Foliate Oak November 2018
By Alex Clermont
I think it’s fair to say that self-control, real self-control, is hard to find. I’m not talking about the control a mailroom clerk exerts when he decides not to beat his boss half to death for one too many demeaning comments. Mastering the ability to not be a psychopath is no more praiseworthy than knowing how to wipe your ass properly. No, I mean the discipline a college professor displays when they decide not to screw a good looking student. The stuff that keeps a former fatty jogging every morning instead of eating pies. In my case, it’s the willpower to not shoot up. I’ve been holding it together for a few months now, but if I'm honest with myself, I was never really good at self-control.
I said all of this aloud—minus the fat man comparison—to my social worker, Sara, last week.
“I don’t think that’s very true of people in general, or you in particular. Victor, you’ve resisted a whole lot of temptations in your life, and because of that, you’re still alive. You’ve got the willpower of a superhero.”
To what end? is what I wanted to ask. Though I didn’t. I only told her about my group meetings for the past month. She took notes and asked questions where appropriate. As much of a realist as she is, as well meant as her words were, I think that today will be the day that I prove her wrong.
Right now getting high again is all I can think about. I fantasize about chemically induced pleasure as I bag up roach bait, roach spray, and a hand full of mouse traps for an old lady. I scan the barcode of the third trap then, out of burning curiosity, lift my head to take a long look at her. Her face says it all: slack dark skin, a lopsided gray and purple wig, and a stoic expression like those paintings of Indians on diner walls. To live in a place that requires this amount of pest poison requires that kind of attitude. It may be me projecting, but she looks like she wants to get high too. Sorry lady. I’ve only got enough money for one.
“Credit or debit?” I ask.
“Cash,” she says, then hands me a few wrinkled fives and singles.
“One, two, seven…”
I hand over the change and watch grandma slowly drag herself out by her foldable walker—a set of twin tennis balls covering the back legs. Before she’s even out the door a man wearing clothes streaked in construction caulk begins piling nails and buckets of plaster on my counter. I wanna let out a loud groan, but I hold it in. That’s the mail clerk self-control I was talking about. This job is cheap, repetitive, and brain cell killing, but even as a child you learn to keep the little disappointments of existence to yourself. I hold in my sigh because what the hell can this guy do about my situation? The answer is, not a damn thing. So, what I’m gonna do is take two more customers, take myself outside for a smoke and then call Clutch. My insides relax, and I fell a little better knowing that I’ll have something to look forward to when I get home.
Clutch hasn’t heard from me since Jessie died, so I’m sure he’ll be shocked. Or as shocked as a dealer can be receiving a delivery call from an addict. I bag the nails, I bag the brushes, I bag the mesh, I look for Nancy to let her know I’m leaving. With slows movements that betray my fatigue, I place the plastic “closed” sign on my register conveyor belt.
“I’m gonna take a quick cigarette break,” I tell Nancy when I catch her walking down aisle three. “That cool with you?”
“It’s whatever. I don’t own this store.”
“Just wanted to check. I mean, you are my boss now.”
“It’s only been a few days, and it’s just a lead position, not management. I’m still just like you.”
“Um hmm,” I say with tight lips and the nod of my head. She chuckles.
“The hell with you,” I smile and she says, “So what are you up to tonight? You looking for some company?” She raises her eyebrows mischievously at me.
“I believe that’s sexual harassment,” I say.
“Not really, but we could go there if you wanna.”
“Not doing anything tonight. Just gonna try to relax and forget.”
“Probably the same stuff you wanna stop thinking about sometimes.”
“Diapers, bills, work, and rent?”
“Three out of four, yeah.” I lean against the wall to my left, knowing that I’m being dragged into a conversation when all I want to do is smoke. I say, “You know. Life stuff.”
“That’s what I mean by some company. You shouldn’t be sitting around moping by yourself.”
“If your mom had grown up in Harlem instead of Park Hill, I could’ve been your daddy. What you should do is worry about finishing that GED program you’re on instead of coming to my place after work for not-sexual harassment.”
Her smirk turns to pursed lips. “That was cold.”
“I didn’t mean it to be. It’s just the truth.”
A customer passes us by. Nancy waits until they’re out of earshot then says, “You know, being miserable together beats being miserable alone. When you learn that let me know. Now make that smoke break quick.”
“You got it,” I say, as I watch her walk away. Nancy’s got a face like a bulldog, but an ass like a horse. While staring at it like I’ve never seen a woman body’s before, I feel a little guilty. Mainly because I do wanna take her up on her offer of company. Also because she sounds like Sara about being miserable alone. They’re both right, but I can’t think of any solutions outside what I’ve already been doing for the last few months. That is, going home to an empty apartment with evening plans that are almost always the same: I sit and watch TV, maybe I beat off, I eat apples and fast food hamburgers and wish that things had turned out a little differently.
I wish the same now as I walk towards to front door. I think about those points in time where life changed forever, where animal instincts lead me down a different path--a path of dead lovers and horse-ass bosses. Standing outside I light up. After a few puffs, I call Clutch.
“It’s me. Victor.”
“Victor? Aw damn, I haven’t heard from you in a minute. What’s good?”
“Nothing’s good. That’s why I’m calling.”
“I got you. I’ll bring something to Jessie’s place.”
I pause as the image of Jessie’s half-naked and twitching body being pulled into an ambulance is forced to the top of my mind. Against my will, I see the shock in her eyes and the blood on her face as the emergency worker closes the doors before driving off.
“Jessie died,” I say, “October 23, she died.”
“Wha? Makes sense now why I hadn’t heard from her.” He’s silent for a while then says, “It wasn’t my stuff though. I can guarantee that. I don’t mess about around with that fenty that dudes put in their pack.”
“I’m not the cops, man. I’m not saying nothing about nothing. I just need a delivery.”
“Yeah.” Another pause. Before I hang up he asks, “What happened though?”
“What do you mean?”
“Jess was my homegirl. We went to PS 74 together, you know. She was fly back in the day. How she die?”
I take another puff and try to narrow the night’s events down to a few sentences. The squalid conditions we were living in, the loss of human life, the addiction that led me to get high the night after she died. At the same time, I laugh to myself about the gall of a drug dealer asking what happened to his homegirl/client. I almost do laugh until I remind myself that he’s human too.
“It’s just what you think. We were at her place. I pass out around three in the morning, but wake up to her screaming her head off—the needle still in her arm. She was shooting up the whole night while I was sleeping. I call 911, and they take her away. She dies at the hospital, and my social worker puts me in rehab again. Ten months later I’m calling you.”
“Damn. Aight, well, I’ll see you later today. Just text me the address and the time.”
“Will do. Later.”
I put the phone in my back pocket and take several more slow pulls from the cigarette. I remember the first time I smoked one. I exhale and picture a high school freshman me. A skinny me eating corner store bags of chips and thinking life was just a series of karate chops to the face. I was alone and took the offer of a lit cigarette from a group of kids who made me feel less so. Same with dope. I was too scared to be in my own head, in my own life, so I needed something to take me away and a group to do it with.
Thinking back to that stupid kid, what would I tell him? I think hard about it on my last puff and come up with a handful of dust. No wisdom gained maybe except this: nothing good comes from letting desires rule you.
I wouldn’t have listened though. I’m still not listening.
The cigarette’s been smoked down to the butt so I fling it into the manicured bushes of the parking lot and walk back inside.
The rest of the day goes as expected with customer after customer running their life’s desires through my register. Lumber, hammer, paint. I joke with Nancy who’s back to being friendly. Pipes, spigots, screws. I wish my life wasn’t so dead. Wood polish, sandpaper, more roach poison. I think about the bag of dope waiting for me, the highlight of my day.
Soon it’s time to leave. Nancy walks in as I’m changing shirts in the break room. I usually make the switch in the bathroom, but I was hoping to get it done quick and head out. She walks in as I pull down my regular, non-logoed shirt.
“You stay in pretty good shape.” She says with a smile.
“I eat a lot of apples,” I laugh. “Trying to keep the doctor away.”
Her smile slowly disappears when she says, “You’re not afraid of needles though. I can see that too.” I suck in my lips and say nothing as she looks at me with a mixture of concern and the kind of seen-it-all attitude that only comes with growing up in a New York a city housing project.
“Maybe I am afraid of needles now,” I say. “Haven’t seen one in almost a year, so I couldn’t tell you.”
“That’s good to hear. You going to a group or something?”
“Yeah. Once every other Thursday. Tomorrow I meet with my social worker.”
“Glad to hear. You too good looking to die on some BS.”
“Thanks,” I chuckle. “Look, I don’t need everyone knowing my business, understand what I mean?”
“I feel you.” As I walk past her towards the door, she says, “Just be careful.”
“See you tomorrow, Nancy. Try being on time for once.”
“I would. But like you said, life.”
Leaving the store and toward the parking lot I get on my bus, and then take a short, twisting ride home where I wait for Clutch to deliver a small amount of some mediocre dope that will work the magic I’ve been waiting for all day; all week; all of the last ten months.
The drop off is unceremonious. I open the door to let him into my small one-bedroom basement apartment.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“Same ole,” I say in response.
“Cool. You know what it is.”
I hand him a wad of money that he counts right in front of me. Satisfied he says, “Cool,” then walks out the door to leave me to whatever might happen. He’s only human.
I place the small square baggie on the coffee table and I look at it while the local news plays in the background.
“A man from North Carolina was arrested today with a car full of guns after he was seen placing bullets on the ground outside Fort Wadsworth. According to prosecutors, John Hope set 12-gauge shotgun shells on the ground outside the former military base. When officers approached him, he said, ‘I have guns in the car. Go ahead and check.’ Officer then discovered a loaded Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun.
“Hope served in the U.S. Army, though law enforcement sources say it’s not clear in what capacity. The same sources say Hope may have mental health...”
I think about a hot spoon, and the moment of relief that’ll come when things slow down, and the outside world is cut off. I think about Nancy and how I should call her over. I picture her face buried in my pillow, and her ass smashing against my hips. I’d stroke that perfect body of hers until her legs go numb, and then I’d get high until I couldn't feel anything either. I want to indulge in everything that's good. Anything that will keep my mind flooded with happy feelings.
I keep looking at the baggie and can’t, for the life of me, think of anything that would give me a reason not to stick this week’s worth of dope into my veins all at once. I lean back into the couch and close my eyes. The metal springs under the thin fabric poke me in the back. I try not to feel them, but I do, and as I try to conjure up Jessie’s face they continue to poke at me.
I eventually see her, the way she was before we got in too heavy with the drugs. My mind’s eye scans the contours of her cheeks and chin, the tight curls of her short afro. I then move on to her button nose and full lips. I rest on her light brown eyes. The only way I can see her is in my head, but her being dead means she doesn’t say much. Or a better way to say it is that what she says are the things she told me years ago. Our conversations replay in my mind, snarky comments and all.
The only new thing she has for me is that maybe, with me continually dredging up her memory, being dead is just as much work as being alive. That sounds like something she’d say. I laugh as I open my eyes again.
With a little effort, I grunt myself off the couch and walk to the bathroom, holding the packet. I stand over the toilet for a few seconds, looking at my hand as it noticeably trembles. Eventually, I drop the baggie in the bowl and flush it away with a moan that, if someone else had heard it, might’ve given the impression that I was in pain. In reality, I’m relieved, and I’m alive. For what that’s worth.
I grab my phone along with my jacket and decide to head out to the park. I want some fresh air and maybe some sunshine if I’m lucky. I slide my left arm through the sleeve and pull up Sara’s number with my right hand—my still trembling hand. I hope she’ll pick up and tell me some things that I need to hear right now. As I open the door, I see a sky that couldn’t be more gray. I pause for a moment, but slowly, and with all the energy I can muster, I will myself to pull the door behind me. I steel myself for an afternoon colder than the one I expected and head out.
Alex Clermont is a creative writer born and raised in New York City. He is the author of “You, Me and the Rest of Us: #NewYorkStories,” “Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely,” along with dozens of several short stories and flash fiction. His stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies including The Bodega Monthly, Black Elephant, The aois21 Annual, Every Second Sunday, Foliate Oak, and Out of Place. You can find out more on his website, AlexClermontWrites.com.
* * *
Fragen Wahl Answers His Question
By Philip Gallos
The eminent professor, Herr Doktor Fragen Wahl, was an old man. His knees were cranky, and his ticker unreliable. The doctor was engaged in important work, as everyone knew; but no one could describe it or even guess its nature. They insisted that multitudes depended upon his mastery of it; and all were certain the fates of nations rested upon its outcome, though he would never admit to any of this.
Convinced that they did not possess the answer, he was known to ask whomever was near enough to listen, “And why is it we do what we do? Is it because we have chosen to be guided by logic or by reason (which are not the same, as one can reason illogically or be unreasonably logical)? Is it because we have chosen to be guided by impulse or by intuition? Is it because we have chosen to be guided by faith or because we are utterly unguided?”
Everybody had an answer – even if that answer was simply, “I don't know.” But nobody had the answer, at least to Fragen Wahl's satisfaction. And, since nobody encompasses everybody, Fragen Wahl, himself, did not have the answer.
He never asked them, “If there is a God, is it possible to be unguided? And, of course, there is a God. But if God gave us free will, is it not then God’s will and, therefore, not free at all, even if one believes that God does not in fact exist?” He kept his doubt to himself.
He was fond of conundrums and had been heard to proclaim, “The world is spinning with questions which drive it round like a globe smacked by a child's hand. There is at least one for every human on its surface, each baby born with their own personal quandary, their Original Sin, theirs to resolve, theirs to absolve before they die. Because my answer is not your answer, it is not the answer. Only your answer can be the answer to your question.”
