditch, the front end crumpled, steam of some sort escaping from beneath the hood, and someone rushing down the slope to help him out of his predicament, and they would ask as the door was flung open, “Are you all right?” and he would likely answer back, “Yes, I’m fine,” when what was really called for was “No!” said as if the question was the most misguided question ever asked.
So he didn’t turn. And he didn’t go anywhere, except forward a little when the horn sounded behind him. Alongside him now was something else, another car, a small one. Curtis didn’t see who was driving. His attention was drawn to the back seat where there was a ridiculously big dog, panting at the window, steaming it up.
So much for the pattern, thought Curtis, and the thought came with a peculiar sense of let down. Not only were his dreams undoable, but reality was as it always is, unreadable.
His phone rang.
“I’m sorry,” said Nora’s voice before it was cut off, the call abruptly cancelled for some reason. When the phone rang again, once more there was no one there.
Why had he given in? He couldn’t seem to remember now. It had been incremental, hadn’t it? A small gain in comfort here. A small luxury there. And he was hooked. It had just been easier to go along. To stop trying to figure out how it to make it work without a bank account, without a steady pay cheque, and finally live in a place with a shower that worked.
“God,” said Curtis, out loud, and he laughed at himself.
“God,” he said again, only this time more quietly.
Maybe that’s who it would be next time the phone rang. A booming voice he didn’t recognize, deus ex machina with an offer of divine assistance. A small miracle. The voice would say, “Just look straight ahead, Curtis, keep looking ahead, and I will part the waters. Doors will slide open and you will drive through. On the other side, unencumbered, doom-free years of clear sailing await.”
It had him smiling. The feeling stayed with him a while. Then the horn sounded and he opened his eyes, which he hadn’t realized were closed, and he saw the space ahead of him and moved forward.
And the phone did ring a little later, and as he reached to answer it, Curtis caught himself briefly wondering who it might be.
It was a text message. It read: “Looking to consolidate your loans? We can help ...” While somewhere down the road, whatever was burning, continued to send smoke far up into the sky.
About the author: Joe Davies' short fiction has appeared in Queen's Quarterly, The Missouri Review, Exile, Grain, Descant, Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, Crannog, eFiction India, The Manchester Review, Prism International, The New Quarterly and many other literary magazines. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
* * *
By Robert Fromberg
Yesterday, my son asked if I would buy him a larger bowl. “For the way I eat, I need a little more space,” is the way he phrased it, which was nice, I thought, putting the responsibility on himself. A few weeks before, he had asked me to buy him a larger cup, and that time his tone had been a little sharper, had carried a hint of “what’s with you and these tiny cups?”
I own three plates, three bowls, and three cups. I found them at a local resale shop. Not only could I buy them individually rather than in a set, not only did they have the same floral border as the plates of my Lawrence Welk-loving great aunts in Brooklyn, but also and most important, they were small.
With a small plate or bowl or cup, eating or drinking never becomes rote. You don’t tire of your meal. Your thoughts never drift to where you might be able to find a replacement for the shaver power cord that you lost when moving. Within a small container, each experience is still and perfect—like a soap bubble poised in the air.
My mother taught me the drawbacks of medium size. Her example was a sculpture created by a family friend. The friend was a thin, dark-haired woman who came to our rare parties to welcome visiting artists. After my mother died, I got a letter from someone who had attended one of those parties. She told me how impressed she was that my mother was so dedicated to her art that she remained in her studio painting while everyone else drank and chatted.
The sculpture sat in a plaza at the local university. My mother told me that if the sculpture were small or huge, it might work, but as it was, medium sized, it wasn’t much of anything. Mom was right: The sculpture was swallowed by its surroundings. Over the years, however, I felt bad for the family friend whose work served as this lesson in aesthetics. Wasn’t the situation with this piece of sculpture simply the reverse of the couch looking small in the showroom but huge in your living room? That can happen to anyone.
I take my son’s point. Small can pose problems.
You have to be extra careful not to spill when walking from the kitchen to the dining room.
I had to stop ordering a kid’s meal when I was no longer accompanied by a child.
A bartender, his professional friendliness fraying, once told me, “Someday I am going to get you to order a full beer.”
After Starbucks stopped offering a size they called short, I continued to order that size, and although most of the baristas would glance furtively from side to side and then produce the verboten cup, eventually I stopped asking. I didn't want to create that kind anxiety for someone having to make ends meet as a barista.
And then there was the episode of Batman in which Batman and Robin were trapped in a cave whose walls were closing in. Watching that episode, I clung to the intellectual conviction that Batman and Robin would never die on their own TV show. Convinced as I was of that fact, it was nevertheless unclear to me, watching the cave get smaller and smaller, watching Batman and Robin push against the walls first with their hands and then their legs, how they would survive.
In graduate school, a professor told me it was a miracle every time I wrote a story. I fully recognize that the phrase “it was a miracle” can be taken two ways: “It was a miracle when Jesus turned water into wine” versus “it was a miracle when the man next to me on the airplane finally stopped talking.” This was somewhere in the middle. According to the professor, the reason it was a miracle when I wrote a story was because of all I disallowed.
That was a fair assessment. It’s true that I allowed only a few things into my stories. They were my stories, so I felt I had a right to be selective. Also, I had no choice.
When I was four, my parents, my two brothers, and I went to live in New York City for a year while my father was on sabbatical. We lived in an apartment building on East 88th Street. Inside the street door were two columns of buttons, a name beside each. Towering columns of buttons. I could reach only the bottom few rows, but our apartment’s button was toward the top, or so I was told, because I didn’t know how to read and so couldn’t tell our button from any of the others.
My father, with his lovely combination of warmth and pragmatism, put a small wooden folding stool with a red seat in the vestibule so I could reach the button, and he painted our button red so I could identify it. All this so that I would not be trapped downstairs when I wanted to come home—trapped in the dark vestibule covered in a thousand layers of deep green paint and dirty in the way that only New York City vestibules are dirty.
I loved that stool. I loved the rich shade of red he used for the button. But in hindsight I would like to know what in the hell my parents were thinking letting a four-year-old wander around New York City by himself. I mean, I’m glad my dad didn’t want me trapped outside, but an alternative would have been to not let me go out by myself until I had reached, oh, maybe six.
Still, using the red stool and reaching up to push the red button made me feel like a superhero. (I believe it was the year before that I often wore a red cape.)
Then one day, the stool was gone. (It was New York, after all.) I looked at the columns of buttons. The red one was as high as the top of a skyscraper. The vestibule seemed darker than usual.
I felt myself reaching up. Each button looked so dark and inviting and perfect. I pushed one.
A woman’s “hello” came through the speaker.
“Hello,” I said. “I am a little boy. I live in this building. I’m too small to reach my button. Can you help me?”
I heard a buzz, and I pushed the door. As I entered the elevator, I understood that I no longer needed a red stool and I no longer needed a red button, the color of which was already fading.
My social media feed is full of comments about New York not being as good as it was in the 1960s or 1970s. I agree, but what can you do? That era is over, and why would you want to walk around the streets of a glorious city like New York feeling only loss?
In my mother’s paintings, silhouetted figures are just barely not overwhelmed by simple surroundings: a vegetable display in a grocery store, a delivery truck, a newspaper headline. The paintings are toweringly confident expressions of an artist in full command of proportion.
Of the thousands of things I’ve written, I am most proud of this: “The article is attached. I look forward to your comments.”
It's easy to take a good picture of the sky.
I just Googled the family-friend sculptor and was surprised to discover she is still alive. She recently donated 19 of her works to the city where my family once lived and she still does.
Robert Fromberg recently resumed fiction writing after a two-decade pause. His work has appeared in Indiana Review, Bellingham Review, Tennessee Quarterly, and many other magazines. He taught fiction writing part-time for 17 years at Northwestern University. A short book of his, Blue Skies, was issued by Floating Island Publications.
* * *
By J.D. Hager
“What’s the count now?”
“Nine,” said the boy. Like everything in the boy’s life, his bear sightings turned into a count. His counts were compulsion and obsession. He had hundreds going at any one time, quantifying and cataloguing his adventures through life. When people asked him why he counted the boy didn’t have an answer. The counts just made him feel better. The count was nine bears and he could picture them all.
Dad piled wood for a campfire because campfires were an important part of camping. Also, s’mores were promised. Dad leaned in to put the finishing touches on a teepee built with thirty-seven sticks of varying sizes.
Uncle Terry watched with a can of beer in his hand. Uncle Terry and his girlfriend drove up from L.A. They were at the campsite when Dad and the boy returned from their day of counting things in Yosemite Valley. The boy was supposed to call the girlfriend Aunt Nancy even though she wasn’t his aunt.
“You sure you know what you’re doing?” Uncle Terry asked.
“The teepee is the most efficient way to start a fire,” Dad said.
“I would have gone with a log cabin myself.”
“Who is the Eagle Scout here?”
“You always bring that up.”
“That’s what they call bragging rights.”
Uncle Terry drank down the rest of his beer and crushed the can in his hand. He didn’t like bragging rights.
Dad and Uncle Terry were identical twins. They were so identical people often got them confused, but the boy could always tell the difference. Uncle Terry looked a little more worn out, his beard shabbier, his shoulders slouched, his belly sticking out an inch or two further. Even though Uncle Terry was younger he looked older, like he had lived his life at an accelerated pace. Dad and Uncle Terry both liked to argue, and while Dad would get angry, Uncle Terry always got angrier.
After the fire got going the four campers sat around on lawn chairs and a cooler, staring at the hypnotic twinkle of the flames. Nobody said anything important, and the counts were all the boy remembered. One hot chocolate. Two Pepsis. Six marshmallows. Three s’mores. Fifteen logs placed on the fire. Twenty-nine swear words. Ten beers for Uncle Terry. Six beers and one coffee for Dad. Four coffee cups of wine for Aunt Nancy, poured from a box on the picnic table. Three times Dad told the boy it was past his bedtime.
The boy planned to sleep solo this trip, to avoid counting snores with Dad. But his little cub scout tent didn’t feel so safe in the bear-filled dark of the forest. The boy climbed in and burrowed as deep as he could into his too small sleeping bag, riding a sugar high yet utterly exhausted. Squeezed into that bag the boy felt like a perfect bear-sized biscuit, and he couldn’t even close his eyes. He watched shadows from the campfire dance on the walls of his tent and recounted all nine hungry bears as they danced from the woods into his mind. Number one crossing the road, number two sniffing a trash can, numbers three, four, and five (a mother and two cubs) drinking water at the edge of the Merced River. Then six and seven, two more bears at the river, and number eight dead on the side of the road, flat and buzzing with flies. Even though the dead one counted as a bear, it probably couldn’t count as hungry. And then number nine, a scraggly looking bear sniffing at the dumpster in the campsite. Number nine looked extra hungry.
Then noises right outside his tent, banging and clanging and hollering. Ten years old and alone in a tent, the boy expected to hear loud, scary sounds. But hearing such noises so close produced an new level of concern. Every muscle in his ten-year-old body clenched, and his eyes squeezed so hard he saw stars.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do, make lots of noise. It scares them away.”
“Yeah, but a mother bear? You’re lucky she didn’t kill you.”
“Damned thing was on the hood of my Corvette. No one messes with my Stingray, no one.”
“That stupid car,” Dad said.
As they spoke, a sad, wailing noise kept winding down and revving up again, seventeen times, a painful siren destroying the quiet. Eighteen times. Nineteen. Curiosity, and knowing Dad was on scene, drew the boy out of his sleeping-bag-death-crouch.
Emerging from his tent the boy could see only one beam of light, pointing up a tree in the center of their camp. The beam floated in the darkness all by itself, reminding the boy of a giant light saber. The boy followed the beam up and saw bear number ten, a tiny cub, latched on to the tree at a dizzying height.
“What the hell, Terry, did you hit it?” The flashlight beam shifted and illuminated Aunt Nancy’s squinting face, floating in the darkness. Uncle Terry and Aunt Nancy drank and yelled and didn’t seem to like each other, which reminded the boy of his parents before. After the divorce his parents didn’t argue anymore because they didn’t talk to each other. During custody exchanges they wouldn’t even make eye contact. Sometimes the boy felt like the only thing left they had to fight over.
“All I did was try to scare it away with a little bit of noise,” Uncle Terry said.
“A little bit of noise? It sounded like a fire engine ran over a marching band,” Aunt Nancy said.
“It was a hatchet on a coffee pot. There was a bear climbing on my car, okay? There are scratches on the hood. See?” The flashlight beam swung toward the Corvette for a moment, as if to inspect the damage from across the campsite. “It probably smelled the food inside and was about to rip the door off.”
“Yeah, and it was going to hot wire your car and drive to Reno with your wallet in the glove box and max out your credit cards.”
Uncle Terry returned the flashlight to Aunt Nancy’s face. “No, honey, that’s your job.”
“Fuck you, Terry, and take that goddamned light out of my face.”
Uncle Terry didn’t take the goddamned light out her face. Aunt Nancy was tall and skinny with frizzy black hair that was all over the place. The way the flashlight beam framed her face made it look like a skull, her cheekbones jutting out, her eye sockets shadowed and vacant. Finally Uncle Terry turned the light away from her, but the image of Aunt Nancy’s bony face still floated there, burned into the boy’s eyeballs.
“Honestly, do you ever think about what you’re doing?”
