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Foliate Oak November 2017
By Flose Boursiquot
Mwen pa renmen jan li ap pede gade mwen.
Mama never bothers to ask the young girl why she looks at her so much. All she knows is that those wondering brown eyes against that dark skin make her uncomfortable. It’s not the first time her family has taken in a restavek. Her parents are most often who families come to when their children become a burden. In her 10 years of life she’s seen six children trot through the front gate with a bundled plastic bag extending from their bellies. The conversations are always the same.
Madame Bougiyon, mwen pa ka pran swen l ankò.
Twelve years ago, when Madame Bougiyon turned over in bed restlessly, her husband knew something was plaguing. It had been almost five months since they’d stop trying to have a baby; ten years since they’d started.
Cheri, kisa w genyen?
He nudged closer to her, embracing her round body.
An nou adopte yon timoun.
She had been rehearsing an elegant line to bring her husband across the finish line to adoption, but at this late hour, negotiation felt forced.
Si se sa ki ap fè kè ou kontan.
Many in the neighborhood often laugh at Monsieur Bougiyon. It seems he always lets his wife have her way. Tonight he felt her breath release upon agreeing to adopt a child. From the time he was a young man, Monsieur Bougiyon had a different understanding of love than the young men who ran through his front yard.
Madame Bougiyon is not an easy woman to love, she wasn’t the first day they met at the lunch counter. Monsieur Bougiyon had just finished his morning shift at the hospital. It was around noon. In those days he was training as a nurse and only worked the first few hours after dawn. Madame Bougiyon worked as a teacher at the all girls school across from Papa Gil’s, the most popular lunch counter in all of La Vallee, Jacmel.
Anvan yè ti bòl diri sa te senk dola. Kounye a li sèt dolla. Sa pa moral, Filip.
Monsieur Bougiyon looked around the room, wondered if he should walk the five miles home and eat there, but he decided to do something no man had ever mustered the courage to try.
See Madame Bougiyon was quite a beauty. By far the best dressed of the new teachers at the school. Her breasts, like her attitude, stood firm, like melons underneath her carefully ironed dress suits. Although it was only her fourth year teaching, her students always scored the highest. Nuns would peek into her classroom with their wandering gaze. It is said they whispered that Madame Bougiyon was what they prayed for in silence. Others say, the devil sent her to play a sick joke on the catholic church. After-all, she was not a docile woman. Rumor has it that she once told the head priest to stick his cross in a place where the Holy Trinity does not belong. Oh no, don’t get the wrong impression. Madame Bougiyon is quite the religious woman; she’s first to get to church on Sunday and the most beautiful voice in the choir.
Standing in the doorway, Monsieur Bougiyon thought to do something no man had ever mustered the courage to try.
Filip, madmwazèl la gen yon rezon. Anvan yè m peye senk dola pou ti bòl an diri sa.
Madame Bougiyon stopped. Her eyebrows moved further apart and her fierce red lips stopped their wrinkle. Filip looked around his father’s restaurant in disbelief. Well, yes of course, the price for a bowl of cooked rice was merely five dollars yesterday. He upped the price, he’s allowed to do that, it’s his father’s restaurant. But see, Filip was not the kind of man who got so riled up on a Monday. He smiled at the woman in the gray dress suit and gave his soccer buddy a menacing look — what some friends will do for ass. His menaced look soon smirked, he wondered if Monsieur Bougiyon knew better than to seduce Madame Bougiyon. No man had ever mustered the courage to try.
Madame Bougiyon was still stopped. Monsieur Bougiyon offered to buy her lunch, she nodded, but she was still stopped. No man had stood up for her before, she simply never needed it. As a young girl, she was known to drag young boys from the waterfall and back to their mother’s wombs for no-good behavior. Rumor has it that she came out of her mother already a sturdy woman. She just sort of crawled her way out of the woman then scolded her father for not cutting the umbilical chord properly.
Monsieur Bougiyon fell in love with her in that way. She never hid any part of herself. Madame Bougiyon simply couldn’t hide much of who she was. Monsieur Bougiyon fell in love with her in that way. And as the story tells it, she fell in love with him too. He was the only one who could ever settle her down until she got soft enough to understand. Outsiders struggled to see her, but he got her soft enough to understand.
That night, when they agreed to adopt, she cried in his arms. Legend tells it that Madame Bougiyon did not cry when she was born. But that night she cried in her husband’s arms. The tears were of joy. Many thought she was too hard to be a mother, but not her Filip.
A flower never grows in hard soil, the neighborhood women would whisper. A flower never grows in hard soil, her doctor thought after the seventh miscarriage. A flower never grows in hard soil, Madame Bougiyon was beginning to think.
My wife makes nourishing soil, Monsieur Bougiyon knew. So that night he agreed to take in other people’s children.
The next morning, with half of his stethoscope hanging from each side of his neck, he kissed her goodbye while she finished her espageti ak aransol. Madame Bougiyon started to eat it for breakfast every morning after her second miscarriage.
Ti bebe bezwen yon manman ki fò, cheri, mange sa pou mwen.
Madame Bougiyon, Monsieur Bougiyon’s mother, patted Madame Bougiyon’s forehead. Her dotted white hand caressed the woman’s brown forehead. Madame Bougiyon was too weak to feed herself. This miscarriage had taken so much out of her. The baby had become so much of a baby that the doctor had her push it out. That thought kept her awake at night.
But the baby had become so much of a baby that I bought a crib.
But the baby had become so much of a baby that I sang sweet songs to it.
But that baby had become so much of a baby that I made it a jumper for its first night home.
Cheri, pa kriye. Oh, cheri, pa kriye.
Madame Bougiyon moved closer to Madame Bougiyon and held her close. She never had a daughter. Four sons is what she had. Two of her babies miscarried so she might have had a daughter, but she never had a daughter.
Cheri, pa kriye. Oh, cheri, pa kriye.
Madame Bougiyon held her daughter-in-law with softness. Madame Bougiyon was too hard for her to love when Monsieur Bougiyon brought her and Monsieur Bougiyon to the madmwazèl’s family home up where red earth covers everything. She was too hard to love for many years. Monsieur Bougiyon once heard his parents whispering about how the woman before Madame Bougiyon should have been their daughter. She was too hard to love for many years. Then one day the wise roots realized that hard soil is best for keeping weeds away.
Cheri, pa kriye. Oh, cheri, pa kriye.
Two years shy of Madame Bougiyon asking her husband to take in other people’s children, she became pregnant. It is true they were not trying this time. It is also true that she often became pregnant. There were no celebrations. It is said that Madame Bougiyon simply cried when she found out. It is said she was known to be the woman with the most miscarriages in La Vallee, Jacmel.
This one carried itself the whole way. Madame Bougiyon would not let Monsieur Bougiyon convince her to go see Ti Jean, the medicine man. This one carried itself the whole way.
It came out covered in blood and howling at the moon. Monsieur Bougiyon knew it would come with a vagina, but Madame Bougiyon refused to name it. This went on for three months. Madame Bougiyon, the child’s grandmother, would walk the eight miles to see it everyday. When it was time to leave she would look at Madame Bougiyon in despair and ask her to name her grandchild.
Bay ti bebe a yon non, cheri. Ba li yon non.
Madame Bougiyon had grown to love the aging root, but she shook her head in disagreement. She also hadn’t gone to church since the child was born. It is said that the church lost members in those three months, some even became protestants. What is a catholic church without beautiful singing and what is a choir without its leader. The nuns at the all girls school would run across the yard in a frenzy. The head priest of all the head priests was on his way in a couple of weeks and their best was nowhere in sight.
Monsieur Bougiyon had a different idea about these things, but he let Madame Bougiyon be. Then one morning with the child suckling on her breast she said, Mama.
Monsieur Bougiyon repeated the name until it became Mama. It was always meant to be a Mama he thought. Mama.
The first time Madame Bougiyon left the house with Mama in her arms she did so with a firm step. No lougarou dared to come near the child. Not even when Monsieur Bougiyon left medicine and went into politics. Legend has it that the child was born covered in blood and howling at the moon so no lougarou dared to come near what already claimed its place in the universe.
Even with her own, Madame Bougiyon, never stopped taking in other people’s children. She, Monsieur Bougiyon and Mama had plenty, and so she never stopped taking in other people’s children.
Flose Boursiquot is a Haitian-born writer and spoken word artist. Her first body of work, Close Your Eyes, Now Breathe, published in January 2017 to enthusiastic response. Flose works at Space of Mind, an alternative schoolhouse, where she teaches humanities with a keen focus on government, and spoken and written expression.
* * *
When You Lose the Love of Your Life
By Bonnie Carlson
You knew it would happen. It was inevitable, after all. He had terminal cancer. He was sick for a long time. In terrible pain. And yet why didn't you have a plan? A plan for what you'd do when you were alone. When you became, finally, a widow. Feel free to hate that word. Who aspires to become a widow? There's absolutely nothing good about it, or even minimally acceptable, for that matter.
You have every right to be angry, to be rageful. He robbed you of the beautiful retirement plans you had. Relaxing on Sunday with The New York Times. The trip to Tuscany you never got to take. The camping trips to the Grand Tetons you'll never make. Ziplining in Costa Rica. None of it, dammit.
When the funeral is over, when the family has left, when all those stupid casseroles are gone, there'll be time to wallow. Go ahead, you deserve it. No one deserves it more than you. Go for an entire week without showering. Stay in your pajamas watching Home Shopping Network (which you've never even seen before). Or Lifetime movies. Stay up all night watching old movies and SVU reruns and sleep all day. Who cares? Who’d even know?
Go ahead and yell at him. Rant and rave all you want to. He deserves it! And he can take it. He was strong enough to go through radiation and chemo, and anyhow, he's dead. Tell him how pissed off you are that you didn't get to grow old with him, that he left you have to face growing old by yourself. That wasn’t the plan.
Put that photo where you can’t see it if you need to. You know, the one of the two of you on the deck of that ship on the cruise to Alaska that you finally got to take. But first, take a good close look. Look at his soft, kind eyes and his lopsided smile, that almost undetectable scar on the side of his face where he had that skin cancer removed, one of many. He's wearing those Maui Jim sunglasses you bought for his birthday, the ones he thought were way too expensive, and that bright orange down parka you told him he was gonna need on that trip. Remember how he said he felt like he looked like a pumpkin when he wore it and you told him he looked cute?
And after a year, when nobody wants to hear about it anymore, when your friends' silence says, "Aren't you over it yet?" go ahead and sob your eyes out. Bawl all you need to, in the privacy of your bedroom, which you shared with the love of your life.
And when the kids call, on the anniversary of his death, tell them that you're doing fine, that you knew it was coming and you were prepared for it. There’s nothing wrong with lying about how well you're doing, how you're moving on. How could you ever be prepared to lose your soulmate? The man you only found after so many false starts with other men who were jerks. Moving on? Hah! Are you kidding? There are still days when you can hardly get out of bed. Days when you can barely eat cereal for dinner. When you have cocktails for lunch and then take a nap and forget to feed Gibson until he barks you awake.
It's okay if some days the only reason to get out of bed is to feed and walk the dog, 'cause Gibson misses him too. Possibly even more than you do. It’s all right if you still can't look at that adorable black-and-white fluffball of unconditional love and not see Reed, so sometimes you just try to avoid looking at that poor, bereft dog, wondering when his master, his daddy, is going to come back. You know just how he feels. Sucks, doesn’t it?
And when you’re invited to the homes of couples, good friends you and Reed enjoyed when he was alive, by all means decline. Being around couples, however well-meaning, is the last thing you need right now. Screw it if they get tired of you turning them down and don't invite you anymore!
It's okay to remember the bad times too, because every marriage that lasts goes through rough patches. Like that time that his daughter moved in, toddler in tow, all terrible twos, after that asshole she was living with beat her up for the third time. What a nightmare. I was pretty sure we weren't going to survive that one, but we did.
And what about the that time you were so sure he was having an affair that you . . . It doesn't matter what you almost did though, does it, because you made it through that one too. How were you supposed to know that that woman he spent so much time with at work, always on the phone, was lesbian and had girlfriend?
And if someone, like the children, your sister, or your BFF, says some version of "Don't you think it's time to get rid of his clothes?"' it's all right to scream, at least in your mind, "Mind your own fucking business. They're not hurting you, are they? Can't you see that I can still smell him on those clothes?"
Just rein in your anger and sorrow and say simply, "I'm not ready yet."
Who could possibly understand how unbearably painful it is to merely walk into your closet, confronted with all of his clothes, still hanging there? That the act of taking an innocent-looking red plaid shirt off a hanger and folding it could take so much courage?
And yet, there it is, finally, in a neat pile on the bed where you spent so many nights comforting one another.
“Com’ere Gibson, you little cutie-pie.” He ambled over, looking for a scratch behind his ear.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
Bonnie E. Carlson is a retired professor of social work. She lives with her husband, dog Juniper, and three cats in Scottsdale. She has researched and taught about family violence and is completing a novel about a woman struggling to recover from alcohol addiction.
* * *
By Arthur Davis
“Are those seats taken?” the woman asked, standing at the end of the aisle where I was sitting.
What to answer? What to answer? What to answer? “Not yet.”
“No, they’re not taken,” Caroline offered quickly, unable to sustain the tension.
“No,” I finally responded, “and don’t mind her. She’s just being difficult,” I said to both women, then nodding tolerantly toward Caroline sitting to my left. I could feel the searing stare from Caroline’s grandmother sitting next to her.
The two women were standing, waiting for me to get up and let them pass. “Of course we are delighted to have you both join us in our favorite row and, if you want, I can hold that mammoth tub of popcorn while you get settled.”
The younger woman, a beautiful, trim figure in her thirties, much like Caroline, with intelligence streaming out of stunning sea-blue eyes, with what also might be a much older friend or relative at her side.
“Should I trust him?” she asked Caroline.
Now why would that be a concern? How could she possibly know?
Without missing a beat Caroline answered, “You would have to be clear out of your mind to even think such a thing.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Smart girl,” Caroline said.
“I have no idea who these two women are,” I said to the popcorn princess. “They just plopped themselves down next to me a few seconds before you got here. Lord only knows where they came from.”
Nearly everyone in the row directly in front of me turned, quickly taking in both women next to me and the two standing at my side.
Caroline slowly lifted her left hand and the engagement ring in front of my face. “No idea at all? Really?”
“Oh, yeah, now I remember.”
Caroline fisted up and gently punched my shoulder.
“Ouch!” I exaggerated. “I get punched a lot,” I said to the popcorn princess and her companion.
“He doesn’t get punched nearly enough,” Caroline’s grandmother blurted out. Two women sitting in front of her turned, laughing. “He’s such an evil person,” she added, causing more heads to turn.
“Is he always like this?”
Caroline considered the princess’s question. I could tell she had taken a liking to both women. They were close to a twin pair, like she and her grandmother. “Only when we are out with grownups.”
“I can see how that would be a concern,” the princess said.
“When he’s home asleep, he’s an angel.”
“Nonsense. He’s the devil.”
“We already guessed that,” the popcorn princess’s friend acknowledged to Caroline’s grandmother.
“So, what’s the deal with your offer to hold my popcorn?” the princess turned and asked me.
“There is no deal, as you so suspiciously put it. In fact, I think you will find my terms to be quite reasonable.”
“Terms! You have terms?” the princess asked, unable to contain her surprise.
“I have expenses and obligations, so I naturally have terms.”
Caroline raised her hand, and interrupted, “Before he goes any further, just a suggestion.”
“Yes?” the princess asked.
“You should run away now, and as fast as possible, and take any seat in the theater and please, please, please take me and my grandmother with you.”
There was a deafening pause as the popcorn princess considered her options. Heads were turned from seats near and far. “Thanks, and while I appreciate your concern,” the princess said, straightening up, “I’m really curious about the terms.”
“So am I,” her companion added.
“So am I,” a woman directly behind Caroline blurted out.
“We all want to know the terms,” a man two rows down said, laughing.
“You poor woman,” a woman two rows behind us, rang out.
“Hey, how come no one ever takes my side?” I asked anyone who would listen.
“Because it takes anyone about thirty seconds to figure out who they are dealing with and just as quickly ask themselves how come I haven’t strangled you in your sleep.”
“Oh,” I said, turning to the two women standing. “She’s tried. They all try. I’m pretty sure my mother tried on more than one occasion.”
Now everyone from rows around was laughing, except for Caroline’s grandmother. I could tell she wished she had accesses to a sharp instrument.
“I can see why,” the princess said.
I was all alone here. Two women on my left were about to strangle me, and two strangers were about to urge them on. “So, to the terms?” I asked.
“Finally,” a different guy said.
“I can hardly wait to hear this.”
Caroline nodded approvingly to the popcorn princess. “Me too.”
“So, there are obviously some various fixed and variable expenses I will incur when I take on the responsibility of securing and protecting your popcorn. They include, but are certainly not limited to, taking on adequate insurance. There is the City’s and State’s onerous and unconscionable Popcorn Transfer Tax. There are a myriad of registration and administrative fees I have to advance just to file the proper forms which I then have to register with the owners of this noteworthy establishment; and, depending on how long you take to get to your seats, I might have to hire temporary help to hold the popcorn and share the responsibility. Then there is the more problematic question of whether or not the popcorn itself is your rightful property! Who knows, my act of kindness may entangle me in a broad, international, criminal enterprise masterminded by the both of you where the future of this truly innocent soul is irreparably compromised.”
The guy two rows down got up applauding. So did his friend. A dozen women nearby looked like they wanted my name and address so they could hunt me down, while pondering where the police were at times like this.
“You poor, poor woman,” the princess said to Caroline and unceremoniously dropped the tub of popcorn in my lap. “So, okay, I agree to your insane terms, and I expect in turn not to lose a single kernel of my popcorn,” she said and squeezed by me.
Her companion followed, offering Caroline’s grandmother a heartfelt, “We’re here for you.”
“Okay,” the popcorn princess acknowledged, holding out both hands in my direction as soon as she dropped into her seat. “Let’s have it.”
“Here you go, and out of the kindness of my, my, my, ah…”
“Heart?” Caroline offered. “Is that the word you’re looking for?”
“Yeah, that thing and, under one condition I am willing to waive my modest fees.”
“Which is?” the princess asked.
“Which is that you say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Wonderful,’” I answered, handing over the tub of popcorn with as big a grin as I could muster.
Caroline quickly buried her face in my neck. There was nowhere else for her to hide.
“Thank you my very, completely, and utterly adorable, Mr. Wonderful.”
“Dear God, how quickly you’ve gone over to the dark side,” Caroline’s grandmother bemoaned, grabbing a handful of popcorn as it was passed in front of her to the popcorn princess.
I was surrounded by stares and giggles until, finally, the lights dimmed, and Caroline cuddled closer. “I love you.”
My shoulder still hurt where she hit me. I might have to go on disability and give up my lucrative cliff-diving practice for the blind and disadvantaged. “I haven’t the faintest idea why.”
“None of us have the faintest idea either,” the woman directly behind Caroline added.
More laughter. A hundred pairs of eyes were watching me like I was about to set the planet on fire.
Caroline planted a long, tender kiss on my cheek. “You want know why I love you?”
I nodded my head cautiously, making sure not to say another word that would get me in more trouble.
“Because you can’t help being yourself.”
“Oh.” I would have never guessed.
“Still can’t imagine why he hasn’t been strangled in his sleep,” her grandmother added, with just the right touch of affection.
“Well, the night is young, and we shall see,” Caroline said, and took my hand in hers as the lights dimmed to darkness and the screen exploded with possibilities.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. Over eighty of his stories have been published and nominations received for the Pushcart Prize, and was awarded Honorable Mention in Best American Mystery Stories 2017.