Regardless, he shared his answers freely, and he seemed to have an answer for everything. Those to whom he professed marveled at his knowledge. He had every answer but the answer he needed.
Fragen Wahl believed himself to be a trenchant man; and, since he enjoyed wordplay, he also believed that a trenchant man should wear a trench coat. His was classic trench coat tan, with tortoiseshell buttons and the obligatory epaulets. He wore it every day – even in summer when it felt too heavy, and in winter when it felt too light.
On a steamy afternoon in July, his coat open to admit the breeze as he walked from work to home under a blistering sun, he encountered a group of boys playing football – the game the Americans call soccer out of what seemed, to Fragen Wahl, to be pure perversity. He watched from the sideline for several minutes. Then, without having made a conscious choice, he ran onto the field to join the play, the years falling away from his memory, his steps quick and sure, every movement a refutation of his age.
One of the boys passed the ball to him – whether accidentally or purposefully Fragen Wahl could not tell and did not care; and he engaged it like an urgent question, moving it down the field at a full run in his blue Oxford shirt, his pleated pants, his Scotch-grain brogues, his trench coat billowing behind him. The goal in range, the pain in his knees distracting him from the skipping in his chest, he delivered the ball a striding kick, sending it in a shallow arc past the diving goalie and into the final net.
Fragen Wahl lay very still as the boys danced cheering around him and chanted his name like Paleolithic hunters in honor of their prey. After the boys quieted under the admonitions of their coach, the medic knelt beside him, unnecessary stethoscope in hand, and asked, “Why?”
The esteemed professor, Herr Doktor Fragen Wahl replied, “We have no choice but to choose what we choose,” though no one heard him because his tongue would not untwist the words and his lips could not open to let them out. Nations rise, and nations fall…and the multitudes with them. It mattered little to the professor. As he lay with his nose in the dirt, his eyes unseeing, his fingers twitching slightly, and his heart silent as an abandoned drum, the answer to his question lifted him up and carried him away.
Phil Gallos has been a newspaper reporter and columnist, a researcher/writer in historic preservation, and has spent 30 years working in academic libraries (more interesting than it sounds). His most recent writing appears in Burningword and is forthcoming in The Wire's Dream. He lives and writes in Saranac Lake, NY.
* * *
By Norbert Kovacs
Most of the Pearson family and its relations were chatting over lunch under the canopied tents next to the pines when Justin, the younger Pearson son, collapsed by the hill. His brother Reggie, the only one to see, came quickly from the drink table where he had gone to fetch a lemonade for their uncle. He found Justin lying face down on the ground, his head lolling on its side as if lifeless. He can't be, Reggie thought, moaning inwardly. He went and raised his brother from the ground, cupped an arm around his loose torso, and led him to the unused picnic table near the parking lot. As they went, Reggie turned his hard, mustached face to check if any of their relatives saw that he was carrying away his brother. He relaxed finding none did.
Reggie had meant the reunion, organized with his cousin Patrick, to be a happy event, free of trouble. His brother, Reggie had known from the start, posed a serious risk it might not. Justin did a poor job of keeping himself in order at any time. Growing up, he had not gotten along with other kids, landing in fights and sulking even around friends. While he had done okay academically, he had quit school early, calling the classroom "pointless" for him. He had gone on to become a clerk at a small music store on the Post Road where he revealed little promise of success. He yelled at his boss, a strict, heavy fellow, and even the customers in his worst moods. All the while, he was racking up debt he gave no hint of paying. His life seemed a mess. However, Justin was his brother and Reggie had to invite him with their three dozen other relatives to the reunion. No way around it, Reggie thought beside himself.
When Justin had arrived for the event at the chosen park in Hamden, Reggie's faith vanished that his sibling might survive the day without grieving the family. Clad in a black T-shirt and dingy, denim shorts, his dark hair uncombed, Justin stood out badly from their relatives who had come in plainer, quieter style. His attitude seemed out of sorts, too, his dark eyes dazed, his face very white. His steps wavered almost like he were drunk. Reggie tensed, watching him approach from the parking lot. However, Justin waved hello to Reggie rather than come talk and kept his distance through the day.
Reggie was glad Justin did not create any pressing problems as the event continued. In fact, he forgot his brother, wandering among the pines, as he spoke with their kin at the reunion tent. He became comfortable with his Uncle Sinclair, another corporate manager like himself, as he proudly mentioned his employer's prospects for profit. He asked his cousin Anne, a marketing star, about the condo she newly had refurbished. Over a sherbet with cousin Tim, he discussed the politics of town. He liked conserving with them all, but his favorite proved Aunt Joan. Joan, a small, gray-haired woman, had contended with cancer and undergone chemo in the past year. She told Reggie about the adjustments forced on her. "God, the pain I went through," she said, her head lowering. Reggie listened quietly, his eyes intent on her careworn face. He sensed a new kind of bond building as he spoke with his aunt and many of their other relatives, much as he had hoped in organizing their day together. When his brother collapsed, he had to forget everyone else, his attempts to forge connections, and go help him. To the older sibling, it seemed the worst thing that might have happened that day.
Reggie seated Justin on one end of a bench at the covered table by the parking lot and sat on the bench across him. Justin's eyes, he saw, had lost focus, his complexion paled. The fellow raised his head slowly from its slump as if he were exhausted.
"That didn't look good back there," Reggie said, his face hard on his brother's. "How are you feeling?"
"Bit out of it, I guess."
"What does that mean?"
"I smoked a joint before coming here."
Reggie's head began to ache. Of all things, he thought. "Are you kidding?" he said.
Justin frowned. "Why would I say it if I didn't?"
"You did that when you knew all our family would be here?"
"Yes, I did. I didn't feel very good this morning, so I did." Justin hesitated, turning aside, and added, "Maybe I wasn't thinking too clearly."
"And so you thought to come? When everyone would see you a mess?"
"I wasn't going to stay from family; definitely not our parents. I thought I'd be okay by now. I'm not."
"It wasn't a good choice. you're in no shape to stay. It'd worry too many of our family to find you like this. Why don't I take you home? You're across town, aren't you?"
Justin's dark eyes swam as if lost. He seemed not to care about his brother's question. "Fine," he said at last. "Take me home, if you like."
Reggie stood and went to the main tent where most of the family sat talking. A kind smile on his lips, he told his cousin Patrick, who was supervising, that he had to take Justin home "for something" but would return. He went back to the small picnic table, helped his brother walk, stumbling, to his Audi and get inside, then drove them from the park. Reggie sat upright before the wheel as Justin slumped beside him, his head leaning toward the passenger side window.
"I hope going home proves something to you," Reggie said as they followed the long avenue toward Justin's apartment. "You really can't see our family in this condition. What do you think they'd feel knowing you came on drugs? That you can't respect them. That you don't care. They expect you to be grown up, Justin. They were."
Justin slumped in his seat and did not reply. Reggie went on, working himself up. He felt the bright blue of the lake by the road urged him. "And how about what I feel? I organized the reunion. Saw to renting the field in the park. Bought the stuff for the barbecue. I asked everyone to come."
"Yes, it was a lot," Justin said, his voice low and bored.
"I can't believe you showed up like you did after all I planned. It's like you meant to undermine me."
Justin slumped even lower in his seat and Reggie trusted he had made his point.
When they reached Justin's apartment complex, a limestone building from the sixties dull with age, Reggie parked near the entry, got out, and opened the passenger-side door for his brother. "Let me help you up," he said and reached with his strong arms.
As Reggie did, Justin drew upright with an effort. "I don't need it," he said and got out of the car carefully but without trouble.
Reggie thought this a good if sudden change after his state in the park. However, shutting the car door, he said, "Let me go with you to your room to be sure you're okay."
Justin's face grew uneasy. He motioned silently toward the entry as if to signal that Reggie could come if he really wished. The two entered the building, took the elevator up, and stepped out on the fifth floor. As they walked toward Justin's room, Reggie kept close at his brother's side to see that he would not fall again. He is on drugs after all, he thought. He could. After they passed a few doors of the hall, Justin tensed and scowled.
"Here, you don't have to be right on me," he said. "Like I'll run."
His brother's sharp tone caught Reggie off guard. "Sorry about that," he said, trusting that Justin had spoken in an ill mood. He put a larger gap between them, and they walked on quietly, neither speaking to the other.
At Room No. 516, Justin unlocked and opened the door, and the two brothers went inside. Justin passed down the short corridor that led to the living room and crashed on the orange sofa, kicking up his legs. Reggie looked around as he stepped into the room. He had never been in his brother's apartment. Justin had invited him over once or twice after he had moved from their parents', but Reggie had found easy excuses to stay away: a presentation due, a date already planned. His first survey of the room showed him a regular pig sty. Soiled shirts and crumpled jeans lay scattered about the floor. Empty Chinese food boxes dabbed in sauce. Several grease stains spotted the beige wall-to-wall carpet. Old smoke had tinged the bookcase and hanging photos
"What a mess," Reggie said. He went toward the kitchen off the living room and found dirty dishes piled in the sink. By the stove, an unclean towel sat bunched in a ball. "Where do you keep your garbage bags?" he asked, addressing the kitchen rather than his brother.
"What for?" An edge had come into Justin's voice.
"To clean up." Without waiting for his brother to reply, Reggie opened the small door beneath the sink, the spot where he kept his own trash bags at home, and discovered an open box of them tucked beside the garbage pail. He pulled out a long, white bag, returned to the living room, and went to picking up the junk that littered the floor. "What a mess you live in," he said, as he cast a greasy, empty box of Chinese takeout into the bag. "You need to take some more pride in your place. Or at least be sanitary."
Justin bowed his head into his hand, as if he had a headache. "Reggie, don't be like this," he said.
"But what do your friends say about this place when they come and see all this junk?" Reggie asked, chucking a taco boat into the white bag. "Or what about your landlord?" Reggie liked that he had said this. There seemed a kind of power in the landlord's name and he made to wield it. "How about what he would think?"
"Don't, Reggie." Justin bowed his head more into his hand, so that his brother could not see his face.
Reggie felt moved at the effect his words brought. He said with new emphasis, "He might throw you out."
Justin sat up. His face had hardened, and he glared at his brother and yelled, "REGGIE, STOP!"
This shout after his brother's apathy that afternoon arrested Reggie to the spot. His eyes fixed on Justin in fear. He is in pain, he realized. Justin scowled and went on, his voice raised:
"You don't live here. You've never visited. You don't care!" He struck his own chest. "I live here and you don't! You don't even KNOW me anymore!"
Reggie felt as if he had been slammed into the ground. He shook his head with a weak motion. "What are you saying? I know you. You're my brother."
"We don't talk," Justin said, his voice falling. His pale face held on his brother's as his eyes burned ruddy and dark. "Except like once a year at holidays, we haven't. I've gone through a lot you don't know. I had a best, good friend. You don't know him. Ron the clerk in the store next to mine. He and I used to meet and share lunch in the back of my store. He was the nicest guy; he'd give me part of his sandwiches when I didn't even ask. He moved out of state and for some reason, I can't find out what's happened to him. He's not the type to go and cut ties with anyone he knew. I'm worried something's happened to him. There's my friend Sally. She sings in the local band where I play guitar. She used to make the other musicians and me laugh all the time. Sally's been seeing this guy, Rich. And now she comes to rehearsal exhausted and has bruises on her arms. I try and get her to say what's happened, to say anything, but she won't. I think she's scared. Since everything with Ron and Sally, I've had it bad. I don't stay home. I go out I don't where. Sometimes, I find myself in the park wandering and can't think. I don't know what's gone wrong with my very best, good friends. I got into pot I guess because of it....But you don't care, do you? How could you understand?"
Reggie held silent. He had not imagined his younger brother, the resistant one, the youth who quit school finding it useless, could suffer like this over anyone else. He had believed Justin cared for little beyond loud music, lazing around, and doing the most to have his family dislike him. It had made sense to dismiss Justin as abnormal and not dwell on him. Reggie saw now he had been wrong. Justin had suffered and was struggling. It was something like their Aunt Joan had done facing her cancer, he realized, recalling his talk with her that afternoon. He'd had to endure in pain just like their elder. Justin's words weighed on him as he stood motionless in the junk-strewn room. When he spoke, his voice came small and as if from a distance.
"I didn't guess you were going through this. I'm sorry. I should not have yelled."
Justin leaned back in his seat, jerking his face toward the corner. Reggie lowered his eyes. He thinks all I'm saying is cheap, he thought. We have not spoken a good while.
"It sounds rough for you," Reggie continued, hoping to be heard. "I don't know what to say. But I think I should try to help. When you're like this, you need someone. Showing up to meet our family on pot is a problem. It might have been worse than fainting." He turned aside. "I have to go and check on the reunion. I don't think Patrick could fare that well this long without me."
Justin lost more of his color and made to stand. "You'd like me to show you out th--"
"Wait. After I'm done there tonight, I can come back. Would you be here?"
"You actually want to come back?"
Justin drew still and studied his brother. He seemed ready to scowl again. To not believe, as Reggie thought. However, the young man said, "I'll be here." He sat down on the sofa, his back straight against the cushion, as his older sibling went alone to the door. I will have to be gentle with him tonight, Reggie thought. And do something for him. It might be smart if we went somewhere. A quiet place where we might talk without distraction. Reggie passed from his brother's apartment into the open hallway and left to see to their family.
Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Westview, Gravel, STORGY, and Ginosko Literary Journal.
* * *
The Luckiest Block
By Barbara Lipkin
Marigold Lane was the luckiest block in all of Waterglen Estates. Everybody said so.
Until people started to die.
Brenda and Paul Prentice were the seventh couple to move onto Marigold Lane. By that
time, Patti and Alan Franklin, the third couple, were well established as block
organizers. Especially Patti.