“Fuck you, Tim. Was the bear climbing on your station wagon?”
“Would that have changed anything?”
“Do you think I’m going to risk my life for your station wagon?”
“Do you know how dangerous it is to challenge a mother bear?”
“How come you’re an expert on bears all of a sudden?”
“How come you always answer a question with a question?”
“How come you always answer a question with a question?”
Dad and Uncle Terry often argued in questions, each question one notch louder, one crack closer to unleashing the anger banging just below the surface like a monster in a cage.
“What happened?” the boy asked, to ease the rising friction. The boy was good at diffusing tension, just popping his head in, being a little kid in the middle of a angry confrontation. The boy had a lot of practice with his parents, timing his entrance in the middle of one of their nightly arguments so that they at least paused for three point five seconds and maybe didn’t swear as much.
“Nothing to worry about,” Uncle Terry said, but the boy never believed anything his uncle told him.
“Just a couple of bears we had to chase away,” Dad told the boy, taking two steps forward and rustling the boy’s hair for two strokes.
“What about the cub?”
“It’ll climb down sooner or later. Don’t you worry.”
“What goes up must come down,” Uncle Terry added, with a little laugh.
“Why is it crying? Is it hurt?”
“No, it’s just scared, scared because the mama bear ran off and left it here,” Dad said.
“Is she going to come back?”
“I think they’ll find each other.”
“But what about the papa bear?”
“Papa bear is long gone,” Uncle Terry added, again with a laugh.
“All the bears are gone, okay?” Dad said, in a way that that made it obvious there would be no more discussion about the matter. “It’s late, kiddo. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you sleep with me in my tent? That way you won’t have to worry about any more bears. Go on, grab your stuff.”
Dad turned the boy around and shoved him off, and the boy scooted back to his little nylon pup tent to retrieve his sleeping bag and blue foam pad. The boy didn’t want to sleep in Dad’s tent because of Dad’s ground shaking snores, but the boy didn’t want to sleep alone in his own tent. Not with mother bears lurking through the campground, mother bears that no doubt had revenge near the top of their to do lists. When the boy ducked inside his tent to get his stuff, he heard more shouting from Uncle Terry and Aunt Nancy.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m leaving. I’ve had it.”
“Not in my car.”
“Try to stop me.”
The boy heard a car door open and close, and then open a second time. A woman yelled, “Let go of me.” Then scuffling, scraping, two slaps, open hand, no fist, followed by crying. Not crying. More like sobbing. The boy wished he wasn’t such an expert on the differences between crying and sobbing. He wished he couldn’t so easily recognize the sound of a slap versus a fist. He wished he didn’t have counts for these things.
“I fucking hate you,” Aunt Nancy screamed, so loud that campers probably heard it at the next campground down the road, maybe all the way into Yosemite Valley. Even though she only screamed it once, those words hung around a while.
The boy stayed in his tent, counting twenty-four sobs until he couldn’t hear anymore, but the boy couldn’t tell if Aunt Nancy stopped crying, or if she ran away. The boy wanted to believe she had the courage to run away. After that all that remained were the fifty-five wails of the baby bear. Fifty-six.
The boy grabbed his sleeping bag and little foam pad, and walked thirteen steps to Dad’s fancy dome tent. A little light hung from the top of the tent so that it glowed in the darkness like an igloo with a fire in the middle. The boy laid his sleeping bag down and climbed inside, burying his head and trying to block out the light. He could still picture Aunt Nancy’s bony face, floating there in his mind, superimposed on the image of that bear cub shivering near the top of that pine tree. The boy wanted to join with the bear, crying out for mom too, but somehow managed to hold it together.
Before long Dad climbed into the tent also, and Dad must have thought the boy was asleep because Dad didn’t say anything, just turned off the light and passed straight into snoring. The bear cub still cried outside, but it didn’t seem as loud as before, especially compared to Dad.
Beyond the snores, there was also a smell Dad carried with him, a musky odor the boy always noticed during times he was close. There was a hint of pipe tobacco and beer, but beneath those something else the boy noticed but didn’t recognize. The boy didn’t understand why that unfamiliar scent of Dad always made him so uncomfortable, why he felt that odor more than smelled it, heavy in his stomach like he had swallowed rocks that were too big to swallow.
The boy hunkered down in his too small sleeping bag and closed his eyes. He tried to ignore the tent shaking rumble of Dad’s snores, and that smell that hurt his stomach. He focused on the count.
But the snorts and smell were too much, so he picked up his sleeping bag and blue foam pad.
He zipped the door open carefully so not to wake Dad, and slid into the night. At first he intended only to go to his own tent, but instead dropped his bag and pad near the tent door and kept walking.
Sixty-six. Sixty-seven. Sixty-eight.
He walked until he had left the snores and the sobs and even the cries of the baby bear far behind, hoping to find that wonderful place where the boy would finally have nothing left to count.
J.D. Hager inhabits Northern California with one wife and a few other animals. He spends his days working undercover as a middle school science teacher, and his nocturnal activities are still under investigation. His writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Hobart, Jersey Devil Press, to name a few. Find out more here.
* * *
By George Paul
“So our entire unit was deployed,” said my father reclining on his chair with a slight smile as he sipped the standard military issue rum.
The anchors of the evening debate were just warming up for the ritual howling. None of us even glanced at the screen though, the TV was of late just switched on as a routine hard to break. My mother was busy in the kitchen with the maid preparing the supper. My sister and I sat in the couch in the TV room (a concept prevalent only in MES quarters), not able to fully comprehend what was just heard.
My father’s daily anecdotes at sundown will definitely be missed the most. Supposing what he said then was true, Rajiv Gandhi the Prime Minister of India was advised to wear a bullet proof vest during a politically charged atmosphere. The government of the day did not want to leave any stone unturned regarding the life of the Prime Minister. It was decided that the vest was to be imported from Italy. It would definitely cost an exuberant amount but the life it will protect would justify the price. However, once it arrived the product had to be scrutinized before the Prime Minister could actually wear it.
No civilian organization was credible enough to undertake such a gargantuan task, the stakes were too high. Who better to quality test a bullet proof vest than the Indian Army? The station where my father was posted at the time got designated with the job. The entire thing had become a prestige issue by now for everyone. But the elephant in the room nobody seemed acknowledge was the fact that until that time not many even in the army were acclimated to an apparel that can actually bounce off bullets. Thus nobody had a clue what to do with the thing when in arrived in the army camps. There was no one ready to risk wearing the vest and face firing ammunition from a fellow soldier. The mere thought of explaining to the widows what really happened made the senior officers to refrain from giving stern orders.
They can’t just hang the dam thing and shoot at it, the bullet impact registered would not replicate natural scenario hence would negate the whole process. They came close to consider strapping it to a post and shoot at it but then the idea was rejected, when they recalled the Prime Minister was not made of timber.
A Sepoy came up with the idea which eventually even the Station Commander had to agree. Simple as it seem, it was decided that the bullet proof vest would be put on to a stray dog which would be tied safely to the post, a former test subject. If the physical examination of the dog showed no real signs of damage after the completion of the exercise, it would prove that the bullet proof vest works just fine. This was the nearest possible test conditions that could be achieved under the present circumstances.
Consequently the dog, clearly bewildered, taken to a bath, after which was strapped on with the million dollar bullet proof vest. The Sepoy tried to steady the fanatic dog as he tied it to the post. Men at a distance armed with assault rifle took positions, aimed at the vest and waited for orders to proceed. The Station Commander from his tent at the edge of the training ground gave the nod which was the signal, and shots were fired.
BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG!
Everyone’s eyes near the entire exercise were already focused at the spot where the assault rifle was pointed at, the rest of the people in the proximity strained their ears to the shill burst of shriek by the understandably surprised animal.
When the dust had settled literally, no training received in their entire life, leave alone the Army, could prepare everyone in the training ground for what was being witnessed. There was pin drop silence across the ground and especially in the officer’s tent, everyone seemed to have run out of vocabulary to express their feelings. The Senior Officers sitting in the front lane tried to close their gapping mouth, their eyes welled up as they did and fractious tears broke out. It was a fiasco in its supreme form.
The moment the dog heard the load bang, must have been about the time when it finally decided, “OK, This is it! I’m done with this poppycock. So long folks!”
And broke loose and bolted like a lightning towards the unknown wilderness on the out skirts of the training ground, leaving the Indian Armed Forces that boasts of itself as being the biggest “voluntary” army in the planet completely and utterly stumped staring clueless at the post with a broken strand of rope.
It took quite some time before the men regained from the self-induced-coma like state. My father the adjutant of the unit was summoned to devise a strategy ASAP to capture the runaway tyke and seize the bullet proof vest in question.
“So our entire unit was initiated,” said my father.
All four companies in the unit were deployed. Those who were getting ready to leave were stopped, those who returned to their family after the day’s duties were called back. Every soldier in the cantonment were alerted of the situation. Equipped with gears of jungle warfare the men trailed the path the dog took to the wild. Deploying multiple search parties simultaneously, with almost nobody to man the station meant breaking all the norms of the Army, but under the present situation it was the least of their concerns.
Following the days of search the men spotted the dog on multiple occasions but it somehow always managed to escape. They tried stopping it as it scrammed by firing at it, but the bullets did nothing except toss the dog little in the air. It was becoming evidently certain to everyone that Italians were not joking after all, the bullet proof vest did indeed work as advertised.
Meanwhile all the senior officers in the station were running out of hackneyed fish stories to offer to the repeated calls from Army Headquarters asking for updates on the vest. All deadlines were breached, the scale of panic in the camps grew exponentially with the passing of every hour. Those unable to cope up with the stress were admitted to the Military Hospital. Apparently it took weeks before the search party could find a vigorously shuddering tired and hungry animal that found a shelter under a dehiscence of a very old tree. The dog got a hero’s welcome when it was brought back to the unit in a 3-ton (lovechild of a Jeep/Jonga and a truck/5 ton). Still very much shaken the mongrel protested very little when the vest was being retrieved by the men. It finally calmed down when the Sepoy who had handled it initially, arrived with a large packet of glucose biscuit from the unit’s CSD canteen. Eventually the vest was cleaned and restored to its splendor. The officer’s in charge signed reluctantly with trembling hands. Thus the bullet proof vest was certified to be sent to the personal heading the Prime Minister’s security squad.
A sculpture of a mongrel wearing a bullet proof vest sitting upright obediently(a work of fiction, to say the least), was presented to the Colonel of the unit from the Station Headquarters to commemorate the success of the mission. It now is put for display in the trophy room of officer’s mess. There is no text on it, for reasons best left unexplained.
“You mean to say...” I chocked.
My father now a Colonel nodded with an almost childish grin in his face. My sister’s eyes, and my mouth were wide open in amazement, “Really?” quizzed my sister.
“The dinner is getting cold!” bellowed my mother from the kitchen.
“Hold on, I’m coming,” my father replied back calmly.
He finished his quota for the day, got up and led the way to the dinning table, my sister and I tip toed behind him. We were still taken aback by the entire episode. Not quite amused with the three of us my mother stood by the dining table with a frown.
“Finish your dinner and go to bed, both of you have school tomorrow,” she stated.
I was really not sure how, after what I just heard. All of it just seemed too real.
“How was my gasconade?” asked my father.
“What is it this time?” quipped my mother, unlike us she just needed keywords to recollect my father’s stories.
“Bulletproof,” answered my sister.
“Papa! Be real, is this one of your cooked up stories like the one about Bhutan? When you said…” I started.
“Were you even in service during that time?” interrupted my sister.
My mother, sister and I looked towards my father for a definitive answer.
With an unusually content face he simply burst into whooping roars of frantic chortle.
George Paul is a stand up comedian in Kerala, India.
* * *
By Sarah Sorensen
These same fools keep calling and I keep hanging up. Since that bozo of an ex-husband of mine divorced me and wrote that shit in the Bennigan’s toilet, I been harassed by calls. To all of the frat boys in house Bing Bong Chai or whatever you call yourselves, I am sixty-five years old with an arthritic vagina. If you don’t know what that means, God bless you.
For y’all who are skeptical, saying shit like “but when I called you last night you talked all dirty and hot,” Katrina’s always messing with my phone. She thinks I’m funny cause it’s landline. Katrina is my FIFTEEN YEAR OLD NIECE. If you think it gets real on “To Catch A Predator,” I’m like the vigilante outtakes. Katrina’s the only family I got and she stays here with me because none of your goddang business.
Crazy how youth just takes over where you left off. When I was young, folks said I looked like Raquel Welch on account of my giant breasts. That was back in the days when I had aureoles so nice that I wanted the whole world to take a gander. Back then, my daddy used to call me “gay as a picnic basket.” I did all right with women in the 80’s. I don’t want to name names. Joan Jett. Anyway, all that was before I married that turd wagon of a husband of mine, Edgar.
He sold insurance up at the State Farm. Sounds like some kind of looney bin. I was living off diner tips and just a squeak past my prime. He came in all huffed up and wanting to marry me because of how good I could flip his flapjacks. Well buddy, I know times wasn’t good because I said “yes.” Course, I was still “gay as a picnic basket,” but I was also tired. I figured blowing this guy a couple times a month beat out struggling to pay rent and falling behind all the time.