* * *
Celebration of Life
By Ilene Dube
Here’s what we served at your Celebration of Life:
Moroccan eggplant salad
Lentil salad with fennel
Root vegetable kugel
Pot roasted lamb
Yes, I set out little menu cards just the way you used to do, even imitating your calligraphy.
As you can see, there was something for everyone, from gluten free and vegan to paleo palates. The culinary challenges we threw at you are now on my shoulders.
We fulfilled your music requests: Mike, Josh, Ezra and Julie played klezmer in the first hour and after dinner, Ezra played jazz improv on piano with Josh on fiddle. You would have kvelled.
Actually, you would have talked throughout the whole thing. You always considered music something that played in the background.
Maybe from where you are now, you watched the four-day celebration as a play, like the many you took me to see because Daddy didn’t share your passion for theater. In the first act, as we waited for family members to arrive, it became clear why this family rarely reunites.
Josh, Esther and Willem were the first to arrive. Esther reminded us how Daddy always called Josh his Number One Grandson and Willem the number one great grandson—supposedly based on birth order. Even though Josh and Esther never made their union official, it was nice of you not to interfere when they announced Willem was on the way. “That’s the way they do it these days,” you told your bridge ladies. With me you simply spoke your mind: “Shouldn’t she have an abortion?”
Beth flew in from California—if you were alive, I know you’d be anxious, wondering who would Beth align herself with. I was always jealous of the love you doted on Beth. With you gone, she has become like a big sister. I can see that she wants to talk about you; you would be proud that I cut her off whenever she tries.
At dinner, Beth presented Willem with presents; he tore into the origami wrapping paper and fully absorbed himself. Josh, trying to cajole him to get to the toys inside, asked “Did you say thank you, Willem?”
“Thank you MacBeth,” Willem echoed.
And so from that point on we called Beth MacBeth.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, although I did think you were a witch when I was a little girl. Not a full-time witch, but all the times you were mean to me. I used to think you locked my real mother in a castle.
Remember the poster we had in our basement of the beautiful woman whose eyes twinkled through the star filter she was photographed with? I used to think she was my real mother, and I searched for clues in that poster for how I might find and rescue her.
Once I came of age I realized it was PMS that made you act like a witch.
We worried Ezra and Julie would not come because Julie had thrown up into a trashcan at the school where she teaches. Josh and Esther were concerned about Ezra and Julie bringing norovirus, which Willem had thus far avoided at his school.
Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you—Willem will be a big brother! The baby is due on Valentine’s Day. This seems fitting, since you were born on Halloween, conceived me on Mother’s Day and Adam on the Fourth of July, ate your last supper on Passover and died on Easter Sunday. You were all about the holidays. Before you and Daddy died, you kept asking, when are Josh and Esther going to have another? I assured you I had absolutely nothing to do with it, although I suspect you thought you had a hand.
Julie’s nausea turned out to be from menstrual cramps, so as soon as she could get some ibuprofen, she and Ezra boarded the train, arriving late Friday night.
Saturday morning Adam called to say Ascher was in the hospital. One of Daddy’s dying wishes was for Grandson Number Three to find himself—at age 28, Asch was still living in the bedroom he’d grown up in. It wasn’t clear for what he was being hospitalized, but Veronica would stay with him.
MacBeth and I looked at the old black and white photos of you and Aunt Ana, from before I was born. There you were, a Jewish princess in the dresses you designed and made. A fashion designer, you considered yourself an arbiter of taste.
I remember interviewing you about family members I never knew and writing it down. There was your cousin Victor. Beneath his name, in parentheses, I’d written “pedophile.” Suddenly MacBeth and I burst into laughter that squeezed the tears out. This man had lived an entire life, and that one word has become his legacy.
As everyone huddled in the kitchen, I remembered how you liked to have us all cooking together. MacBeth, being very interested in the subconscious, got me thinking that perhaps it was not an accident that kept Asch and Veronica from your celebration of life. She teased out of me how, when Adam was dating Veronica, you told them to get an abortion. Well, I use the word “dating” loosely.
After a year of meeting Veronica in motel rooms, Adam broke up with her. All seemed well until a few months later, she invited him to dinner. “Oh, no,” he told me. “She got the wrong idea. She thinks I want to get back together.”
Shortly thereafter, we learned Veronica was throwing up.
Mom, I tried to understand your position: You wanted to protect your son. You didn’t think he wanted to be with Veronica. He was too young and immature to be a father—he could barely take care of himself.
But when you asked me to call Veronica and tell her to have an abortion, I had to draw the line. I would never tell another woman to have an abortion, especially not while I was pregnant myself, with Ezra. You and I got into a huge fight over this. You didn’t talk to me for weeks. You even conscripted Daddy in your plan to persuade me.
Adam is like a puppy dog—he’ll cave to anyone who pets him behind the ear.
Adam told me he didn’t want the baby, he didn’t want to be with Veronica—but he couldn’t tell her these things. He needed a strong mother to do this for him.
So you called Veronica.
I was trying to grate the root vegetables for the kugel, but it was hard hearing MacBeth while the food processor was running. She was talking about how her mother tried to have an abortion. I turned off the food processor. Mom, you never told me this. You told me Aunt Ana and Uncle Chester were terrible parents and treated MacBeth as if she wasn’t wanted—but you never told me she truly was unwanted. Had I known I wouldn’t have minded that you loved her more than me.
MacBeth said it was Aunt Ana’s mother—your mother—Grandma!—who told Aunt Ana to have the abortion. Who knew anyone even knew what an abortion was in those days? Maybe Grandma knew Uncle Chester was a bad apple. Whenever MacBeth told her mother about the abuse, Aunt Ana would say Uncle Chester was working too hard.
These were the days of the depression, when you all lived in Grandma’s one-bedroom apartment. MacBeth often slept with you in the kitchen. She would wet the bed. No wonder you loved the theater.
When MacBeth was 13, after Uncle Chester had had his way with her, she began throwing up. So Aunt Ana packed up the family and they drove to California, MacBeth barfing in the back seat.
They stopped somewhere in Arizona, and Aunt Ana looked through the phone book for a doctor. She took MacBeth in for an appendectomy. This was how abortion was done in those days.
You were pregnant with me at the time.
At family gatherings we always told the story of the pot roast. How the husband of a newly married couple watched his wife cut the end of the brisket before she placed it in the pot. When he asked her why she did that, she said because it was what her mother did. The husband went to the mother and asked why she cut the butt off the roast. Same response: her mother always did it. The man went to the grandmother, who told him she cut the meat because the pot was not big enough to fit the whole piece.
Now I can see that the reason you told Veronica to have an abortion was because Grandma’s pot was too small for the roast.
Adam did not come to your celebration of life. He and Veronica stayed in the hospital with Asch. Veronica wanted him more than anything nearly 30 years ago. Not only was he an excuse to get her man back, but she wanted to mother a child. Adam, too, wanted Asch, so much that they went on to have Emma and Sara.
Never trust your brother when he tells you he wants to break up with the girl he made pregnant.
“Oy vey,” said MacBeth.
At the dinner table, MacBeth started us on a game. We went around the room and told embarrassing, outlandish, stories. Emma and Sara told stories that ended in throwing up.
There was always a barrier between Veronica and me—it was as if I were the one who had suggested she have an abortion. I never got credit for celebrating the life she and my brother brought into this world. But now that you were out of the picture, Emma and Sara seemed ready to warm to me.
Emma and Sara had never come to our seders so I found myself telling them about the pharaoh, the slaves and the plagues, but stopped when I got to the part about the lamb shank and the mark of blood on the door of every home where the first-born son was to be spared. It didn’t seem right to be talking about death at your celebration of life.
“Asch held it in for too long,” Emma said.
MacBeth had drawn something out of her.
“Held what in?”
When Asch was a little boy, his friend’s house got broken into. Asch’s friend’s older brother was babysitting for them. All three were in the mother’s bedroom when three figures, dressed in black pants, black turtlenecks, and with their heads covered with black stockings, stole into the house. They tied the boys’ hands behind their backs and tied bandanas over their mouths so they couldn’t shout. The boys were so terrified they nearly passed out, and the older boy, who was babysitting, tried especially to protect his two charges to no avail as the three figures filled pillowcases with gold, diamonds, watches and fur. The boys were emotionally traumatized. Later, it was learned, the three nylon-clothed figures worked at the salon where Asch’s friend’s mother had her hair done and apparently had shown off her wealth.
“It turns out,” began Sara, “that it was even worse than Asch or any of the boys talked about at the time.” The women in black, their facial features pressed against hose, had raped the boys.
“Maybe if Asch had talked about it, instead of repressing it, he wouldn’t have swallowed the pills,” said Emma.
Now Josh and Ezra and Esther and Julie were crying. Could they have been better cousins, they wondered. If they’d been closer, perhaps Asch could have opened up, instead of feeling like he’d committed the crime. Adam and Veronica slept in the hospital, right there for Asch when he awoke.
Mom, we did spend some of the time talking about you, and looking at your pictures. And I promise we’ll always be telling your story. In fact I’ve come to live your story. Sometimes, when I’m idly walking, I feel like I’m you, living out a continuation of your life. In fact I begin to mix up your experiences and mine. The other day, I began to wonder: Had I suggested to Josh that Esther get an abortion when he told me she was pregnant with Willem?
MacBeth wondered how much Asch knows. Does he understand you were trying to protect your son from something you felt he wasn’t ready for? MacBeth is a believer that conversations like this should happen. But I’m with you—better to just make pot roast the way your mother did.
Ilene Dube is a writer, artist and filmmaker. Her short stories, poetry and personal essays have appeared in Atticus Review, Huffington Post, Kelsey Review, The Grief Diaries, The Oddville Press, Unlikely Stories, and U.S. 1 Summer Fiction. She writes about the arts for Philadelphia Public Media and others.
* * *
By Matthew Kolbet
Joan seemed to be working her way through the alphabet. She was currently a Carruthers, but born Joan Aster, formerly Joan Butler, and hoping to be Joan Devlin. Her parents had died after she’d wed the first time, not staying around long enough to see Mr. Butler shed her. His waxing fortunes made him outgrow what he called her country simplicity. Having been born in Iowa, she made minimal objection, either to explain the size and unappreciated culture trappings of a city like Des Moines, or to deny how simple her feelings were. She was tired of him. She turned him loose. She was happy for a time.
Malcolm Carruthers was everything Ben Butler was not. Where Ben had been cheap, a trait he deemed frugality—playfully at first, then cynically—and became cheaper the richer he became, Malcolm was as free with his money as he was with his time. In Palm Beach the hotel did not have to be three stars or less. Nor did the evening meal have to be in the middle of the afternoon, straddling the distance between lunch and dinner and therefore substituting for both. When hunger struck, they ate. When they were thirsty, they drank. It was true that Malcolm drank more than Joan liked, but it was easy to excuse. He worked hard, needed to relax. And there were compensations in extended vacations, and passionate nights. Ben had made love like he was driving to the airport, and already tardy. Malcolm never seemed to put himself first. His generosity appeared boundless, so when Joan discovered he was having an affair she found she was more disappointed than surprised.
The divorce papers were signed. In a few days she would be free. For more than a month, she and Malcolm had only communicated through lawyers. It was in the office of her lawyer, Mr. Yates, that Joan had met Reed Devlin, who worked as a clerk. And if it doesn’t work out when I become Mrs. Devlin, Joan thought, eventually I’ll arrive at Mr. Yates. The lawyer was old, and she doubted he would be alive if she ever made it toward the end of the alphabet. She would be older then as well, far more than her thirty six years.
“And I have no intention of leaving Reed,” Joan muttered to herself, tightening her grip on her purse. Still, experience had taught her how flimsy intentions could be. Unless circumstances enforced a promise, neither carrot nor stick offered a guarantee.
It was two weeks before their wedding when they decided to drive to Tampa for the weekend.
“Maybe cross the bay, go over to Pinellas Park,” Reed was saying as they pulled on to Highway 75 from Gainesville. They’d stopped for coffee and to use the restroom. Despite the break, Joan knew the second cup would settle on top of the first, forcing her to look for relief again soon. “They’ve got horseback riding.” He tried to entice her. “I remember going as a kid.”
The thought of bouncing up and down on an animal made Joan’s bladder ache. “You don’t think we’re going too fast, do you? Rushing things?”
Reed put a hand on her leg. “Of course not.” She looked at him and he chucked her gently on the chin, making sure her eyes stayed on the road. Traffic was light at present, but you could never tell what you’d see on the side of the road, especially when the land melted into grass or swamps. True, there were few hitchhikers. More likely, motorists would pass a curious alligator, wearing inscrutable grins, always looking like they’d just eaten. The question of persistent hunger remained. And did the beasts account for so few hitchhikers? It was a grisly conclusion.
“Love is love, that’s all,” insisted Reed.
Joan felt grim. Contemplating a satiated alligator, she snorted. She wasn’t sure she agreed with Reed either, not with two marriages behind her. “Horses would be alright.” At least on a horse it would be harder for an alligator to catch you. Or to grab you if it did.
Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to reach Tampa, not just because her bladder would soon be threatening to explode. Whatever happened on their weekend, or with each other, felt less important than the certainty of arriving. Unfortunately, they still had over an hour on the road. She pressed her foot down on the gas. As the car jumped, her smile returned, a rictus of glee and resignation.
The car overtook other drivers: truckers counting miles and mentally setting their paycheck against the weight of their load and the distance remaining; families with fathers who practically lived in the slow lane; several of the state’s elderly, who might be lost or looking for a way off the planet. Joan weaved between them all. Her beat-up Corolla, which had outlasted each of her marriages, was probably one small part of why Ben had left her—who would stay with someone driving that?
Like her second divorce, the crash was not wholly unexpected. Both came from excess. As Joan sped down the highway, Reed began yelling, though it was difficult to discern what he was saying while the wind screamed and shook the careening car. The vehicle slid off the side of the highway and hit a stump, which surprised her by holding fast. Either the wood was stubborn, or it had somehow found bedrock, something solid in this land of bogs.
“Reed among the reeds,” Joan croaked. She tugged at her seatbelt and loosened it. With the airbag, it had saved her, but they needed to leave the car. Staying meant being stuck. Without proof of life, the car would be ignored, one more piece of detritus left on the side of the highway.
Reed hadn’t responded to her joke, so she tried a new tact. “I’m sorry.”
“S’kay,” he mumbled.
“Come on.” Her head cleared, she pushed at the door. “We’ll get help.” The door did not budge. The metal had its own roots.
“Why?” Joan kicked at the door. Her leg hurt, though not as much as her head. They needed to get out.
“Horse,” whispered Reed. His breath was shallow. “Iron horse. Keep us safe.” She did not know what he meant. A moment later she heard the scrape on the side of the car. The paint job was one more unsalvageable part of the car. Pushing herself up, she rested her head against the window. Outside she saw two alligators. They scratched at the car, a familiar gesture, and Joan speculated they often found abandoned vehicles. While she watched, the animals quit scratching and nipped at each other. They might be kissing. They might be married.
“Listen,” Reed murmured. Joan could tell he was forcing him to speak more loudly, to slur his speech less. Maybe he had hit his head harder than she had. She listened. The alligators were scoring the car.
“Listen. I wanted your money.”
“Don’t waste time. Don’t repeat.” He slumped down. She wondered if exhaustion had made him collapse, but did not want to interrupt his silence.
“I knew you’d gotten money, from your divorces,” he said when he could speak once more. Joan nodded. Paid for time served, she supposed. “Lawyers get to see things like that.” Reed quieted.
So he’d peeked at her finances? It wasn’t as dirty as it sounded. She reminded herself to scratch Mr. Yates off her list, both as lawyer and imagined suitor.
Reed raised his head, evidently worried she would not hear, that his words would fall and be lost. “I was going to marry you for money,” he confessed. “Fraud. Not love.” Having said it, he sank again. Only his mouth seemed lighter. He wore a peaceful smile. She knew he was not dead, heard him breathing.
If it was time for confession, Joan thought, she’d carry her portion.
“I never loved you either.” He did not respond, having no energy for jumping, no air for shouting. Perhaps he had not heard her. She had spoken languidly, not wanting to injure him. Still, his lack of reaction bothered her.
“Pay attention!” she snapped. He strained, furrowing his brown and screwing his eyes open. She gazed at him and tried to ignore the cost of his efforts. “I knew we weren’t suited to each other.” Her laughter descended into gasps and wheezes. She understood how Reed was suffering. “That didn’t matter. I’ve always wanted to order my life and thought it necessary to settle down to have calm. Someone else to help make sense. No scraping by on my own.” Was Reed nodding, or did she merely imagine it? At least he made no objection. She soldiered on. “I hoped for a year with you. Maybe two. We’d find out soon enough it couldn’t last. Probably I wouldn’t be any wiser. I never am.”
She’d spoken. He’d listened. His ears remained open, even as his eyes closed. That was all.
A minute later Reed gave a death rattle. Joan was so surprised by the sound she kicked out. Reed’s ghost, so recently given up, would not menace her. Alive, he had been a temporary acquisition, another waystation as she traveled, never a threat.
The power of her unexpected kick had freed the door. It opened a crack at first. Then she noticed an inquisitive green snout, the visible top teeth hiding the bottom rows. The long smile pushed the door open a few inches more. There was no escape, nowhere to run. Besides, her legs were too tired, as if she’d been running instead of driving. Only my whole life, Joan thought.
She soiled herself. It was the start of happiness, to be reminded of the morning’s cup of coffee and the vexations of routine. The moisture made her think of diapers, years past, seeing her parents again. Joan did not need to wonder how long the relationship would last this time. Forever would be long enough to tell tales of her marriages, as well as those that never happened. She was content, not just momentarily glad.
Truth was a balm. Confession occurred before Reed died, so his rest began in peace. His body lay motionless against the passenger door. Joan felt pinned beneath the steering wheel and her own need to quit spinning—through men and marriages and money. That was the strangest part, becoming inert in a universe that never stopped moving.
As the alligator hoisted itself up on the car’s aluminum base, she felt surreal, like a cartoon frozen in a frame, a bubble drawn above its head pouring forth zee after zee.
Matt Kolbet teaches and writes in Oregon. His second novel is Lunar Year.
* * *
The Times and the Winstons
By Robert Lamon
There was a playground in the subdivision, just a small green square with swings, a slide, and bars for climbing. Mothers often, fathers sometimes, brought their preschoolers there for an hour or so of joyful exercise. The playground sat between two houses with their broad lawns. One house had recently been restored after a fire. The other was vacant and marked by a For Sale sign near the street. Many such signs had bloomed in the subdivision, and most signaled the loss of a job by a family breadwinner.
On this particular afternoon, Amy Winston sat in the gazebo centered in the playground. She was in her early thirties and dressed in slacks and a floppy sweatshirt. She had dark hair, carefully cut, for she dealt with the public at the bank. Her part-time job was, at the moment, crucial to her family’s survival. She was speaking seriously to another woman, her contemporary, who lived just across the street. As she spoke, she would glance at her two children playing on the slide.
“I think it was the big-screen TV that got him. I mean when they took it away. Tom and the children would watch it together. And he would try to explain how it worked and what they were watching—football games, baseball games. When they hauled it away, he had tears in his eyes.”
The woman sitting near her, Karen Elliot, nearly cried herself. “Did you ever think you’d be in such a situation?”
“Well—we knew we were over-extended. But we hadn’t figured on the crunch—and the loss of the company.”
What a time she and Tom had—the auction, the repossessions, including one of their two cars. For all she knew, the other one might have to go, if she lost her job or the kids got sick.