Waterglen Estates, an Active Adult Community, rose out of the prairie in sections.
Marigold Lane was one of the last blocks to be completed. The small ranch houses
began at the south end and made their way north in record time. Patti Franklin kept
pace without even breathing hard.
The Prentices were still moving their belongings into the house when the front doorbell
rang. Patti Franklin, small, compact and looking younger than her 62 years stood on
the doorstep with a big, welcoming smile and a clipboard. “Welcome to Marigold Lane,”
she said. “I’m collecting everybody’s names and contact info.” Brenda Prentice,
disheveled and dazed from her move, took the clipboard and wordlessly filled in the
Marigold Lane boasted 22 houses, each occupied by one or two ‘active adults.’ Patti
Franklin assigned herself the position of block organizer and did a truly amazing job.
There were block parties, patio crawls, Halloween decorating, Christmas Parties, and
Easter Egg Hunts. There were restaurant and theater outings. Once they all went on a
hayride. Marigold Lane and its organizer became legendary in Waterglen Estates. Its
residents provoked envy in the subdivision. “You guys have all the fun,” people said. “I
wish we had somebody to organize our block.”
Time passed. Patti extended her scope and became something of a housemother to
Marigold Lane. She began a monthly newsletter, serving as reporter, editor and
delivery lady. She collected people’s emergency information and delivered updated
lists monthly, door to door along with the newsletters. She was the first to notify the
residents of an ambulance or fire department visit, sending group emails followed by
regular updates and progress reports.
“This is getting a little scary,” Brenda commented to her husband after one such email.
“She means well,” Paul said.
“Oh, I know. I’m sure she means well,” Brenda agreed. “But don’t you think this is all a
bit over the top?”
Maybe, but if so, Patti remained oblivious. Though attendance at her events had
started to taper off, she wasn’t worried. Still, she did slow down a little. She began to
plan only one event a month, instead of two.
The third annual Christmas Party was a moderate success, but life on Marigold Lane
got pretty quiet after that. Alan Franklin noticed his wife looking a bit down in the dumps
and tried to interest her in signing up for a painting class or joining the little theater
group, but that wasn’t really her thing. She craved the excitement of making things
The Prentices were having a fairly quiet winter also, which was exactly what they
wanted. When Patti knocked on their door one evening to deliver the latest newsletter,
they were relaxing in front of the TV, but they were polite people and tried not to show
their irritation. Brenda made some coffee and they visited for a little while, but Patti
didn’t stay long. Later that evening, just as she was about to get ready for bed, Patti
heard sirens, looked out her window, and saw the ambulance stop in front of the
Patti raced across the street. Even as she did so, she could see she was already too
late. Paul Prentice was standing outside his house in shock. The paramedics carried a
stretcher out to the ambulance. The body on the stretcher was zipped into a bag.
“Brenda’s gone,” Paul said, dazed and uncomprehending. “We were getting ready for
bed and all of a sudden, she just fell down. She didn’t say a word. She was gone, in a
Patti took charge. She consulted her emergency contacts list and called the Prentices’
son, who lived close to Waterglen Estates. Then she roused some of the neighbors to
stay with Paul until the son could get there. Later, she organized the collation after the
funeral. Of course, she was sorry that Brenda Prentice was dead, but she took
satisfaction in knowing that she’d been instrumental in smoothing the way for the family.
Winter turned to spring by fits and starts, in the usual Midwestern way. Paul Prentice
kept to himself, but the neighbors saw him go out for groceries or walk outside if the
weather wasn’t too bad, so they knew he was alright. On a day that was still cold but
bright and sunny, Paul went for a walk. He noticed his neighbor Bill Hall talking to Patti
Franklin as the two stood by the group mailbox across the street and he waved to them
but kept on going. As he turned the corner, he thought he heard something. He
stopped, turned, and looked back. Bill Hall was lying on the ground, writhing in pain
while Patti crouched beside him. She had her phone out, and by the time Paul reached
them, he could already hear the sirens approaching.
“What happened, Bill?” Paul asked.
“I don’t know,” Bill moaned. “One minute I was opening my mailbox and the next
second I was on the ground. I didn’t know anything could hurt so much.”
The paramedics arrived and took charge then. Paul watched them drive away. Patti
had already disappeared back into her house. She had work to do.
Poor Bill had a broken hip. He was a widower who lived alone two doors down from the
Franklins. Patti organized the neighbors in shifts, and Bill was kept well supplied with
meals and company during his convalescence. Patti accepted her neighbors’
accolades gracefully. Everyone was shocked when Bill died in his sleep.
Before winter entirely released its grasp on Waterglen Estates, sirens disturbed the
peace of Marigold Lane three more times. Sally Barsanti had a heart attack and
succumbed before the ambulance reached the hospital. Dave Felder fell from a ladder
while attempting to change the light bulb in a ceiling fixture. The fall broke his neck.
Jay Halverson, an elderly gentleman living by himself at the end of the street, slipped on
the icy steps but they said it was the stroke that killed him. Patti Franklin stepped up to
the plate after each disaster and the neighbors all pulled together, but they didn’t smile
as much as they used to.
Marigold Lane didn’t seem like the luckiest block in Waterglen Estates anymore. In fact,
people were beginning to say it was cursed.
Paul Prentice didn’t believe in such nonsense. “There’s a perfectly reasonable
explanation,” he told Annie Felder, Dave’s widow. The most likely being that we’re all
old and these sorts of things tend to happen when we get old.”
The widow nodded. “You’re right, of course,” she said. “Still, my David was in pretty
good shape. He did tai chi exercises every day, you know. His balance was excellent.
I don’t understand it.” Annie shook her head sadly.
Paul patted her arm. As he walked back to his house, he thought about what Dave’s
wife had said. He’d thought Brenda was in pretty good shape, too. She watched what
she ate and exercised sensibly. Her blood pressure was normal. Yet she’d suffered a
heart attack. “Just goes to show, when it’s your time, that’s it,” he told himself. But it
bothered him. Brenda, Bill, Sally, Dave, Jay. He called his friend John, who listened
The police chief, John Wright, had been a friend of the Prentices for a long time. He
agreed with Paul that five deaths on one street in the course of a few months seemed
excessive, even for an ‘Over-55’ community. John called the coroner.
The coroner knew the police chief was not a person with an overactive imagination.
He got to work. When he reported his findings back to the chief, Wright called in his
The sirens didn’t sound this time. The police car didn’t make much noise driving up to
the Franklin house. Patti Franklin took a last look at Marigold Lane before she entered
“Murder,” Paul Prentice told the neighbors as the police drove Patti away. “A different
method every time, but the link was Patti. She was with each victim just before they
“I don’t understand why she would have done such a thing.” Annie Felder said. “She
didn’t even know any of us until we moved here.”
Alan Franklin had been standing quietly with the others. “Patti loved to plan and
organize. It was her whole life. I wonder if she’ll find something to organize in prison,”
People moved away from Marigold Lane. The new people had no one to organize
them, which was perfectly fine. Sometimes luck can be bad instead of good. Marigold
Lane isn’t a lucky street anymore.
After retiring from a 20 year career in nursing, Barbara Lipkin began to seriously pursue her life-long interest in the arts, including painting and writing. Her paintings hang in a number of private and corporate collections. She teaches Adult Ed painting and drawing classes. She lives in a Chicago suburb.
* * *
One Final Note on Life
By C. M. Lanning
The day Death came for me was of much smaller consequence than younger me ever thought possible. And older me is just fine with the way events transpired, for I didn’t want any Pomp and Circumstance.
When you’re young and think about dying, if you can even begin to process the very thought, pushing back ignorance and fear, you figure the world will stop. It may seem arrogant, but that’s how young minds think. Invincible and the world revolves around them. It’s a bit charming when that doesn’t dominate the entire personality.
But as I grew older, and a few friends even called me wiser, I began to realize with seven billion people on this dust ball that the vast majority of those people would continue on drinking and marrying as if I’d never existed in the first place. And the acceptance of that idea began to provide me a bit of comfort. For when young and beautiful, attention is craved and desired. But when old and wrinkled, to be left alone by the rest of the world is serenity.
So it came to be that I got sick. That’s a common thing when you get old. The body just can’t fight things off like it used to. Now don’t get me wrong. Some folk can plow the field until they’re 99 and die in a rocking chair on the front porch, a moderate amount of strength remaining with them until the not-so-bitter end. I was not one of those people.
When the doctors gave me my diagnosis at the age of 82, I had a choice to make. I could fight like Hell for another four to six months of life contained to a hospital bed and owe it all to a cure worse than the sickness, or I could make my peace, enjoy my last weeks until Death came for me. I chose the latter.
I didn’t have much in the way of a bucket list because my life was plenty exciting up until this point. As a writer for the biggest newspaper in the country, I traveled the world covering wars, interviewing diplomats and documenting the course of history for the better part of 65 years.
That’s right, my writing career was one whole human old enough to retire, and I’m damn proud of it.
I wrote the final words of heroic soldiers as they lie dying on the Earth. And I delivered questions to powerful, though not always righteous, souls whose decisions impacted millions beneath them. The thing both had in common was at the end of life, they’d walk the same path, the path I too ended up walking.
And, at the ripe age of 80, I laid my pen to rest. I’d said all I had to say. Well, almost all. But the final piece of my writing could only be accessed once I’d made the journey no living body could make, and yet one every soul would.
The day I started that journey began like any other. I was up at 6:30 a.m. sitting on my porch and watching the first pink and orange hues begin to dot the horizon. I knew from the unsteadiness both in my hands and my heart that this would be the last one I saw. And I was okay with that; this sunrise was as spectacular as the thousands in my life that came before it.
I’d already set my Earthly affairs in order with lawyers and folk smarter than I. They assured me my possessions and things I couldn’t take with me would be left to the designated few I’d chosen.
With limited strength, I tidied up around my house. With a guest as potent as Death, I surely didn’t want the place looking sloppy. My military father had raised me better than that. Bed made every day, sheets so tight one could bounce a quarter off of them.
And at last, when I felt my endurance dwindling, I sat down on the couch and breathed a deep sigh.
I never considered in all the times I wrote about a personified Death that it would see my work. But somehow, it did. And as my long life passed before me, good moments and the bad, my words began to fill the air. Every article I’d ever written, words that would remain long after I made the journey were poured over me as though I were a clam in the deep sea. And then I was free. Free of pain, free of sorrow, free of every earthly thing that ever weighed me down.
Death helped me up off the couch, and no muscles creaked or bones popped. We walked to the front door in a world where my house was the only one. Gone were the neighbors, and all other of man from the world.
All that remained was a dirt path over a seemingly endless pasture under a bright orange moon and all manner of twinkling stars beyond my ability to count.
“This is the path,” was all he said and motioned me forward.
The path we walk at the end of life materializes differently for all, but we’ll all end up walking it regardless.
So I walked through the dirt and grass with bare feet that felt no pain. No bugs crawled up to bite me. No snakes struck my heel. And I walked at peace, breathing clean air with a mind at ease.
Time isn’t measured on the journey at life’s end. You just walk onward until you know when to stop.
At some point, I came to a wooden bench next to a rolling stream. I sat down and found some paper and the pen I’d put to rest. This is where I wrote my last few notes, having completed the journey.
To whoever reads this, know I am happy. If there were regrets, I don’t recall them. And that’s just fine by me.
C. M. Lanning is an Arkansas journalist living in Fayetteville. He’s been published in Nebo and Foliate Oak. Lanning has accepted a publishing offer for his novel The Last Fire Mage, and it will be released soon.
* * *
By John Sheirer
The knock on Jenn's apartment door was firm and insistent, like a police knock. Had she committed any criminal acts of late? She couldn't recall anything worse than a made-up character in a nonfiction personal essay; along with a few random semicolon infractions.
The pale-complexioned men at her door both wore dark suits and neckties. Sunglasses would have completed the cliché, but their eyes were bare, one set blue, one brown. One was tall and the other not. Tall man wore a nametag reading Smith. Not tall was Jones. A small drone rested on the sidewalk behind them, its tiny copter blades still but poised for potential motion at any moment.
Jones shoved a copy of Jenn's recently published book just inches from her face. She leaned backward slightly, a reflex.
"Are you the author, ma'am?" he barked.
"Umm, yes," Jenn replied.
"We're from Amazon," Smith said, his voice a higher-pitched imitation of the other man's clipped tone.
"Does that make you Amazons?" Jenn asked.
Smith stifled a sigh. "We get that a lot, ma'am."
"You don't look South American," Jenn replied.
"That one, too," Smith said, his voice flat.
Jones jumped into the brief silence: "Your sales have been poor since publication, so we've come to collect."
"Collect what?" Jenn asked.
"Collect what you owe us," he said.
"What do I owe you?" Jenn asked.
Jones produced an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet from his breast pocket and slid his fingers across the screen just out of Jenn's line of sight. After a moment's calculation, he said, "Seventy-two dollars and forty-six cents."
"For what?" Jenn asked.
"As my partner indicated," Smith said, all business in a Joe Friday way, "your sales are poor."
"I haven't checked lately," Jenn replied. "Things can't be that bad. My Aunt Sally said on Facebook that she bought a copy just last week."
Smith averted his eyes to look into the far distance while Jones spoke: "Your Aunt Sally lied to you, ma'am. Probably just being nice. None the less, Aunt Sally's a liar."
"We're not running a charity, Ma'am," Smith said. He sighed an unstifled sigh this time, and not in what could be interpreted as a sympathetic way. "Seventy-two dollars and forty-six cents," he continued. "We need it now."