We did all right for a couple years. He worked a lot and I liked that because I got to sit home most days and look at the cat. It was a Persian, real fancy with tangled up fur. Sadie. She smelled like a can of Spam and peed in the laundry basket, but I loved her. Neighbor woman ran her down with the lawn mower when I let her out to go sparrow hunting. I hope that whore liked finding her tires slashed and the sack of turds in her mailbox the next day.
Anyway, I guess you could say I haven’t had a pretty life. But two years ago, after I had long been divorced and stopped humping attractive women (still humped a few ugly ones) I got custody of Katrina. She came here with a Pokémon backpack full of cheap make-up, tacky underpants and a few beat down stuffed animals from her baby years. She dumped it all out on the cot in the corner of the living room, then shrugged.
“I had a twenty, but that’s all I got. They said I ought to help you out like you are helping me out. Anyway, I lost it.”
She stared at me through all the black gunk around her eyes and picked at a scab on her arm. She flicked off the skin and looked down all worried.
“Put that garbage back in the sack you brought. I don’t need nothing from you.” I said. “C’mon out to the kitchen. I made up sandwiches and Country Time.”
She sat down and took a few bites, her eyes darting around like I was about to slap it from her. I liked her even better than Sadie. We was getting along real good, even on my dishwasher checks. Sadie contributed some money that I don’t want to think too hard about how she got, but I can’t say I didn’t need the groceries.
One night, I decided to really live it up. I went to the Bennigan’s down the road to drink and I guess I had a touch too much. I found the biggest, oldest, dykiest dyke in the place and strode up to her. She smelled like the Axe body spray and her hands was roughed up. I unbuttoned all the buttons on my black polo and put on a thick coat of some pink lip gloss I borrowed off Katrina. This super butch looked me over a little and I tried for a wink, but belched instead. She laughed and I sat down next to her at the bar and she ordered up a couple more draft beers.
That’s about when I started making out with her for serious. She told me I was pretty and I figured she’d been drinking all damn day. Been a long time since I been pretty to anyone. She even asked me could she come home with me and I had to say “no” on account of Katrina. Then she told me I couldn’t come to her place because it was being repainted or some such. That’s a player line and I knew it. I’m no home wrecker, so I kinda chuckled and slid off my bench.
The bartender looked at me and I said, “hand the bill to that one.” Then I started walking back. Used to be I mattered a whole lot more in this world. I only got one kind of mattering now and I wanted to just go home. Trina and I could make some stovetop s’mores and maybe have a laugh or two.
When I got there, baby girl was already asleep with the TV blaring. I went to bed and that was all, no special nothing.
Well, Edgar got the word on the whole thing from that bitch neighbor who was working at Bennigan’s that night. He got all worked up even after all these years. Next thing I know, it’s like this. Calls from every dumbass in the area code wanting to know, “Is this really Tammy?” Sometimes they call up already jerking off.
Yes, this is Tammy. I’m sixty-five, a dishwasher, and “gay as a picnic basket.” Now hang up the goddang phone so that I can get some sleep. Tomorrow I’m going to take Katrina someplace nice, maybe icecapades or something. Last week, we snatched up all paper tokens off the Skee-ball at the arcade. No one locked the tiny metal door. We felt so good and lucky. Brought home the panda. I like knowing we’re building memories.
Sarah Sorensen has most recently been published in Five 2 One, Wilderness House Literary Review, Potluck Magazine, Thrice, The Pine Hills Review, Granola, Whiskey Island, The Audio Zine, and Dirty Chai. She holds an M.A. in English from Central Michigan University.
* * *
Something in the Cup
By Leonard Henry Scott
He didn’t know where this particular idea came from. But routinely (particularly at moments such as this one) all at once, it would be there right in the middle of his head, stinking up his brain like a giant over ripe cabbage. No matter how hard he tried; he couldn’t laugh it away; he couldn’t think away; he couldn’t reason it away. Once it arrived, it would remain for the duration, even though he knew that the idea made no sense whatsoever.
It was there now.
Earlier that evening he had brought a nice hot freshly brewed cup of coffee to his desk, took a long savoring sip, placed the cup down near his monitor and turned on the computer. He wanted to search for some those silvery things with the gray spring loaded buttons that allow cabinet doors to close quietly. He didn’t know what they were called or where you could get them. However, he did know what they looked like because he had seven of them. Unfortunately, he needed 10. He didn’t know what happened to the other three. But now, all of a sudden after six years of not having the three missing ones, his need for them suddenly became an emergency. As he waited briefly for his search engine to load, he took another deep swig of coffee.
After a time, he identified the door closing hardware and ordered six from Amazon, thinking that a few extras might be prudent. However during the course of things, he had been repeatedly sidetracked by a tantalizing array pictures and articles, like “The Ten Ugliest Dogs in North America” and “Horrible Plastic Surgery Blunders.” He was also a sucker for all the net worth articles, being constantly surprised by the fact that some famous people he thought had a lot of money actually didn’t and others who he believed were close to poverty were in fact richer than Croesus. Then, in an effort to figure out who exactly Croesus was anyway, and why he was so rich, he went to Wikipedia. Afterwards, he found and read a very interesting Wikipedia article on the history of Wikipedia itself; which mentioned among other things that in 2016, it was the world’s sixth most popular website. Of course he was then compelled to identify the other five.
And so it went.
At some point, as he stared at the computer screen, trying unsuccessfully to make the newest map of the Milky Way bigger so he could read all of its tiny writing, he happened to notice his long unattended coffee cup off to the side.
It was at that exact moment when the thought came into his head.
And this was the thought. While he was distracted by the computer, a large cockroach might have attempted to cross unnoticed from one side of his den to the other, using the ceiling. Unfortunately, the bug tripped half way across and fell from the ceiling right into his cup of coffee, with a slight splash. He thought that at some point, perhaps he might have felt just the barest sprinkle of something on his arm. But he could be mistaken. Having never learned to swim, this possible bug would have flailed around in panic until it finally drowned. Then dead and coffee logged, it would have sunk to the bottom of the cup, whereupon various cockroach fluids would have started to seep from its bloated carcass and mix with his coffee.
He stared at the cup. Then he leaned over and carefully scrutinized the impenetrable brown surface of the half cupful of liquid inside. He shrugged and smiled. It was such a stupid notion that a possible dead bug could be now lying at the bottom of the cup. But he couldn’t see what was down there. If there was anything in the cup, he wouldn’t notice until he took that final sip and felt something bump against his lips. Or perhaps, before then, he would notice something unusual in the taste of the coffee itself. Either way, such a discovery would undoubtedly be quite unpleasant.
It was all so silly, he reasoned. But, that didn’t matter; the thought was there none the less. Even though he had become very thirsty; even though he knew that cold coffee could be quite refreshing, he would not drink from the cup.
He studied the coffee for some moments in an attempt to see through the mystery of its brown opaqueness. Finally, he picked up the cup, took it to the kitchen and poured the coffee into the sink. There was no bug. He was relieved, but perhaps just a little disappointed. After all he had invested so much time and effort worrying about a possible dead bug in the bottom of his cup that he felt a bit embarrassed, even though he was all alone.
It was all so stupid, yes, but perhaps not impossible. He remembered a sultry summer evening in South Carolina, when he visited some friends who lived in a house that was surrounded by tall sweet smelling pine trees. It was a big old house, “Historic” they called it, full of cracks and ghosts. Late one evening, as they all sat in the living room, with their cold beer and conversation, a large brown cockroach walked across the ceiling. He didn’t fall but he could have. After all there is something called gravity which does affect things from time to time. His friends were mortified. But he just laughed, as flippantly as he could, so they wouldn’t feel bad. He supposed that even cockroaches had to live somewhere.
Now, as he flushed the coffee down the sink, he thought that maybe some of them even lived here with him in this very house, although he’d never seen one. He had read somewhere once that because of its quiet nocturnal habits, a snake, even a fairy large one, could actually live in a person’s attic for years without ever being noticed. Perhaps, the same was true with cockroaches.
He poured a fresh cup of coffee, added a dash of milk and two Sweet and Low packets. Then he returned to his desk to take one more ride through cyberspace. After settling comfortably into his leather swivel chair, he twiddled the mouse and brought the screen to life. The little circle wheel started spinning like a curved arrow or a cat chasing its tail. While he waited for Google to load, he took a deep sip of hot sweet coffee, and then rested the cup on the desk next to the monitor. Finally, almost as an afterthought, he reached behind the monitor and retrieved a small plastic coaster, a souvenir from a long ago trip to Ohio. It was yellow with the bright red inscription, “I Left My Heart in Cleveland.”
He placed it on top of his coffee cup, smiled and shook his head thoughtfully. The coaster, he reasoned, would help to keep his coffee warm.
Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. He is a graduate of American University (BS) and The University of Maryland (MLS), and was on the staff of the Library of Congress for many years. His work has recently appeared in; The Storyteller, Wild Violet, Garbanzo, Still Crazy, The MacGuffin and The Evansville Review. He and his wife, Hattie presently live in National Harbor, Maryland.
* * *
Me and Don Baylor
By Tommy Vollman
I spent most of last night in a batting cage with Don Baylor. I got there on the train—the A uptown to West 4th, then the D to 42nd. Don Baylor just appeared; he walked up in his pinstripes and spikes, climbed in the cage, and swatted a dozen balls with his short, aborted stroke. In his hands, the bat was a toothpick; his cut more of a wood chop than a real swing. He was that kind of pro—he broke more rules than he followed. Still, he and I were there all alone, so after a few cycles, I asked him about my stance.
He looked me over, smiled, and went back to his timing. I was in the cage, he was outside. He swung two bats at once, gripped together like Stargell and Parker—the real heavies—the big, lumber-company guys from the late 70s. He stood there in his make-shift on-deck circle and swung as the machine spit pitch after pitch to me. I was left-handed and he was a righty. With the cage set-up, I faced him, which was distracting as hell since there were doughnuts around the barrels of both his bats—one red, one white—that shifted with every swing. It was all thunk, thunk, thwap, over and over again. The doughnuts provide extra weight, but I wasn’t exactly sure how that helped his swing or his timing. But I wasn’t the big-leaguer; he was. With the distraction, I only hit about every other pitch, which was absolute shit for the batting cage.
"Well?" I prodded. My cycle was almost over, and I needed to know.
He shook his head. "You're miles from the plate.”
A jet raked the sky, and he paused. Its wash shattered the otherwise silent space all around us.
"Miles," he repeated.
It wasn't disappointment that leaked from his mouth, nor was it disdain. It was something else. I couldn't place it then and still can’t now.
I kept swinging, but there was no power—no real explosiveness when I made contact.
"You're just too damn far away.”
His words got stuck in the ear holes of my helmet.
I told him the plate was a metaphor for my ego.
“Your ego is a glass bottle, son."
There was a toothpick perched between his teeth; his lips were the color of the west Texas dirt.
I smiled. “But what about my feet?”
I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I’m not really sure what I meant. All I knew was that I’d been working on my foot positioning for some time and felt pretty good about it.
“Terrible," he replied. His tone was plateau flat and serious as New Mexico’s high desert. His eyes, which I caught between pitches, were ferocious—fully fevered with the sort of focus that knew exactly what it took to be really, really good at something. They were sharp, too, edged with a kind of glint that proved he understood, first-hand, what it was like to take a chance and then push past the space of comfort or familiarity and arrive at something different—something wholly terrifying in its newness. I got the feeling that if his eyes could have talked, they'd have mentioned things I couldn't have even imagined. But eyes don't talk, which made me wonder if I was lucky or unfortunate or even if talking eyes were something I should have been thinking about in the first place.
My cycle was over, so I walked to the cage door. Don Baylor was right on the other side, his face only a few inches from mine.
I expected him to say something, but he didn't. It wasn't relief I felt as I pulled off my helmet, it was emptiness, and that frightened me. Almost immediately, I wanted to fill it up.
Outside of the cage the air seemed lighter. Night birds whistled a haunted, empty tune. Behind me, Don Baylor pulled back the netting and stepped into the cage. I hadn’t counted, but it must have been his eighth cycle. Somehow, I’d done only three.
I turned and watched as he dug into the batter's box. The weight of what he’d said earlier—and now its absence—pressed me into the ground. My eyes met his again. This time, he was in the cage, and I was out. I realized, in that moment, that I was either agreeing with him or picking a fight. I wasn't sure which. Maybe I was doing both.
His bat swatted the every single pitch cleanly—another perfect 12-for-12. I hadn’t really noticed it before, but Don Baylor was massive. I wondered how big he must have seemed when he was drafted way back in 1967. Players were different then.
“So, is that it?” he asked. He was midway through a conversation I'd not been part of. Again, he leaned in too close, his breath equal parts sassafras and black tea. “Is that it?" he repeated.
I squinted, confused.
”Do you not know yourself?” he said, flatly.
I was beyond uncomfortable. A wave of heat broke across my face; a tiny sirocco that burned my cheeks and chin. My neck was a clogged drain of unattended emotions—emotions that stretched back thirty-some years. Everything—breathing, talking, standing upright—seemed nearly impossible.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
The batting cage stood in the middle of Bryant Park, on the lawn behind the library. Everything around us was empty—the streets, the sidewalks, the chairs and tables, the subways—the entire city. I could have heard a pin drop.
“Look,” he continued, “if you’re really worried about your footwork, I can help.”
He grabbed a bat—a wooden bat—and climbed back in the cage with me. His stirrups were pulled high over black Pony spikes just like they were in 1983.