“It’s nice you can still come here,” Karen said.
“Yes—but I avoid coming here when it’s crowded. Some people are just—well, unkind.”
Amy wondered whether she should be here at all, considering her decline in status. They had moved into a semi-detached house on the edge of the subdivision, filling it with used furniture and used appliances, some of the items bought at the Salvation Army store or at yard sales, others found in the classifieds.
Karen got up to leave. “Bill’s coming home soon. He’s been out selling insurance in the neighborhood.”
“It’s wonderful that he’s in business for himself.”
“He’s been selling fewer policies and even fewer mutual funds. But I think we’ll be all right.”
“Can you sit my children this Friday,” Amy asked, Friday being one of her workdays.
“Of course—as usual.”
Karen called to her child, a toddler in his tiny Rugby shirt and jeans. “Come on, Billy. Let’s go home.”
Billy came running and they both strolled toward home. Amy was now alone with her two children. She sank into a feeling of profound isolation, as though her family had been abandoned by the world. She stood up and walked toward the slide.
“Tommy, Melanie,” she called out. “time to go home.”
Tommy was five, Melanie almost four, and they were already growing out of their clothes. As the three of them walked along Patriot’s Way toward home, an old friend, Marjorie Gaston, came along. She was walking her dog and looked startled when she saw Amy. When Amy and the children greeted her, she said nothing and gave her retriever a firm tug on its leash.
“Aha—status conscious” Amy mumbled, not caring much whether Marjorie heard her or not. She was especially annoyed at the insult to the children—Marjorie wouldn’t let them pet her dog.
She met one other person on the way home. He had just got out of his car, which sat in the driveway of one of the more expensive homes in the subdivision. He taught at the local university and was the neighborhood philanderer, having already had two wives and several mistresses.
“Well—hello, Amy. How are things going?”
“Let me know if I can assist you—in some way.”
She knew what he was thinking and wasn’t having any of his help. Even his proximity annoyed her and made her want to take the children away.
“Thanks,” she said as a mere formality.
“You’re welcome, I’m sure,” he purred.
She and Tommy and Melanie continued their walk, on this pretty, yet cool day in early April. The first touch of green was on the trees and the redbuds were flowering. The family still had its bird feeder, which would make the spring even more interesting. She was, of course, counting her blessings, as she always did when she was unhappy. Approaching her newly rented home, she noticed the remaining family car in the driveway. Tom was home from his job hunting. He had already mailed out a dozen resumes and was out looking for something to provide immediate income.
“Tom,” she called out, as she came inside.
The house and its walls were now quiet. Three quarrelsome students lived next door, and their weekend parties were protracted and noisy.
“I’m here,” was the reply from the bedroom. Tom’s desk was there, and he was sitting and reading a book on physiology. He had worked as a group leader in research at a small pharmaceutical company. The economic slowdown had encouraged mergers, and his company was absorbed by a much bigger one. And the big company had replaced him with a group leader of its own.
The children greeted their father happily and drifted away to their puzzles and games.
“Well—I just got snubbed by Marjorie Gaston.”
“Well—what are friends for?” Tom said in disgust, as he got up from his chair. He was tall and still trim in his mid-thirties.
“But never fear—our university friend has offered to help.”
“Don’t hit him.”
“I’ll resist the urge—anyway, I found a job.”
“I signed up with a temporary outfit. Tomorrow morning, I have to go to Bedford and unload a train.”
“Unload a train?”
“Yes—it’s honest work. And it pays.”
“A research biochemist unloading a train?”
“Why not?—I could use the exercise. I intend to be the best train-unloader you ever saw. If I perform well, I may get hired as a permanent train-unloader.”
“I take it you’re kidding.”
He hugged her, and she hugged back.
“Don’t get me pregnant again,” she said, laughing.
“We’ll postpone that—for now.”
“Think we’ll get out of this mess?”
“I sure do—I must be good for something.”
“Sure you are.”
“Can you make a train-unloader a sandwich?”
“Of course—and I’d better feed the children.”
Away she went to the kitchen. Tom smiled, shook his head, and told himself for the millionth time how lucky he was to have such a wife.
He was up at five the next morning. He showered, shaved, and put on jeans, Nikes, and an old sweatshirt. Amy made breakfast for him, and after the meal he sped away in the Explorer, feeling downright respectable. After all, he was on his way to work. He drove the twenty miles to Bedford, and, once off the Interstate, rode to a long factory-like building of well-aged bricks. A railroad spur ran from the main line along one side of the building. It was now occupied by a string of boxcars, all of them filled with cartons of copy paper, the kind used in computer printers and copy machines. The cartons weren’t accessible to forklifts and hence had to be carried to wooden palettes—or “skids”—on the long platform.
That was the task of the fifteen men assembled on the platform. They were men of various skin colors and all dressed for toil. A gruff company supervisor explained what had to be done and removed the seals from the boxcars. The men rolled the doors open and set to work. The cartons weighed fifty to sixty pounds each, but Tom actually found himself enjoying the activity. When one palette was piled high, the forklift operator would engage it and haul it through the broad doorway into what was a vast warehouse. Then someone pulled another skid from a stack near the wall, and it, too, was piled high with boxes to await the forklift.
Tom’s fellow workers were friendly and glad to be working. Some looked underfed, some smoked, and some looked hung over. Still, one by one, the boxcars were emptied, their cargoes transferred inside, and by twelve noon, the job was done. Tom went to the supervisor to get his timecard signed, prior to leaving, but the latter man had decided to keep Tom and some of the others there to help fill orders in the warehouse. In addition to copy paper, the company sold computer printers and other hardware. Tom was familiar with many of the items and helped the other temporaries in the work. This impressed the supervisor, who praised him to the temporary agency. The good report got Tom more work for the week.
“You know what?” he said that evening, as he hugged Amy. “I didn’t mind the work at all. It was—well, kind of refreshing.”
But later that week, he discovered an odd corner in the workaday world. He was sent to bag mail at the local university’s bulk-mailing operation. He later described it as a screwball nest. The administration had come to value “employee input.” Thus
encouraged, the employees made suggestion after suggestion—until suggestions became part of the background noise. Tom could picture a supervisor going nuts and shooting people who made suggestions. This vision he kept to himself, except when he and Amy laughed over it. Then there were the productivity meetings—so many that nobody could do their best work. Then came the sexual harassment complaint—a buxom young woman in a tight sweater wanted men to stop looking at her. By that time, Tom had enough influence at the temporary-company’s office to get a transfer to a sensible workplace. And so, his next assignment involved delivering the latest edition of the telephone directory. It was another simple task, yet made interesting by the required travel.
When he began his trips to professional job interviews, it was with a kind of sadness. He was bound to return to the complicated world of science and responsibility—a world where a surprising amount of chaff had to be separated from the truly important work—a difficult thing. He might have to deal with people who thought they had been hired as consultants, rather than experimentalists. He had little patience with such people, and even less for administrators who always wanted reports, reports, reports. He had wasted hours preparing them.
Returning from a trip to the Northeast, he said to Amy, “Why do so many people in scientific research act as though they don’t know what they’re doing?”
This particular trip led to a job offer, which he declined. Why leave a beautiful place for a colder, uglier place and the likelihood of professional frustration? And so, when a call came from a Dutch company in a nearby Industrial Park, Tom drove there with elevated hopes. His interview went reasonably well, but the job would mean working under a Teutonic drill sergeant that he already knew and often found annoying. But as he was passing through the Park, he happened past a much smaller firm that did research on a contract basis. It was a new and uncertain enterprise, but Tom thought it was at least worth an application. He had met its president at a professional gathering and admired his ideas.
Well—from the moment he entered the firm’s offices, he felt at home. The president hired him on the spot. He was to start the very next day—overseeing the development of new methods of drug synthesis and the search for new cures. Once confident in his position, he and Amy bought a home not far from the one they had previously owned. They bought another big-screen television, which delighted the children. By then, both Tommy and Melanie were attending school—a private day school, a few miles away.
But where should we end this story? Tom and Amy would grow old and eventually die, as people do. Their children would mature and marry and, somewhere along the way, bury their parents, as was appropriate in solid families. But there was one incident that was especially revealing. It occurred on a Saturday not long after Amy and Tom had acquired their new home. Amy was in the front yard, watching the two children kicking a soccer ball, when Marjorie Gaston came along with her retriever. She greeted Amy as an old friend.
“Nice to see you,” she said. “How have you been?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Amy replied. “The Winstons are a going concern.”
They had a pleasant exchange, and before Marjorie left, the children petted her dog. Why hadn’t Amy cut her off at the knees? She had considered doing so for a fraction of a second. But that, she decided, wasn’t the way of the Winstons.
Back in the house, she found Tom in his study.
“Well, Marjorie Gaston is speaking to me again,” she announced.
“You didn’t ignore her?”
“No—I thought about it, but I couldn’t.”
“Good for you.”
“The children were laughing and happy.”
Tom hugged her. “Want another one?”
“Ready when you are.”
And so, life went on—for their years on this earth.
Robert Watts Lamon lives in Durham, North Carolina. His fiction has appeared in print and online magazines, including Foliate Oak, Straylight, Toasted Cheese, Wild Violet, Deep South, Liberty Island, Main Street Rag, Xavier Review, and The MacGuffin. He's also contributed essays and book reviews to Liberty.
* * *
By Chad W. Lutz
She needed thirty-five bucks to remove the boot. That’s it. Thirty-five measly dollars. Jessica ran to me that night holding her face and sobbing. I don’t know what to do, she kept telling me over and over. I don’t know what to do. I did, but I wasn’t going to. I’d already made up my mind.
I’d been living at College Towers Apartments in Kent, Ohio, while studying English as an undergrad. I wasn’t poor, but I wasn’t making much working at an environmental firm washing lab dishes twice a week, either. What money I did have went toward three things: food, booze, and drugs.
Following high school, I’d had a steady penchant for drugs, a lust really, one that mostly stemmed mostly from my parents and society telling me I shouldn’t. Telling me not to do something makes me want to do whatever it is I’ve been told to abstain from all the more. Turning twenty-one earlier in the semester only fueled my chemically adventurous behavior further. Jessica, on the other hand, was dying a very long and pronounced death.
At the age of seven, Jessica was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, which carries a terminal sentence. The world for me at twenty-one was as wide and expansive as a great river valley. For her, it was a narrowing gap made smaller every day she survived. She was majoring in business, and would sometimes come over to my place for dinner on Thursdays after class. Because of her illness, her father, who was actually a great guy but could be a little on the over-protective side, never allowed her stay the night. His big thing was having all of his assets accounted for at the end of the evening whenever it was he decided to go to bed. Both Jessica and her car, which her father owned one way or another, fell directly into that category as Assets No. 1 and No. 2. The jury is still out on which is which.
Jessica and I had been dating over two years the night I lied to her. It was April. The trees were beginning to shake off the frigid Midwest touch of winter and were already showing signs of white and yellow and pink buds popping out of their lushing green pistols. Students and faculty sneezed through hay fever, girls’ outfits shrank, guys’ clothing disappeared. Those graduating or moving on in their careers couldn’t be bothered to even care about that. For everyone else, Jessica and myself included, finals were looming and pressing down on the general student populous like an added layer of gravity.
For people like me, the end of April signals something else: the 420 holiday; something I’d been looking forward to ever since moving out of my parents’ house for the first time that prior fall. Jessica, being vehemently opposed to my drug taking, was never made the wiser.
She came over that Thursday, like any other Thursday, but forgot to get a parking permit from the administrative office downstairs. Management were sticklers about that sort of thing — parking in their shitty, beat up parking lot — and weren’t shy about calling the impound to have vehicles towed. She never needed reminders, and we never had issues.
One night, Jessica forgets, and blissfully walks her way up to the door to bid me hello. She’s dancing around and squealing with glee in her usual, signature way, before we eventually make our way to the balcony for celebratory wine as supper cooks.
We were celebrating ourselves. Not a very admirable milestone, but ourselves nonetheless. Jessica had recently found out I cheated on her the summer before with a girl she’s suspected all along an accusation I continuously and repeatedly lied about. Jessica intercepted text messages and phones calls and emails, and still, I denied everything. I think the main reason I denied everything was because, at that point, this girl, Salma, who Jessica had dubbed, “The Bitch,” she and I hadn’t done anything physical together. In my mind, that was somehow still OK, even though a lot of the things Jessica was intercepting were naked photos of my erections and pictures of Salma’s fingers spreading her pussy, with captions like, “I can’t wait for you to feel how warm and wet I am right now,” followed by another photo of her licking her fingers, face propped in a coy, sexy smile.
The guilt and shame eventually caught up to me, and on a day as random as the Tow Truck Tuesday, I spilled the beans to her in the turnaround of my driveway, while my family idled in their car behind us, waiting for Jessica and me to lead the way to the restaurant for my younger brother’s nineteenth birthday celebration. We never made it to dinner. I never left the driveway. She ended up leaving. I ended up with several well-deserved bruises on my face.
It was on the balcony, a week later, drinking a brand of wine neither of us knew — the smell of grapes and cinnamon and pine nuts rising from our mugs — staring into each other’s eyes as shades of the black eye she’d given me announced our recent troubles like a neat little memento of another time, a signal of what we’d been through; it was right in the middle of this magic moment when the sound of a rusting hydraulic lift echoed across the back parking lot. Curious, we both look over the railing to find a tow truck, and even more so, its sprightly driver hopping from the front passenger tire of Jessica’s silver Pontiac Aztec to the driver side tire with a yellow, metal box in his hand.
“Wait!” she yells, as she realizes what’s happening. “Stop!”
The tow truck driver looks up at the balcony and considers the two of us standing there with mugs of wine in our hands. The guy flips a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other with his tongue and very little interest, and proceeds to initiate the hydraulic lift. He looks right at us as he does it. And even though we’re at a distance, to this day, I’m almost certain he was smiling.
Jessica bolts downstairs. “I have to go!” she shouts. She doesn’t have to, but I know what she means. Moments later the back door of the apartment complex leading to the lobby bursts open and Jessica shoots across the parking lot like she’s been jettisoned from a cannon.
“Stop!” she yells again. “Stop, stop, stop, stop!”
To my complete surprise, the tow truck driver stops. He takes his hand off the boot and turns toward Jessica. Adjusts his belt. What happens next, I’ll never know because of how soft they were speaking and how far the balcony sat from the rear of the parking lot. Five minutes of nodding and grimacing; the tow truck driver rambling on and on and on about what the score was between he and her car. When those five minutes end, Jessica turns, head hung low, and walks toward me on the balcony. Whatever control she’d had over her emotions disappeared the instant we made eye contact.
“Brendan,” she says in a raspy voice, eyes two saline rivers as she looks up, “I need your help.”
“Ok,” I say, ready for just about anything to fall out of her mouth.
“He says he needs thirty-five dollars or he’s going to tow my car.”
I go for my wallet, but she shakes her head.
“No card. He says I need cash.”
“Alright, I’ll just go to the…”
“No,” she says sharply, and by the way her face is twisted I can tell she’s about to lose it…
Any normal boyfriend would have immediately opened their wallet and tossed down the greenbacks without hesitation, especially as lovers of multiple years. But I’d already made up my mind.
The week before I’d put some feelers out for psychedelic mushrooms. 420 was a big deal to me, and seeing as how this was going to be my first 420-proper on my own; no RAs, no parents, no authorities save the dick-lick rent-a-cops that patrolled the apartment complex once every blue moon, I had nothing to worry about and the sky as my only limit. This was it. The culmination of a life pestered by people who didn’t understand the drug culture, who, in turn, didn’t understand me. The feelers came back positive, and I was able to snag a half ounce of mushrooms at an amazing price: eighty-five dollars. You can barely snag a quarter for that price. So, I pounced. The only problem was I had to wait a few days for the order to come through. So, the hookup and I came up with a plan for me to leave my apartment door unlocked and the money in an agreed upon place, and when the order finally came in, the hookup would leave the shrooms in exchange for the money and that would be that.
However, the last three years of my life leading up to Jessica’s run-in with the Tow Truck Man had been marred by not one or two but four trips to jail for drug-related offenses, and a single, not-so-minor incident involving a fire at a college dormitory. My whiteness allowed me to duck and tumble down the cracks allowed for little shits like me to slip through, and so nothing serious ever came of the transgressions. I never once had to carry out a sentence longer than a few days in jail — mostly overnights waiting for the sheriff to approve bail — some court costs and fines, and a handful of hours of community service. In most cases, the sentencing was scrubbed from the record books; however, thanks to a little administrative apathy, and the fact that all of my crimes were committed and tried in different counties, my breaking probation never registered as even a blip on the official radar. To this day, I still owe Wood and Franklin and Portage Counties about thirty days in an orange jumpsuit each. I go to bed with the possibility, and wake with it every morning, that I’ll receive a phone call from a clerk of courts representative asking about case files, or a knock on the door to find police officers with hands on their weapons procedurally asking for me to comply.
The most recent of those crimes, Possession of a Schedule I Narcotic (Marijuana), had been committed and tried just a year and a month beforehand, in March of 2006. Jessica, her parents, my parents, my friends, my neighbors, my neighbors’ neighbors; everyone knew who this big bad Renegade was that kept running into the brick wall called The Law and losing and apparently not giving a single fuck about it. I was barred from hanging out with certain people, but did anyway. I wasn’t allowed a key to my own home. I had my cellphone, which my parents paid for, taken away. My car was taken away. I was allowed to go to class, go to work, and go home, and that was about it. But even those dire restraints couldn’t stop my penchant for drugs, and Jessica became one of the biggest casualties in that futile and ongoing war.
After several hard conversations spanning several equally hard days, Jessica and I agreed that we would stay together, despite the hole I’d dug us into, but on one condition: no more smoking. Even the slightest infraction and she’d walk. The same went for my parents and pretty much everyone but the group of drug dealers I ran around with. I had one chance, and that was it.
Unfortunately, I never cared. When faced with a choice between drugs or people, even those that meant the most to me, I always chose the drugs.
The same eighty-five dollars I had set aside for the felony I was trying to acquire was sitting in the top drawer of my bedroom dresser the night Jessica plead for her car’s life on the grassy lawn below my second-story balcony. Hot, smoky tears clouded up the eyes I always found so beautiful and arresting, and the skin around them, usually so vibrant and full of life, despite her terminal illness, was pulled, puffy, and red, taut from the stress and anxiety.
I thought about nothing but the party I’d spent months planning, the two other friends that had thrown down on the half ounce with me, how disappointed they’d be if the deal didn’t go through, or, at least, how disappointed I thought they’d be if it didn’t. I looked down at Jessica, someone I’d shared such beautiful intimate moments with — nights spent naked and in each other’s arms, watching cartoons and massaging one another; taking her virginity at our shared age of nineteen; helping her remember her medications; encouraging her to work out and develop healthier eating habits — and with a sorry-excuse for a lump clawing its way into my mouth, one that I’d learned to suppress with a youthful, foul-mouthed rage, I somehow managed to tell her, “I don’t have any cash.”
I looked her right in the eye as I said it.
The rest of the story is simple. The Tow Truck Man hoisted the jack, engaged the lift, and towed the Pontiac Aztec to the local impound, where it cost Jessica two hundred and eighty-five dollars to process and reclaim. Tears gushed down her face as we walked the two miles from my apartment to the impound lot, all the while coughing from the walk. Eventually, the tears streaming from her eyes looked less the product of an obvious sadness, but something that looked more automatic, as if that’s the way things always had been for her. The way they no doubt had.