Jenn thought about her student loans. An MFA in creative writing isn't cheap, even from a mediocre school such as the one she attended. Most of the classes were online, some available only through AOL. Who knew AOL was still a thing? Her current part-time teaching gig at the local community college didn't pay much or offer health insurance. The nagging tightness in her chest needed a doctor's attention, and doctors also don't run charities. Not in this country, anyway. She had considered driving for Uber, but her car was on the verge of repossession. If Uber ran credit checks on their potential drivers, then she wouldn't make the cut.
Seventy-two dollars and forty-six cents was food she wouldn't be eating.
She lifted her right index finger toward Smith and Jones, the universal signal for, I have an idea. "Wait here, please," she said, all business herself now, and she scurried back inside the tiny apartment that she was subletting with questionable legality from an unemployed friend with an MFA in dance.
After ten seconds, just as the Amazon men started leaning toward the door to look for her, Jenn returned with a mid-sized cardboard box.
"I've got these," she said, holding the open box out to the men. "Fourteen copies. That's all I have left from the twenty-five I ordered for myself when it was first published."
Smith and Jones peered into the box. Inside were one dozen plus two copies of Jenn's first and only book, a novel full of love and wisdom and wonderful syntax. She had devoted five years of her life to that book, drafted it on a dying laptop, once shiny and new, given to her by her parents ages ago when she went off to college. She had revised it countless times, worked out difficult plot points in the shower, nurtured the main character to hard-earned insights, first envisioned the ending while on a bad eHarmony first-and-last date with a guy whose name she used for the protagonist's unlikable ex-husband, pushed herself to keep going through seventeen publisher rejections, and finally won acceptance from a crowd-funded, start-up publishing company based on another continent that paid her an advance in an impressively thick stack of foreign currency, each bill bearing the face of a deceased king. The local bank gave her three new, crisp $20 bills in exchange for all those dead kings. She spent all three on one printer ink cartridge.
The men hesitated, stared into the box, exchanged glances, looked in the box again.
Smith said, "This is not the way we usually conduct business." Jenn detected, for the first time, a slight hint of humanity in the way he inserted the word "usually" into that sentence.
"This is all I have," Jenn said in a small voice. "This is everything."
Jones asked, "Fourteen copies, you say?" Jenn nodded. He handed his Kindle Fire tablet to the Smith, who swiped his right pinky finger across the smooth glass for an agonizing half minute.
"That'll work," Smith finally said, more to his partner than Jenn. "Let's saddle up."
Jones turned and retrieved the drone, lifting it to shoulder height. The taller Smith took the box of books from Jenn, secured the flaps with a few expert rip-and-tugs on a roll of packing tape, and then attached the box to the underside of the drone with mechanisms that looked remarkably like buzzard talons.
Smith then pulled a remote control from his pocket, extended a small antenna, twisted a few dials, and the tiny propellers buzzed to life. Jones heaved the drone into the air. It dipped momentarily under the weight of Jenn's life's work in multiple paperbacks, motors grinding at a slightly deeper pitch and nearly scraping the ground. Smith worked the remote and applied some generous hip-action body English while nibbling his tongue. The drone then it righted itself, buzzed industriously, rose above the scrubby trees, banked over the nearby buildings, and was gone from sight.
All three watched it go and stood for a moment in reverent silence.
"Ma'am," Jones said, nodding to Jenn.
"You have yourself a nice day," Smith said in her general direction. And then they turned and walked away, their steps purposeful, dedicated to their next task.
Jenn watched them leave, and then a strange look passed over her features--not exactly inspiration, but something close. She spun on her heel and strode back into her apartment with at least the same sense of purpose as the men from Amazon, perhaps even more.
Her ancient laptop rested in its usual spot on the kitchen table. She pressed the power button, relieved to hear that familiar tone, like an piano chord played with a violin bow, assuring her that the faithful word processing machine would glow to life at least this one more time. That tone told her that the world was full of possibilities laid out before her like pages of an unwritten second book.
Today would be the day she would start something new, a new book that featured a determined protagonist making the most of a dangerous, unpredictable world.
Perhaps she'd set the book somewhere exotic, maybe near a major river in South America.
John Sheirer lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and has taught writing and communications for 26 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he serves as editor of Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. Find him at JohnSheirer.com.
* * *
By William Wilcox
I watched the bleak white fields pass by as we headed over to Wisconsin. The drive to
Cloud Lake always took an eternity. I could see the stubble of the cornrows, one after the other,
with a few shivering cows clustered together here and there. I imagined being the king of an
underground city, hidden beneath the snow. I stared out into the barren fields and clumps of
trees, wondering where the entry to the hidden kingdom might be. Probably in the trees, but it
would have to be fir trees or the secret city would be exposed on winter days like this. The
people would sneak out in scavenging parties and blend in with the surface people, bringing back
supplies to build our city within the massive cave.
I’d never been to a funeral before. Nobody I knew had ever died before. Grammy and Granddad
died before I was old enough to know them. My sisters, Sandy and Kate, talked about them all
the time, how Granddad would give them treats and bounce them on his knee, and how Grammy
used to call me a “rascal” when I’d try to grab her glasses as a baby. Dad’s parents were long
gone before my sisters were even born. They were country people. Dad had grown up by a
crossroads about twelve miles outside of Colfax. Dad didn’t talk about his parents much. My
grandfather farmed and my grandmother taught in the one-room schoolhouse Dad attended. Now
we were making the trip to Cloud Lake, because Mom said we needed to say good-bye to her
Uncle Doug and Aunt Sally were the only really old people I knew. Well, there were the
Plimptons who lived behind us in the city, and they weren’t nearly as old as Uncle Doug was.
And mostly us kids only knew old man Plimpton because he’d say hello over the back fence as
he mowed his yard. I didn’t know Mrs. Plimpton hardly at all. She seemed cheery the few times
I saw her. I was in their house once when they had our family over for Christmas cookies, and
they had a big sailfish mounted over their fireplace. They moved away when I was still little.
Uncle Doug had been just a boy during the big Cloud Lake fire, which Mom said wiped out half
the town. They think it was started late in the afternoon, May 15, 1906, by a spark from one of
the saws at the Cloud Lake Lumber Mill. Uncle Doug and Grammy had huddled with my great
grandmother in their buggy on the south side of Cloud Lake and watched as the fire swept
through the town. When night fell, the fire lit up the sky. People said they could see it as far
away as Colfax and Chetek. My great grandfather joined the rest of the men in town as they
tried to no avail to pump water into the fire. The only thing that saved what was left of the town
was that the wind changed directions a little in the middle of the night so it pushed the fire out of
town. The fire destroyed over 100 homes, a dozen businesses and two churches. Uncle Doug
said he had never seen anything in his life so amazing and tragic.
As soon as he was eighteen, Uncle Doug had enlisted in the infantry and served in World War I.
He never saw any action, but he almost died of the flu he caught on board ship on the way over.
He also got to see Paris, where he saw the Eiffel Tower and took a liking to the wine. He said it
was the first time he had been around people who didn’t speak English, and he didn’t care for it.
It made him feel intimidated and out of place. And he missed Cloud Lake, and he wanted to get
Between the wars Uncle Doug had been in the Civilian Conservation Corps, Mom said, which
was something President Roosevelt came up with to keep people working during the Great
Depression. He had gone out west where he led a contingent of ‘boys’ (who were men mostly in
their twenties) as they built trails and dug pits for outhouses in national forests. The boys slept
together in big, smelly tents and worked ten- or twelve-hour days to made $30 a month to send
home to their families.
During World War II he’d been assigned to a stateside post. He was a full colonel by then, and
he and his young bride were housed in a large, stately home on post at Fort Stewart, Georgia. A
young, black steward – a private – was assigned to tend to his needs. Uncle Doug said that part
made him uncomfortable – that he mostly just let his steward run amok because he wasn’t
comfortable giving him orders. It felt too much like slavery. That’s when Uncle Doug started
collecting war souvenirs. He was the quartermaster at Fort Stewart, and he put the word out he
was interested in military souvenirs. When soldiers came back with souvenirs from Europe or
the Pacific and they were sick of lugging the stuff around, they’d get word that Col. McKenney
would happily take the stuff off their hands. He kept all the stuff he collected in a padlocked
shed out back of his quarters. Sometimes Uncle Doug would let his steward give him a hand
carrying stuff out to the shed.
And Uncle Doug was mayor of Cloud Lake once. Dad asked him what party he was, expecting
him to answer ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat.’ Instead, Uncle Doug answered he was a ‘wet.’ He
said there’d been an effort “by all the old ladies” to shut down the town’s three taverns during
the fifties, and he had fought on the side of keeping them open. He won by a dozen votes. The
wets defeated the move to make Cloud Lake a dry town, and Uncle Doug was voted out after one
four-year term. Uncle Doug told Dad he had enjoyed the excitement of politics and being a
bigshot around town. People said he didn’t hurt the town much, but he didn’t help it much
either. But the taverns stayed open.
Uncle Doug said he’d had enough and retired from the insurance business in 1965.
When I was little we’d go see Uncle Doug and Aunt Sally pretty often. They always had licorice
candies out, which I liked. Aunt Sally had a sweet tooth, Mom said. They lived in a little white
house just a block off Main Street in Cloud Lake. In case Aunt Sally ran out of candy, there was
a ten cent store on Main called Ray’s Dairy that sold all the best candy – Bonomo’s Turkish
Taffy, Slow Pokes, Mary Janes, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Pixie Sticks, wax lips and pop bottles and
Nut Goodies. Dad’s favorites were the Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls. He said he liked the way
they were both sweet and salty at the same time. There were only a few streets in Cloud Lake,
which, obviously, sat at the edge of a lake, which was just on the other side of Main Street.
There was even a small beach about a quarter mile up the road, so any time we went for a visit in
the summer we always brought our swimsuits. Dad would walk us down there and watch us
while Mom stayed back to chat with Uncle Doug and Aunt Sally.
Mom said the town had grown up because of the lumber mill, but farming was what had kept the
town alive. In the summer there was a little bit of tourism with the few people that spent
weekends at their lake places, but mostly the town was focused on farming. Besides Ray’s
Dairy, there were only a few other businesses on Main Street. There was a Coast To Coast
Hardware Store, which wasn’t just a hardware store – it pretty much served as the department
store for the town, selling clothing for men, women and children, as well as a few accessories,
and bicycles, toys, washing machines, refrigerators, stoves and televisions. You never knew
what you might find at the Coast To Coast. My sister Kate teased me that I’d better be careful or
I could get lost in there. Cloud Lake also had a small diner with a soda fountain, a barber shop, a
beauty salon, a storefront realtor, a bank, and, at the end of the main drag, Kylinger’s Funeral
Home and a Shell station. Dad joked that if you blinked as you drove through you might miss it.
Uncle Doug had a ruddy, round face with a few dark splotches. He hiked up his pants, so there
was a paunch both above and below his belt. (Dad used to call that “Dunlap’s Disease – because
his stomach done laps over his belt.”) Uncle Doug wore a bolo tie over his plaid shirt. I had
never seen a bolo tie before. It looked like a piece of polished turquoise with two shoe strings
hanging from it. He said he had gotten accustomed to wearing them when he’d lived out in the
Dakotas as an officer in the CCC in the thirties. He joked it came in handy “when I needed to
get dressed in a hurry, he-he.” (Dad looked uncomfortable as he chuckled a little at his joke,
Mom frowned and glanced at Aunt Sally as she brought out lemon bars, but I think I missed the
joke all together.)
On one of our visits, when I was still in first grade, Uncle Doug patted me on the head and asked
me, “Hello short stuff, you look like a Twin – are you one of the Twins?” I wondered why he
thought a six-year-old would be playing for the Minnesota Twins. I guess my Twins hat threw
“Yeah, Uncle Doug,” I humored him. “I’m a Twin.”
“Well, you must be a short stop, then, eh, short stuff?”
“Yep, a short stop. You got it.”
Uncle Doug had hunting trophies throughout his house – deer and moose and bear heads peering
out from polished wood – which I thought were kind of nifty and spooky at the same time.
Sandy and Kate hated the trophies. They thought they were gruesome. Though I had mixed
feelings about them, they made me think of how much I would like to go hunting some day with
Uncle Doug. He said I could go when I got older and could carry a rifle for a mile. That day
would never come during Uncle Doug’s lifetime.
But to me the best part of visiting was getting to see the basement. Uncle Doug had a military
museum down there. Evidently the collecting he’d done during the World Wars was only the
beginning. He went to yard sales and flea markets and got his hands on a few Civil War and
Spanish American War souvenirs as well, and he gave Dad and me a guided tour while Mom,
Sandy and Kate stayed upstairs. Uncle Doug had a full confederate officer’s dress uniform,
complete with a sword. He had several muskets and rifles from both the Civil War and Spanish
American War eras and a Spanish flag he said had been captured in Cuba.
The stuff from the World Wars was more interesting to me, though, as he led us around the
room. He had a stack of German helmets with bullet or shrapnel holes in them. He had a full
Nazi SS officer uniform. It didn’t have a hole in it. Too bad. Uncle Doug also had a formal
Nazi dagger, with a swastika on the handle, which he said had belonged to Goebbels. I had no
idea who Goebbels was or how Uncle Doug knew the dagger belonged to him. Uncle Doug had
also collected hand guns, rifles and machine guns. There were even about a dozen artillery shells
about as tall as me he said had been fired but turned out to be “duds.” He even had a mortar.