“Back in Rochester, before I hit the show, we used to have a saying.” His brow furrowed, and he nodded my way. “We said it’s all about how you step in.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Step in.”
I watched him through the web of netting. It hung down, fixed somewhere—and I couldn’t quite tell exactly where—above the trees. It was clear, though, that the netting didn't stretch above the third or fourth floor of the Carbon & Carbide Building.
“It’s all in the step-in,” he repeated. “You gotta mean it."
His metal cleats tore at the dirt; his hand up for time even though he didn’t need it. Just habit, I guess. He was fixed there in the box.
“It’s like this,” he said, serious as the State-of-the-Union. “Your body gets all taut, then you stamp both feet just to let ‘em know you’re there.”
Don Baylor adjusted his helmet with a giant, batting-gloved palm. The helmet—a pine tar-stained, matte navy—had no ear flaps. Don Baylor came before ear flaps. The overlayed NY on the front was a dingy brown and flaked at its points; those points should have been sharp and crisp.
"See?" he said as he flexed his knees. The barrel of his bat twirled slowly at first, then see-sawed above his head. “But,” he cautioned, “it’s gotta be real power.”
The machine spit its balls—the rubber-coated kind that were almost yellow, but not quite; the ones that resembled swollen golf balls. Again, Don Baylor whacked every single one—high, low, inside and out—it didn’t matter. With each swing, his front foot stepped the same way. And every time, it was, boom, boom, boom. He had power—real power. He could go opposite field, pull it, send deep line-drives—anything.
It was hard as hell, though, for me to pay attention to his mechanics. Everything about his swing and his stance—the way his wrists turned and broke on the off-beat—was so effortless, yet amazingly unconventional. The results, though, were so perfect that it was all I could do to just watch, which isn’t the same as paying attention. Still, I tried to pay attention; I just couldn't.
Instead, I told him I was hungry. The words rushed from my mouth—out-of-control flood waters over too small of a levy. Don Baylor stared at me. I expected him to be angry, but he wasn’t. He packed up our things and took me to In-N-Out—the one on Sepulveda next to the airport. That In-N-Out was almost 3,000 miles from Bryant Park, but it made perfect sense, and we were inside at the counter with the beeps and the grease and the kaa-klack, kaa-klack of the potato cutter in an instant. Don Baylor was still in his uniform—the one from ’83. I was concerned about him and his metal spikes on the quarry-tile floor. They didn't seem safe.
I paid, and we sat down. There were two trays between us; our orders numbered 66 and 16.
"What is it, exactly," he began, "that you're afraid of?"
His voice was different in California. It was an unintentional growl—still free of judgement—but that was somehow disquieting. I listened as words gathered in his throat—formed in some dark spot I couldn't see—then drifted steadily and patiently from his mouth. I tried to recall if anyone had ever spoken to me that way, but I couldn't.
I gazed out the windows across Sepulveda toward a row of shops. There was a tattoo parlor, a hot tub vendor, and a trophy store. I felt like the noise from the planes that dropped so low on approach to LAX should have been louder, but it wasn’t.
"Outcomes," I said with a sigh. I was too honest, and I hated myself for that. “All these goddamned outcomes.” My eyes fixed on his over and across the table. “I’m not afraid of them, though. Well, not exactly.” I paused and thought about lying. “Just worried.” In truth, I wasn’t honest enough; that’s really what I hated.
"Well," he smiled, “that’s something, I guess.”
There was less and less to understand. Or so it seemed. An old, familiar feeling percolated in my stomach, rose up through my throat, and pushed at my temples from the inside. I thought I was annoyed. What was worse, I thought it showed, and I wasn’t okay with that. I thought I gave too much away; I thought I gave it all away.
Later, I'd learn that that feeling I had then at the In-N-Out was really less about annoyance and more about anxiety. I’d discover that I wasn't annoyed, just anxious—deeply and almost paralyzingly anxious. I’d learn that in that moment, I shouldn't have said or done anything; I’d learn that I shouldn’t have moved or thought or commented. I’d learn that what I should have done was stayed quiet—I should have just breathed. But I didn't know that then.
"Outcomes are everything,” I replied. “Without ‘em, nothing ever changes.” I shifted in the booth. The temperature spiked by about 20 degrees. "They're measurable, concrete."
Don Baylor puzzled. His hat looked like it had never before been worn. “Really?" he said. “Outcomes?"
He took a bite of his Double-Double and shook his head.
I felt dismissed, marginalized even.
"Hell," I replied, "they're what keeps me on track.” My voice held an uncharacteristic shiver. I was almost scared it would break, but I knew that was impossible. I looked at my food. I wasn't even hungry. Don Baylor grabbed a handful of my fries. Suddenly, I was completely exhausted. "And most of the time I feel like that doesn’t much matter."
A bright-red plane drifted by outside, lower than any of the others. Its jet wash blurred the rows and rows of lights perched high on stanchions—firebirds or phoenix too dumb to die—as pieces of the sky liquified ever-so-momentarily.
"Well," he said, “things do change.” His eyes narrowed, and my heart felt like the last few days of February. “They most definitely change,” he uttered. “Most definitely.”
His Dali Lama bit was off-putting.
"Yeah," I replied, completely ignoring the enlightenment. "But nothing really happens—nothing tangible, at least—not to me.” I sighed, a one-man pity party. “I mean, when it matters—when the stakes are up.”
"Ah," he grinned. His voice pitched suddenly with excitement. Perhaps, though, it was impatience. “But that's because you're only looking at outcomes. Outcomes," he continued, "are mostly beyond your control—beyond my control—beyond anyone’s control.” He grabbed another handful of my french fries. “Busy yourself with outcomes, and it'll be the end of you."
He said something else, too—Don Baylor did. I would have heard it if I would have been paying attention. But I wasn't. I just couldn't afford to. The truth was expensive and ever-so-inconvenient. Despite my best efforts not to, I began to wonder what it was that I was so afraid of.
"They're a ticket to misery," he added, pointing at me, his fingers thick and glossed with grease.
“Outcomes will put you in the ground fast as a motherfucker.”
I sat quiet, that final word of his on repeat inside my head. It was unexpected; he hadn't talked like that before. Motherfucker. Mother fucker. Mother-fucker. Mother. Fucker.
"Plus," he continued, "look at all this weight."
He had a bat in his hand again—a wooden bat—and he outlined my body. We were back in the cage at Bryant Park.
I tried to concentrate as he traced an invisible rectangle, the corners of which fell at my shoulders and knees.
"There's just so much."
I had no idea what he was talking about.
"Where's it all come from?" he asked.
“Well, that's what you gotta find out. Ain't nothing can happen here—” He pointed at my guts. "With all that here." Again, he traced the rectangle: my right shoulder over to my left, down to my left knee, across to the other knee, then back up.
The city was still silent. There seemed to be nothing else but us. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that he and I were inside one of those paper In-N-Out boats—the ones that had held our fries and Double-Doubles. Then, I thought about how everything—how me, Don Baylor, all of us—could be inside one of those boats just waiting to be consumed by some great something somewhere out there.
All of a sudden, I felt faint. I had to sit down.
Don Baylor gazed at me. Like his voice, though, his gaze didn’t hold much judgement, if any. He leaned a bit on the knob of his massive Louisville Slugger. It had to be 36—maybe 38—inches long. I watched the barrel sink like an eighth-inch into the clay. The barrel top had one of those Major League concave cuts. I imagined the imprint it would leave.
"Don't worry," he said, finally. "There's far more weight to the things you haven't done, than there is to any of those you did.”
I looked over his shoulder out across the narrow stretch of park to 42nd Street. Perfect buildings, shaped and contoured to each other stood firm as torches of narrow light white-washed their facades. Something inside me shivered and shook, rushed with immediacy, then threatened to break free.
“So,” he followed, “all you’ve gotta do is figure out what it is you’re hiding from.”
“Hiding?” I puzzled.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Hiding.”
I smiled. The way he said hiding made it sound as though it wasn’t something to be ashamed of.
I shifted my feet in the gravel that lined the wide paths around the central lawn. For moment, I thought about the fact that I might be hiding from what I perceived to be my own inadequacies. But that couldn’t be it. That couldn’t be it at all.
“It just doesn’t seem like it should be this hard.”
“What?” he asked.
“Anything,” I followed. “Everything—”
The pregnancy of my pause was exacerbated by the absolute dull silence of the city.
“It’s just that—” I aborted my own thought and changed directions. “The whole thing is just so complicated.”
Don Baylor stared at me. If confusion was a crown, he’d have worn it like a king. “I dunno,” I stammered. I realized I was making less and less sense by the instant. “Maybe I’m just not cut out for this kinda thing.”
“Oh,” he laughed, “I see.”
He took off his hat, pressed the brim flat, and replaced it.
“I see now,” he repeated. "You want everything to be just as you imagined—just as you thought it should be—how it would be.” He paused and stroked his mustache. His hands looked even bigger than they had before. “Well,” he said, “that is a problem.”
He thought I didn’t get it. I could tell. He was upset—frustration became a sudden algae bloom on the lake of his face. To be fair, there were a lot of things I didn’t get. But I got this one. I understood. That's why outcomes were so goddamned important to me. The way I imagined things and they way they ended up were always different. Outcomes charted my course; they kept me going. I was terrified to think about what might happen if I didn’t pay attention to them.
But Don Baylor thought outcomes were my problem. Don Baylor thought that the fact that I wanted things to end up the way I imagined them would destroy me. I got it—I understood him. Of course, I didn't do anything about it, but not because I didn't get it. I didn't do anything about it because I didn't want to. I'd learn later why. I'd learn later that the problem—as I recognized it—wasn’t the same one he recognized. I guess maybe that’s why we occupied two different spaces in two different worlds. Maybe that's why he stood so close to the plate. Maybe that's how he could talk the way he did. Maybe that's why when he mentioned hiding, there was no shame. Maybe the step-in was only half of it. Maybe the other half—the one nobody, not even Don Baylor talked about—was the step-away. Maybe the step-in and the step-away worked in tandem as two balanced halves of the same moment: a step away from what was imagined and a step in to what actually showed up.
Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tommy really likes Raymond Carver, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Greg Dulli, Tom Colicchio, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He's working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling. Tommy will release a new record, These Ghosts, in the fall of 2016. He currently teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and prefers to write with pens poached from hotel room cleaning carts.
* * *
The Rain and Mr. Farmer's House
By Heather Whited
It was the third day of rain.
Molly Anne lit the candles at night when it got dark. There were crackers and peanut butter for dinner and for most other meals. The days were noisy with the sound of wind shrieking through the trees, the snap of limbs and their crashes, and of course, the rain.
Mom and Dad had not come home after the first night, when the rain started. That was the night the lights went and ever since, they had been there in the house alone.
The girls weren't scared. They had the dogs with them and across the street; they saw faint lights in Mr. Farmer's house come on room by room each night, so they knew they weren't alone. Bea and Ivy watched the windows and reported his movements to their sister when they got bored.
"He's gone upstairs," said Bea when one of the upper floor windows started shining with the rest that had been on in the bottom of the house since the morning.
"He's watching us too," said Ivy. Ivy had gotten the binoculars from an old bird watching kit in the attic and liked to take notes when she saw Mr. Farmer in the windows. "Sometimes, I can see his face pressed up to the glass."
She peered again, stuck out her tongue at the man across the street who could not see her, and made another note in her book. She had done a scribble of Mr. Farmer as well, and the paper Mr. Farmer peered at Molly Anne when the book tilted in Ivy’s hand.
"I wonder if he knows we're alone?" asked Bea.
"It doesn't matter," said Molly Anne with a grunt. "He’s not important. Come finish the card house."
They'd pushed the couches together and slept in the living room every night. It was too quiet for Bea and Ivy to sleep with none of the noises they were used to, the whoosh of the heated air rushing up through the vents, the slap of feet on the floor as their parents walked around, their talking. It was too dark as well, and they clutched each other while Molly Anne snored next to them.
"Is it Thursday?" ask Bea. She still stared out the window.
"It doesn't matter," said Molly Anne.
"Are you having fun?" Ivy asked. "I don't know if this is fun anymore."
Molly Anne grunted again.
"You two aren't even helping with the card house."
The twins came back from the window and sat on the floor in front of the card house, but Molly Anne could tell their hearts weren't in it. They'd been whining since morning. Molly Anne shoved a card into each of her sisters’ hands and they sighed but she glared at them until they placed the cards on top of the ones she put down.
There was a flash of light from across the street and all three of the girls jumped up. Molly Anne didn't even care about the card house any more when she saw that Mr. Farmer's house was completely brightened, every window overflowing with a stronger light than candles gave up. She cursed gleefully and ran to the window.
"He got his generator working," she told the twins.
"Lights?" asked one sister.
"TV?" asked the other.
Molly Anne nodded.
"Hot food, too. Come on, we’re going over.”
They went to get their boots and coats from the closet. Molly Anne couldn't find the flashlight, but Mr. Farmer's house lit their way across their yard as they climbed over fallen limbs and through piles of wet leaves and around the growing maze of puddles. The road between their houses had turned into a fast, shallow river with the neighbor’s things floating in it; cups and plates and shoes went past on the current. Molly Anne kicked a soggy book as they passed and it twirled on the water before it knocked into a log and floated away.
The sisters heard the music as they walked up the front steps, a chorus of voices from the stereo and Mr. Farmer’s calling out above them all. His front porch smelled like cigarettes at first, but that was replaced by the very strong smell of popcorn the closer they got to the door.