It’s hard to know why people do the things they do. Sometimes we say we love someone, but complain about them day and night, and then trade private, personal information about them with outside parties, information that was sworn to absolute secrecy and sealed with a kiss or round of love making. If faced with the same decision, knowing what I know about myself in situations that require gut reactions, I’d more than likely sell Jessica out all over again. Drugs are easier to understand than people, which is why they’re so appealing. Drugs don’t change their minds on you, don’t yell at you for minor behavioral digressions. They’re easy to love. But, drugs can never love you back.
The relationship only lasted a handful of months following that evening, punctuated by an emotional distance that grew like a canyon between us. Eventually, we took separate paths, instigated by my increased drug use and her health becoming an even greater factor. Like so many other things in life, I couldn’t handle the pressures of adult responsibility, especially toward other people, ones I loved, and fell deeper and deeper down a tiny hole inside myself, like a slick drain pipe, impossible to climb back out of.
Instead of confessing my crime, I stood silently by, chewing on the lump in my throat that, as it turns out, was a huge, steaming pile of guilt. There was no way I could reveal to Jessica I’d lied about not having any money. The wounds from The Bitch were still too fresh. It was because I knew I’d lose her; not later, not in a few days, but right then and there, and forever. It happened anyway; I’m pretty sure I knew that much, too. I was selfish, but I did it anyway, and to this day, Jessica has no idea the extent of which I’d let her down. That’s why I’m writing this, even if it is just a routine exercise in too little too late.
Chad W. Lutz is an herbivore born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986 and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. They graduated from Kent State University’s English program in 2008 and attend Mills College in Oakland, California, in pursuit of their MFA in Creative Writing. They also run.
* * *
By E.M. Paulsen
In the late afternoon, when the worst of the day’s heat has been reduced to a vague shimmer on the asphalt, Beth likes to walk to the playground. The doctor tells her she needs exercise every day, but the four blocks to the park are all she can manage on days like this, days when the horizon runs muddy with smog, when her body swells like an overfilled balloon and sags like the weight of a wet wool sweater. On these days, when her tongue burns with the acid taste of pollution in the hot air, Beth jams her bloated feet into sandals and puffs her way to the park bench. The cool metal of the bench is glorious, if a bit rigid. The tree above her spreads its foliage over her like angels’ wings. Here, Beth is temporarily relieved of the heat and of the burden of her newly cumbersome body. Here, she can rest and watch.
The children are unaffected by the heat—they seem to revel in it, in fact. She marvels at their doll-sized shorts, their bucket hats bobbing like tiny mushroom caps as they swing across the monkey bars. She studies them as if she has never seen their clumsy knees, their sticky fingers and popsicle-dripped chins, as if children are altogether new to her. She watches them soar on the swings and tumble after one another down the slide. And she watches them particularly carefully when, as they inevitably do, they skitter back to their mothers…she sees how the mothers lean in attentively when their children are speaking, how they seem, at one moment, to be lost in the glossy pages of their magazines and at the next are shouting at the children not to leap off the swings. How do they always know? Beth clutches the strange, taut melon of her belly in anxiety. When the baby comes, will she know what to do?
The walk home is slower still and filled with curses because eight months ago Beth was eight pounds underweight, just the way she liked, and her hair was just the right shade of blonde. Now her roots have grown out and she has the silhouette of an obese old man, and if she doesn’t lose the extra weight fast after the baby comes there’ll be no work and she’ll be back to working double shifts at Denny’s to pay the rent and finance her shoe habit.
California hasn’t been what she expected. California, the Golden State, the Promised Land, where she was going to get famous. She thought things would have to be good here, because here everyone was beautiful and the sun was always shining on the pristine white sand beaches. Here you had to be happy, because you couldn’t run further west. But instead of angels there are agents who talk a lot and don’t get you much work except that one McDonald’s commercial. The white sand beaches are crowded with tourists and littered with beer bottles, and the highways are crowded with cars and littered with debris. And in California there is Eddie, who looks like James Dean but who left her with this mountainous belly, two months short on rent, while he followed some other girl north to Santa Barbara.
Here, Indian summer can last well past Thanksgiving, and it is always either mudslide season or wildfire season. Strange, hot winds blow through the high desert, whipping sand through the chaparral, whining in her ears like restless ghosts. At night, the coyotes come down from the mountains to sing their eerie yelping song, and they too sound like ghosts. Beth lies in her empty bed and listens to them, thinking about the stories she’s read about coyotes snatching babies. She holds her belly as if to keep the baby inside her. On nights like these she’s glad when the couple downstairs starts fighting and breaking glass because they drown out the eeriness and the thoughts that rage like wildfire through her mind since Eddie left her.
When she first moved in, Beth liked that the apartment was on the fourth floor and that there wasn’t an elevator. She used to sprint the stairs as a workout. Now, with every step she curses Eddie’s name. She hopes the baby is a boy, because then he will never be left broke and pregnant. If it’s a boy he'll be able to support her someday, carry heavy bags for her at the airport, unscrew jam jars when her hands become too weak. Girls are too much trouble, too much emotion.
When she finally turns the key in the lock and shoves the door open (the wood is warped and has to be pushed hard) Beth is sweating like she's finished a marathon and breathing like she’s in labor already. She waddles through the dark living room, squinting at the late afternoon sunlight still streaming through the blinds, and pours herself a glass of ice water from the fridge. Eight months ago, Eddie would have been mixing margaritas right now. Now, she can only drown her sorrows with ice water.
Beth sinks into the sagging couch, flicks on the TV. The news is on—more about the two girls who disappeared in Calabasas yesterday, more wildfires sweeping through the mountains. Lindsay Lohan involved in another scandal; yet another study about global warming. Nothing new, ever. Beth worries about raising a child in a world like this. She turns on the DVD player, smiling slightly. Eddie left her one pleasure—a box of classic Looney Tunes. She thinks it must be the pregnancy hormones, because she can watch them for hours, laughing like a child. Her favorite is the roadrunner--meep!meep!—and Wile E. Coyote. She loves it when the coyote runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall until he realizes to look down…
Her phone wakens her with a jolt. She’s so disoriented that she thinks for a moment she’s at home in North Carolina, but then she takes a breath of dry heat and remembers. She must have fallen asleep in front of the TV, because it’s dark outside now and Bugs Bunny is on. She tries to rush to the phone but it takes her a few pushes to get the momentum to stand up, and by the time she gets there it’s on the last ring.
“Hello?” Her voice is croaky with sleep, but it doesn’t matter. It’s an automated message. The fire she saw on the news today is sweeping down this side of the canyon now, and all residents are advised to evacuate. Beth hangs up. She’s had this warning call three times since she’s lived here, and all three times the fire has come nowhere near her apartment complex. She looks at the clock blinking green above the stove—7:35—and wearily flicks on the light in her little kitchenette. She should probably make some dinner. But she doesn’t feel like turning on the stove. The heat is a prickly, uncomfortable rash on her skin. So she pours herself more water, eats cold lasagna and then ice cream out of the tub. She doesn’t bother with the dishes. She has no patience anymore. Instead, she flicks off the light and makes her way in the dark into her stuffy bedroom, crawls on top of the sheets, and sleeps. She has fitful dreams about wandering through the desert while it burns around her, about her baby leaving her one day.
When the phone wakes her again, it’s 5:40 am and Beth is drenched in sweat. Another evacuation warning. She takes a cold shower even though what she really wants is a bath. Then she stands at the window and sees that the horizon is on fire—over the dark haze that is the top of the mountains, the sun is a blazing ball of flames. Or maybe it’s just the wildfire, and there is no sun—there is no way to tell. From the door to the balcony, she can see that the street is deserted—everyone seems to have left stealthily and quietly while she slept. When she slides the door open, the sound of it splits the silence and Beth breathes in a gulp of the thick nightmare air. Suddenly, she’s not sure how, the inferno is closer, and she can see the rapacious fingers of the fire closing around the rooftops five or six streets over. The sky is gone. There is only a curtain of smoke above the fire, but somewhere above her she can hear the slicing of helicopter rotors and the muffled sound of sirens. Beth thinks about the playground, about the plastic of the play structure melting into the ground.
This is California, where any morning you can wake up and see the world consumed by fire, where illusion is more real than reality. When the fire and the red trucks come furiously down her street together, Beth holds her baby close inside her with both hands, breathing in the heat swirling around her. When the firemen with their hoses and their ladders see her there on the balcony, they stop in their tracks at the sight of her. She smiles at them. Beth’s heart is cold dark slate against the bright heat. Without looking down, chin held high, she steps off the ledge and into the burning air.
E.M. Paulsen lives and teaches in Austin, TX. She grew up on the coast of California, a setting that influences much of her work, including the novel-in-stories she is currently revising. Most recently, she lived in Roanoke, Virginia, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Hollins University.
* * *
By Martin Wodi
Many had been against our town hosting the match. It would only further fan the embers of rivalry between our two feuding neighbors, they argued. Proponents of the encounter said it would be cathartic for both sides, and that not only will our town gain immensely from all the press and publicity it would bring, but the money to be made and boost to our local economy from fans and followers of the rivalry were huge. Also, they averred, our own local team could learn a trick or two. Some people proposed that we should also provide the referee, but the mayor in his wisdom vetoed this.
“We are bound to be accused of being partial by the side that loses,” he said.
“There can’t be a match without a referee,” somebody noted.
“I know. We’ll think of something,” the mayor assured.
“We’ll invariably have to manage our relationship with the losing side,” somebody else cautioned.
The mayor concurred, and said he would seek the advice of his lawyers. The lawyers counseled drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding. The mayor set up a meeting with both rival town mayors to deliberate upon the MOU, as the memorandum was called. When all the loose ends in the MOU had been neatly tied up, a day was set for the signing. It was a perfect opportunity to sell the encounter and showcase what a great peace-broker our town was. It was on the news for days.
A date for the match was agreed upon, but there was still the issue of the referee and linesmen for the match. We were not going to provide them, neither were the rivals. They each were not going to agree on a referee that would be loyal to the other side because of his kinship. That was when Gregor’s name came up. Gregor lived out of state. He had left a long time ago because of the feud and had spent the last twenty-nine years of his life trying to end it. His passion for his mission to resolve the feud was legendary. He had legitimate reasons too. His parentage had its roots on both sides of the divide. His father was from the Western town and his mother from the Eastern town. Some say disagreements resulting from his parents’ union were the cause of the feud, but the veracity of this claim is uncertain. Nevertheless, the mayor’s office put a few calls through and all was set when they found Gregor in Brisbane.
“No, Absolutely not!” Gregor protested over the crackle on the phone when the mayor called him. “I’m not going to be part of it.”
The mayor explained that the point of the encounter was to find a lasting resolution to the feud, and that he, Gregor, was perhaps the only person in the whole world who both sides respected and trusted on account of his dual heritage.
“Both mayors have signed an MOU promising to convene peace negotiation talks within a few weeks after the event,” the mayor told him.
“Why didn’t you demand a total cessation of the animosity between them?” asked Gregor.
“I did, both in private and in front of the cameras,” the mayor said, “but neither mayor would budge.”
He had only been able to get both mayors to commit to a détente during the period leading up to the big day. And besides, he suggested to Gregor, it was ample opportunity for him to further his peace initiatives since literally, the whole world would have its eyes on the match, a perfect avenue for exhibiting the political correctness that both mayors seem to crave lately.
“Let me think about it,” Gregor said over the static.
“Take some time if you must, but I’d like your decision by the end of the week,” the mayor told him as he hung up.
The next morning, just as the mayor opened the door to his office to begin the day, the black box-phone on his desk rang.
“I’ll do it,” Gregor declared on the other end of the call.
“Thank you,” said the mayor, “you may have just made the most important contribution to the resolution of this feud yet.”
* * *
On the day of the match, three months later, schools and businesses were shut to enable people attend the match. Shops were temporarily closed, only to be set up as makeshift stalls at the stadium.
The municipal buses were giving free rides to commuters even as the roads throbbed with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Radio and television stations set up temporary news bureaus at the stadium and on the top floors of the two hotels in town to transmit live broadcasts of the event. All the hotel rooms were fully booked and people started to take in lodgers into their homes. Some rented out their living rooms, others their spare rooms and garages. Homes that were on streets adjacent to the venue let out their patios and gardens to campers to fill the demand for accommodation.
With this sudden influx of visitors, our town, original home to eight thousand, seven hundred and twenty-seven, saw a strain on its public amenities because of the thousands of visitors it suddenly had to accommodate. Everywhere was disheveled and filthy. Some campers had to trek to the local stream for water or wait in line to get it from one of the many public water taps provided at several street intersections by the Waterworks specifically to cater for the occasion. The street urchin population also exploded to fill the gap. They fetched water in pails and ran petty errands for those who could afford the fees they charged. They also offered to clean the roads and lawns for a fee, which would have been great if not that all they did was sweep the dirt off the roads and curbs into the gutters, clogging them and rendering the drainage system in total disrepair.
Our stadium, originally built to sit five thousand, was renovated to sit much more. The bleachers were brought down on the east and west and the sidewalls were knocked down to allow for an expansion that transformed it into a ten thousand capacity stadium. Despite these, it was stretched beyond capacity on the day of the match when fifteen thousand plus spectators squeezed themselves into the stadium.
The match began with the traditional toss of the coin, administered by Gregor himself. Because both sides could not agree on the choices of linesmen, Gregor was the only one officiating at the match. The first half was keenly contested. Both sides were clearly equally matched much to the delight and thrill of the spectators. Despite the several clever dribbles and deftly aimed volleys at the goal post by both sides, neither was able to convert its onslaught into a goal.
By the end of the first half, the score was an even nil. The fans of either side were evenly divided and equally rabidly supportive of their team. One side cheered whenever it seemed its team had the advantage, while the other side booed. So it was all through the second half until Gregor blew his final whistle. He awarded the customary extra time. The first half of the extra time saw both sides playing as if they were just beginning the first few minutes of the game. The fervor and zeal with which they played were desperate. It was obvious everyone was getting anxious. Tensions escalated and infringements became frequent. Gregor had issued a total of fourteen yellow cards and sent off one player each from both sides by way of red cards by the beginning of the second half of the extra time.
At the eleventh minute of the second half of the extra time, a scrimmage ensued and two players were down. A fight broke out on the field between the players. Details are scant on what transpired next, but Gregor had gone to try to take control of the game and break up the fight, and that was when it happened. Some say he had been hit by a stray punch, others say he had missed a step and tripped. Gregor had slumped to the floor, and momentarily, all was still. A staid catatonia became the stadium as the medics ran onto the field with their stretchers and kits. The ensuing minutes were the quietest the stadium had been in the last two and a half hours. The entire stadium was in absolute silence as the medics worked on Gregor while the players hovered about. At the end of what seemed like hours, but actually was about two minutes, a medic stood up and appeared to shake his head in sad regret.
“They killed him!” yelled somebody on the field. That was the trigger. The field fight reignited. It grew larger by the moment, the coaches joined in, then the team managers, and then the fans. Soon, fists, elbows and raw black eyes were commingled with bloodied noses and busted lips.
The mayors had tried to wade in from their seats in the VIP booth when they pleaded for calm over the public address system, but they had been promptly cut off. Someone, it seemed, had pulled the plug on the speakers. From our seats on the North side of the stadium we could see the sea of irate fans quiver as it milled towards the VIP booth which was separated from the field by a line of police and a metal barricade. The cordon of riot-gear clad police and the barricade held just enough for the mayors to make their exit. Chairs, beer cans, bottles, shoes and everything portable the irate mob could find soon became missiles. That was when we knew it was time to get out of the stadium. We slid down the railing and made towards the gates. Pushing our way through the stream of people running in the opposite direction towards the center field, we managed to get out of the stadium.
The streets outside the stadium were also alight. Fractious groups of youths ran helter-skelter chasing each other with dangerous implements. As we skulked our way home, we could see that our street had been taken over by a band of tire-burning, bludgeon-wielding hoodlums who had blockaded the way in with a burning police car, several tires, a pile of wood and what appeared to be remnants of the bus stop booth that had been uprooted from its usual location at the end of the street. As we approached, we could see the riotous youths screaming, and hurling missiles and expletives at the team of policemen that was trying to take back its burning patrol car and control of the situation. The police soon turned their attention to us, and perhaps thinking that we were part of the unruly horde, began coming after us.
“We are no threat! We are not part of the mob!” we yelled. But they were implacable. They looked menacing in their riot gear, wielding those truncheons and Plexiglas shields as if determined to crack a few skulls and ribs. Not caring for cracked skulls and ribs, we turned around and ran as fast as we could away from our street towards the hills on the outskirts of town.
In the hills, there were many others like us hiding out. Holed up there for several hours, we were wary of returning to the town too soon. We tried to call from our cell phones, but no one seemed to have service.
When at last news came over the smartphones, we learnt that Gregor had been taken to the hospital shortly after he fell on the pitch and that he was doing well and stable. The newscaster said Gregor apparently had suffered hypoglycemia. Because he did not have any linesmen and was working extra-hard to officiate the match all by himself, he had been over-exerted. The police had taken back control of the town and the riotous crowd had been driven out of town or taken to jail. There were still pockets of violence, but all should be quelled by daybreak.
Our house was unscathed when we returned home at first light in the morning. Other than the burnt heap of tires and rubbish at the entrance of the cul-de-sac that was our street, there was no visible sign of the riot on the buildings. The burning police car was no longer there, but a clutch of policemen stood at the street’s end checking IDs before letting people onto the street. The green refuse disposal truck and its crew were sweeping and collecting burnt debris and broken shards off the street.
I was glad to be home. After I had taken a shower, I made a sandwich and put on the TV. Gregor was on. His voice was strong and enthusiastic. From his hospital bed, he thanked everybody for their concern about him. It showed how much both feuding sides loved him. But he regretted the lawlessness and chaos that ensued after he had collapsed on the pitch. He entreated his kin on both sides of the divide to commit to peace, if nothing else, to honor our town for championing the peace initiative and bearing the brunt of the bedlam that resulted. He thanked the mayor and all the peace-loving citizens of our town.
“Please forgive us for all the pain we have caused you. I greatly admire your fortitude and love for peace and only hope my compatriots would borrow a leaf from you… Thank you.”
The next week, Gregor was on TV again. This time it was at the city hall. The two mayors of the feuding towns flanked him sheepishly when he announced to the press that both mayors had agreed to a total cessation of all hostilities between their towns immediately. A committee was to be constituted to draw up the documents of the treaty, which they pledged to both sign in the next six weeks.
Exactly six weeks later, when all parties were assembled at the historic treaty signing, the mood was solemn. Both rival mayors wore black armbands on their sleeves. Our mayor seemed to be beside himself. He wore a black armband too on his right-hand sleeve just as did most in the crowd who had come to witness the signing. After all the documents had been signed, both mayors of the feuding towns embraced themselves, and then our mayor.
“Gregor, this is for you,” the three mayors said as they raised the treaty documents, casting their gazes upwards.
Gregor had taken ill a week after the announcement on the steps of the city hall. At first, it was flu-like, he had chills and a fever. Two days later, the doctors determined he had suffered a mild stroke. On the fifth day, a major one struck. Deliberations have been fierce, and still ongoing. The conundrum now is where to bury Gregor.
Even though Martin Wodi trained as a pharmacist, he has maintained his love for literature, which he acquired while attending a boarding school in his early teens. He is originally from Africa, but now lives in the USA and dabbles in writing in his spare time.