Dad said he was surprised Uncle Doug didn’t have an old jeep or a tank parked out in his
backyard. Uncle Doug delighted himself with his collection, and it delighted this six-year-old as
well. I think Dad was interested, though he had seen it all before – much of it first hand in the
The last time I’d seen Uncle Doug that fall, he was in the hospital in Eau Claire. Mom pulled me
out of fourth grade for the day to go see him. She said he had a stroke. All I knew was he cried
a lot and mistook me for a little girl – one of his other young relatives I guess. He didn’t seem to
be the same Uncle Doug at all, looking all small there in the hospital bed, with medical tubes
going every which way and creepy machines that whirred and beeped all the time surrounding
him. He looked like an object rather than a person. It made me uncomfortable seeing him that
Mom took me for a double vanilla ice cream cone on the way home.
Now they had him in an open casket at the little Presbyterian Church. (Mom used to joke that
Cloud Lake had all the main religions – Presbyterians, Lutherans and Catholics.) The casket was up at the front of the chapel, where Uncle Doug had rarely attended services. I was too scared to go up there to see him. After some discussion about how creepy it was, Sandy and Kate went up and said their goodbyes. They were much older than me though. I was afraid. I was afraid of ghosts. I was afraid Uncle Doug might open his eyes and sit up. I was afraid of dead people, I guess. I stayed back with Dad when Mom and the girls went up. All I could see was Uncle Doug’s nose sticking up out of the casket. It wasn’t so red anymore.
Undertaker Kylinger sat next to Dad while the ladies carried on. He had jet black, slicked back
hair and brown teeth and wore a dark, pin-striped suit. “It took me all day to fix him up,” he
muttered, barely audibly.
“Excuse me?” Dad replied.
“I’m sorry. Were you close kin to old Doug?” the undertaker asked Dad.
“Not really,” Dad said. “He was my wife’s uncle. No direct relation to me.”
“Well, good thing,” the undertaker said, taking Dad’s response as a signal he could confide in
him. “He was a crazy old coot. Do you know he had a basement full of unexploded shells from
the war? He could have gotten us all killed. We might have lost half the town. What if there
had been a fire?”
“Well, he seemed to know what he was doing,” Dad said. “Besides, there wasn’t.”
It wasn’t too long before old Minister Tom Witherspoon told us all to go sit down. He was a
rickety, feeble old man himself who looked like he might be one of Undertaker Kylinger’s next
customers. He gave a nice talk about Uncle Doug, only he called him “Dave” throughout the
service. “Dave” had been a fine man who had served his country in two wars. “Dave” had been
one of the best mayors Cloud Lake had ever had. “Dave” had been a loving and devoted
husband to Sally. “Dave” had loved the outdoors and was always happiest when he was close to
I looked over and saw Mom shaking like jelly and turning red. I thought at first she was
overcome with grief, but then I saw her bite her finger. She would do that when she was trying
not to burst out laughing. Dad, Sandy and Kate noticed her about the same time, and that set
them off. Sandy and Kate were kicking their legs and kept their heads down. Dad looked like he
was going to bust a gut. He was red as a tomato and his face was all squinched up. I thought I
was going to fall out of the pew. We must have all looked really grief-stricken.
Dad had to gather himself up since he was a pallbearer. Outside in the cemetery, old Minister
Witherspoon managed to get Doug’s name right before they lowered him into the ground. There
were no more hitches. It was a nice, quiet service on a gray day. They were lucky they had a
warm enough day to do the burial. Sometimes in the northern climate they would have to wait
weeks or even months for the ground to thaw enough to put a body down. But there was no
problem for Uncle Doug.
Afterward, we had brownies and delicious lemon bars down in the church basement, and on the
way home Dad and Mom bought us all double ice cream cones even though it was winter.
During the drive I thought about how I would mobilize my cave people to defend against
invaders from space to save all people both above and below the ground.
A former newspaper writer, the author has been involved in other endeavors in recent years, including contributing to the roots music blog twangville.com. The author lives in the mountains near Front Royal, Virginia.
* * *
Darkness in the Sky
By Linda M. Crate
i won't inconvenience
myself by staying in all the
wounds that hurt me
not even for your sake
because once we were friends,
and we're not anymore;
just fade into the fabric of the past
where you belong--
i told you where we stand,
and yet you try to reach out to me;
try to demand my friendship
from my mother but she cannot force my hand
neither can you
we are not friends nor are we sisters
you don't remember all the ways you hurt me
but i do--
just take your place as an old faded scar
because i can offer you no plate nor place at my table,
and i tried hard to forgive everything;
but all you gave me was nightmares and headaches
and i aspire to use my wings to fly to a dimension
one that doesn't cut me so hard on inky black wings
singing to the darkness of the sky.
Linda M. Crate's poetry, short stories, articles, and reviews have been published in a myriad of magazines both online and in print. She has five published chapbooks and a microchap. Linda is also the author of the novel Phoenix Tears (Czykmate Books, June 2018).
* * *
Blue Sky Through Bare Branches
By David Estringel
I look, upwards, at blue sky through bare branches,
The dewy wet of cool, green grass on my back,
Pulling me further away from this place.
I long for the stillness of being,
Found only in the shedding of this meat that plants me here.
Oh, to touch those spaces in-between.
To graze my lips upon that azure skin.
O, opiate kiss,
Like a stone, skipping across limpid pools.
Let me caress that face with my lips and sink into your oblivion...
But I am bound,
By bare branches,
Between me and a beckoning sky.
Biting my lip to taste blood,
I long to smear red what God has painted blue.
David Estringel is a reader/writer/poet/bibliophile and Writing Studies teaching assistant at the
University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley and will received his MAIS in English Fall 2018. Future plans
include a MFA in Creative Writing and teaching college composition and literature. Work previously
accepted by Specter Magazine and Literary Juice.
* * *
Three Poems by Gerry Fabian
Harvest Sun Dial
Sweat stained shirts
on the wash line
the grime and grease
that imbeds like
the 6:00 am to 8:00 pm
hard harvest hours
when the window of waste
I am turtle slow paced
and fox dumb.
Each time I am given anger
I out smile it with patience.
I learn more about myself
with the concept of fun.
Bad days are for learning;
good days are for teaching.
I love more; complain less.
I stumble with new ideas
instead of sleeping with old ones.
I sing songs to dispel doom
and hold hands with tomorrow.
I see the reflection
just slightly distorted
backward in the glass,
near the fountain’s pool of water,
shining on the steel building.
It is all I have.
so near to see -
so far to touch.
Fingers ache way before
My eyes betray my heart.
R. Gerry Fabian is a retired English instructor. He has been publishing poetry since 1972 in various poetry magazines. His web page is https://rgerryfabian.wordpress.com He is the editor of Raw Dog Press https://rawdogpress.wordpress.com His novels, Memphis Masquerade , Getting Lucky (The Story) and published poetry book, Parallels are available at Smashwords and all other ebook stores. Seventh Sense, his third novel has been published by Smashwords. He is currently working on his second book of published poems.
* * *
By Susie Gharib
I think of a suitable name
for my unborn female,
an auspicious combination of numbers
that will bring equanimity in its wake.
I place my hand below my waist
and tap a mother's code with my fingertips
a rhythm that only embryos comprehend.
My feet bask in their slippers, sedate
response must be underway.
With blue and green my eyes dilate,
My lips quiver and pulsate,
A thrill ripples in my veins,
A crackling in my ears resonates,
Aurora is going to be her name.
When Nancy Sinatra explicated
the components of her Summer Wine,
strawberries and cherries were the adornment
of a child’s verdant playground
in a very distant Summer house.
Strawberries sealed every Thursday evening
after a thrill at the Theatre House,
the genteel owner of the Red Mill
doted on me who frequented his inn,
serving his red treat with requested ice-cream.
But then these berries foreboded trouble
with Alec holding them by the stem
to feed his coz Tess of the D’Urbervilles
whose mouth reluctantly received them
only to kindle in me a tragic sense.
The moon disrobes my pen
on yonder glen
where a ring of stones had lain
It sheds its ink on fern
that never burns
but keeps each word that's print
for stars to mint.
She glides amongst the lines
bequeathing her charms
on verbs and nouns
the Queen of Signs.
With sword, a blade of stars
gleaning my fern-born rhymes,
he mounts his horse and turns
to where Gwen has cast her spell.
Susie Gharib is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde with a Ph.D. on the work of D.H. Lawrence. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Grey Sparrow Journal, the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and other magazines. She is a lover of nature and enjoys swimming.
* * *
Three Poems by Gary Glauber
Excellence is Our Motto
In these hyperbolic times,
there is comfort in hearing
that you are the very best.
Forget that such claims
are wildly unfounded,
& that mediocrity
has been elevated to art form.
Inflate the numbers,
for everything is extra credit.
Here’s a trophy for growth,
another for progress,
a third for the kind of grades
sure to get you into a good college.
Empathy & compassion
can be learned if required.
Creativity & service
can be spun like a crazy yarn,
& we’ll all outdo each other
in the most charitable of ways.
Pad that resume big-time,
do not differentiate
play sports, join clubs,
be a band or theater geek,
or at least show up for
one of the meetings.
It’s not so much what you do,
as appearance of good intentions.
Excellence is trending,
& a whole class of heroes
of compromised quality
is ready to take that
next step forward,
leaping with practiced confidence
into the steep abyss
of harsh reality.
Her profile says she wants
a man of a certain height,
& even though he finds her
more than attractive,
he is not tall enough to qualify.
It reminds him of being
in that amusement park
with his older brother & his friends.
He remembers not making the mark
when he had to stand there
alongside the wooden sign that read,
“You must be this tall to ride.”
Again, height was a barrier.
There would be no
roller coaster excursions
at this juncture,
no chance to experience
the stomach-churning drops
when hearing her talk
about her last relationship,
no thrilling screams when
their easy romance took
an impossible twist
for no discernible reason.
Instead, he sits in another
giant teacup, pondering the different
world of shorter people,
twisting the middle controller
to steer cup to spin & spin,
making the world a dizzy blur
of inadvertent movement
where height becomes
one of many random things
that no longer matter.
They stand at the precipice,
looking out, looking down,
looking good while checking out
panorama that lies before them.
It’s a long drop, a dare,
a taunt of possibility.
You only reach the summit once
& the feeling of invincibility
dominates like expert magic.
No one cites good health,
the muscle tone, the absolute control
over deceptive young body,
nor its inherent beauty.
That’s unstated given,
starting point from which
real transformation begins.
Second journey commences:
first tattoo, some paid-for pain
into irreversible decision;
glass of wine or three,
into social drinking,
ignoring family history,
father, uncle, mother, friend;
toying with needle or pill
or gender exploration
of playful kisses & touching,
pretending to understand
real wants & needs.
They look so grown up.
Advice the wind proffers
says look long before leaping
but they do not hear it,
they do not heed it.
Every generation needs
mistakes of their own,
so if they survive them
they’ll later come whispering
wisdom to ones that follow,
holding collective breath
as next group inches closer
to the cliff edge of change.
Gary Glauber is a poet, fiction writer, teacher, and former music journalist. His works have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. He champions the underdog to the melodic rhythms of obscure power pop. His two collections, Small Consolations (Aldrich Press) and Worth the Candle (Five Oaks Press), and a chapbook, Memory Marries Desire (Finishing Line Press), are available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and directly from the publishers.
* * *
Three Poems by John Grey
MARLENE AT THE DANCE
You’re all gentile and gender,
persimmon scent and silk hair,
spirited bright-smiling eyes.
Your accent is sweet and brisk
like a fiddle
bur there’s a jazz to your hands.
And you flit about the room
like a swallowtail
but remembered far beyond
Your sugar is persistent,
your smolder’s surreptitious,
but pursuing you
is like corralling wind.
Life is miserable elsewhere,
but you take me to a place
where humanity has not failed.
Struggle out of hanging chrysalis,
grow up in an instant,
the ways of the many -
on a lilac bush
in sunlight bright as my wings
making, of forest’s stillness,
a vibrancy I bring to it -
that goes quicker
than all of these others
WALKING IN FOG
The air is feathery and damp.
In such fog, destinations arrive before vision.
I walk between touch and the sound of my footsteps.
And it takes faith to cross a street.
My grasp is cottony. My face, moist.
Headlights assume the sun’s role but barely.
Their glare blurs the trees, the houses.
It’s as if God is. in actual fact, Monet.
I’m just glad this weather is external.
I wouldn’t want my thoughts so unsure,
tapping in all directions like a blind man.
In this atmosphere. I am a secret only I can keep.
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in the Homestead Review, Poetry East and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Harpur Palate, the Hawaii Review and Visions International.
* * *
Hungery Anythig Will Help
By Ryan Havely
They tried an hour
to revive him, but the rain
fell like an empire,
like some whole world
had tipped on its side
and spilled into ours.
We didn’t hit him.
We hit the people
who hit him, their car.
Who’s going to pay for this,
he asked. We’re going to miss
the show, she said.
The paramedics pushed
on his chest and breathed
into his mouth. He died
right there in a puddle,
raindrops breaking like eggs
against his open eyes.
The man who hit him asked
How long will this take?
My wife put her dollar
back in her purse. The rain
had shredded the cardboard
sign he’d been holding,
so in pieces it rushed off
across the street
and into the river.
Ryan Havely earned an MFA from Minnesota State after a BA from Ohio University. He worked as a college professor for a decade before selling his soul and jumping into marketing. His work is found in Pebble Lake Review, Midwestern Gothic, Mainstreet Rag, and others.
* * *
By Sreekanth Kopuri
The day starts,
the hands of these doors
grope in vain.
It rains here
and a fallen leaf rolls off
searching some traces
in the yesterday’s sands.
A bird is nervous in the nearby woods
at an unfavourable gush.
in the wholeness of this room.
The wind hesitates to reach the table
and the chair sighs
with the burden of emptiness.
some ants gather
for habitual tea stains.