"His microwave works," said Ivy.
"Or his stove," said Molly Anne. "Don't be dumb."
She knocked on the door and the music went off suddenly. She knocked again and the living room light went off. Behind the door, there was a crab like scuttle of feet and the curtain twitched.
"You're home, Mr. Farmer," Molly Anne called. "We know it."
They waited and after a few minutes, the lights and music came back and the door opened.
Mr. Farmer was a man in his early thirties, a short and thin man with a smooth white face and large eyes with long, dark lashes like a girl in a magazine. He wore ungainly, thick framed glasses that overwhelmed his delicate face and nose. He opened the door holding a glass full of bubbling pink wine.
"You've been watching me," he said.
"So what?" asked Molly Anne. "You've been watching us."
Mr. Farmer fretted at a loose button on his cardigan. A bit of grease from his work with the generator was under his fingernails. When he noticed it, he frowned at his nails and gave his fingers a little shake like it would knock the grease loose. He sighed a bubbly sigh and lifted his hand to his mouth when it turned into a burp at the end. He squinted at the girls.
"Yours are the only lights."
Molly Anne nodded. Mr. Farmer sighed again and opened the door.
The three girls took off their boots and coats and stood in his foyer in their bare feet, clothes and hair dripping. Molly Anne was in her pajamas, Ivy in a sweater of their father’s tied with a belt at her waist, and Bea in two different parts of old Halloween costumes: cowgirl pants and child sized nurse's uniform.
Mr. Farmer’s house was warm, hot even, and he had every light on. The loud music Molly Anne and her sisters had heard came from a stereo they now could see in the living room. The television was on as well, muted but flashing a fuzzy picture that came in and out of focus and was replaced every few seconds with static or blackness. There was a woman on the screen, Molly Anne thought she saw; a news woman behind a desk. Mr. Farmer still had candles burning here and there, scented so that his house smelled strongly of vanilla.
"What are you doing over there?" Mr. Farmer asked. He put on an air like he didn’t care what they did, but Molly Anne could tell how curious he really was.
"Keeping busy,” said Molly Anne.” Waiting for the rain to stop."
Mr. Farmer nodded. He got out his cigarettes from the pocket of his baggy sweater that looked like it belonged to someone much taller than he was. He opened the pack but looked at the girls and put them away with another sigh and a roll of his eyes.
"Well, you may as well stay for a bit. Eat some real food. Get baths. You look terrible. You haven't washed in days, I can tell. And someone's cut that little girl's hair."
He motioned with his glass toward Bea, who was missing one of her shoulder length ponytails and had a jagged line of thick brown hair on that side of her head. The twins blushed and looked at the floor, but Molly Anne laughed.
"Food first, I guess," said Mr. Farmer.
They followed him to his kitchen, where the sound of the generator got louder.
"I am cooking a steak for myself," Mr. Farmer announced, shouting a bit over the noise. "But I don't have enough for you girls. I've got a frozen pizza you can have. I've got some more popcorn too."
"Do you have macaroni and cheese?"
Mr. Farmer looked though his pantry. He still held in his hand a large glass of sparkling wine from a bottle on the counter that he sipped delicately from and he sang to himself while he moved things around, a song they didn’t know about a woman named Maria.
"Yes, I do" he called. "Would you like that?"
Molly Anne looked at the twins, who smiled.
"All of it. Please."
Mr. Farmer groaned, but appeared with the box of macaroni and cheese, which he presented to them with a bow. He put the pizza in the oven, microwaved the popcorn, and heated water in a pan on the stove to boil the noodles. He chatted while he cooked, told them about how he’d fixed the generator and he peered over his shoulder to see the twins nodding in approval and Molly Anne picking at her nails. When he paused, Bea squeaked out a question and he grinned as he answered, detailing his work. Ivy asked one after that, about the woman in the song and Molly Anne huffed and rolled her eyes. Mr. Farmer answered anyway, but more softly than he had before.
When Mr. Farmer was done at the stove, he poured himself the rest of the wine and sat down in front of the girls.
"You know," he said, "it's not bad having you here at all. It's nice to talk to someone. You girls have each other. You don't know what it’s like for me. Every night here in the mostly dark, just listening to the rain all by myself. I bet you have fun.”
“We built a card house,” said Molly Anne. “And we also have the dogs.”
Mr. Farmer tipped the rest of his glass of wine into his mouth.
“See? You have so much! And I’ve been here all alone. So worried. ”
Mr. Farmer offered to teach them how to play poker while the food cooked and rummaged through a drawer in the kitchen for a pack of cards, but in the end, they started a house in the middle of the table.
They ate together at the table, which Mr. Farmer had set around their newly built card house with pale pink napkins and plates with leaf patterns. Mr. Farmer had a steak and opened another bottle of wine. His face got pink and he started to smile. He recited T.S. Eliot from memory and burped loudly and the girls applauded, even Molly Anne. He sang his song about the girl named Maria again and they applauded more. The wind got stronger outside and started making sad, people-like noises that they could hear over the generator. Mr. Farmer went into the other room and turned up the volume on the television until the noise went away. There was nothing to hear but static though and that made Mr. Farmer shiver, so he turned it back down and replaced it with music.
"Come on, girls," said Molly Anne when dinner was done and they had built the card house up another story. "Let's have baths.”
She flicked her dark hair over one shoulder.
“Mr. Farmer says we look terrible.”
Molly Anne started the bath and was the first to in the tub. One by one, they soaked in the hot water and washed their hair with Mr. Farmer's shampoo and then dressed again. Molly Anne found his scissors and cut off Bea’s other ponytail so that her hair was even and she threw the handful of wet, dark hair into Mr. Farmer’s trash. She made the twins go out in the hall while she rummaged through the drawers and the medicine cabinets and she wouldn’t tell them, when she came out, what she had found.
When they were finished with their baths and dressed again and Molly Anne had completed her snooping, they went downstairs and found Mr. Farmer asleep on his couch with the music on. He'd been smoking while they were gone and the room was hazy, the ash tray next to Mr. Farmer full. Molly Anne poked him and he jumped up with another burp and pushed his glasses, which had slid down his nose, back into place. Drool lingered on the side of his mouth and he wiped it as he looked frantically around the room.
"What? What's going on?"
He blinked at the girls until they were in focus.
"Thank you.” Molly Anne said it like she knew she had to it and didn’t want to and wanted to get the words from her mouth before they had too much of a chance to linger. “We're done. We're going back home now."
"Back to our house, Mr. Farmer.” Molly Anne put her hands on her hips. “To wait for our parents."
Mr. Farmer rubbed his red eyes and straightened his glasses. He reached for another cigarette and burped again as he lit it.
"You should stay here. They're not coming back, I think. No one is. Yours is the only light."
The twins waited for Molly Anne and joined hands in the silence that took over the room while she and Mr. Farmer stared at one another. Molly Anne made the choices.
“I don’t know,” said Molly Anne. “We were having fun without you.”
“Do you have no one you miss?” asked Mr. Farmer. He shrugged into his overlarge sweater. He rubbed the sleeve between his thumb and forefinger and frowned down at the fabric.
“Maybe,” said Molly Anne. “Maybe not.”
He looked behind Molly Anne to the twins, who shivered and stared at the floor.
Mr. Farmer wiped some stray popcorn from his sweater and pulled himself into a sitting position. He reached for the remote to the stereo and after a few times, he got it and turned the music down. He traded the remote for another cigarette.
"I've got food," he said. "You can watch TV if it comes back. But I've got videos too. We can watch them together. I'll even make you steak if you want. I was lying before, I have plenty."
“Are you afraid?” asked Molly Anne.
“Are you not?”
Mr. Farmer lit another cigarette with his shaky hand. He mumbled down into his chest something about the wind and how it sounded like someone, someone whose name was cut off as his voice tapered. He took a long puff and the shaking in is hand slowed as he exhaled.
“I can’t bear to be alone again.”
Moly Anne had heard what she wanted.
"We'll get our dogs,” she said. “Then we'll stay."
That night, Mr. Farmer stayed up late. They heard his music while they whispered under the covers in the guest bed about what they would do tomorrow.
Molly Anne told the twins to sleep and they closed their eyes and soon did. When they were out, she sneaked from the bed and into the hall. She opened the door across the hall.
She knew it was Mr. Farmer’s room, though the bed was neat like it had been days since it had been slept in. Molly Anne looked through a dresser drawer; the assortment of matched sock in different dark colors. She looked in the closet; full of clothes for one tall man and one not very tall at all. She had seen the man who wore them, the tall clothes hanging down past the clothes that were Mr. Farmer’s, but could not think of his name. She had seen him in the yard, in a car pulling into the driveway or out of it, maybe raking leaves. But she could not remember even his hair color now. Had he had hair even? Molly Anne looked for pictures. There was a collection on the dresser; the two of them, Mr. Farmer and this man, sitting together, standing with their arms around each other.
Downstairs, there was music still and Molly Anne followed it.
Maria, Mr. Farmer sang. Something else played on the stereo, another song, but he sang still about Maria. He sat in the recliner waving around a cigarette and snowing ash onto his laps.
The room was full of smoke again. There was a new bottle of wine open at his feet. Mr. Farmer leaned down to pick it up.
“Hello, little girl,” said Mr. Farmer, when he saw her at the landing on the stairs.
“Molly Anne. It’s 11:00. Why are you awake? You’re a little girl.”
She shrugged. She crossed her arms and rolled her eyes t him; drunk and crying in his large sweater.
“Aren’t you so proud of yourself? Sisters and dogs and everything. Well done, Molly Anne. Good for you.”
“Who was he? The man in the pictures?”
“His name was Tom.”
“You loved him? Were you married? You look married in the pictures.”
A blurry eyed glare.
“You don’t remember him, do you? He lived here with me. Once, he gave you candy at Halloween. You came here screaming and he gave you candy. Don’t you remember? He mowed the lawn. He wore a big hat when he did. I hated that hat.”
Mr. Farmer snubbed out his cigarette and reached for another one that slipped from his fingers and fell to the chair.
“I remember your parents, little girl. Ginger father. Your mother was fat.”
He kicked over his bottle of wine onto the floor and scrambled to pick it up as it sloshed out of the bottle.
“I shouldn’t have said that. Sorry.”
“I don’t really care. They weren’t nice people. “
“Has it ever occurred to you, Molly Anne, that you are not a nice person either?”
She began to roll her eyes again but gave up as she did. Mr. Farmer frowned at the spot of wine on his carpet.
“Tom was?” asked Molly Anne. “A nice person?”
The music skipped. Molly Anne thought she saw the lights flicker.
“I didn’t deserve him,” whispered Mr. Farmer. “I wish I’d gone with him that night, that I was gone, too. I don’t like it here at all. You won’t leave, will you?”
“No, Mr. Farmer.”
He set down the bottle of wine. He took off his glasses and set them on the table next to the ash tray. While Molly Anne watched, he fell asleep.
She went back to their room and got into bed. Molly Anne watched the lights flickering under the door and the dogs kept watch. All night, it rained.
Heather Whited graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2006 with a B.A. in creative writing. After working in Japan and Ireland, she spent two years in Nashville, Tennessee earning her Master of Arts in Teaching before relocating to Portland, Oregon. She has been published in the literary magazines Lingerpost, Straylight, and soon The Timberline Review. In August 2015, she received an honorable mention in Gemini Magazine's annual short story contest. She has been a contributor on The Drunken Odyssey podcast.
* * *
The House at the End of The Street
By Elizabeth Austin
The walls fold over the rooms, leaning
as though on the back-end of a sigh.
Rain water bubbles through fissures,
streaming over tea cups stacked
higher than my eyes, bending like pipes,
their saucers filling, spilling over.
Rafters groan from the weight
of caterpillar nests, drooping soggy
and globular, moaning for the floor.
The black larvae churn, despairing,
knowing only of the light, yet still seeking.
Blind and flightless, she’s upstairs now,
thumping and howling, walking barefoot
over the thick glass of shattered jars.
The doors have swollen in their jambs.
Like shaking salt from the sea, I pull her
beneath the window’s rotting arch.
We wait, shivering in the damp.
The sound of my nightmares,
a wail tearing through clear night.
Though we have no wings,
we teach ourselves to fly.
Elizabeth Austin is a poet, photographer, visual artist, and single mum. She is currently a graduate student in Creative Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, See Spot Run, and Driftwood Press. She was recently featured in a collaborative exhibit with photographer Sarah Jane Sanders at the Norton Center for the Arts. She was first runner up for Bucks County Poet Laureate 2014. Follow her on Instagram: @elizabethbeingqueen, or visit her website for more of her work. She currently lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
* * * *
By Michael Brosnan
While tilling the garden, she finds it,
turns it over in her hand, scrapes away the heavy dirt,
runs a thumb along its ragged edge,
imagines a man with a different language
chiseling the point years ago on a late May day,
the breeze in the trees sounding exactly
like the breeze in these trees.
She hoses it clean, dries it on her pants,
pockets it, gets back to planting — peas
and kale and chard and carrots.
Some night later, a glass a wine in hand,
she reads a book on Abenaki history, this tribe of first people
living in the “Dawn Land” in small bands near the sea.
When, she wonders, were they forced to shift
their thinking from hunting to killing?