* * *
Wall Street Farmer
By Jan Ball
The flowering pear tree I bought for the man
who has everything arrives in spring looking
like a broomstick, not exactly the arborist’s
white petalled delight featured on the web
page of Andrea’s nursery and even now,
in July, it still looks like a stick despite
tornado downpours and battleship proportions
of fertilizer. Nevertheless, small birds with
white breasts perch on top like Christmas
My fingertips still fragrant with the mint
I have been trying to control in my back
garden, one of the few plants this year’s
epidemic rabbits have not devoured: parsley,
daisy and blanket flower salad, (We don’t
dare plant carrots) but now that we’ve placed
a plastic brown owl from Farm King behind
the bee balm and sprinkled chili pepper
on the phlox and coreopsis, we might finally
have a garden that even visitors to Regent’s
Park in London might admire and hopefully
will attract our adult children and their families
from Texas and Connecticut.
Meanwhile, Don will finish spraying Round-up
on the crab-grass that invades the gravel driveway,
“giving the impression that no one lives here.”
I deadhead the marigolds, distribute breakfast
coffee grounds among the purple salvia, remove
raccoon scat from the side steps and water
the potted geraniums until it is time to drive
back to our high rise in Chicago.
244 of Jan Ball’s poems appear in journals such as: Calyx, Connecticut Review, Foliate Oak Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Nimrod and Phoebe. Jan’s two chapbooks: accompanying spouse (2011) and Chapter of Faults (2014) were published with Finishing Line Press. Jan’s first full length poetry book, I Wanted to Dance with My Father is forthcoming in August/September from Finishing Line Press.
* * *
By Ray Ball
Sometimes, I still dream that I am eight or nine.
At first, I'm too shocked to be terrified. The Western Diamondback
glides over my little blue boot. Dad grips my shoulder
willing me with his urgent fingers to complete stillness.
In the past, on that sunny afternoon
in the dusty panhandle the snake whose scientific name I learned and forgot
and remembered once more rattled along on its way. But in every dream
Crotalus has a new chance to change what was written in sand,
to wrap its way up my calf, to strike my shin.
"Do not move!" my father warns: Jeans from Kmart,
thin skin only offers so much protection
from a bite. Will Dad tear the sleeve from his shirt?
Make a tourniquet, carry me to the pickup? Or,
if I had been unable to obey, if I had moved -- impatient
overcome with fear -- will he fade away? He disappears
among the yuccas and brush leaving me with the fangs
still in my flesh. My heart races; venom spreads. It turns out
youth isn't so fearless. I wake panicked and sweaty.
The castanet still echoes in my ears. I am certain
a hand was just on my dusty shoulder. My shin tingles.
Ray Ball is a writer and history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She loves travel, archives, old books, and new shoes. She is the author of several history books and essays. Recently, her poems have appeared in Alaska Women Speak, Foxglove Journal, and Nature Writing.
* * *
September can be vibrant
By Ellen Wade Beals
September can be vibrant
and if the colors aren’t vibrant yet,
look at the flutter of leaves,
each of them waving their hearts out,
frenetic as tintinnabulation.
If each little leaf were a bell
we’d harmonically displace,
such passionate intensity unspooling us.
But it’s not thousands of tiny bells.
It’s a feverish lady fanning herself.
Her frilly hanky ruffles;
the leaves flagellate,
whip up excitement, know their days won’t last.
They’re frothy even; the world below
fading, the flowers frowsy.
This is the height of their existence
unpuckered, sugar not yet tingeing their pallor,
busily waving, wavering this way and that.
Pretty as bird flight, this flirtation of leaves,
tickling the air, an undulating shimmy, a sigh in shimmers.
Yesterday you read “Japanese maple”
by the poet with the terminal disease;
what would be your poem to say good-bye?
Gratitude and regret to color an aubade,
maybe a whimper dressed in fine words,
perhaps something sappy.
Yes, you’d write about trees too
–so much life in a tree.
Look out the window now.
That tree is waving to you.
Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies, and on the web. In 1999, her short story, "Picking," was awarded Willow Springs fiction prize. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words (Weighed Words LLC). Her website is here.
* * *
Venus Rewrites Jupiter
By Jordanna Conn
A three on the Kinsey scale.
Obscuring what you mean, what
you refuse to say.
As if the silence will seal it away,
a disease of the mind cured by
a medicinal haze in a lightning-bolt brain
caught by a swinging pendulum, altered back
Born from a hermaphroditic womb,
discarded at birth, we meet.
Ancient verses, faded with age
and buried beneath the ruins,
under layers of century-pages.
Immersed in lungs of twine,
voice silk and parchment smothered.
Swallowed around the teeth of
a gigantic whale.
Washed away and caught
outside two cities, mortar crushed between
the gated walls.
Wrested from my castle,
thrust in a foreign dungeon a
wasting in my tomb while
across the sea, a sapphic song plays
a long chantless melody.
Transitions, syllables catch in the vocal cords.
Molded into silence, denying what you hide when
you strangle our voices.
words concealed and cast aside.
Forget the Tower of Babel built
on the archaic ink coating my throat.
Mangling my mother tongue and
shelving it in the annals of a lingua franca.
the stone pyramids,
foundations laid on a man dressed with garlands while
his own armour is a lover’s shroud, death
a pride-slight over another’s war-bride.
Wrap this cord around my wrist, knot it
in a three-pointed triangle.
Build cities on the sands
of deserts in our names.
Cover with swan-wings and
statues bearing wine-flowing cups.
Circling an empire, an opened harem
draped with fringed carpets of many colors.
Thirty-three rugs floating on Mediterranean waves,
carrying my love letters,
to a muse of temptation--
straight lines wrapped in a bodice gift.
Reclaim our name and where you go,
I will follow.
Crashing inside a streetcar called
split-branches wrapped around us and reaching
towards Jupiter and Venus.
When we’re buried, these words,
will be a beacon on our graves.
Jordanna Conn is a Medieval historian working on her postgraduate degree at the University of Glasgow. Her poems have been previously published in FLAR, as well as 30 North.
* * *
Three Poems by Rich Glinnen
Flat Face Fate
Neck cords taught,
Flexed, pale, under the
Shrieking blood joy
Hide the light’s eyes
According to Hammurabi--
Finalizing in a
On my $1,000
On the new
Cowgirl Gone Fishin'
From the bathroom,
Lassoed with jeans,
Inching ever closer
To the white booty
Above the fridge--
Sweet 99 cent
Upstairs, in line with
Recent tradition, our neighbors
Drag their oaken coffins
Across their floorboards,
For this shit-stained
La Boehme convulsed
Like a fish
During visiting hours
Your dry lips
I strained to
Hear the boil,
Pored over the
Cold with emptiness,
Magazine paragraphs and
Shiny models to
Rich Glinnen is a market researcher by day and a writer by night. He enjoys bowling, and drinking red wine with his cats at his home in Bayside, NY. His poesy can be read in the Lakewood House Organ, edited and published by the late Kenneth Warren, at Lingerpost.org, jazzcig.com, foliateoak.com, thevoicesproject.org, and richglinnen.tumblr.com. His girlfriend calls him Taco.
* * *
By Tyler Lowery
they’ll dance through
the fallen leaves
for hours if you let them.
the shepard instigates,
and then they’re off--
around and around they’ll go
like two ballet dancers
too drunk to remember their moves
or that they’re not supposed
to literally fuck on the hardwood.
Tyler Lowery has been writing poetry since he was ten. He has been published in Imaginary Gardens, Severine, Third Wednesday, and in a number of online journals and community collections. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, with his wife, his son, and their three dogs.
* * *
Poems by Bidhu Padhi
Nothing Goes Right
You phone up everyone you know
and their numbers are busy
or there is no network graceful enough
for your connections.
The only two who answer you
are women who had long forgotten
how to talk, and now remember
only their places and names.
Their tone hurts.
Your wife and child hardly notice you,
having had their own commitments
of the day. Banks, colleges, studies
for doing better and better
in the tests that would be soon forgotten.
You imagine which other ways
are yet left to keep you busy
through the day.
April is closing. The Indian summer
has taken off its clothes and you
suddenly discover how the poem
you wrote on the Earth Day
has evaporated into a cloudless sky.
Such things have happened once or twice
in the past though, as if warning you
against each word, spoken or written,
or simply heard from a distant sun.
After Much Pain
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes”
After much pain, a feeling alone is there--
alien, far from all that you have known
from books and pictures, scientists’
discoveries, wisdom’s commentaries.
The mind finally feels distant, the body
is drawn away from its basic functions, feels
too amply satisfied to remember itself
or other bodies, other worlds, not its own.
Body and mind are entwined by a thread of
compassion for the heart’s much-dislocated
spaces and years, happenings of hopes and tears
that could never be what they were meant to be,
while the passive earth looks on and withdraws
into itself, as if it was thinking of something
gone wrong somewhere in the wild universe--
something it had never witnessed or understood.
The time is late morning now, and there are
invitations from near and faraway places, each to be
attended to, taken notice of, each to be believed
as something where no pain could ever be, no tears.
Every small thing is overly busy recollecting itself
in the very middle of a whirlpool of disbelief, even as
the same feeling quietly relaxes, recalls each pain and
insult, each piece of advice, each earlier body.
When it comes to choosing
from more than one pain,
tears emerge from secret places,
the belief in oneself is eroded
by the smallest differences.
They all seem to come from
the same place, carrying similar
lonelinesses. The mind and heart
suffer attacks of an elaborate grief
that is beyond all choosing,
all available rules of choice
and exclusion. The tears
come forth again, against
your wish, even as you feel
weak and alone, while the world
moves on its ancient road
of forgetting all that is close
to you, including those
much-diffused tears of a while ago.
Alien eyes suspect the story behind
your residual tears, even as you
turn away, remember--
more than ever before—your
own stories of loss and insult,
how you were excluded in story
after story by someone else’s
grief over choices
and the consequent pain of loss.
They keep arriving, defying
the summer heat, the crowding
of ancient thoughts in the mind’s
sceptical corners, defying
the mood to celebrate
the presence of old
relationships now, at this
moment’s looking back
at all those things I lost
in my journey toward
myself, in a mood’s revival
through a slight, healing touch.
The addresses keep rushing in,
and I wonder if they are necessary
in this body’s mistaken adventures.
You have spent your years
asking for nothing, and when
someone tells you, you will
never get anything without
asking for it, you have said,
that’s not my business,
the days and nights should know;
the single universal force
must respond to my needs
as it always does
to everything else, including
the earth’s quiet rotation
round the sun, or a sapling’s
slow rise through space and time.
But I say, they had asked for it
time and again; asking is giving,
no more, no less. I will not ask for
things, you say. You say, I am rich
already with things I never asked for.
You may not know, but silences
have their own modes of prayer
just as words have, but different,
less visible, perhaps less arrogant too.
I cannot ask for things even in
silence, for words left me one night
long ago, without my asking for it.
Perhaps, that night you dreamt of it?
Bibhu Padhi has published eleven books of poetry. His work has appeared in distinguished magazines and anthologies throughout the English-speaking world. He lives with his family in Bhubaneswar, India.
* * *
Poems by Timothy Robbins
In the Sink
Granny on the draining
board, breakable as china.
(Keep Palmolive away from
Dad. He thinks it’s a Greek
wedding.) Granny in the
sink vacant as Depression’s
bare Christmas floors and
promises she canned and
stored in the pantry. Feet
in the drains, she trembles
like cut flowers while someone
goes to fetch a vase. Something
not too showy. One hand on
the tap, the other on the transom,
she looks for the source of a voice
calling, “Nannie Prewitt, come
down from there. This night I
sup in your house,” while
another scolds from behind,
“Mom, you don’t have to
clean the windows.”
I Can’t Believe it’s Bob Again
My mind racing back to him is
like the most flamboyant
act in Vegas returning to the burg
where a red handkerchief in a
hip pocket stirred the football
team’s ire (though they didn’t
know what the hanky meant).
They gathered outside an invisible
wall and shouted at my dad’s
new siding, Joshua’s most gung-ho
invaders, convinced they saw red
flapping from a sill.
I wonder if Bob remembers the
lamp that hung above my night-
stand and swung when I paced
the poorly propped attic floor.
He probably remembers the
Beatles silk screen (he was a
fan too) now rolled up, an outdated
map in a cardboard tube.
I’m sure he remembers the
shock when, lit by that lamp,
flanked by the Fab Four, I kissed
the school rumors about me
on the cheek and he choked,
just a cough or two, on his
Earl Grey tea.
The last time I saw him, he’d
buried his wrestler’s grace in
fat, his mental grace in a file
cabinet. I wondered if he’d
lost his knack for recovering
from shocks at once, if the
unlooked for ever pierced
the cinderblock of his office,
or tapped gently at its door.
Volume 10. The Golden Book
Encyclopedia.“The boy was not well
liked. The story of his life is one of
many quarrels with popes.”
Adam and David —
blue and white cartoons,
their groins smooth and
white as the bowl I ate Corn
Flakes from. I trembled in the tub,
worried that smoothness would
come to me when I was grown.
If he had already faced the giant,
the boy would clutch in one fist
the dripping head by its hair and
in the other a sword (a weapon
no shepherd could afford)
tempered by Philistine blood.
His right hand has taken the sling
I’m tempted to see as a loin-
cloth, his only clothing just
pulled off or about to be donned,
resting in the crux of his raised
shoulder and turning neck.
His left hand at his thigh is strong
not from fight but from herding
earth’s gentlest creatures.
The fingers, curling as though to
scratch, cradle the agent of the
tall man’s fall. The body which
furs and maidens will warm in
old age is sovereign. He feels the
tremor against his soles, still
distant. Time to imagine his curls
caught in a crown.
For those of us who will
never be king, whose forms are
never complete there is no more
perfect expression of the
potential than this unfinished
slave writhing in his sheet,
this promise of an unfinished
grave. I have seen you
stretched on our bed in this
very pose, one hand behind your
head, fingers knotted
in your disheveled hair, the other
hand lifting your shirt, leaving
your stomach bare. Your fingers
explore the depression at the
lower tip of your
sternum. Your equally
unfinished mate strains at his
bonds, flexing for fight.
Tim Robbins teaches ESL and does freelance translation in Wisconsin. He has a BA in French and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Indiana University. He has been a regular contributor to Hanging Loose since 1978. His poems have also appeared appeared in Three New Poets, Long Shot, Bayou Magazine, Off the Coast, The Tishman Review, Tipton Review, Slant, Main Street Rag, and others. He lives with his partner of twenty years in Wisconsin.
* * *
By Adam Rubin
My inner child embodies me like a thief enters a palace,
as natural and light as a criminal rising up in the shadow of doubt.
A.R. spends his alone time reading and writing. He resides in Ogden, Utah, with his wife. They love spending time traveling and discovering new cultures together.
* * *
Two Poems by Claire Scott
In Case of Fire Break Glass
& I did & I did
wine glasses, dessert dishes,
serving bowls, bottles of Spanish
oil & aged balsamic vinegar
the crystal vase you bought
for our tenth anniversary
filled with yellow tulips
each glass, dish, bottle, bowl
hurled against a wall,
a cabinet, a window
each satisfying crash
fueling the next
how could you
I collapse in the corner
stunned at the mountain of shards
sparkling in the morning sun
the work of a mad woman
blood drips from my finger
tears splash shattered glass
& I remember who we were
just yesterday, soft kisses
as we left for work
will our story stay open
will yellow tulips be on the table
when we return tonight
my hands flutter like sparrows
could be charming on a first date
but this is an interview finally
an interview after four months
of filling out applications
for Amazon, Sweet Dreams,
Mel’s Bar, In-N-Out Burger
scooping fries for hours
carpal tunnel be damned
I seriously need this job
that pays minimum wage
demands double shifts
requires a two hour commute
I desperately need the cash
down to a box of Uncle Ben’s &
four cans of SpaghettiOs
avoiding my landlord, hiding in the closet
they can see how nervous I am
I weave my fingers together like a potholder
place them firmly on my lap
one hand floats to my cheek
scratches the scar on my neck
this will never do
I reweave them, press them on my lap
they tell me they will let me know
I already do
Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has been accepted by the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Enizagam, and Healing Muse, among others. Claire is the author of Waiting to be Called and the co-author of Unfolding in Light: A Sisters’ Journey in Photography and Poetry.
* * *
By Ed Doerr
I was five years old when my father, putting his hands on both knees and leaning forward, told me his new house would have a great big backyard. His face, screwed up into a squint to block out the sun, waited for me to respond, but I couldn’t. If I had been a planet, then he had just drilled to my core, dropped a nuke, and sped out of there, ignoring the rocks and debris whizzing past him as he outran the explosion he’d left in his wake. Suffice it to say, I had no idea what he was talking about.
In an exercise of futility, I attempted to conjure up an image of what his (I stuck with that pronoun despite his insistent attempt to correct it to “our”) backyard might look like but couldn’t. I knew there would be grass, but that confused me because grass belonged in parks and baseball fields; it described persistent tufts of green pushing through the cracks of neglected city sidewalks. He referred to it as his lawn, but that only added to my bewilderment because lawns meant immaculately maintained swaths of green outside public libraries and schools that you had better keep off at all costs.
I wasn’t following, but I smiled, nodded, and said, “Okay.”
My face must have looked like a windshield threatening to shatter, spiderwebbed cracks reaching across the glass at the lightest touch. But Dad didn’t look any closer, just stood up to the tune of popping kneecaps and told me he wished Ally had shown this kind of excitement when he’d told her. And that, as far as he knew, was that.
Getting to the bottom of this issue proved more difficult than I imagined. Ally’s face, lifted from the latest Babysitter’s Club it had, a moment before, been buried in, hardened like quick-drying cement when I asked her the next day what Dad meant about his backyard.
“I can’t talk about it right now, Eddie,” she muttered. If a backyard made my sister that upset, then maybe there really was something about it I didn’t understand. Her eyes shimmered for a moment before falling back to her book. “I just don’t get it, either,” she whispered without looking up again.
Something in Ally’s voice — like plates shattering — led me to Ma, who always had me back up when something slipped from the countertop with a crash so that she could descend on the fragments, sweeping up the pieces left behind. I knew she’d tell me. One day, I finally asked her.
“What’s a backyard?” I asked, slamming the back door shut.
She stood in profile, washing dishes. A tendril of her black hair had come undone and fell like a comma across her cheek. She brushed it away with the back of her hand.
“Well, that’s our backyard,” Ma said, lifting her chin to indicate the place beyond the window.
“That’s a backyard?” I couldn’t hide my incredulity.
The square of chipped concrete outside the window certainly didn’t align with my — admittedly limited — understanding of what made a backyard a backyard. It was an insolent child, cracked and uneven. You couldn’t tame it. You certainly couldn’t cooperate with it. All you could do was relinquish control and do whatever it wanted, which usually translated to drawing on it with sidewalk chalk as thick as your wrist. Or learning to ride a bike in circles, weaving geometric pathways that skirted the more hazardous fissures and bumps. Or playing hopscotch, even though you knew that was just a game for girls. Or leaping from crack to crack, pretending that to lose your balance meant plummeting to certain death into a pit of molten lava. Or sitting cross-legged on the cement, waiting for your sister to come home from school.
“So a backyard is a place where I play by myself?”
Ma’s face crumpled as something flickered with lightning quickness across her eyes. Even then, I could tell my words scalded her and wished they hadn’t. “Well, that’s our backyard,” Ma said, gathering herself. “Everyone’s is different.”
“But where’s the grass?” I asked. “Dad said his new house is going to have a huge backyard with miles of grass!”
She finished drying her hands on a dishtowel. Then, as she did when she wanted to tell me a secret or whisper a consoling thought to banish the lingering wisp of a nightmare, she leaned forward, hunkered down close. The scent of her filled my lungs: the warmth of freshly baked bread. “You, me, and Ally, we might not have grass like your Dad, but how many people do you know that have grapes in their backyard?”