Sreekanth Kopuri, PhD is a Telugu-speaking Indian English poet from Machilipatnam, India. His poems are published or forthcoming in Ann Arbor Review, Scryptic Magazine, Five 2 One, Halcyondays, Vayavya, Ariel Chart, Forty Eight Review, Poetcrit, Indian Periodical, Deccan Chronicle, and elsewhere. He has two anthologies, The Shadows and The Void.
* * *
Lineage and Urban Legend
By Nate Maxson
There was a lightning rod on the roof of the first house I lived in when I was in college
I would climb up to look at it on days when there were no clouds, years ago now
I regarded it like some tarnished silver idol
I knew the superstition that they drew the bolts
That they were mechanisms of summoning
Rather than the other way around
Which was why on the tip of the metal:
A little crystal ball was placed, welded
To mitigate the unknown
A snow globe in reverse
I only touched it once,
First the cool metal and then the clear glass nodule
Almost expecting it to be hot like a stovetop
I put my hand to the cold
And when I pulled away it stayed cold for a long time
As if I had absorbed some ringing hymn from inside the lightning rod
Some future illumination traveling at an impossible speed
From a sky I’ve never seen
It will mistake me for a piece of silver
And I will alight
For rooftops rumbling and high,
A hint of trembled blue
Hidden in my winter coat like a memory
Of all the could-have-beens you’ve ever touched
Beginning to sing, at once
I remember how libraries used to be quieter, but it could be a false memory
I couldn’t even hear traffic from the stacks
And I also remember how when I was a child, the bathtub felt big enough to maybe vanish into
if I could just hold my breath long enough
This one seems easier to prove
Memory is a perpetual act of contradiction I’ve noticed
An optical test, you close one eye and tell the doctor what you can read on the chart with the
To see and to not see, simultaneous
Two sunburned old women are sleeping in the center of a pile of boxes on the steps of a church,
today’s donations not yet taken
Crows over a winter field, Ohio 1997
For sale: 1989 American void, driven only to weddings and funerals, best offer or deepest
Nate Maxson is a writer and performance artist. The author of several collections of poetry, he lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
* * *
Two Poems by Stephen C. Middleton
At the crucial moment the view is impeded. She is racked by huge sneezes – germs imparted with the gift, for which, in thanks, she kissed him. All human fear is here. The mountains. The pregnant waitress. The illness at home & …abroad. The English writer, who went to investigate the howling unison, cannot now remember the actual terrifying sound. Confused witness. Many meanings.
Pain sculpts an outsider
But is only a component
In an outsider’s art –
Stone, lonely drawings
Or Mississippi mud
A permanent glare
A quizzical stare
Mistaken for an idiot grin
This distance unplanned but
A griot would understand
Carnival masks the schism
What did Henry Darger know
Of anatomy & murder?
Son Thomas made skulls (initially)
To scare his grandfather
Spawned or spurned
The chasm when
They speak of technique,
Burnished or twisted.
Stephen C. Middleton is a writer working in London. He has had five books published, and been in several anthologies. He was editor of Ostinato, a magazine of jazz and jazz related poetry. He has been in magazines worldwide, including in the US, Australia, Canada, the UK, & mainland Europe.
* * *
Three Poems by Caroline Misner
Gold in the Moment
I’ve been away too long--
so I arrive at twilight
into the scent of unspooled air;
the books by the mantle
are damp from disuse and longing.
The insects that mangled us
just three brief weeks ago
have left in the wake of a sudden chill.
Even the stars are sluggish,
coming out from behind a shaggy cloud.
It has always been the mad who
create the quietest works of art.
Some hand draped a tapestry across
the hills. They seem so unfamiliar now;
in their clownish plenitude.
Geese flap solemnly to their destinations
like refugees, comfortless and sober,
spearing the still air with their beaks,
amber sickens the gossamer plush of trees,
silent in the long failing light.
For Sandra Doke
Sadness pales in the wake of your departure;
only ruins shall occupy this room.
The light is dimmed, the sparkler’s burnt;
pull down the shade and drown the sun,
wrap a bandage round my hurt.
Snuff the stars out, one by one;
the constellations are all wrong.
Dismantle the clock so time can stop,
pluck its hands out by the roots,
tap the keg and liberate each precious drop.
This should be an insignificant moment in my life;
twenty years from now I’ll forget your name.
The diamond has blistered in its case,
and the gold has tarnished into rust.
Sudden mercury has taken place.
Emptiness has usurped your laughter.
Your breath was the wind that puffed my sails
and buoyed my ship through stormy seas.
I swear I never saw this coming;
it’s all too much for me.
It seems illogical to plant wildflowers here
on a patch of soil where aged cedars died
and hoarded their roots like bones
in an ancient crypt;
bordered by a red canoe upturned against
the weather, its spine aimed at a sky
of misty cream, its keel scarred by rocks
in shallow waters.
Wooden chairs with peeling paint circle
the fire pit like pews around a pagan altar.
Their burnt stones are the mottled and seared
guardians of the flame.
They gather at a cauldron of ashes
and cracked logs, tapered and black,
the shrills of their burning silenced,
their sparklers numbed.
The stump of a once majestic maple displays
the rings in its cut like a thumbprint,
as though to say I once lived.
Its surface is scarred
from the blows of the hatchets that cleaved
the doomed logs into serviceable kindling;
where a father taught his two sons to swing
the blade’s precision.
Already the stump has begun to blister and peel
in the face of such violence; soon it will
become like the cords of wood it cradles
at their execution.
Limp weeds pray at its base; white and purple
flowers sprout beside a fallen tree that toppled
years ago by the weight of its own age,
a neglected corpse
at the edge of a bog where golden water lilies
float among the pads. Moss beards its rippled
shaft like an actor inhabiting
someone else’s skin.
Caroline Misner’s work has appeared in numerous publications in the USA, Canada, India and the UK. She has been nominated for the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize for the short story “Strange Fruit”; in 2011 another short story and a poem were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands of Northern Ontario where she continues to draw inspiration for her work. She is the author of the Young Adult fantasy series “The Daughters of Eldox”. Her latest novel, “The Spoon Asylum” was just released in May of 2018 by Thistledown Press and has been nominated for the Governor General Award.
* * *
By Charles Rammelkamp
“You’re not hiding anything
with that character ‘Joni’
in your novel.
Anybody can see
it’s you you’re writing about,
you and your shitty marriage.”
“Still, it gives me the freedom
to explore my feelings.”
I do admire your sex scenes.”
“I’m just afraid
my husband is going to divorce me
after he reads it.
He’ll be so embarrassed.”
“That’s what I meant.”
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, has just been published by FutureCycle Press.
* * *
A Boy's Name and Fiddle
By Cathryn Shea
A Boy's Name
You could make your son a criminal
just by naming him Carl, seemed like the gospel
truth when I was too small to know
and heard talking every day for a long time
about a man on death row, my mother saying
all forms of Carl are bad.
When my son was born, I waited three days before calling him
the name I’d looked up, having checked history and roots
and Biblical references: Brian, for strong.
“That’s perfect,” a nurse said, growing impatient
but doing a good job hiding her eagerness
to get on with it, raising
her brow ever so slightly while overheard saying,
“As if a name could make or break a child’s
“Why’d you name him that for?”
(My mother-in-law when we tell her.)
“That’s Irish. He’ll grow up to be a bum.”
The closet closed for good behind the walls
of our sold house. We cradled the black case,
leather handle bone dry.
The violin inside, crushed against thick green nap,
had traveled through deluge and drought
from Mountain to Pacific time
when my father moved west.
After a few whiskeys, he would pull the case
from behind the vacuum cleaner, play Brahms,
and recount the flash flood and mud
in Colorado Springs that smashed his family’s home,
spared this instrument like a sign from God.
He’d tell how my grandfather slapped him
if he called it a fiddle, made him play Classical
and nothing else, made him turn down
the full music scholarship at State--
He joined the Coast Guard to escape,
even though he’d never seen a coast,
hated water, couldn’t swim
to save himself from drowning.
He found our mother near the seashore
and they produced five girls who would beg him
to bring out the old case and recite again
how he could have played in a symphony.
I ran off with a cellist and snuck the violin with me,
had the sound post fixed in Salt Lake City--
thought I would learn to play by the Yamaha method.
I got as far as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Cathryn Shea’s latest chapbook is “It’s Raining Lullabies” (Dancing Girl Press, 2017). Her poetry was nominated for Best of the Net 2017 and appears in Tar River Poetry, Permafrost, Tinderbox, and elsewhere. See www.cathrynshea.com and @cathy_shea on Twitter.
* * *
Helen(2), Persephone, & Eve
By Jessica Stilling
Of Sparta - they said
Swan eggs hatching nightly fertility
There was a moon out, glowing soft silver on the horizon
What really happened when Zeus raped her mother?
Patted her on the head and told her it was all okay
He was a great god, a powerful god
Should she not be happy?
In place of her dignity he gave a little girl
And she was beautiful
Born to suffer the same fate as her mother
Women’s Studies, you can only study Women’s Studies if you go to Yale
And make friends with the right people
Because they can’t support everyone you know
Just aren’t enough women to go around
One year she loved Paris ran away with that boy the love of her life
Carefully, painstakingly planned it
Started a war for that great power
But he was only a man
She had come from gods what need did she have of them?
It was her beauty, the beauty they said
You can do so much with a woman’s beauty
Drives me crazy makes me sick
They have no idea what kind of crap it is
A woman’s beauty
It cuts quickly, deeply the point of a knife
Why are men so afraid of it?
What kind of weapon fades so quickly?
A waning sun weaker
What kind of weapon garners such hatred?
Shaming until there is no sun and you hide from it
“No, I am not beautiful,” we heard Helen say
Her father locked her up so no one could see her
The price on her head would only grow higher
He knew this
They told us Venus stole her, captured her beauty and gave it away
To the highest bidder
She had no plans she was only a little girl
Who dared to be beautiful
Dared to be
Do we know this woman, does anyone?
She is good because she is beautiful, the devil because she is beautiful
Which is it?
And yet she was not given a name, an identity
As if that name could ravish a hundred sea fairing vessels
Launching those thousand ships
And call her Helen, only Helen
Of Sparta, great landlocked brutality
Of Sparta and then on shimmering shores, did she meet him eyes downcast
Past life regression therapy
This other world, foreign thing
That there are people who understand
Look at you with
Such knowledge, such intellect...such just...
She saw it
Saw it all and closed her eyes
Let the darkness in
And I wondered, the way the synapses fire
They just keep going
If we only had more of it
This thing, it’s just so beautiful, so complete
The person I was when I was
Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen
And here I am now and if I could live forever
Would I be more
What is wrong with humans is not that we try too hard
Too greedy, too selfish...Entitled
No. Time...it’s time, we do not have enough of it...three hundred years
Wouldn’t cut it
But she could see
Living in two worlds that’s what it takes
To see the self one and then the other
Time and again...we don’t get enough of it
Man and woman we live two of them
Over and over the darkness,
It’s not dark, that’s what she’d tell you
It goes on forever and something...something ends and yet I know
There are those who hold it in the palms of their hands and calmly, calmly
Roll it as if on the balls of their feet
A world within a world she felt it...no...no lived it
It wasn’t a man...never was
The way a man... he fought for her and I just think
We could have been something...this species
We could have been something Brando’s Contender
But the hours, the hours...count on your fingertips there’s never enough
The first lady of
The very cusp of intuition
Dangling the edge of the universe
It was all shit anyway
We don’t know how to live any other way don’t let them fool you
Paradise handed to us, look at the bounty
We piss in it every day
The scapegoat: A Woman
Always: A Woman
Tell me who cut down the rainforest? Who polluted the oceans of Japan?
Pulled the plug
Could we have lived in paradise?
Ripped from a rib to blame her
Give them a chance and they brandish such hatred
Gave them sons and they called her whore
And wanted more
Do not let them have them
To war, to business
Pull the rib from your body
Your Hidden Children, Eve
All mother they do not see
The serpent, the mark of her son and they care only for fathers and brothers
Forget the daring primal woman
Still they are blind
And do not see
That she made them
Jessica Stilling is the author of two novels, Betwixt, Between (Ig, 2013), and The Beekeeper's Daughter (Bedazzled, 2019). Her poetry and fiction has appeared in more than thirty literary journals including Caustic Frolic, The Warwick Review, and Wasifiri. She has an MFA in creative writing from City College and a BA in writing and literature from the New School. Her nonfiction has appeared in many outlets including The Ms. Magazine Blog, Bust Magazine and The Writer. She has taught writing and literature at City College, Queens College, the State University of New York at Old Westbury, the Gotham Writer's Workshop and the New School. She lives in New York City.
* * *
Somewhere the Dawn Rises
By Uma Venkatraman
I’ll go my way
you go yours
you won’t notice
even if I were to fling my food
on the wall behind you
the way you coated the pale yellow
with prawns tossed to rid your plate
of an errant drop of water
or the way
your deep breaths bubble up
like dissatisfied lava
and your sighs coat a summer
passing in silent heat
I don’t understand your fury
changing the climate
in this house
Am I supposed
to find my way
out of the angry trails
drifting in your wake
Will my way take me
out of your orbit
I have fought to exit
to keep from being swallowed
by the black hole of your being
I have felt myself dim
year after empty year
One by one the stars
I possessed, the ones that shone
in my eyes and my words
and illuminated me from within,
have become dead debris
dragging me to depths
I would rather not know
I want to be able to
look at the night sky
and spot the bright twinkling
of a spirit that yearns to live
So yes, I will listen,
as always, to your silence
Go out of my way
to ensure my way
takes me away from
your engulfing dark
to a dawn that I know
is rising somewhere
Living in Singapore, India-born Uma Venkatraman is a journalist with a passion for poetry. She has been published in anthologies such as Good Morning Justice, Along The Shore and Beyond The Hill, and online in Pink Panther Magazine, The Rising Phoenix Review and Plath Poetry Project.