Did they have a word for “flourish”? As he chiseled,
did her arrowhead man feel something slipping away?
In the dark, out her window, is the land she calls “my yard.”
Tonight, it feels more untamable. A shaving
of the vast Earth that none can own.
The truth is: it has always owned us.
The wine truth is: as it pleases, it will churn us into story.
Michael Brosnan's poetry has appeared in Confrontation, Borderlands, Prairie Schooner, Barrow Street, and other journals. By day, he edits Independent School, a magazine on precollegiate education. His book, Against the Current: How One School Struggled and Succeeded with At-Risk Teens, was the basis for the 2009 documentary Accelerating America.
* * *
Stealing Lingerie, Age 16
By Kym Cunningham
Head to the bins, 5 for 25, 3 for 30
Grab two sweatpants, one from the mannequin
Drape them over
your arm above
the striped shopping bag, finger the babydolls, negligees,
lace is classy, mesh is trashy
ruffles make you look too young
Know this instinctively
Know to check for magnetic tags
Know to carry a knife
Know to wear the 8 thongs, tangas, boyshorts under your too big jeans
Hide anything you can’t wear in the bag
Leave the sweatpants, cut tags in pockets
Walk out with a smile
Your mom looks suspicious but says nothing
Don’t thank her when you get out of the car
Go to your room lock the door
Pull out the shoebox at the back of your closet that has your cigarettes in it
Fold the unmentionables
Stuff some fake love-notes on top so your mom looks at those
instead of the lighter and razor
Take your pants off
Pull the extra underwear off
Decide you need another line to fit
into those skinny jeans
Go to your desk
Take out your compact and the coke you cut for your friend
—for her boyfriend--
an anniversary gift
one of two kinds he’d appreciate
Dump a small portion out of her bag
Nudge it to the side with a credit card
Decide you might want more
Nudge another bump to the side
Realize how much of the gift you’ve done
Decide that packaging is everything
Put it in a straw
Make it seem like more
Seal the ends with a lighter
Know it’s not enough
Know she’ll know it’s not enough
Know you were never enough
Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San Jose State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry. She acted as the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi. She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in The Writing Disorder, Drunk Monkeys, and Reed.
* * *
Look into the Eyes of a Dying Girl
I remember looking into the eyes of a dying girl,
I didn't see fear,
Neither did I see terror.
I did not see joy,
For the first time,
The azure deep of the sky was all I saw
When I looked into her eyes.
Her lips were sewn shut,
Yet I understood every single word she said.
She spoke to me about freedom.
Freedom was like a bird,
Soaring in the skies.
Freedom was not an ideal,
Or a lofty thought.
A broken heart was free from love and hurt.
A lover was free from loneliness.
A person in hell was free from the pleasures in heaven.
A person in heaven was free from the torments of hell.
Freedom, she spoke to me,
With eyes that burned with no emotions,
And lips that spoke fury without words,
Was nothing but a perception.
It was not an ideal, or a thought
But a perception.
I understood that nothing lasts forever,
For I looked in the eyes of a dying girl
In the cold November rain,
And she spoke not a word,
Neither did her lips move,
For she was dead.
Shane is a writer who spends most of his days in the peace and solitude his mind has to offer. His mind ran amok some years ago from trying to reconcile the realities of life with the ideologies he supports, he only regained his sanity.
* * *
Bowie, Prince, and Harper Lee
By Megan E. Freeman
A friend on Facebook grieved.
Robbed of his idols.
Abandoned in his existentialism.
Alone on the planet with only the canon
and his tattoos to comfort him.
Unable to make meaning of a world
where people age and weaken and die,
his shock formed the rhetoric of revolution.
Dying was a problem to be addressed.
An outrage for which he demanded justice.
The utter betrayal of his privileged, small life.
As if death went out of fashion years ago
but didn’t get the memo that
we are all immortal now.
Like wearing shoulder pads at a wedding
where all the bridesmaids’ gowns
Megan E. Freeman’s debut chapbook, *Lessons on Sleeping Alone*, was published in 2015 by Liquid Light Press. She has been published in literary anthologies and journals, and her poetry has been selected for commissions by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Ars Nova Singers. Megan holds degrees from Occidental College and the Ohio State University.
* * *
Against All Earthly Fire
By Leland James
“Our earthly fire … no matter how fierce or
widespread it may be is always of limited extent.”
--James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
A checkered board in frozen mates of stone
—seen from the hills that rise above the town--
moonlit in shadows cast on frozen ground:
castles, infrequent knights among the pawns.
Come near, the poet walks among the graves:
end notes in marble etched, traces grown faint
of mortal reigns; above the graves a rage,
a groan, a last embrace of earth’s heartache
asking the overarching question echoed
in dove’s lament beyond the iron gate--
Stillness descends; a sudden comfort of snow
recasts the checkered plat, the mortal fate:
the stones, in white, redress earthly desire,
a field of shields against all earthly fire.
Leland James is the author of three books of poetry. He has been published in over fifty journals and magazines worldwide, including Form Quarterly, HQ (The Haiku Quarterly), The South Carolina Review, and Midnight Circus. He was the winner of the Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing Award for Poetry, The Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize, the Portland Pen Poetry Contest, the Writer’s Forum short poem contest, and a winner of an Atlanta Review's International Publication Prize. He was also a runner-up for the poetry prizes of Fish International (Ireland), the Welsh International, The London Magazine and the Society of Classical Poets. He received the Franklin-Christoph Merit Award for Poetry in 2008 and was nominated for a recent Pushcart Prize.
* * *
The Grim Accumulation
By Tim Kahl
Every day when I read the funnies I never find
a laugh swelling up inside me to overtake a Monday.
They just seem dumb. I guess I don’t possess
a newspaper reader’s sense of humor. Or maybe
they are only for those who tell jokes
in crowds or to customers. That’s not me. I can
never remember them. They disappear into
the category of mild entertainment badly botched.
Instead I measure the pinecones in the trees
and hope they don’t fall on my watch,
but if one does, my vigilant mutt will bark
at it. She has been bred to stand guard.
It’s in her blood to get riled if any little
thing is out of place. She growls at imagined
outcomes as I take solace in the newspaper’s
truths. Should I skip the obituaries today?
Or can I think of ways to reshape these
lives of quiet desperation — of golf pros
called Bucky as a boy when he caddied for
Seve Ballesteros, of the doll shop owner
who sold models of angels in bodices for years.
Bring me these lives in the funnies where
I can keep vigil over them and cut their presence
with presumed humor. But these dumb lives keep
spilling ink, black and white, shorn of significance,
except to say they survived a while and that
such grim accumulation of mirth is good enough.
Tim Kahl is the author of "Possessing Yourself" (CW Books 2009), "The Century of Travel" (CW Books, 2012) and "The String of Islands" (Dink, 2015). His work has been published in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, The Journal, Parthenon West Review, and many other journals in the U.S. He appears as Victor Schnickelfritz at the poetry and poetics blog The Great American Pinup and the poetry video blog Linebreak Studios. He is also editor of Bald Trickster Press and Clade Song. He is the vice president and events coordinator of The Sacramento Poetry Center.
* * *
By r. miller
This vacant, rain-drenched field
really speaks to me, tells me more
about my life and the way I've been
living it than I could ever care to know.
It's weird to think about.
As are sunsets, billiard parlors,
and quantum theory. Over the steppes,
straight from the cast iron heart
of human drama, wails of desperation
come pouring. Supposing I could ignore
these and similar entities, then what?
I'd manage. Half-assedly, yes,
but I'd manage. I'd give myself
a little leg room. I'd let the paint
on the walls dry.
Maybe even take up a new hobby,
something like woodworking,
only without so much use of my hands.
My desires seemed
so much deeper in my punch bowl days.
I could fit my entire arm in them
and still not touch bottom,
and seeing just how far I could get
was part of the fun. Now
they just go wrist deep,
and I'm somehow okay with it?
No big thing. A bowl of ramen
contains all the hope and faith
I could ever stomach.
I've got the scars to prove it.
r. miller is an aspiring poet residing in the wilds of southern Pennsylvania. He is a member of Paper Plane Pilots, an international writers' collective. He has previously had his poems featured in Anti-Heroin Chic and Jazz Cigarette, and in his debut chapbook entitled "Separate Instances of Loneliness." More poems can be found on his blog In addition to writing, r. miller enjoys spending his leisure time wandering aimlessly through deep forests in Autumn, creating uncomfortable situations for his family and loved ones, and reading dense philosophical tomes in his favorite local coffee shop while smugly sipping on Chai.
* * *
By Peter Mladinic
Iron is about the difficulties of being with one person,
About not feeling slighted and not making the other person feel slighted.
Iron is about the iron and phosphorous molecules that float between you
And Patrick in the meat department,
Patrick in a long white smock streaked with blood.
Iron is about a night with Walter, crossing a bridge
On your way to a club that later will be crowded with flashing lights
And dancers, but right now Walter is warning you not to tell the girls
You’ve been in a war.
You remember sunlight, morning muster
Those times you saw your double, same eyes, same rifle.
Iron is about sides of beef behind the steel doors Patrick exited through
After you two traded stories of your lives since high school,
Neither one with a spouse or children, nor the desire to see each other.
You remember a night with music and flashing lights
And Walter dancing alone to Steppenwolf.
Peter Mladinic lives in Hobbs, New Mexico. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas in 1985. His poems have been published in numerous literary magazines such as American Literary Review, Puerto del Sol, MSS, Poetry Northwest, Poetry East, Riverrunn, The Evening Street Review and Common Ground. He is the author of a chapbook, At the Blue Earth Gallery, and two full-length books of poetry, Lost in Lea: Southeast New Mexico Poems and Dressed for Winter. He teaches English at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs.
* * *
By Kevin E. Pittack Jr.
These waters were never intended
to purify, and it seems doubtful
that this river was designed as an irrigation
project by a higher power;
like so much else along its muddy banks,
it just happened.
Voices mingle throughout the valley
and generate a deceptive current, a
sublime flow of notes that create
a song composed of tears--
of joy and sorrow,
of pain and triumph--
that echoes off the hills
like a lullaby.
Between the river’s origin and destination
it finds its heart
in our humble fields and mountains;
the river takes the character
of the faces that line the murky shores.
They populate towns that once
were more, enclaves that previously
shined and radiated contentment,
but the flow of the river offered promise.
With the passing of seasons
the hills emerald hues fade
with the arrival of blustery winds and snow
before reemerging in brilliant grandeur,
and then again melting into a brown soup.
Still, always, the reflective waters move
at a glacial pace.
Always renewing, always flowing,
always progressing through our lives,
carrying dreams and the vessels which contain them,
forever pure and unimpeded.
Kevin E. Pittack Jr. is a resident of Pennsylvania, and his poetry has appeared twice in Door is a Jar Magazine. He aspires to one day write like Robert Frost and to be as cool as Rod Serling.
* * *
Two Poems by John Repp
Poem Beginning With a Line from Fernando Pessoa
(as Àlvaro de Campos)
As long as fate permits, I’ll go on smoking,
whether Trish’s father’s pipe, packed with no-brand rag
on the Red House porch after the Big Snow
or the Faber-Castell #2B with which I mime
Camels & strike-anywhere matches or the Winstons
that dropped into the tray once I’d inserted two quarters
& pulled the knob & heard the rattly clanking
(remember stripping the cellophane, peeling the foil,
tapping the pack on the first knuckle of the left hand,
lighting the first fresh one up, hunching back
into the rain to pump a dollar of hi-test to quiet
the valve-clatter Joe said he’d investigate but never did?)
or the candy Luckies or the cheroots that fit
the West I gazed upon out the train window,
sleepless, forlorn & heartbroken as only
a 25-year-old can convince himself he is
or truly is with Sacramento the next stop
& home in his pockets. Hold the butt
lit-end down & watch the smoke furl
between the fingers. You can really think then.
The one with the camera
managed somehow to trip
the shutter & not just
stare. I hover there,
despite physics. I know
every freckle. I know
by the tilt of her head
how pleased she is
to sit there looked at
so acutely. The newspaper
spread across her lap
remains unread. She wants
a cigarette. She wants
an “A” in History.
She wants this over
so the knee-high, fringed
boots can come off.
I hear the static charge
of the purple-wool socks
pulled over the stubble
on one calf, then the other.
I hover there, a nowhere
lit bright, then not.
A native of the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, John Repp has lived for many years in northwestern Pennsylvania. His most recent collection is Fat Jersey Blues, winner of the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize from the University of Akron Press.
* * *
By Michael Schaefer Friedman
1.Best to lead an aimless life,
leaving things unfinished, drinking
gin on Saturday. A petty, myopic sadness
I see now.
Spring blows in, tired, to say I have no reason.
Fried eggs and feeling sick, the form of shame.
You think you've got a song;
I have no reason to feel such things.
2.The human and the art indissoluble,
a promise I had made myself.
Against a tree, mine is nothing special.
Against your spine, the earth is damp.
Confusing night: the dog is sick,
if someone asks, dragged down
from a higher plane
tracing circles in the sun.
3.Dip fingers in your tea,
the world does not face inward.
No one listens
to a sweet and reckless thing.
I had decided to spend all of my money
on a play performed by terrible actors;
I did not see myself among them.
Michael Schaefer Friedman is from coastal Virginia. He received his BFA from UNC Wilmington. Currently he lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches ESL.