I never thought about it like that, and I told her so.
“Pretty cool, right?’ She winked at me and tousled my hair.
“I think so!” I said with a grin. “Dad doesn’t know what he’s missing!”
Ma pinched her eyes shut and pulled me in for a hug then, shaking slightly as she held me. Her hair tickled my face. “No, you’re right: he doesn’t know what he’s missing,” she confirmed at last, her words sounding as if they were drowning.
She held me like that for what felt like a very long time until, finally, I asked, “Can I go play now?”
“Of course, honey,” she said, breaking the hug to thumb what she promised was mascara from her eyes. “Go play.”
Before turning to go, I leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “Love you to pieces,” I said.
“To pieces,” she replied with a smile.
I ran back outside and looked up to see that it was true: an intricate network of lattice ran overhead. Grapevines twisted and curled around the cedar, the leaves catching the sunlight and making jagged triangular shadows below on the cement. Black grapes peppered the vines like the ellipses to a sentence that would never end, stringing you along to infinity.
It was like seeing them for the first time. I’d never thought of them as anything but a nuisance before. Errant grapes would commit suicide at irregular intervals and splatter into modern art paintings. Ma would often mutter curses under her breath as she scrubbed her windshield free of the squashed, bloody remnants. Once, I even tracked the decimated corpse of a fallen soldier all through the apartment without noticing until I turned around and saw the trail of jellied gore in my wake. Ma and I found out just how stubborn a stain could be that night.
If she had her way, my mother would have ripped apart that fancy latticework with her hands. But, like so many things, it wasn’t up to her or us. Our landlord fancied himself a vintage winemaker, so she had shared a barb or two with him over the fruit of his labors, though it changed nothing. The grapes lived on in blissful mockery. I knew she hated them.
But just then, with her face inches from mine, she hadn’t. She loved them enough for the both of us. Her irises had bunched; the whites of her eyes had dusted with flecks of dark purple; the sweet smell of them might have even wafted from her fingertips: my mother who loved grapes.
Outside, beneath a cedar awning twisted with writhing snakes and dotted with periods, I loved them too. I wondered if Dad felt the same way, but he mustn’t have. Now that he had lived here, with us, in house with a backyard festooned with grapes, how could he move to a boring new place that didn’t have even a single one?
Wouldn’t he miss the grapes? I knew I would.
Then again, maybe he left because of them. Maybe he’d grown sick of them, hated how they pressed down on the backyard, encroaching on it like a pre-thunderstorm sky. Maybe the thought of stepping in one more made him want to cry. Maybe they made it hard for him to breathe. Maybe Dad couldn’t be bothered with any more grapes or leaves.
Just then, I saw one vine, dark and cracked, that had begun to untwist itself from the lattice, its skin flaking off and peppering the ground. Nestled in the corner by our half of the two-car garage, it hung lower than the others, at easy grabbing height for Ally
or Ma but well beyond my grasp. Three grapes, shriveled into raisins, bunched together at the tip.
We weren’t allowed to actually park inside the garage (wine presses needed to be stored somewhere, after all), so Ma had left her baby blue Dodge directly beneath the vine as if in defiance. I stood on the bumper and reached up, wanting to — needing to — yank that vine free. My fingers brushed the dried globe of a low-hanging grape, but I couldn’t quite grab hold of it. Now I think it might have been for the best.
Jumping down from the bumper and turning around, I knew my mother would be standing, arms crossed, at the little window above the sink, and I spotted her, leaning against the counter and smiling.
That day was no different from any other, so of course she was there. She would stand there, my mother, and watch me play my games on the chipped backyard that wasn’t a backyard. She would stand like that for hours if she could, stand there and watch me, the boy who asked questions that burned as hot as the westering sun she stood facing. Dipping below the horizon, it would force its final rays into her eyes, and she would raise a hand to block them, tilt her head to the side, and smile. Even through the glare — or, maybe, just maybe, because of it — my mother would smile: smile at the boy she loved playing in his backyard beneath the grapes.
When he's not writing, Ed teaches English in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and has recently completed a masters degree in Creative Writing. His work appears in One Teen Story, Hippocampus Magazine, Water/Stone Review, West Texas Literary Review, Tishman Review, GFT Press, and more. He is active on Twitter & Facebook and writes about television on his blog.
* * *
A Fistful of Pills
By Michael Gentry
I cringed, scooped the pills into my hand, and loaded the fistful into my mouth, dry, chasing them down with a swig of milk. I did this every morning, alongside my bowl cream of wheat. The pills were putrid, often making me burp herbal flavors throughout my school day. But, my mother made me. The pills would keep me healthy.
Looking back into the moving picture that was my childhood, my mother did many things I hated. The pills were just one.
It was a Sunday morning, and my family was ready for church. I didn’t want to go. After being forced from my bed, I got into the shower. I knew that the family needed to leave within fifteen minutes or they’d be late, something my mother hated yet embraced. I stood there, hot water running down my skinny, teenage body.
My mother pounded on the door with her fist. “Hurry up! We’re gonna be late.”
I decided to wash my hair a second time.
A minute later, the pounding on the door was more violent. “Get out, and get dressed. Now!” My mother’s voice jumped into a peculiar pitch when she got angry.
I grabbed the soap for a second lather.
The doorknob started to jiggle. I laughed a victorious chuckle at the locked door.
The knob jiggled some more, this time with the distinct sound of a bobby pin picking the lock.
I froze, concentrating more intently on the sound.
The knob rattled once more then popped open. The hinge squealed.
I dropped the soap and franticly searched for cover, a towel. Before I could reach for my towel, my mother stormed into my bathroom. Her steps were enraged, her breathing irate. In a panic, I draped the cold shower curtain around my naked body. “Mom! Get out!” I screamed.
She reached in, turned the water off, and threw the towel at my face. “Be ready in three minutes.” Her sharp eyebrows scared me into compliance.
Church was boring.
Whenever I’d come home from a date, my mother would ask me about it. She’d inquire about the girl, her family, her interests. Every single time my mother would ask, “Did you click?”
I realize that this was her way of asking if the girl and I got along well or had special feelings. But asking if we clicked made the moment so awkward I’d tuck my head into my little shell and pretend to be asleep.
My mother was really practical. I suppose I inherited this gene from her. Every Easter growing up I could expect the same thing in my basket: jelly beans and underwear. For many years I questioned, even despised, the Easter Bunny. What kind of childhood hero delivered Fruit of the Loom to me and enormous, bunny shaped chocolates to my friends? This was more humiliating than coal in my stocking. I gave up on being good for that stupid bunny. But, mysteriously, my skid-marked underwear would disappear, and the new briefs would take their place.
Mom is an opportunistic optimist. Many multi-level businesses passed through our home: vitamin-packets, healthy chocolate, sub-standard, motivational TV networks, miracle water. At that age, in the pools of insecurity, I was embarrassed. And the businesses never seemed to work out.
My mother also didn’t tolerate swearing. And by swearing, I mean words like pee, crap, butt, fart, and piss. Piss was the F-word equivalent in my home. I was required to use words that would assuredly get me duck taped to a tree: tinkle, poo, bum, toot, and potty. My little sister once said the word piss, and she cringed as my mother threatened her with the back of her hand.
Mom expected a lot of me, many things without my consent or desire.
I had to mow our two-acre yard with a push mower. It wasn’t even self-propelled.
Every fall, I had to rake leaves left by the many trees that dotted our property. Then, I had to rake Grandma’s yard.
I couldn’t get my license until I improved my GPA above the “good student discount” minimum on our insurance.
Saturdays were spent pulling weeds along the ditch bank.
Every day in the summer, I had a chore list waiting for me to wake up.
I had to walk Grandma across the street to church every Sunday.
Life was hard. I had expectations that were heavy. Consequences were brutal.
The other night, as I tucked my five-year-old into bed, I thought of my mom. I thought about the hard, embarrassing, demanding way I am raising my five children.
Everything she did was for me. None of it was for her. My tiny, immature brain couldn’t see it, didn’t see it. There was method and wisdom to the madness. It makes me wonder what my children think of me.
Pills made me healthy. Going to church made me God-fearing and God-loving. New underwear kept me clean. Talking helped me to trust people. Work taught ethics. Grades taught the value the education. Service fended off selfishness. Clean language was refining. Her attempts at wealth were for a brighter future and more opportunity. Respect for elders. Kindness. Dedication. Love.
All of the things I hated were for me—to change me, mold me. Looking back, it is clear I had a mother who cared, who loved me. It would have been easy to mail it in, let the TV raise me. But my mom loved me. She wouldn’t stand for it. I realize now what to call all of my mother’s annoying, painful, embarrassing antics—good parenting.
Michael Gentry lives and works in Eastern Idaho. He received a B.S. in English Education from Brigham Young University-Idaho, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from National University, and an Ed.D. in Education from the University of Idaho. Michael teaches basic writing courses at BYU-Idaho. His work is forthcoming or has been published in Animal Literary Magazine, The Casserole-Literature and Art Magazine, Apeiron Review, Embodied Effigies-Creative Nonfiction Literary Magazine, Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine, The Great Books Challenge, Strata Magazine, and The Research in Developmental Education Journal.
* * *
The Frank Twist: When the Actress Doesn't Act
By Hali Morell
There’s a brilliant scene in The Sopranos where Tony is talking to Carmela on the phone.
“I had one of my Coach Molinaro dreams,” he says.
“Were you unprepared again?” she responds.
In these two lines, the audience knows that this is a recurring dream for Tony, and he knows exactly what it means.
So, I had one of my Frank dreams…and I know exactly what it means.
A Frank dream is basically your classic The Actor’s Nightmare, but with a twist. So, not only is the actor faced with the reality that they’re about to perform in front of an audience and have no idea what the fuck their lines are, an event that soaks the dreamer with anxiety, terror, and frustration, but then throw in the Frank twist, which adds elements of severe disappointment that highlight excuses, expose cover-ups, and throw in a severe bullshit meter that leaves the dreamer to face the deep truths of their very being. It’s the moment when the mentor looks through the mentee with their magnifying glass and reads them like no one else can.
A Frank dream is always the same. The only variations are the location, what I’m wearing, and whether or not the frustration component greatly diminishes my ability to speak, walk, or have any sort of control over my body. It starts when I show up to a theater and I hear Frank’s voice and realize, motherfucker, I think I’m supposed to be rehearsing right now. Frank then notices my existence but pretends I’m not there. He’ll then glance at me once in a while with massive disapproval in his dark, Italian eyes. And I know I’ve let him down. So, I run backstage and pray that my script will magically appear. You know, the script I’ve never seen before. And I can see Frank’s shadow, his tall physique and bowlegs, pulling me into feelings of utter shame, guilt, and humiliation. Much like Tony Soprano, I’m unprepared. I’m unprepared at the thing I dream most of doing in my life.
I was twenty-two years old the first day I walked into the Working Stage Theater. I had already talked myself down from three mini-panic attacks during the drive from Palos Verdes to Hollywood. With my fear of getting lost, the discomfort of having just moved into my boyfriend’s parents’ house after living on my own after graduation, and meeting a group of probably the best actors in the world, I came close to ditching the whole idea and turning back around. A common pattern for me. Bailing on opportunities, slamming the doors that are left ajar only to be stuck once again in my tiny world.
With a fresh theater degree from Emerson College, I was beginning to notice that having that document meant absolutely nothing. The auditioning process for commercials made me want to run back to my childhood bedroom, turn out all the lights, lie on the hardwood floor, and blast The Smiths. I simply hated the game. The cattle calls, the way my lazy eyelid looked on the monitor, the inability to really listen to my scene partner as the distractions and insecurities saturated my entire being. This wasn’t acting to me. This was hours of waiting with self-doubt and many trips to the bathroom, only to be called on and judged as you spit out one line about laundry detergent. Why do people do this? Is this what it’s really all about? To be an actor? Because this right here was total bullshit. I longed for theater again. Theater was my second home. Give me a black wooden box to sit on and the smell of paint, and I could transform. I could finally let go of my Hali disorders and incorporate all of their weirdnesses into authentic characters, freeing myself of their negativity and using them only for good…to shape, mold, and create someone else.
Having survived the drive to Hollywood after sweating off my makeup, I parked on Gardner Street and walked toward a group of people standing outside and under a blue awning with “Working Stage” in white letters.
Walking into the space, there it was. The smell of paint, the clinking of props. Home.
Following everyone into the theater, I was freaked out. Not the “I’m getting lost on the freeway” freaked out, but the insecure and vulnerable freaked out. What if I sucked? What if I have to perform today, on my first day, and I realize that I actually can’t do this? What if that children’s agent I went to when I was eight had it right? That I needed more training?
Jarred out of my self-deprecation, I heard a loud voice from a man sitting in the front row, his legs stretched out and hands clasped on his stomach.
A guy sitting in the row ahead of me turned around and said, “That’s Frank. Don’t let him scare you.”
It took three Sundays at the Working Stage for Frank to notice me. This was a person who needed to sniff you out, from afar. You had to earn his trust, put in your time, pay your dues. And I did. Every Sunday from noon to five, I was there…reading scenes, writing scripts, performing in plays, learning the lighting and sound booth, assistant-directing.
Working with Frank was like a therapy session. He was tough and wouldn’t let you get away with shit. He was good at what he did, and I trusted him and wanted to do my very best for him. I learned more from him about acting than I had from any of the others—the long list of others who I was told were professionals, but who wound up teaching me how to embrace the role of a pubic hair, or how to scream the word “fuck” until you started crying.
Frank was so good at dissecting me…cutting through the bullshit and directly into the core of who I was. If I didn’t know my lines, it was bad news.
“You’re getting lazy!” he’d say in a sing-songy voice.
“No, I just—”
“Just is not a word. Just is an excuse,” he’d say with a glare followed by a laugh.
“Proceed! Even if you don’t know it, improv it. Figure it out. What does the character want? What’s in the way?”
We were tight, Frank and I. I’d go out to eat with him, I’d stay at his house, play with his dogs.
“I’m gonna make you a star,” he said one night after the closing of a show.
Even if it was bullshit, just hearing those words from someone like him made my life complete.
And then, on a Friday night, a show night, I arrived at the theater to find out that Frank’s wife had suddenly died. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. What? What?
And then, it was over. The Working Stage was over. It was a split second when everything changed. No more theater, no more Frank. It was like a breakup that I had no control over. There was no closure—something I realized I don’t handle well. I’m a closure-needing type of gal, and when it doesn’t happen, I start to go a little nuts. I’d do drive-bys on Gardner Street to see if Frank was there, but he never was. Then other people started using the theater. Other people were in my home. Should I run in and tell them that the picture over the toilet is me? Would that mean anything to them?
It took a lot of years. And my life took a lot of different directions. Frank and I did reconnect for a play I co-wrote that ran for a bit at the Working Stage. He also let me host my mom’s surprise sixtieth birthday party there.
But the Frank dreams, they’re often and they’re vivid. It’s a message…a strong, Italian, New York, aggressive Frank message. “Why the fuck aren’t you acting? Why are you not being real with yourself about it? Are you lazy? Are you afraid? What the fuck are you doing with your life? I thought this was everything to you, and you’re just pissing it away because you’re scared. Cut the bullshit and get to work. No more excuses.”
I recently received a Facebook post from Frank saying that the Working Stage will be closing for good at the end of this month. A celebration at the theater is occurring and I’ll be there. I need to be there. One more time with Frank in my old home just to cut through the bullshit. Wait, not “just.” To cut through the bullshit and pull the actress out. She needs to come out.
Hali Morell is an actress, writer, and teacher. She has written and performed two semiautobiographical plays as well as a solo show. Her work has appeared in Forge Journal and will be featured in The Tower Journal and The Penman Review. As co-creator of The Missing Peace, Hali facilitates memoir writing/talking council workshops.
* * *
Mother Lode: Nanny, Mammy, or Momma?
By Gerard Sarnat
Those certain stunning radiances from a young black girl all in white. Such a distinct kind smile, such a pleasant cozy aroma. I am just a few months old, but Lulu, the 'maid', whom my wife and I later named our youngest after, looks happy. Which glow warms me up.
Another golden memory when I am maybe two or three: inside my crib, standing up facing out toward the rear window of my nursery, there she is, perhaps a foot away, whispering something like, "Remember if the sun goes down, so do you... go to bed...you hear now?" The exact words may have been a bit different, but that twilight settling through the blinds remains a sweet scent within my nostrils.
Couple of years later, her room is next to mine near the back stairs where she’d descend directly into the kitchen. Lulu stays with us in Beverly Hills during the week. One night while my parents are away on holiday in Europe, I feel my way into Lulu’s bedroom. Not fully dressed, hair in a long black braid, she’s sitting upright against the backboard with a book propped in her lap. I urge Lu to read me a story. Pulling me into her bosom she says, "Child, you got to learn to read yourself," so I do.
Then I become a scamp. After buying a ticket at Warner's Theater, I’d let my friends in the back door. Swipe baked goods out of the drawers on the Helms delivery truck -- love their chocolate glazed doughnuts. Ditto when the Good Humor man’s jingle alerts me to run out to the street: I squat down and open the freezer door in the back and “five-finger handout” ice cream bars just to show-off. Yes, sometimes I do get caught. Once get a split lip holding on to the rear fin of a Cadillac hitching a slipstream ride till my bike makes it to Hollywood.
Lu is stern but forgiving, let’s me kiss her cheek if I am occasionally good.
I recall when Baskin Robbins first opens on Little Santa Monica. It’s called 31 Flavors, and features more choices for less money than rival Will Wrights with its egg cream and heart-stopping butterfat content. Curry's has its unique conical shape and a hard texture that for obvious reasons demand structurally sounder ice cream licking. Lulu loves Will Wright's tiny almond cookies -- I always beg for an extra couple to bring home.
Since my mom (who was a load) and her friends are pretty much ripped in our wet bar or gone shopping
at Saks or I. Magnin's, after school Lu and I snuggle for hours listening to Dodger games on the radio.
My special birthday treat is homemade friend chicken, stuff called “collard greens,” mashed potatoes with gravy, buttermilk biscuits with honey and blueberry pie. A lot of instant friends come over for leftovers. I learn helping her shell the peas, cream the corn, peel the carrots. I flour the catfish for her dinner, but she won’t let me have any catfish for the oddest reason I never really understand. I pick the mint outside in our backyard for the applesauce she’s making and generally spend a lot of time annoying her while she cooks.
One afternoon a wonderfully different taste is so inviting, I asked, “What IS it?” Turns out to be a very simple dish of hot rice in a bowl with milk, butter plus brown sugar on top. In the decades since, I try to duplicate the portions -- should I get it right, it is the best thing I’ve ever had.
I cultivate a sense of being Lulu’s son. She lives in East Los Angeles in a pretty nice house I visit when I’m older. It’s furnished like ours and has the look and feel of Maple Drive – I recognize the discarded powder blue carpet and couch. Together we hang laundry outside. The cool sheets on my face felt so breezy, so clean.
Before Mom dies, I wonder what she knows about Lulu’s “other” life and family. I’m informed Lu takes the bus to our house from Watts. Leaves her kids, Cuba Jr. and Ennis behind. Sacrificed so as she can earn what’s needed to feed them. Her husband's name was Cuba. He was about 6' 11 before disappearing. Myrtle, our cleaning lady, is a cousin of Lulu's. They were both was so cool paying attention to this stinky little white boy who was always a pain in the ass in some selfish way. They were my companions growing-up. Maybe they influenced me and who I am more than my parents.
Right before Lulu passes from breast cancer, I bring my girlfriend whom I’ve now been married to for forty-eight years, to meet Lulu in Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
Thank you, Lulu. I hope I treated you well. I think you loved me like your own.