* * *
Three Poems by Joanna M. Weston
Beyond The Past
I survived the ice age
with a gleam of fire
behind my ribs
while glaciers rolled
over and beyond
leaving me stranded
hollowed by lost organs
skin barely whole
ravaged by detritus
until I stitched
and pressured myself
to the resemblance
of an old photo
though a wider grey
still holding embers
into lit matches
Knowing Where To Look
the old woman has
a sickness without name
though her lips
there is no grammar
to her thinking
as she sits at table
cradling a mug
of herbal tea
she knows the beginning
and looks for the end
in the circling leaves
she has seen more moons
than a trade of years
has counted children
past the formation of clan
and healing fire
she seeks the tale
that begins her ending
the leaves remain
silent as her tongue
the night wind scoured
shadows from my body
cut them out with the skill
of a surgeon’s scalpel
and hung them on the line
above my bed where they swung
in the chill that broke
dreams into fragments lost
among planets that clashed
and broke while I twisted
to become a skeletal
version of who I might have been
before dusk fell about me
JOANNA M. WESTON. Married; has one cat, multiple spiders, raccoons, a herd of deer, and two derelict hen-houses. Her middle-reader, ‘Frame and The McGuire', published by Tradewind Books 2015; and poetry, ‘A Bedroom of Searchlights’, published by Inanna Publications, 2016. Other books listed at her blog:
* * *
By Andrew Bertaina
Your life is a riddle.
I don’t actually know you—a fact that authors willfully forget when they use the second person. Trust me, I have not forgotten. You could be a working class mother of three who lives in Philadelphia, or a house wife who watches trashy television shows in Knoxville, Tennessee or a myriad of other things more plentiful than fish flitting about the sea. The first thing you should know about the secret of life is that it’s not unique to you. Everyone is roughly the same, similar in essential ways. Like, when they go to the beach on a sunny day with a beach ball, most of them will wind up playing with the beach ball, getting slightly sunburned, or wrestling with an umbrella, trying to twist it into the ground before sitting down to read a glossy magazine. The point is merely this: you are not unique in your quest for the secret of life.
My secret, which I’ve culled from pouring over texts like the Upanishads and the early Christian fathers, can be given to you for the price of three United States dollars. I’ve changed my mind about it being free because there is nothing in life that is free, and this is one of the secrets of life. My secret is three magic beans. Now, I can already hear you saying, “What the hell am I going to do with three beans?” But I want you to know that that is the old you talking—the you who wakes up early in the morning feeling out of sorts, wondering why your shower is always so dull and not filled with another sexy person, the you who wonders why your cubical overlooks merely another cubical. Do not fret. We are leaving that you behind. I want you to go outside with a small shovel. In the moonlight, though if the night’s moonless that will do as well, move aside the bits of earth and plant the beans in the ground, roughly four to six inches apart. Then go to sleep and sleep the sleep of angels.
Your sleep should be dreamless. When you lie down, imagine that you are floating on pillows of fluffy clouds. If you are older than 32, imagine that you are younger. If you are younger, imagine a world that is full of nice things like fluffy clouds and pictures of kittens, things that always make you happy. If you worried about a boy, it’s fine to dream. In your dream, write him a letter but don’t sign it. Let it go. Watch it float down between the puffy pillows of clouds, descending like Icarus, only much, much slower. These things too shall pass.
Wake up. It’s morning. The light will be making patterns on the bed sheet, or it will be raining, or snowing, or it will be grey and hazy. The weather is immaterial. In the morning, you’ll find that the three beans have grown into vines that stretch into the upper reaches of the sky, piercing banks of clouds as if they were the wings of angels. Now is the moment of truth. Breathe deeply. If you find yourself thinking things like, I probably shouldn’t climb those giant vines that pierce the sky like nails in the hands of Christ because I might fall, or, I probably shouldn’t climb those vines that stretch into the cathedral of the sky because there could be a handsome boy up there, a British one, with hair parted on the side, with whom I will fall deeply in love, but, after some complicated evenings, games of cards and bottles of wine, I’ll discover that the feelings just aren’t mutual, and we’ll then have to consider an amicable parting that I’ll pretend is just fine even though it will be soul rending. Well, turn that voice off because it is like a leaky faucet and start climbing.
Bring a lunch and possibly some snacks for your trip up the vines. It’s best to wear a backpack and pack some granola bars, for it really is a long climb. The secret of life is not easy to obtain. Eventually, you’ll reach the top of the vines, which empty out onto a vast white plain of clouds. Though they can’t be clouds because they are substantial and feel more like the tusks of elephants, like ivory built into the sky, so that your feet land solidly against clouds as you walk. In the distance, you’ll see a castle, standard issue stuff with flying buttresses, a pair of gargoyles, stained glass windows with pictures of angels and a balustrade from which boiling pitch looks like it could be poured.
The next bit is different than you’ve heard before and complicated for it. You’ll walk up a large marble staircase, past columns made of porphyry and through a large set of double doors, with two large and golden lion heads as knockers. Do not knock. The door is unlocked and all you’ve ever needed to do was open it. This is one of many secrets.
Walk through the main room, past paintings by Monet, Manet, and Mondrian. Walk past the fireplace with logs burning tenderly. Turn left and you’ll find yourself in the kitchen, gleaming granite counter tops that are oddly high, and smell the rich scent of meat cooking. In the pantry, you’ll find a goose that is laying golden eggs.
Stop! I know what you are thinking. I’ve found the solution to all of my problems. I will steal this goose that lays golden eggs, and I will collect the golden eggs and spend them judiciously over a period of time, in part not to arouse suspicion that I have a goose that lays golden eggs but also not to devalue the very currency that I’ve pretty much cornered the market on. Now I will become rich and famous, and I’ll buy a fleet of cars and people will follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and they will like all of my pictures on social media engines, and they will retweet statuses that were once quite banal. But their very banality will be reified, or instantiated by the crowds that affirm them, transforming them from something banal into a sort of transcendent thought? Didn’t the crowds follow Christ? Is this what transcendence feels like?
Stop! This goose is incapable of solving all of your problems. Didn’t you pay attention to the part where I told you that The Secret; The Bible etc. are guide books to living a fulfilled life? The key to happiness is not in having a goose that lays golden eggs. A goose that lays golden eggs is merely one more thing in a world of things whose value or worth is externally determined. It will not make you happy.
Sit down, cross your legs, and ask the goose about its day. Above all else, be civil. After a while, the goose, like most people, will start droning on and on about his job, how bored he is of laying eggs etc. Avoid texting someone or looking away while this goose is talking. The goose is very sensitive. Just then you’ll hear a voice in the distance that cracks like thunder.
Fee Fi Fo Fum I smell the blood of an English man or woman. I’m not discriminatory when it comes to my taste in the English. This is the moment that you’ve been waiting for. It is the moment that things can change. I know what you’re thinking? Is this giant going to eat me? Is the secret of life that we are all going to die? And, if so, why is it being presented as a secret? I suppose that would solve all of my problems, nagging ex-loves, loan debt, and a crummy car. But on the other hand, it seems like a pretty cheap trick to give someone a packet of beans that are leading them to their death. I didn’t even get to tell him/her that I loved them. In fact, there are a number of things that I’d intended to do—go on a hot air balloon ride over Paris, buy a pizza from that well-regarded new Neapolitan Pizzeria on the corner, film a documentary about my childhood city using voice overs in the style of Werner Herzog.
Relax. Rest easy, he’s not that kind of giant. He is the sort of giant who will sit down quietly at the table, folding his hands together before asking if you’d like a spot of tea. Though all he has is Earl Grey, so don’t bother asking for diversity in tea. And, as you are sitting at the table, your tiny legs dangling over the chair, thinking what a zany day you’ve had, don’t be afraid to ask him why you are there. “In due time,” he’ll say, leaning back with a knowing smile and visible crow’s feet because this giant is as old as redwoods and light and possibly sound.
And you’ll go back to sipping your warm tea with an immensely large lemon wedge, considering how you’ll frame this day when you climb back down the vine to your hum drum life. Maybe you’ll start charging people to climb up the vines—fifty, a hundred dollars—to climb into the sky and have a conversation with a rather boring goose and a charming giant. Maybe this journey was about discovering your entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps you should become an Instagram influencer.
That is not what the journey was for. When you’ve finished your tea, and he’s cleared the table. When you’ve finished asking after the weather and the condition of the goose, it will be nearing your time to go. The giant will make it evident by clearing his throat and checking his large cell phone periodically, mumbling about how he must be off somewhere soon, though he’s enjoyed your company. Now is the time to act. Lean towards him and ask the question you’ve been carrying around with you, “What is the secret to life?”
And he will tell you.
And now it is time to climb down from that overly large chair. The giant will probably help you by making a cup with his palm where you will be held like a child, warm and sweet. It is time to make your way down the marble steps and across the clouds of ivory, back down the bean stalk before it gets too dark to climb, back into your bedroom, where you can curl up amongst your fluffy pillows and sleep because it has been a long day, an immensely long day.
It’s not every day that you learn the secret of life. And from there you can go forth, living out the remainder of your days, drifting from job to job, relationship to relationship, town to town and city to city. It won’t matter that you are a boat unmoored, slipping through life as a ghost. You will have, as you sleep late at night, the awesome knowledge of those giant’s words to keep you company. I don’t know. Ah, sweet. Now sleep.
Andrew Bertaina's work has appeared or is forthcoming in many publications including: The Best American Poetry 2018, The ThreePenny Review, Tin House online, Redivider, and Green Mountains Review. More of his work is available at www.andrewbertaina.com
* * *
By Stephanie Schaem
It’s 2:15pm when she walks down the hallway and down the stairs. She is determined to go out today. Determined to get groceries and to feel the fresh air she hadn’t felt in weeks. The young woman reaches the door, her hand on the door handle and about to push it open when something catches her eye. It was a sign posted on the door leading outside.
“Don’t forget that he’s still out there- stay vigilant.”
Her determination melted away, replaced by an all consuming fear.
“Just because you moved into a different place doesn’t mean he won’t try to take revenge on you.”
She blinks fast. Did she read that right? Her hand drops from the handle of the door as she backed away from it.
“He’ll find you and do it again.”
Skin crawling from the memory of his touch, his breath, his scent. She choked- the odor of his sweat and cologne pervading the air. Her body slumps, leaning towards the nearest wall and sliding down. Just as the papers she wrote this morning, she crumpled. Her eyes looking up to the underside of the stairwell, she knew: it was going to happen again. Bile rose in the back of her throat. She could never escape him.
There was a heaviness on her chest, on her body. He was on her. No matter what she did, she couldn’t push him away. This weight made it hard to breathe. Her cheeks grew wet, her eyes shut. He’s spreading her apart, pangs of pain began in her chest... and between her legs. All her muscles tensed, her jaw clenching. Her arms grew sore from how tightly she’s gripped her knees.
“Please stop.” She repeated, pleading, unable to move, unable to breathe. Her voice only came out as a quiet squeak.
Remorseless, emotionless, unrelenting the man continued his rhythm.
He didn’t care. He never did.
Her memories swirled around her, engulfing her like a dark thunderstorm.
She opened her eyes. The black headboard of the bed, the navy blue bed sheets, the beige walls, scent of sweat and sex... She was back home with him, the air thick and unwelcoming, choking her as much as the weight of his body was crushing her. Over and over she tried to push him off of her. Nausea and confusion making her head spin. Why was this happening? She closed her eyes again, just waiting for it to be over.
A few grunts. Wetness between her legs. The weight lifted off her. She curled into a ball and pulled the part of the sheet that was not thrown off the bed over herself. He got off of her, but she could still feel the weight on her, smothering her.
“I’m sorry.” He told her, his fat, naked body was relaxed and untensed. “I was feeling neglected.”
She swallowed a lump in her throat. It was her fault. “I-I just haven’t been in the mood.”
“I felt unwanted, I needed this.” He justified himself. He wasn’t in the wrong. She was.
“Okay.” She squeezed out in a tiny voice. She never knew how hard it was to speak when you couldn’t breathe.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Are you okay?”
Her heart felt like it was being strangled. How could he ask that? How could he-
An earthquake. Her body shook. There were hands on her shoulders. She could hear footsteps, a voice, but it was drowned out. The bedroom faded away...
“Hey, hey miss!” An unfamiliar voice. Unfamiliar hands. It wasn’t him, but someone else from her building. “Are you okay?” She was safe again. She swallowed hard, proving ineffective. That taste in her mouth, the lump in her throat, it lingered.
Looking up into the face of the one that saved her, she nodded. “I’m okay.”
They offered a hand and she took it, the warmth of it pushing away the remnants of her ex’s touch. She wobbled on her legs, still unsteady from earlier. “Do you need any help?”
She shakily took a breath. “I’m okay.”
The stranger looked at their watch and grimaced before taking out a pen and piece of paper and writing something onto it. They handed it to her. “I live here in the building, 3rd floor,” they shoved the pen into their pocket, “if you need anything, that’s my cell number. I gotta dash, but I’ll see you around neighbor.”
And just as suddenly as they had appeared to her, they left. She stood on her own, finally steady on her own two feet. Another deep breath, one not so shaky, she took out her phone to enter in her neighbors number. She wanted to thank them later for helping her get out of her head. The lock screen showed her something she could barely believe. Her breath caught in her throat. She blinked fast. Was she reading this right?
It was 2:53pm. She had been there for 40 minutes, trapped in the memory. Her hands curled into fists, her nails digging into her palms. She could feel the pain, it wasn’t drowned out or numbed. She was here, back in the present. A different anxiety assaulted her, one about her loss of time. It always felt so real. It always freaked her out enough that she didn’t want to go out. What if it happened out there? What if she would be trapped in her head out there, all alone? She felt helpless, broken, and as though it was her own fault for why.