* * *
By Stephanie Smith
She feigns a broken flower
alone in night's sobbing mess
when hidden by strict shadows
who never let her come out
while the moon shines bright above
She hides inside the dark's embrace,
the comforting velvet blackness
she remembers from infancy
before the world was filled with tears
and the lingering need for light
And so she's left to clean up the mess
a lifetime of heartache has given her
Another day of aching shoulders
But she must put up with it if she
is to carry the weight of the world
Stephanie Smith is a poet and writer from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in such publications as Strong Verse, PIF Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, The Literary Hatchet, and Third Wednesday. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, Dreams of Dali (Flutter Press, 2010), and is currently working on her first full-length novel.
* * *
A Litany to St. Joan of Arc: Patron Saint of Papist Girls Who Want to be Boys
By Alex Clark
Part I: The Call
When you were a child, you listened to harp strummed voices of angels, how they soothed as your mother taught you to twist wool on spindle; her work was such a simple transformation: sheep coat to yarn, yarn to cloth, cloth to clothing. Even as you heard the ethereal chants and whispers like some hear that ringing in the soft quiet space of no noise at all, I like to think you saw the work of your mother’s callused hands as miracle.
At day’s end, after you finished reciting the Latin prayer-poems passed down, such ancient pronunciations-Gloria Patri, Gloria Patri, et in saecula saeculorum-you waited for the celestial lullabies to return. Like your prayers, the hymns were not in French, but in Latin, a Holy language, a syntax you didn’t grasp, but the muscle memory of tongue and throat pushing together words like notes was its own contrition; absolution in act of speaking, and in the act of listening. Comprehension was neither expected or suggested, not for a peasant, certainly not for a woman.
Though the definitions were lost upon you, perhaps the music was not. The heavenly brethren sent synthesiatic melodies as you slept; the sounds of lutes, lyres, hymns touched wings to your lips, ethereal chords hung heavy under your closed eyelids, so much so that the only way you could tell the difference between divine communication and dream was this sense of faith; such a heavy burden for one so young, but perhaps this is what helped you become, what let you find your devotions even as fire swept up around you, your last moments whispering Gloria Petri, Gloria Petri, Gloria Petri.
While you fed the goats and cattle, you hummed what you remembered from the night before, your tongue making what it could of Latin secret language spoken only by the seraphim, the priests, the holy. You wondered if you should tell your mother or father about this precious gift but like Latin, and like that angelic slang, there was no meaning yet, only the sound and the way that it made you want to ask for more. You didn’t see that you were chosen; a sixth sense most blessed.
You didn’t articulate any of this, couldn’t write down any reference of shimmering manifestations, no documentation for Pontiffs and canonical scholars to discern from or question centuries after, didn’t leave me a stack of thoughts to thumb through; there is no real evidence I could use to defend the you that I’ve built from an assumption of your gendered deviance, one that runs as deep through me as our shared Catholic practice, though, admittedly, I often choose my truth over the moral stipulations laid out by the Papacy. Yours, of course, was excused by the Father, who is also the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Did you question your own sanity, your validity at first? It would’ve been hard to explain why you, a peasant girl, had this connection to God that pulpit-perched priests could only pray for. When you were fourteen, St. Michael, St. Margret, and St. Catherine effervesced while you worked in the field. They gave you a message, and a promise to act as guides on your reverent mission. You agreed to take charge of King Charles the Dauphin’s troops and drive out the ruling English Protestants, to don the clothes of a male warrior and protect the French Catholic church.
I like to think that Catherine and Margret showed concern as Michael made prodigal proclamations. Perhaps they remembered how their own hands shook when they received this initial visit. Maybe they wanted to whisper in your ear that the man omnipotent who penned this plan wasn’t going to swoop in and save you, later, even when you cried His name in pain; maybe Catherine’s face fell, taken aback as she recalled how the straps grabbed at her wrists, the wicked centrifugal twist of the wheel they stretched her over, the sound of the crack as it miraculously broke, the sweet moment where she thought she might be spared interrupted by the swish of the executioner’s axe. The crack in her voice as she recited the Act of Contrition; really a plea with Jesus, a plea He didn’t answer, at least not until after seconds of living separation, an awareness her head was severed from the rest of her. Margret might’ve wanted you to save yourself, wanted to reference her escape from the dragon Satan’s engorged abdomen, how she tickled his smoldering tonsils with her crucifix and fought her way out of his mouth; this was an act of such unrewarded prowess, in the future written off as mere magical legend instead of mythical genius; but Michael left no room for stories. The Patriarchs and their gospels, never enough time for a woman to give another woman advice.
But then, of course, you weren’t a woman.
At least, not in the conventional meaning of the word, not in the way other women were women in 15th century France. Maybe you were a woman in the way I was a woman, past tense. Maybe you found discomfort in the role of mother, of caretaker who spends her days procreating and obeying a man’s words. Maybe you noticed the shake in your mother’s voice when she disagreed, how her eyes could never look up, the submissive manner she led her life with so that there could be peace, so that she could reach Paradise. Maybe she pulled you aside when you told her of your journey; of course she was the first person you told. Maybe she let some of her own dreams live again, not in the act of living them but in the act of telling you, flesh of her flesh, born from her, born of her, born for this, a sacred shift in narrative.
You stole your father’s favorite tunic, had to roll the bottoms of his trousers twice, pieced twine around the top to make them fit your narrower hips. I hope his clothes didn’t make you feel small; instead, I hope they offered fortification between the steady presence of your heart beat and the fear that creeped up as the straw roof of your childhood home disappeared in a mixture of darkness and distance. I wonder if it was quiet, in your head, the first night you followed old footpaths in the dusky twilight; I wonder if the angels at least kept you company on the long journey to Chinon, home of the Royal French Court, if they stayed with you when you saw King Charles the first time.
His majesty mistrusted you at first, it’s true. But you passed his tests, even the ones he sent his wife to perform, her cold hands passing over your crevices, checking for signs of impurity, for virginity; your clothing offered protection from unwelcome advances, but the armor did not keep away her hovering clutches, nor did it cure his lack of faith in you, my Patron Saint. Did you wonder where God was then, or was it later, after you won the Battle of Orleans, after the troops took to following you, a chain-mailed flock, when the names they called you shifted from prefere to heretic, to witch and liar.
The English captured you, and you understood their cruelty, but you didn’t understand why the Catholic French clergy they handed you off to did the same. These were your people, your faith, the ones you were trying to save. They accused you of cross-dressing, of sorcery. I wonder if you forgive them now, five hundred years later, for their scorn, for the catch-22 they put you in; naked, in your tower cell, they offered clothes, protection for your body from the lusts and armed might of the guards that paced in front of your confines day and night. The caveat: Your acceptance of clothes became a confirmation of your heresy, guilt, condemnation.
There was no real choice here, but there was a promise that the fire wouldn’t reach you, that you could carry on for just a little longer, maybe make it back home, live out your days in the cottage you came from before all of this mess, watch your mother transubstantiate in her own way, away from the iron and brick and, most of all, away from any more missions.
So you took their offer, signed your name at the bottom of their contract, a contract you couldn’t read. Who taught you to sign your name? Was God’s hand on top of yours, or was he too preoccupied to stop the shaking scrawl of a frightened girl. They didn’t set you free; instead, they set up a scaffold in the courtyard. You could hear the hammers, the heavy hooves of horses as they pulled carts of supplies. They led you out early, the morning light stung your eyes, but the air was so fresh. I wonder if God warned you of this fate, the same fate he left his son to, ashes to ashes, your body licked to blisters by flames and the men of the cloth condoning; when it all faded away, how did you remain faithful? They raked through your dusty remains, threw what was left into the Seine so that pilgrim couldn’t claim a rib or a tooth as a relic, a providential prize in some sacred scavenger hunt.
I wonder where you waited for those seventy years before the Cardinals recanted your blasphemy, or even after that; you were beautified and canonized in 1920. When women waged their own kind of battles for the right to cast a ballot, they used your face on the banner; and when I washed my sins clean with the wine-turned-blood of the chalice and the bread-turned-body from the hands of the priest, I wondered if you felt such discomfort from the communion dress like I did; if you weren’t cross-dressing, but just dressing to cross over, to defy confines, to transcend. I think you prayed for those blind men before you left; I think you hoped for their hearts to be opened even as you faded from the world, even as the smoke blinded you and filled your lungs, left you breathless; but I think this time you cried out to Mary, the Mother, who was human once like you, who felt pangs of labor and who cried and who might understand, who might answer more than someone whose soles have never touched ground, who couldn’t feel pain. I like to think you asked her not to end your pain, but to make it heard, to make it matter, to save you but to save animas nostras fratrum, propinquorum et benefactorum nostrorum ab aeterna damnatione eripias.
Part II: An Excavation
Grant me by your divine and powerful intercession, the courage and strength I need to endure this constant fight-St. Joan of Arc Novena
The shovel is taller than I am, but I adjust accordingly as my rubber boots squish in spring mud. I’m careful to step over the night-crawlers that bask and breathe the rain in through skin the color of the earth that sustains and houses them.
The trick is to jump up on the flat part of the metal trough, put your full weight into it, push down the wooden handle, and repeat. The left corner of the yard covers quickly with pits. I sift through the dirt carefully, my hands muddied and dirt-caked, a small pile of artifacts stretched out on our cracked and moss-covered picnic table. Nothing fancy, junk mostly. A blue glassed medicine bottle, sharp brown and white ceramic shards, a strip of metal, maybe aluminum or tin, too rusted up to discern the type. One person’s junk is a seven-year old’s first archival collection. My grandmother sleeps on the couch inside, worn out from playing Fox and the Hound all Day (she was the grumpy old hound-dog that breaks his leg in the end and I was Copper). She wouldn’t like all the grass stains on the knees of my brand new blue jeans and all of the mud flung on the toes of my yellow construction boots. But no need to worry about that now. There’s digging to be done.
The rain is thin-whisped, misty, not a drizzle, still enough to make my hands pruny; it makes my hair stick to my shoulders. I hate my hair when it’s long, want my follicles on the sides to feel like velvet when I touch them, but I’ve got my first communion in a week so I have to wait.
Last week, my 1st grade and religious education teacher, Mrs. Kampf, let us try some unblessed communion wafers. They stick to your tongue and melt-not a liquid, but no longer a solid; difficult to swallow. She didn’t let us have any wine, but she warned us of its bitterness, so take just a tiny sip, then make a sign of the cross and, hands folded, return to your pew.
She asked us to take this seriously. I take it very seriously. I study my devotional nightly, know the prayers, the priest’s Eucharistic liturgy by heart; I try to let Jesus into my heart, but the more I try, the harder it seems to be. Still, belief is enough. Another scoop of dirt, and I take a break, search through my piles. There’s not too much in this one; a couple of pebbles, a pill bug, a metal cap off an old glass Pepsi bottle.
I’ve already decided that I’m not going to tell my mom that I hate my dress or my hair. I won’t complain when I put on the delicate lace gloves passed down to me from her, given to her by my grandmother, given to my grandmother by my great-grandmother, Marguerite, the woman whose name I will add to mine as a sign of my confirmation.
I’m not going to tell Mom that sometimes, I wish I was named Joseph or Michael, not going to tell her that Joan of Arc was my first choice for my additional name, but she mentioned Marguerite as her favorite, so I let Joan go, though Joan is still my chosen saint, still the one I send my prayers to before bed each night.
These untruths are not lies, but I am not honest. This will take me years to understand and even then, my comprehension of it is fuzzy. Instead, I search below the surface, rummage through piles and clods of dirt until I find something that makes sense, something permanent.
I keep doing this for years, eventually with a pen, with paper, words become shovel and artifact, scouring down to my bedrock, searching for something lost or maybe it’s something not yet found-the debris heavy, but my spirit thirsty, my soul willing.
Triptych Part III: For Courage
In the face of your enemies, in the face of harassment, ridicule, and doubt, you held firm in your faith.
Even in your abandonment, alone and without friends, you held firm in your faith.
Even as you faced your own mortality, you held firm in your faith.
I pray that I may be as bold in my beliefs as you, St. Joan.
I ask that you ride alongside me in my own battles.
Help me be mindful that what is worthwhile can be won when I persist.
Help me hold firm in my faith.
Help me believe in my ability to act well and wisely. Amen.
- “Prayer to St. Joan for Faith”-Prayer to St. Joan for Courage (Roberts).
Someday, he will look back at those pictures and try to connect the dots through clouded memories, discern the meaning in his own messy scribbles. He will eventually pick the path that feels authentic, but he will question it and himself every step of the way. Even today, he finds doubts in his doctrine of acceptance, of truth. When he takes communion in folded hands, he will experience a tinge of guilt, glimpse a mortal sin in his skewed new reflection from the yellow of the cup. He will notice no one notices this, not like they did before, what makes him feel like he doesn’t fit here also helps him seem fit by the others who come to give thanks and break bread. He asks to be forgiven either way, just in case, but he stays after and sometimes, he thinks he even hears something that feels like faith.
In reflection, he will wonder whether Sister Mary Ellen, the pastoral administrator of his small rural parish back home, was concerned about his queerness when she mentioned he should seriously consider taking a vow of chastity, joining the convent, spending his life as bride of Christ. He questions her motives, mainly. He has never been particularly prone to the perfection required for such ritualistic living standards; as an altar server, he often misplaced the gemmed golden chalice and plate on God’s table; the priest sighed, his robes swished around his feet as he rushed to fix the spacing between the Holy Book and the Holy Tableware.