Pushcart-nominated Sarnat, MD, has authored Homeless Chronicles (2010), Disputes, 17s, Melting The Ice King (2016) and has been published in Gargoyle, New Verse News, Lowestoft, etc. Mount Analogue selected Kaddish for pamphlet distribution on Inauguration Day DC/nationwide marches. "Amber Of Memory" was the single poem chosen for May’s 50th Harvard reunion Dylan symposium; the Advocate accepted a second plus Oberlin & Brown accepted concurrent pieces.
* * *
Watermelon Man Remembrance
By Tom Wade
We arrived at the theater, stood in line at the ticket counter and got our tickets. To our immediate right were the doors to the lobby and to the far right was the door to the stairway—uncarpeted, steep and narrow—leading to the balcony. Watching the two entryways dispelled my skepticism about what I was told I would see: The white patrons were going into the lobby and the black patrons went to the stairs. There were no signs, but the pattern was unmistakable; was it out of habit or something else? We three white guys went to the balcony entrance. The teenage kid taking tickets at the bottom of the stairs directed us to the lobby inside, and when our de facto leader Harold said that no, we want to sit upstairs, the startled kid became anxious. He didn’t take our tickets and insisted we go to the lobby. We refused. He walked to the ticket counter to report our intransigence, and the person there called the manager on duty, which resulted in another pimple-faced teenager coming out of a back room to tell us we had to sit downstairs. We said no, we wanted a balcony seat; they called the owner. The owner told them to let us know if we didn’t sit downstairs, they would call the police. They warned us. We stood our ground. They called the police.
This occurred in the early 1970s, which were times of change; transitions were being attempted to move the country toward equality—racial and economic— but there was resistance by a sizable number of people who saw such movement as unfair and a threat to their status. Excited about the chance to participate in these events, I became an antipoverty volunteer in the lower Appalachians, working on projects that I hoped would enhance the economic plight of the region’s poor, most of whom were white.
One weekend, my roommate and I were spending an evening with a group of our coworkers and a couple of local people, who lived in a small town in an adjoining county. Having finished dinner with no special plans for the rest of the evening, we discussed the possibility of going to a movie. The conversation turned to the talked-about hit, Watermelon Man, starring Godfrey Cambridge. It featured a racist insurance salesman who wakes up one morning to discover he’s black. The rest of the movie shows his transition from being a white bigot to a black militant. In 1971 the film’s plot and message were daring. Apropos to the discussion, someone in the group, probably one of the locals, pointed out the town’s movie theater was still segregated: blacks sat in the balcony and whites in the lower level seats. It was hard to believe that seven years after public accommodations legislation had passed, a business catering to the public would have designated seating by race. One of us, Harold, wanted to see the movie, and my roommate Chris and I were both interested, as we lived in a county without movie theaters or much of anything else; thus seeing a film, any film, was as alluring as the content. Harold had another idea, provocative and appealing: We, all of us white, should sit in the balcony. We jumped on that suggestion, as well. It wasn’t clear if the segregated seating was a rumor or a fact; a practice or requirement. If indeed separation was enforced, it would give us an opportunity to make a statement; we would be protesters. So, we went.
Unlike the other communities encompassed by our project, the town we were in had a relatively high concentration of African Americans, about a quarter of the total population. The volunteers there spent their time on efforts within the black precincts, primarily at a neighborhood center. Although at fifteen percent, the poverty rate in this county wasn’t high when compared to the rest of the state, the people living there led hardscrabble, difficult lives. In 1970, two thirds of the population in the town had less than a high school education, only twelve percent had completed high school and only four percent had completed college. Adjusting for inflation, a third of the city’s residents had incomes less than $25,000 a year (compared to twenty percent in the country), and ten percent received over $75,000 (compared to twenty-four percent nationally). With the bulk of its residents enduring a meager existence, we were in a community that resisted change, particularly in racial matters.
Segregation results in social disparities and has harmful psychological effects, each contributing to the other, causing in a malevolent feedback loop. For African Americans, enforced separation is second-class citizenship, and it leads to substandard education, lack of opportunities for jobs, inadequate housing, and mistreatment and abuse by those in authority, such as police officers. The psychological effects of segregation are devastating. A key study presented by the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was done by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Using drawings and dolls, they showed that in children, studied between 1939 and 1950, it was “clear that the Negro child, by the age of five is aware of the fact that to be colored in contemporary American society is a mark of inferior status. A child accepts as early as six, seven or eight the negative stereotypes about his own group."
A 1956 paper published in the Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science (of all places) details the harmful impact of bus segregation. The authors noted when discrimination is overt it has more serious psychological effects than subtler discrimination: When a black person is forced to abide “his obligatory role behavior, a reminder of the caste system greets his consciousness. His rejection is constant.” The article enumerates the intrapersonal outcomes of segregated buses; a primary one being feelings of hostility are held in check, which increases the sense of being inferior. Further, cynicism results from being forced to conform without internal acceptance, and “feelings of anomie, apathy, defensiveness in interpersonal behavior with whites” ensue. “Self-disregard, usually at a non-conscious level” is compensated for by attention-grabbing actions and occasional rebellion. Blacks in a segregated bus see themselves compared to whites, and even though other forms of discrimination—separate water fountains, facilities and schools—are harmful, the social comparisons made on a bus are especially pernicious because they “promote inferiority feelings since an individual can compare himself with both groups at once.” Reflecting on the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that for blacks, “Simply boarding a bus was an exercise in subservience,” that resulted in “the ultimate tragedy of segregation. It not only harms one physically but injures one spiritually. It scars the soul and degrades the personality.’”
As with segregated seating in buses, segregated seating in movie theaters has a deleterious effect. King stayed away from Southern movie theaters after his first experience as a teenager in Atlanta, in which he had to enter through a back door and “was forced to sit in a filthy blacks-only section.” When in a venue where one race sits in more comfortable and accessible space and the other is made to sit in less desirable and less clean space, the public display of the superior-subordinate relationship intensifies feelings of shame and hostility for the latter race.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated segregation’s legal foundation. It asserts that regardless “of race, color, religion, or national origin,” all persons have the right “to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities. . . of any place of public accommodation. . .without discrimination or segregation.” Included in the list of public accommodations are “any motion picture house, theater, concert hall, sports arena, stadium or other place of exhibition or entertainment,” such as the cinema that didn’t allow my friends and me to sit with people of another race.
We waited, perched on the steps to the balcony. Chris, who was a cautious guy, even though he had a background of union activism while a teacher, wanted to call it off. He argued for either getting our money back or sitting in the lower level; he didn’t see any gains, for us or the black population of this burg, from our sitting in the gallery. His reasoning implied we could face repercussions. Harold, who would go on to study behaviorism and whose athletic good looks and upper middle-class upbringing gave him an aura of entitlement, making him less cautious (though not careless), ignored the whimpering admonition. I wanted to stay and face the consequences but Chris’s nervousness was contagious; I wasn’t sure if staying was a good idea. I had visions of being told to leave by a burly officer or possibly even arrested for disturbing a peaceful Friday evening. At the least, I expected to be sent home; a discomfiture I anticipated with some anxiety. We looked and felt like troublemaking boys sitting outside the principal’s office. Black patrons passed us as they climbed the steps to their seats, not making eye contact, acting as if we weren’t there. While it wasn’t more than a quarter of an hour, the wait seemed interminable. I was looking at the sidewalk when a police officer came into view as he rounded the corner of the building, walking rapidly. His appearance startled me, because he was the first, and only, black cop in town. Harold knew him.
Recognizing Harold, he looked at us with a quizzical expression and then went to the counter. They told him we wanted to sit in the balcony. He told them they can’t stop us from sitting there. I couldn’t hear what was said by the person behind the plexiglass but it was a mildly resistant follow-up question (“Are you sure?”). The officer restated that if we want to sit upstairs, they must let us sit upstairs. His tone was quietly informative, neither demanding nor inpatient. So upstairs we went. We settled into seats four or five rows from the banister on the left side of the balcony area, and although we had recovered from the embarrassment of the enforced wait, we remained ill at ease from being the only white folks there. The movie itself was forgettable, the experience of seeing it was memorable.
What motivated the theater’s employees and owner? They were consciously or subconsciously enforcing social norms, yet I can’t fathom the psychic and group pressures that caused this behavior. All I can say is they felt threatened because their superior position was being challenged. In their way of thinking, blacks attempting to place themselves in the forbidden white areas would be minatory, but I’m puzzled by their refusal to let whites voluntarily mingle with blacks. I don’t know why they wanted to keep us from the less desirable space.
What motivated us? Anger, not from felt experience but from the unjust treatment of a people because of their race (abetted by the insolence of youth). However, our backgrounds were sheltered in these matters. We—I in particular—had seen discrimination and heard the slurs and taunts. But we didn’t understand this treatment was unrelenting, and the psychological, physical and pecuniary damage was devastating. We were too naïve to be empathetic. Oddly, for all our immature and condescending conceit, we didn’t see the irony of a film centered on racial injustice being shown in a segregated movie theater. The action we took that evening wasn’t to demonstrate solidarity; it was personal not social. We waited in the theatre’s stairwell for fifteen minutes and we were inside for an hour and half, but there was no engagement with the people we sat amongst; we said nothing to them, they said nothing to us.
Tom Wade is a retired state government employee. He has been an ombudsman volunteer (advocate for residents) for long term care facilities for over four years.
* * *
Flowers in Their Hair
By Susannah Chovnick
When I moved to San Francisco, everyone told me to watch out. The crazies were everywhere. But coming from New York, I waved a hand and told them I could handle it. I grew up with it. I knew how bad it could get.
Apparently not. In Brooklyn you can escape the stenches. You can cross the street. Perhaps a man masturbates on the Subway. But you can get off and switch cars.
But here in the very center of the city, the streets crawl with disabled addicts, emaciated victims of poor childhoods and poorer decisions. But sometimes it’s not about the choices or the drugs. I read a story about an older lady living on the street. She said her mother died one day. Her and her sister were meant to split the money. Then she had a stroke, and her sister ran off with it all. No family, no vision. Health bills. Bad luck.
They lay atop potholes on Market Street. Searching for warmth as steam evaporates past their skin, into the air. People walking by wonder if they’re sleeping or dead. No one stops. Eventually a couple of policemen come by.
I take the 6 to work. Sometimes someone’s smoking crack in the back seat. One time a man pooped on the bus. We all gagged. Everyone got off at the next stop. Then there was the time a man brushed his teeth and spit whenever the bus doors opened. The time a lady with scratches bleeding down her arm kept nodding off. Her pit-bull between her legs. The time a man holding a stick pretended he was holding a microphone. He interrogated a Mexican couple and yelled at them to go back to their country. They stared back in silence. Eventually the bus driver pulled over and the man ran away. Then there are the smells. I’m sensitive, so I won’t describe them.
But usually they hit you right when you’re zoning out. You think, ok this bus ride isn’t so bad today. And you’re looking out the window thinking about what you’ll make for dinner and then bam. You’re looking around and everyone’s covering their nose except for the guy taking up an entire row. Then there’s the butt guy. When he stands from his seat to get off, all you see are his bare cheeks, sweatpants drooping down his thighs. I’ve seen him so many times. The other morning when the bus opened its doors, welcoming me to another morning commute, I saw him sitting there. It was so early in the day. I held an entire cup of coffee, still too hot to drink. I stepped back, let the bus pass.
The next one came, and I got on. An old man with white hair yelled about the state of the world falling to pieces. I couldn’t entirely disagree. The air was muggy. I reached past him and opened a window.
San Francisco, the place I moved to on a whim, after all the songs and movies told me it was full of ladies in white dresses, with flowers in their hair. Sprawled along the meadows in parks throughout the city. Drinking champagne beneath the sunlight, making love under the moon.
And as I fell into my thoughts, a pungent odor of trash shuffled past.
I looked up and saw a lady marching down the aisle. A daisy tucked behind her ear.
“Let me off this bus!” she yelled. Everyone looked away. The doors flung open.
Susannah Chovnick is a Brooklyn native who has always enjoyed writing non-fiction. Following her passion, she graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in journalism. She then moved to San Francisco, where she still resides. She has recently had work featured in Germ Magazine, Gravel Mag, and Lunaris Review.
* * *
College-Town Estate Sale--Moorhead, MN
By Andrew Jones
We venture out on Saturday morning: snow falling, the thin wipers of the old Civic paddling across the windshield, brushing away heavy white clumps. The roads are unplowed and the sidewalks need shoveling, but the forecast calls for inches more during the day: No sense in clearing the path before it’s likely to be preserved. The car fishtails down 12th Avenue, through empty intersections toward the western edge of Minnesota and the address given to us by friends. They’ve proclaimed the exotic and eerie treasures residing within the massive red house. Some call it pastoral. Some, a hell of a bachelor pad. But the sale of the old professor’s bric-a-brac will be ending tomorrow: Everything must go.
The furrows of tires all seem to lead here, but there are only a few cars parked in the dead end of the street. Unpruned for years, the barren hedges rise up like grey moth-eaten waves capped with a snowy froth. From the street, I can see only the top half of the converted barn like a capsized boat in the distance. We stomp clean our boots, remove gloves, and loosen our scarves on the porch. The heat is turned low and by the front door the estate sale crew hands out stale peppermint cookies, and coffee. Women and elderly couples shuffle through hallways into the spacious rooms, paw antique china and unsorted bins of junk, fondle the polished furniture. The price tags and mark downs draw out their smiles. Not much has been gathered in the family room, and as we pass through I’m pulled to the windows by the untouched, deep snow slanting away in bright white down to the frozen river. So much silence beyond the glass, and the falling snow only deepening the layers of the history of cold.
We lose ourselves in two connecting rooms littered with books on floor-to-ceiling metal racks. We could spend days sifting through all of this but we haven’t been given the hours to spare. You sat in the man’s lectures years ago, received papers marked with letters in his hand. I’ve only heard his name over the last couple of days but feel awkward and intrusive handling his books—so many copies of Chaucer, Milton, and More, Bronte and Austen, as if owning every copy would lure in visitors and conversations. And in the books themselves, conversations in the margins and on title pages. There are dedications, notes of thanks, dates, inscriptions from and to people we float between: the names of the dead on campus buildings and once-young professors on the back cover who now mentor us and with whom we will drink warm orange liqueur this evening to stave off the cold of a plains winter. We part pages, participate in a silent conversation: part of the history of academia scattered about the city in used books.
There are more than books stashed on the shelves: magazines, yearbooks, cassettes, and theses. Some gems seem passed over just for us to find: a New Yorker from the week of my birth, a series of Russian translations, and literary LPs. On the lower shelves in the second room, the heavy vinyl rests in its sleeves under a fine layer of dust. We unearth old Caedmon record sets: readings by and of the works of Stein, Faulkner, Stevens, and Dylan Thomas. We choose our haul cautiously, weighing it on an imagined cosmic scale, leaving behind the books with penciled words too personal to remove---memories that don’t feel quite right to breach.
I’m left with more questions than answers after the estate sale visit: the plentiful supply of women’s dresses and garments in closets despite being an eternal bachelor; the copious amounts of a literary life heaped around the massive, ark-like house yet I’d never heard his name on campus; the use of narrow corridors to connect all the large rooms that blossomed into open spaces; the white, empty snow the only view from the windows.
We spend the last days of December huddled in our apartment near campus, wrapping up grades and commenting on papers. In the evenings, with the lights low, we listen to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”—one of the records we salvaged. More snow falls. It gets colder. And the old professor comes to life for me in these moments: his lectures in the brogue of Thomas, his movements like fluttering scraps of paper, his aura the odor of old books and dust. The white label of the record flurries around the turntable, spins out white like that long decline toward the Red River he stared at so many times alone.
Andrew Jones teaches in the Language and Literature Department at the University of Dubuque. His work has appeared in publications such as Poetry Midwest, Sierra Nevada Review, and Arroyo Literary Review.
* * *
The Invisible Cage
By Roger Kerrigan
It was as if she were an abused dog, her hair matted down, her eyes unable to make eye contact. She sat there, behind her office desk, the paper clips in a paper clip holder, the post-its in a post-it holder, the pens in a pen holder, everything arranged neatly on her desk.
She dressed the same way, too. A plaid maroon dress, the thick fabric blunting any indecent hints of what her slender body looked like beneath it. She wore a black shirt underneath that matched her stockings, all of it covering her skin in a way that made it seem inaccessible. Everything so prim, so modest, that it made me think of her as a throwback to The Wonder Years. And it made me wonder: is this what women really looked like back then?
She—Rosemarie was her name—was awfully kind though. I learned that on my first day in the communications department when she checked to make sure I had everything. She offered to order anything I needed and to make sure it got to me by next-day delivery. And I couldn’t help but think—what the hell would I need so urgently on my first day that it needed to be here by my second day? But I didn’t tell her that. I just thanked her and said that if I really needed something, I could order it myself.
As the weeks and months passed, I got to know Rosemarie little by little. She started making eye contact, and once she even touched me, then drew her hand back as if my arm sat on a stove.
“Mom, I know about my appointment,” she said sharply into the phone. “Mom, why are you calling me on my work number.”
I peeked around the corner, and the moment she saw me she swiveled her chair so her back was to me. She hunched over and started whispering.
Later that day, when I saw her in the office kitchen, I asked her if she was alright.
“It was just Mom making sure I remembered my appointment,” she said.
It struck me as odd, her referring to her mother as “Mom.” Not “my mom” but “Mom.” There was an odd formality to it.
“If my mom did that I’d probably laugh and hang up,” I said back. And it was true, I would. I was in my thirties for Christ’s sake.
“If I did that, Mom would make it holy hell for me when I got home,” she said.
“What about your dad?”
“Dad lets Mom handle the house.”
Which I took as ‘Mom manhandles Dad.’
“Then maybe you’ll have to start wearing a necklace of St. Michael just in case.”
She smiled, and in a sense, I think she was a little surprised I knew anything about religion.
From that point on, I got to know Rosemarie’s childhood. She grew up in a house that sounded like some sort of invisible cage; her mother hadn’t allowed her beyond their yard until she was fifteen years old. At first I had trouble understanding. I mean, I’d grown up with the Bingham brothers and BMX bikes and firecrackers, hockey sticks, air rifles, and cartons of eggs--cartons upon cartons of eggs. While our neighbors probably wanted us to go home, her neighbors probably didn’t know who she even was.
She still stayed in that same house. So, in a way, it made sense to me how she reacted to a comment I made on a particularly stressful day. She came into my office as I was trying to rework a memo for a director who didn’t know how to communicate but had a lot of opinions about how to do so.
“God I could use a drink,” I said to Rosemarie. “Angela’s making my day hell.” I looked up and smiled. “A holy hell.”
“Do you want company?” Rosemarie asked.
I paused. “Company for what?”
“You said you could use a drink.”
“Oh I didn’t mean …”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I misunderstood.”
“Actually, I could use a couple beers. I’m not doing anything after work anyway.”
So we went to a German beer garden with a nice outdoor patio a few blocks from our office. We each ordered a stein—mine a whole liter, hers just a half—and started chatting about work before moving on to our personal lives. After a couple hours, she looked down at her phone. “It’s Mom,” she said. “She’s already pestering me about when I’ll be home.”
“Why don’t you just tell her to back off?” I said.
“If I do that, she’ll get cross with me.”
Cross? I thought. Who uses that word anymore? “Maybe she should give you some space.” Only I didn’t say space. I said leash. Maybe she should give you some leash.
But Rosemarie didn’t snap back. Not like she should have. Her eyes lowered, falling into her lap.