He will leave the church for a while because he needs time to heal, and he will come back to the altar, changed, his voice lower, his shoulder squared and confident that this transition is his mission, his journey, perhaps not divine but something just as significant and true.
He’ll think about St. Joan, when it’s quiet, when the sun sets over the rural landscape of his hometown in Central Michigan, when the organ echoes in the cavernous cathedral. He’ll hope that she was like him, that God let her wear whatever she wanted once she got up there, that Jesus compliments her taste in suits, in ties. He will still pray most through her, as a vessel, a messenger; he will understand that he can’t re-write her to fit his needs, but also knows that he needs at least one facet of this faith to fit who he is, how he feels. He will ask for forgiveness, he will ask for the power to forgive all the pain caused by Papal declarations, by Bennedict XVI and other wrinkled up Patriarchs that felt it necessary to speak hate towards anyone not straight, but who allowed pedophiliac priests to hide in their ranks. He will pray for those children too.
He will feel his faith most in the comfort of this new body, a resurrection of its own accord, a second chance at life, at becoming. He will have no explanation when folks ask why he still practices, why he keeps this problematic aspect of the path he walks. But he will know that he would feel less like himself without it. He hopes that St. Joan sings baritone in the choirs of angels, that it’s her in those sustained low notes that hang in the air even after the Mass has finished. Mostly, he will ask her for bravery, for kindness, for a gentle ferocity that mends hearts, and wills minds to bend around conventions. In this he will pray, and say amen.
 “The souls of our brethren, relations, and benefactors from eternal damnation”- “The Litany of Saints”, Author Unknown.
Alex Clark is an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University and an associate editor at Passages North, NMU's literary magazine. His work explores the shift in privilege experienced by trans masculine folks after they medically transition, and the way gender performance intersects with family, faith, and all of the other parts of life.
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By Mira Martin-Parker
She hugs me. She tells me to take off my clothes and lie down on the table, under the sheet. She pokes me with needles and says I need to stay in the present. She says I wear too much black and that my butt channel is blocked. Let’s unblock the butt channel, she says, laughing as she opens a pack of needles. I scream. I guess that one’s done its job, she says, laughing again, as she pulls out another needle. You need to drink more water. Add lemon to it. Ten pints day, but you’re a little small for that. Try eight instead. She squeezes me here and there. Does this hurt? Here? Here? What about here? She tells me about a magician who only performs for other magicians. He’s a master, but he doesn’t do it for the money. She rubs my ears and she rubs my scalp. She asks me the name of my son. She tells me to let her know when the moxa begins to burn. I scream and she removes the moxa. She tells me how to prepare greens with coconut oil, maple syrup, soy sauce, Sriracha, and sesame oil. I try to remember this. She laughs and tells me to roll over. She rubs my neck and lower back. She sticks more needles in me. Breathe. Breathe! she says. No more writing about your past. Your world is you. You are the god of it. There are no other people, just you. Breathe. Drink water and cranberry juice mixed with flax seeds. Come to my tai che class. Breathe. And stay in the present. Remember, those thoughts are not useful. Read the street signs and notice the names. Notice everything new. Soak your feet in Epsom salt. Meditate. Eat mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. Grains constipate, they make you hot. You are too hot. We need to cool you down, so no more hot sauce. She pounds my neck, then removes the needles in my back. Take your time getting dressed, she says. She gives me a bottle of round ball barring-like pills on the way out. Eight, three times a day. And breathe. Stay in the present. No more writing about the past. She hugs me. Next week, same time.
Mira Martin-Parker earned an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the Istanbul Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Mythium, and Zyzzyva. Her collection of short stories, The Carpet Merchant’s Daughter, won the 2013 Five [Quarterly] e-chapbook competition.
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By Lancaster Cooney
Peterbaugh sparked a match only to have it blown. By the third installation he fell under the influence of commonsense and waited out the oscillatory behaviors of the fan. Rivulets of smoke spouted from each nostril before wafting up to feed at the underbelly of the ceiling. He tossed a soft pack of Marlboro Reds on the nightstand and retrieved a tin ashtray. It looked like a tiny flying saucer that had crashed a whole bunch of times. On his left hand only the thumb, pointer and index remained, giving off the impression of some sort of wing-ed creature scooping up prey. Magpies bucked off the shades, elongated in suffrage and shadow. And by the way the sun shone through he could tell the day was nearly behind him, where he preferred it to be. Sheets clung to his loins, so he tossed them asunder to reveal the double amputation of his legs. Each packed and nestled into healthy hunks of skin just below the knee, like two enormous hotdogs you’d never want to eat. With the reverie of a gymnast he mounted a dilapidated wheelchair that groaned with the application of his weight. His arms were lean and ropey strong, veins rose up in his forearms and hands like little cities built by perpetual motion. Such laughable coupling was physical fitness on the cripple, and he believed quite wholly that God’s tricks were many.
An air-conditioning unit cauterized and reinforced with duct tape feed air into the kitchen and living room. Peterbaugh’s mama tied yarn to the grates to gauge output and was pleased to watch them dance. The kitchen was clean, save for a few dishes rinsed and set to dry on a dishrack. She put those away and ran a rag over the counter. In the ten or so years since the accident she’d taken to cleaning with an unending ferocity, as though some loose incoherent transmissions were ceaselessly dictating her actions. Peterbaugh come to know her as nothing more than an artifact, antiquated her to nothing more than routine. His daddy took to The Empty Elk most days, movin’ about with the ingenuity of a tic, suckin’ back bottles and pissin’ their savings. Peterbaugh pulled a Budweiser from the fridge and beheaded the bottle at the sink. Its aluminum skull bounced and flipped in the porcelain basin. He’d yet to find a more exemplary paring than that of alcohol and tobacco, and not a day gone by where he’d not married the two together.
His headaches had lessened over the years, but one come on strong, beginning as always with just a flicker, something so minute and small that most would hardly notice. But by the end Peterbaugh found himself in the throes of a delineated sadness, so severe, so Heaven sent that he could hardly muster the want to live. And when he closed his eyes a chaos enraptured at the backs of the lids in grandiose flecks of refracted light so dense with pain that he no longer questioned the existence of hell. When it finally passed he found himself in a type of euphoria, senses hypervigilant, as though the curiosity of a child was momentarily hardwired into his brain and there was an inner voice saying, “What’s that?! And, that?! And, that?!”
Outside nothing was doing. Peterbaugh sat on the porch and smoked another Red, eyeing the make shift gravestones not twenty yards beyond. His daddy buried his legs there. Collected what was left of Little Sue and put her in the ground right alongside them. She deserved no part of all that, but some things come to an end and God grants no explanation. He was only a boy then, no more than eleven or twelve, and she three years his junior. Mama bid them passage from the dinner table and they sauntered out into the evenin’ with mason jars for collecting lightning bugs. Dusk come on without provocation, absent of symmetry and before long they found themselves beyond the brush watching the train. “What a beast,” she said, watching the mechanical whale and its sluggish transgression. Peterbaugh loaded her up between cars and come to suit right alongside her. Engineer none the wiser. Only found out around Mineola what sort of carnage he left in his wake. Gravity had its way. And then it all went to fervor, snippets in an accordion motion. Mama screaming like a chorus from a song, “Where’s Sue? Where’s Sue? Where’s Sue?” Daddy flogging belt from loop, fashioning a makeshift tourniquet to stall the blood. Nurse scrubbing at his hands to eliminate infection, fingers danglin’ from thin lines of skin like spit hanging off a lip, before snapping loose onto the floor. When he come to, she was gone, and by all things measureable, so was he.
They’d all been dyin’ slow ever since.
Daddy come in not long after the moon and seemed ripe with aggression. Peterbaugh still sat out back on the porch sipping on Budweiser’s and sipping on smoke. Daddy walked past mama with no more curtesy than an animal in the wild might vegetation, meat eater though, one who’d never eat of it. When he came out back Peterbaugh showed no such acknowledgment. He leaned against the wooden railing, rot by age and neglect. Past the brush whispers begot whispers.
“Train been thru?” his daddy asked.
“Not right yet,” Peterbaugh answered.
When it came it appeared more like an apparition than any such worldly creation. Metal begot metal, steam begot steam. “Seems like it gets closer every night,” said daddy, “Soon enough, liable to barrel right through the living room.” With this he reached into Peterbaugh’s shirt and hipped out the pack of Marlboro Reds. He sparked a match and a subtle glow gained his features and just as easily let them go.
“I blame you for pullin’ me off them tracks,” said Peterbaugh.
“And I blame you for livin’,” said his daddy.
Lancaster Cooney graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a B.F.A. in Playwriting. His work can be found or is forthcoming at decomP, Alice Blue Review, Everyday Genius, Gone Lawn, Matchbook Lit Mag, The Indianola Review and Heavy Feather Review, among others. He lives with his wife, two daughters and pup in the Northern Kentucky area. He is currently working on his first novel.
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By Claire Hopple
I’m sure you’re aware of the rumors about you. I’m sure I’m not the only student writing you a letter about it. Though I must ask, because I’m rather out of practice, why do you require a letter? Isn’t that a little old-fashioned? I heard it was because you love writing letters. That you write them so habitually and fluidly that you’re athletic about your letter-writing. I also heard it’s because you’re lonely. I just started writing this letter and I’m already insulting you, so clearly I’m off to a good start.
I hesitated writing you because I couldn’t possibly believe this would do anything for me. But yesterday, using the bathroom at the end of the hall on the 2nd floor of the Arts & Sciences building, none of the automatic faucets or paper towel dispensers would recognize my frantic waving and I thought maybe I could be a ghost. This would not have been my only clue. And then, as if mocking me, I saw a scrap of paper towel on the floor. It was shaped like a leaf as if it were attempting to reincarnate.
So I thought I’d give this a shot. And though I love this city filled with people who are a little too blunt and probably wear sweatshirts too often, and I even love the winters with their melancholic wisps of snow, the winters here are too long. It is now, as you know, sufficiently warm outside, but I feel like I’m still fighting the chill of a few months ago.
You were seen sitting with two students (young, rather cute girls) I don’t really know, just social-media-know, outside on a bench in front of the student center, so I’m assuming I’m too late for this, but I have to try.
Below are the reasons why, if those aforementioned rumors are true, I deserve to visit Thailand:
I’ve never been out of the country. Canada doesn’t really count. My roommate studied abroad in Italy last semester and she came back saying things like, “You know how Italian men are always picking you up,” and I don’t. Or “You know what those little noodles are called that look like ears,” and I don’t.
Because I’m tired of listening to the susurrus of the leaky water heater in the hall closet that sounds like the roar of a crowd when I wake up in the night, as if many people are cheering me on to pee. (Here I go talking about using the restroom in this letter TWICE now.) I’d rather hear the gulf outside your townhouse on the outskirts of Bangkok. My roommate and I often discuss who will call the landlord about the water heater but it’s the whole “diffusion of responsibility” principle at work. Like the Kitty Genovese case without the murder. Or at least I think, I assume, no lives have ended over something like this.
I bought all of these tiny, bright plants in equally tiny, bright containers to display in every room of my apartment. I dutifully watered them but they died off anyway, one by one. Such melodramatic plants. I dumped the dead plants, cleaned their containers and left them out dazzlingly empty.
When I was twelve, we visited my aunt in Boston and we all thought it’d be fun to go on a whale watch downtown. We saw no whales. Not even a lump of trash in the harbor that could be mistaken for a tail.
Because I have two states: I’m either trying to humor my father or deliberately trying not to humor him.
I saw this girl at dinner the other night who looked really familiar. I couldn’t place her at first, but after staring for too long, I figured it out. The girl was one of my selves. I have always imagined myself as three potential people, three possible outcomes living in three very distinct ways. This girl was the slightly chubby, overly confident self I had not become. I thought that self might try for something like this.
Everyone has a tell, like in poker. Every time I start recounting a story this guy who is supposed to be my best friend immediately gulps at his water bottle. That’s his tell. He gulps the water as if desperately wanting to sustain himself, help fight against the asinine.
Because I can say “Bangkok” without laughing. And that’s more than I can say about that best friend of mine.
Learning French in middle school, I would always get my pronouns confused. “I” is “Je,” not “tu” or “vous,” I remember now. You are not me. I am not you. But why not? Professor Wynn, why not get as close as we can?
Maybe it’s my extreme affinity for orderliness, but I thought it was appropriate to list ten reasons. When looking through missed calls or unread texts or even emails that I don’t want to respond to, I ease my guilt by saying, “I could be busy. I could be very busy.” And I’ve been saying that a lot.
I just noticed that I am pressing my pen hard into this paper and my words are making a substantial impact. There are indents like brail on the pages. I think it’s because I want them to make a substantial impact on you. I will probably type this up before I send it to you, but forgive my exuberance. It can be as gruesome as a tuber freshly plucked from underground (I used to live on a potato farm). But I don’t want to be underground any longer. If you really do let students stay at your townhouse, please consider me.
Back Row, Fourth Seat from Your Left
Claire Hopple’s fiction has been published in Monkeybicycle, Bluestem, Quarter After Eight, Timber, Hermeneutic Chaos, District Lit, Maudlin House, Third Point Press, Crab Fat and others. She's just a steel town girl on a Saturday night.
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