“Where else would I go,” she said.
We left the bar and walked a few blocks until we were at the intersection where one way led back to my place and the other led to the train that would take her back to Mom.
She stood there with a sort of awkward posture, and I couldn’t tell if she was waiting for me to kiss her or hug her or simply say goodbye. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I invited her back to my place. Would that be the somewhere else she could go? But she’d still have to return home the next day. And then what would Mom say?
I said goodbye, and we exchanged an awkward hug, one where we patted each other’s backs without the rest of us really touching. As I walked down the street toward my apartment, I glanced back just to make sure she wasn’t following me.
But I knew she wouldn’t do that. She had a home. With a yard she couldn’t stray from.
Roger Kerrigan is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.Roger Kerrigan is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
* * *
By Artemis Savory
She brings home empty bottles and crushes them in a barrel in her backyard. She collects the shards like seaglass, fishing out her favorites--the dark green of Rolling Rock, the sapphire of Meade bottles, and the rare, illustrious pink. She's bored of the murky and the clear.
She glues the shards onto panels of wood and leans them against walls inside her house, these beautiful remnants of destruction. She stares at the sharp corners and flat centers, seeing pictures in the discord: a boy kissing his own hand; a mother cradling her child in her arms; and a couple speaking in whispers.
She harbors the secret hope that someday, after she has gone, her art will be found and become famous. But then she touches a sharp edge. "They'll think it's junk," she says to herself, blood dripping from her finger. "And it'll all go into the garbage."
He bears the weight of a wooden paintbrush roller each day. It is his cross. Sometimes he has to scratch at old wallpaper, to get to what’s underneath, before he can roll on a blank coat. He watches weathered fences go dark and smooth. He turns an old woman’s bathroom turquoise to match the Caribbean paintings on her walls. At the end of the day, he goes home and eats plain Cream of Wheat, because his tastes have dulled. He stops in at the bar now and then just to be near other people.
She doesn't notice the boy who passes her on her way to work every day. He sneaks looks at her mouth, so set and rigid and unshakeable, and wonders what made her this way: Who cut into her and pulled out the happiness. He thinks that maybe he could save her. He tries to ask her name more than once, but she always looks straight ahead, and seems not to see him at all.
Sometimes he follows her to work and watches. She hardly ever smiles. Although sometimes she seems to smile in the silence.
A handful of Bud Lite bottles slam into the trash can. She pauses to hear the crash against other bottles, and against the metal sides of the can. They dwindle into shards, strips lost in the depths of cheap plastic trashbags. She shivers.
The sound reminds her of the time her brother punched her in the face, breaking her nose, when she was twelve. She'd cried, but the sounds and the feel of bone snapping beneath her skin were surreal. The feeling was as unreal as asphalt in summer, when you've been sitting in a car too long to think straight, and you see puddles twinkling hundreds of feet ahead, but when you get there, they're gone.
There isn't a lot of drama in her life anymore. She keeps to herself. She is quiet and isn't sure that she wants her customers or friends to see any deeper than the red tanktop under her pink netted blouse. That should be enough skin.
Once, she stayed with a man in a hotel on an island. They had been sitting around a firepit in the yard, alone and drinking red wine from stemmed glasses. She had finished hers, and the glass felt so soft, so fragile beneath her teeth, that without thinking too long about it, she bit down, and it cracked, glass going into her mouth and on the grass, and he saw. She bled, but it didn't hurt, but they returned to the states the next day and she never heard from him again.
Now she is no longer smiling, and the boy sees this. When she brings him a Coke, he takes it and says to her, "Why do you smile when the glass breaks?"
She looks at him. How can she share the pleasant sound of things breaking? She wants to cry, but doesn't know why. He sees the possibility of tears in her eyes, glistening like dregs of beer in the base of a broken bottle, and he forces his eyes from her, to allow her escape.
She doesn't talk to him again that day. But when he returns later in the week, she smiles at him, just a little. And on the street now, she sees him. When she places the glasses in the bin and looks at him and laughs, he laughs too. And when he touches her hand, just a little, when she's giving him his change, she flinches, but doesn't pull away.
Artemis Savory is a writer and writing mentor. She prefers Creative Nonfiction but enjoys delving into fiction every now and then. She has a lyric essay published in Hinchas de Poesia online. Learn more about her or subscribe to her "Starving Artist" blog.
* * *
Mothers, Daughters, Rebels
By Claire Petrichor
As she peels the carrots with the sharp precision of an act performed indefinitely she watches the cacophony of women’s war beyond the always pristine kitchen window. These women are bright, shiny, and new. They have been pressed upon for too long, but instead of falling into smooth crumbs they have been hardened into jagged cut and glimmering diamonds. Diamonds who are rough.
They are starry eyed and idealistically spirited. Change rides on the trains of their skirts as they march. Their buckled shoes clack against the fresh paved streets with sharp notes that demand attention. Their dresses swing and sway elegantly amongst their rebel’s heels. It is a new kind of feminine ideal. She sees no Achilles in their step, only confidence and straight backed poise.
People watch with awe or disgust as they go about their daily New York business. The fumes of the city waft high as automobiles fly past. Children play ball in the back alleys, their shouts filling the spaces between the city noises. The markets are full of the smell of fresh bread and consumers. Housewives and servants beat their rugs outside their well manicured homes, stray cats with mouse blooded jowls prowl about. All watch. There is plenty of audience for their show. Women of every shape and place strut down the roads cradling signs which loudly proclaim
VOTES FOR WOMEN!
She joins the army and marches with them. She wears her sexiest dress, all frills and scandalous lace as her soft hands hold her own sign high above her head. The tight bodice of the dress makes her child withered breasts plump and juicy again, as if birth had never touched her. It gives her a confidence that she has not felt since she was a vivacious and free teenager.
She struts with the seamless grace of a woman who was never beaten down by sexism. She fights with blazed eyes and a heart on fire. Years of suppressed rage at the expected nightly servitude to her unwanted white picket fence life spill out from her battered soul.
It is a long battle, one that began eons ago. The soldiers bear scars and pain, but those do not matter. The war has been won and sweet victory lays behind their scarlet painted lips. She gains a voice she’s never had. She can vote. She can be considered a person with worth and value. She is equal for the first time in her life.
She flies off into the wide and possible azure sky.
A tug at her dress makes her startle awake with a frightful shudder. It was all a daydream. The battle is not won and she is holding the remains of a shredded carrot. She is still behind her white picket prison. She is still chained down from flight by a demand for dinner and a ceiling she alone can’t hope to break.
She looks down and sees a sticky fingered baby girl gazing up at her with innocent eyes that are yet to be blemished by the harsh reality of her womanly bits.
“Daddy’s home, momma.”
She stares out the window. She sees the march that has had her so enraptured and has set her spirit so momentarily free. It doesn’t have to be just a moment, does it?
She thinks about running. She thinks about flying past her husband, shoving him to the floor, and escaping. She could do it, she thinks. Her buckled shoes could clack against the freshly swept floors and carry her off into her own happy ending of spread wings and wild nights under the waning moon.
She takes a step forward, inching towards the front door to Heaven. Her baby girl stands behind her and watches her momma with wide eyes. Her husband stands in the doorway, staring expectantly. He waits for his nightly submission and drink. She takes another step towards the door he is so callously blocking. Men’s prejudice always seems to block that door women desperately crave to step through. He raises an eyebrow. Her baby girl lets loose a sharp cry of anguish, almost as if she understands what is happening.
She has a daughter. She never wanted her, but without her the baby will grow into a beaten down rose with plucked out thorns. She needs to teach her. She needs to suffer for her, for the next generation of women. She stares at her husband and lifts her chin, pulling back her normally slumped shoulders. Her gaze is ferocious. She sends a message, a declaration of independence. She turns back into the kitchen, picking up her baby girl as she sashays, struts, and glides.
She gets his drink.
Then, she pours one forbidden glass for herself. She takes a burning sip. Maybe the first step to equality starts here, at home, rebelling through something as simple as a scotch, she thinks with a smile. She takes a step forward; her shoes clack against the floor. One small step for womankind.
Claire Petrichor is studying Creative Writing at the collegiate level. Her work has appeared in Neon Dreams, Aspirations, and Adelaide magazines. She aspires to be a published novelist and an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
* * *
By Terry Sanville
Eleanor reaches back and clicks off her nightstand light. Pulling the blankets to her chin, she gives Bob a nudge. “So, are you gonna watch more TV?”
Bob knows from the tone of his wife’s voice that she hasn’t asked a question. What she really said is “Please, shut the TV off and go to sleep.” He bristles at her passive-aggressiveness.
“Hon, I’m just going to watch the news. Why don’t you wear the sleep mask I bought you and I’ll use my headphones so you won’t hear it.”
“Oh, all right.” Eleanor flounces onto her side, slips on the mask, and gives him the cold shoulder.
Bob listens but hears no sounds coming from their children’s bedrooms. He slides on his earphones and adjusts the TV’s volume. He feels exhausted. But he uses the news programs to keep from thinking about his shy creative son being mauled by the neighborhood thugs, his daughter running wild with her druggy friends, or his wife’s constant complaint about his lack of affection. He clicks on a network news channel and reaches for his tablet. He likes to watch a news report while viewing other accounts on the Internet.
The networks cover the latest club massacre, some homophobic gunman slaughtering dozens of gays as they party. The TV report is discreet, no videos, a few still photos, but mostly words. He googles the headline. Pages of sites come up, including a series of YouTube files showing partygoers sprawled on the floor, eyes closed as if sleeping, gunshot wounds, moans, screams.
Another attack by Boko Haram on a northeastern Nigerian village fills the TV screen; hundreds of men and boys reported dead, with the women and girls hauled away to slavery. The Internet accounts show rows of bodies guarded by soldiers cradling their weapons, gazing dully into the camera.
Bob stares at the screens. Local news stations report murders along South Vermont in Westmont, homeless found dead under bridges, prostitution raids, meth lab busts showing skinny teens with rotting teeth and pitted faces handcuffed and shoved into Police vans.
For Bob, it’s all part of the wallpaper, those triumphs and tragedies that happen someplace else, to others he doesn’t know. It feels like a single note has sounded for so long that he can no longer distinguish it from the background. Bob stares at a watercolor painting hanging on the wall, the television images reflecting off its glass. He waits for sports and weather. Muting the TV and removing his headphones, he listens to the quiet clicking of the heat ducts and Eleanor’s rhythmic breathing.
The images on the glass return to the gay nightclub with bodies strewn across the dance floor. One shot of a crumpled young man, maybe twenty-one, fills the screen: a boyish face with eyes half open, the back of his head blown away. The eyes open wide and stare into the camera. The face twists like melting plastic into that of his son, Richard. Bob groans and struggles to sit up. But the covers weigh him down, like the leaden vests used by x-ray technicians.
The images on the glass shift to the latest meth lab bust. The Police handcuff a young teenager, her blonde hair chain-sawed off in some punkish cut. A reporter steps forward and touches her arm just before she enters the van. Turning, the girl opens her eyes wide, the pitted face becomes fluid and hardens into his daughter, Elise. Bob yells and pushes with all his might against the covers. He thrashes about, rolling from side to side, but can’t break free.
He fumbles with the TV remote, trying to shift the station away from the news to some inane sit-com re-run. But instead, a porn channel comes on. A hulking dude with long blond hair and covered in serpent tattoos spreads the legs of a white woman. The camera pans around the man’s thrusting body to show the woman with spine arched, head laid back, moaning in ecstasy. She opens her eyes and stares seductively at the camera, her hair writhing like Medusa’s. It’s Eleanor.
“NO!” Bob bellows.
Strong hands grab him by the shoulders and shake. “Wake up, wake up, honey.
You’re having a nightmare.”
“Yes, yes. Oh God, that was bad.”
Bob lies on his back, gasping for breath and trembling. The TV flickers soundlessly in the background, the covers in a tangle.
“I gotta get up…make some of that tea of yours to calm down. God, that was bad.”
“Do you want me to do it?”
“No, go back to sleep. I’ll be fine.”
He slides out of bed, moves down the hall, and slips into Richard’s room. In the pale light from the hallway, he stares at his son’s soft face, remembering the young man’s childhood and the knowing looks and whispered comments from the other parents. In Elise’s room, he sighs with relief when he finds the teen’s hair tied back in her typical long blonde braid. Moving to the kitchen, he clicks on the lights and makes a cup of herbal tea, adding a double shot of rum. Sitting at the counter in his flannel nightshirt, he re-runs the dream through his mind. He gulps the scalding liquid then returns to bed.
Eleanor rolls toward him and they spoon. “Are you all right?” she asks. “You usually don’t have loud dreams.”
“I’ll…I’ll be fine. I just need to get the pictures out of my head.”
“Maybe…maybe we should talk about it. If you’re…I mean, if we’re having problems, don’t you thing we should–”
“No, talking will just remind me.”
Bob stares into the darkness; the images of his children dead or arrested, his wife with another man, continue as a tape loop, playing through his brain. But his body softens in Eleanor’s embrace. The heat ducts keep clicking and his eyelids grow heavy.
“I’ll tell ya one thing,” he murmurs.
Eleanor grumbles something in her sleep.
“No more news. It’s too…too disturbing.”
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 250 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes for his stories “The Sweeper” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.
* * *
Through the Day's Eye
By Gail Tyson
What is so special about a common wildflower? I’ll tell you. We daisies strew ourselves through meadows, in jagged rock, and on every continent except Antarctica. We might look fragile—a fleeting bloom of summer—but we can sink our roots into limestone mortar. Centuries ago, knights adopted us as an emblem of fidelity. Lovers still pluck our petals one by one—loves me, loves me not—and the ritual turns each soft white ligule into a gauge of constancy or fickleness.
Opening fully only in bright sunlight, we’ve inspired the saying fresh as a daisy and perhaps eye-opener. (One hangover cure blends dark rum, orange curaçao, apricot liqueur, and grenadine with an egg yolk.) Our name sprouted from the Old English dægeseage, Day’s-Eye. Each yolk-colored “eye” tracks the sun’s progress hour by hour across the sky; at dusk each “eye” folds its petals and turns its gaze inward for the night.
Since Chaucer’s time, English poets have loved our wild simplicity or perhaps our duplicity. The daisy is really two flowers: the white-rayed florets count as one, and the cluster of tiny yellow disc petals—the “eye”—is technically another. For John Keats, lingering on his sickbed, daisy hallucinations sped him toward death. Joseph Severn, who nursed Keats until his friend died, reported that the poet said, “O! I shall feel the cold earth upon me—the daisies growing over me...” Cheerful and low-maintenance, we’re often seeded in graveyards.
For 4,000 years, our 200 species have served many cultures. Celtic lore insisted the spirits of children who died at birth lived on as daisies. We were sacred to Artemis. We were revered by early Christians, who claimed daisies sprang from the tears of Mary Magdalene. Practical uses survived side by side with legend. Pliny cited the use of daisies in healing scrofulous tumors. Romans soldiers soaked our juice into wound bindings. Medieval herbalists employed us to treat madness, smallpox, and jaundice. Today chefs scatter us on green salads—a nutty flavor once favored by Henry VIII, who chewed trenchers full of daisies to relieve stomach ulcers.
Henry’s ancestral Welsh princes signed on as crusaders under Richard the Lionheart; they eased the pain of broken bones with bruisewort, a daisy poultice. In 1199, when a young crossbowman accidentally killed King Richard, embalmers removed his heart, stuffed it with daisies and spices, and placed it in a lead box for separate burial. Their endeavor—preservation with the odor of sanctity—failed. The organ crumbled to powder, but pollen grains from daisy, myrtle, mint, frankincense, and lime survived.
As our uses multiplied, our names multiplied: African, Shasta, Michaelmas, Nippon Ox-Eye, Kingfisher, Gerbera, Transvaal, Marguerite. The daisy icon of the Danish Marguerite Route, a 3,540-km scenic road, points drivers to a thousand destinations, from Scandinavia’s largest burial ground to a replica of Elvis’ Graceland and Kronburg, the prototype for Hamlet’s castle.
The Danes’ sign bears the image of one blossom; so does each stalk. Traditionally, children have tied the stems together to form garlands. What is this instinct to connect? Does the singular seem vulnerable or unimportant? Are humans simply drawn to make patterns? Do garland makers intuit that daisies share a simple, fixed pattern? Apple engineers “daisy-chain” multiple computer devices through one port, and subsea scientists have forsaken hub-and-spoke technology for more efficient “daisy-chain” tiebacks, and language lovers of all ages delight in daisy word chains like:
Daisies scatter—random, mundane--enthralling ghost, toddler, royal, lover, rover, reflective essayist time evermore
And so this garland of facts and stories brings us full circle to the place your narrator sprouts: the crumbling crannies of Carreg Cennan Castle near Carmarthenshire, Wales. What ghosts are pushing up these daisies? Lord Rhys, King Llywelyn the Last, the rebel Owain Glyndŵr—all swathed in mist on this limestone crag since the day in 1462 when English soldiers blasted and pickaxed these six towers, hall, kitchen, chapel, and King’s Chamber into ruins.
We blossom too for the travelers who dodge the dung on the track and plod past the hedge pleached to keep sheep safely grazing: that crone who has flown 4,000 miles to dwell here for 30 minutes, the foolhardy girl taking a selfie with a lamb, this beauty who has met an old sorrow in a new land—another daisy chain as tender and everlasting as hope, the hope that one of them might feel it wished upon her to trace a wisp of memory, return in her imagination and coax our story up through stone.
Gail Tyson publishes poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. In 2017, her work appears in Adanna, Appalachian Heritage, Art Ascent, Big Muddy, Cloudbank, EcoTheo Review, Presence, San Pedro River Review, Still Point Arts Quarterly, The Citron Review, The Lampeter Review, and the anthology, Unbroken Circle: Stories of Diversity in the South.
Temperature Rising by Richard Baldasty
Richard Baldasty is a veteran Foliate Oak contributor (Oct. 2013) whose work in collage, short fiction, and text/image have appeared recently in Funny in 500, Unbroken Journal, and Brilliant Flash Fiction.
Study Butte, Texas by William Crawford
William C. Crawford is a writer & photographer based in Winston-Salem, NC. He was a combat photojournalist in Vietnam. He has published extensively in various formats including fiction, creative nonfiction, memoirs, book reviews, and essays. His new book is highlighted elsewhere on this site. He had a parallel career as a social worker and community organizer. There, he wrote biting editorials on behalf of the powerless such as abused children, the frail elderly, and victims of enforced state sterilizations. He is known as Crawdaddy to his Yellow Lab, Scout.
8 Photos by Richard LeBlond
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. His essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, and his work has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net.
Roads 4 by Keith Moul
Keith Moul’s poems and photos are published widely. Finishing Line Press released a chap called The Future as a Picnic Lunch in 2015. Aldrich Press published Naked Among Possibilities in 2016; Finishing Line Press has just released (1/17) Investment in Idolatry. Aldrich Press released Not on Any Map, a collection of earlier poems, August 2017.
5 Photos by Wayne Russell
Wayne Russell is a creative writer and amateur photographer that was born and raised in Florida. In March, 2016, he founded the online underground lit zine, Degenerate Literature. DL can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and here.
Various Photos by George Stein
George Stein is a native Chicagoan photographer and shoots both film and digital. His photographic interests are in the architectural, urban and rural decay, and fetish genres. He has been previously published in After Hours, Midwestern Gothic, Gravel, Neon Highway, Darkside Magazine, and Words That Signify.
Mahatma Ghandi by Gene Tanta
Gene Tanta is a Romanian-born and University of Iowa-educated painter and poet based in central Illinois.
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