After entering the stranger’s phone number, she looked back up at the flyer on the door.
“You are not alone. If you or a friend need help, we can provide it to you. Free, 24/7 Hotline: 800.656.HOPE”
She didn’t believe that a hotline would be able to help her. She didn’t believe that it would make any difference to anyone if she called that hotline. Calling a number won’t make her feel safe again, it won’t help.
She put her phone away and walked back up the stairs and up the hallway.
Stephanie Schaem is a Creative Media major with a focus on creative writing at Champlain College. She is originally from California before she made the move to Vermont for college. She has always found writing about her own experiences came more fluidly than that of fantasy writing, although she is partial to the genre as a whole.
* * *
Mini Theft Auto
By Robert Steward
Barcelona, Spain 2000
I leave my apartment in Plaça de John Lennon and go down the narrow, sunlit street of Carrer de Milà i Fontanals. I walk to Verdaguer metro station with the determination of a man on a mission, a futile mission, but a mission all the same--to steal my car.
I go down the steps to the metro station, through the ticket barrier and onto the station platform. Three other people are waiting for the train, two men and a woman. I look at the underground map on the wall and plot my route; one stop on the blue line and five on the green. Just then, there’s a rush of wind and a roaring sound as the train arrives. The doors slide open with a whoosh and a rumble, and I step on. As they close, I know there’s no turning back. The train jolts into motion, and I hold on tight to the grab bar. How anonymous everyone is on the juddering train carriage: the man with the large newspaper, the woman with the bag of shopping, the teenagers with their beach towels, the English teacher who’s about to...
I try to focus on what I have to do, the stealth it requires and the consequences if I get caught. But this isn’t my only concern. Today I was sacked from my language school for arguing with the head of studies; my provoking words ring round the train carriage over and over again.
“But, should I? Why, why, why?”
Now, I know why.
So, I’ve lost my job and am in danger of losing my car too.
The automatic doors open at Diagonal. I get off the train and take the green line to Vall d’Hebron. Sitting by the window, I think about my travels in my little white Mini: the winding hilly roads along the Côte d’Azure, the picturesque mountains of the Swiss Alps, the tree-lined Roman road leading out of Calais.
The train comes to a sudden stop, waking me from my spell. I step off the train and look for the station exit.
Outside, the sunlight is sudden and hard; I have to cover my eyes to see what direction to go in. Vall d’Hebron is far removed from the splendour of Barcelona. The metro station is right next to a dual carriageway, and all around are ugly rectangular buildings. I walk towards the car pound, looking over my shoulder as I go. At the end of the road is a sign that reads, Dipòsit Municipal, and behind it a long grey building without any windows, just metal grills. It looks like a prison. Steering clear of the reception, I sneak around the back to where the tow trucks arrive and hide behind a wall next to a dustbin, a couple of car batteries and an old tyre. I look down at myself. With my biscuit coloured shirt, brown trousers and Camper shoes I don’t really have the best clothes for stealing a car. After a few minutes, a big noisy tow truck appears with a car hanging off the back. It’s a SEAT. As the truck approaches the entrance, the roller shutter door automatically rises, making a whirling sound, and I quickly slip in.
Inside looks like an underground car park; everywhere grey concrete, and CCTV cameras dotted about the place. I can’t hang around. I rush from column to column like a fugitive, looking for my car, feeling like an actor in a film, but unsure if I’m the hero or the villain. There are so many different cars, so many different colours; my eyes skip from one to the other with anticipation, with anxiety, with hope. When I finally see my white Mini, I feel a warm glow inside my stomach and become even more determined to rescue her from the evil clutches of the authorities. Squeezing my hand into my pocket, I pull out my car keys and unlock the door. The interior has the familiar smell of oil, hot vinyl and cardboard. I sit in the driver’s seat and automatically put the key into the ignition. Everything is just how I remembered: the black vinyl seats, the sports steering wheel, the stereo. Why I thought it might be different I don’t know. For a moment I feel as if in a familiar place, like being back at home, somewhere safe, cosy. But that doesn’t last long.
If only I hadn’t parked so close to that bus stop. If only I had seen the blue sticker on the side of the road. If only I had known where the car was sooner, I fret, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel.
I start the car to see if she still runs okay. All the dials on the dashboard move up into their usual positions. She idles a little low, so I give her a few revs.
‘Come on!’ I say under my breath, waiting for the next tow truck to leave.
I imagine putting the car into gear, pulling out of the parking bay and following it to the exit, imagine my head down, my eyes fixed on the tail lights and my stomach turning over and over imagine the roller shutter opening, catching my breath and following the truck to freedom...
Just then, a blue uniform appears from the far side of the car pound. I fumble for the key and cut the engine; my heart races, my hair stands on end. The uniform walks in my direction, each step louder and louder, closer and closer. I lean over the passenger seat, pretending to look for something in the glove compartment, waiting, hoping, my body covered with a film of perspiration, the handbrake like a knife in my side.
Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap!
At the window is a peaked cap and narrowed eyes.
I get up and wind the window down with resignation. I know the game is up.
“Hola!” I grin.
“¿Qué hace aqui?” the security guard barks.
What am I doing here?--I try to think of a plausible excuse, but uncannily, the only thing that comes out of my mouth is: “¿Supermercado?”
The security guard doesn’t seem impressed and escorts me to the reception.
Oh God! I think. I wonder if they’ll call the police.
The receptionist sits in a bright yellow kiosk big enough for one person. She has black hair, thick eyebrows and glasses. Her lips are thin, and her face looks like it has never seen the sun.
“¿Qué tipo de coche es?” she asks in a monotone voice.
I’m about to say what make of car it is when the security guard buts in.
“Ah!” She suddenly comes to life. “El Mini!”
She smiles and dimples form in her cheeks.
“¿Cuanto es la multa?” I enquire sheepishly.
I know the fine isn’t going to be cheap. The car has been there for over a week.
“A ver,” she says, looking at her computer monitor. “Son ochenta mil pesetas.”
As it dawns on me how much it’s going to cost, I feel the blood draining out of me.
Eighty thousand pesetas? That’s about four-hundred pounds! It only cost five-hundred to buy the car in the first place!
“Pero, no puedo pagar,” I say, showing her my empty wallet and shrugging my shoulders, hoping she’ll feel sorry for me.
“Quizas podria renunciar al coche,” she suggests.
Slightly confused, I ask her what she means: “¿Qué significa renunciar al coche?”
She pushes her hands together as if squashing a large box and makes an awful screeching sound.
Crushed? My little baby crushed? I gawp.
I can’t believe my ears.
“Vamos a ver cuanto cuesta,” she says, tapping the keys on her computer.
How much it’ll cost? Are you telling me that I actually have to pay to get my car crushed?
“Oh no,” she says, correcting herself. “Porque no es un coche español, es gratis.”
“¿Perdón?” I say, more confused than ever.
“Because no is a Spanish car, it is free.”
“Oh,” I say, almost grateful. “Graçias.”
This is the end of the road for my little white Mini.
Maybe they’ll just keep it as a novelty instead of crushing it. Not that I’ll ever see her again.
I reluctantly agree and ask if I can take some stuff from the car. She allows me to go, and I’m duly escorted by the overly-efficient security guard.
There isn’t really anything to take apart from a street map of Barcelona. I just want to say goodbye to my dear car I’ve driven all the way from England. The cities I stayed in come flooding back like a succession of road signs: Lille, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, Lucerne, Monza, Nice, Marseille, Perpignan, Barcelona--each place had its own appeal, its own story.
As I leave the car pound, I feel empty, guilty, alone, and it appropriately starts to rain. It doesn’t rain very often in Barcelona, but when rains it pours.
Robert Steward teaches English as a foreign language and lives in London. He is currently writing a collection of short stories, some of which have appeared in Scrittura, The Creative Truth, The Ink Pantry and Winamop magazine.
* * *
The Day Roger Died
By David Cook
Stella sipped coffee from her china cup and gazed at the framed photo of her husband, Roger, on the sideboard. She continued her story about how Bev from the library’s daughter was going off the rails. “Tattoos, piercings, a boyfriend who looks more like a girl,” I said to Bev, “Bev, you need to set that girl straight right now or she’ll end up in some cult somewhere, or worse.”
She set her cup down on the flowery tablecloth. “I wonder what you’d make of her, Rog,” she said. “You’d think she was quite the sight, I’m sure.” Another sip. “Our Tom called the other day. He didn’t mention you. Still, he misses you, I’m sure.”
Roger hurled a plate to the floor. The crash echoed through the kitchen, but Stella didn’t even flinch. “I’m right here, Stella!” he roared, towering behind her chair. “I’m not dead. Stop ignoring me. We need to deal with what happened. What you’re doing is sick!”
“Oh, Rog,” murmured Stella, eyes fixed on the photograph. “If only you hadn’t done what you did. I never would have thought it of you. Not you, not my Rog, my rock. The man I thought you were died that day.”
More coffee. “But I’ll always remember what we had. Thirty years. Not a bad innings. I was saying so to Barbara at the cafe just the other day. Now her daughter, Rog, total opposite of Bev’s. Just got a job as a lawyer. A lawyer! Can you imagine? I always hoped her and Tom would get together, but I suppose that was just a mother’s fancy. Not Tom’s type, you’d tell me, and judging by that Jade girl he’s with now I’d say you were right. Nice enough in her own way, though. If only you could meet her.” She put down her cup. “But you never will.”
Roger clasped his hands to his face and stared through his fingers at the back of his wife’s head. Her hair was neatly pinned into a tight grey bun. Then he stamped out of the room, grinding the broken crockery into the lino.
Stella finished her coffee.
David Cook's stories have appeared in Spelk, Ellipsis Zine, the National Flash Fiction Anthology and more. He's a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. You can find more of his work at www.davewritesfiction.wordpress.com and say hi on Twitter @davidcook100. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, UK, with his wife and daughter.
* * *
By Tommy Dean
Bugs bash themselves bodily against the invisible barrier of the straining light bulb. The
darkness surrounds them, but she feels safe standing next to him on the porch. He wants to talk
about the end of the world, while she's trying to convince him to attend the same college.
"The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. I mean did you see that video I sent you?"
"So enroll at Tech, Nathan. Become a scientist. Help me pass Biology." Carmen swats at an
invisible bug. She can feel the tiny tremor of its wings, but there's too much space between them
and the rest of the world. One step off the porch and they'd be lost to the darkness.
"My dad already got me that job at the factory. Said there was a pile of applicants. I watched him
tip the papers into the trash can. All those histories scraped without a second glance."
"You never thought about leaving?" She puts a foot on the bottom step, her leg the bent neck of a
swan. She turns a small pirouette, her back to the black hole of the world just outside her reach.
No wind, no friction, just stasis, and yet he doesn't lift a hand toward her. He has her balanced
perfectly between safety and adventure, demanding her patience to stay until daylight where all
her dreams shrivel against the pounding heat of his preparations for oblivion; a 15 by 15 feet
bomb shelter with a satellite phone and two months worth of water.
"Where would I go? Everything I need is right here." He folds his arms over his chest. He needs
a tattoo, she thinks. Something strong, but a touch feminine. A small monument to tonight.
"And if I left? If I disappeared?" She scoots backward until her heels are balanced over the sandy
He shakes his head. His brow furrows, and for a glimmer, she sees the ancient caveman there, a
breath of warning, before his simple, self-assured face returns. "You wouldn't." But there's that
small trill of question at the back of his throat that she's been waiting for. The chop of the ax
through sinew and bone, the animal grasp toward safety severed, as she dematerializes into her
own ripple of wingbeats.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled "Special Like the People on TV" from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Spartan, Foliate Oak, JMWW, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.
* * *
The Man and the Dog
By Ben von Jagow
Dale looks out over the horizon from his spot on the bench. His legs ache and his breathing is shallow but the view makes the climb worthwhile. He can see for miles from his lofty perch.
As he bites into the sour apple he plucked off the tree on his way up, Dale surveys the view. The hills roll into the horizon, cradling a host of cozy brick homes. He can see where the city becomes the suburbs, and where the suburbs become the countryside. A brush stroke of asphalt sweeps across the landscape, connecting the urban to the rural, and cars streak across in silence, traveling in opposite directions, going to different homes.
Rubber soles, clambering along concrete, interrupt his thoughts and Dale turns to see a man, sweat-laden but steadfast in his movement, jogging up the hill. As he passes, Dale nods and the man nods back. It’s a mutual acknowledgment of solidarity. The spot is sacred, esoteric, known only by a select a few.
Dale returns his gaze to the vista and studies the farmland. From above, the unkempt pastures look unerring and precise. Not an inch of wasted space, not a single blade of grass deviating in any way. He continues his sweep across the countryside until he spots something. Walking along a path between two fields is a pin-sized man walking his pin-sized dog.
His first thought is skeptical. The man and the dog are too diminutive to exist in the real world. Even accounting for the distance his brain doesn’t trust the image. But their movements betray them as genuine. It is undoubtedly a man walking his dog.
The pair walks in sync, the man maintaining a steady pace while the dog strides alongside obediently. Eventually, they stop and the man bends over to unclip a leash, which, from the bench, is indiscernible. The dog bounds ahead, excitedly, contentedly, while his master keeps the same unhurried pace.
Dale watches the dog run and infers, from the lazy albeit graceful gait, that the dog is a lab. He likes labs and hopes that he is correct in his assumption.
It takes cars full minutes to journey from one end of the landscape to the other, so Dale is able to watch the man and the dog with an unrelenting curiosity. The dog has tired slightly but still trots along in a carefree and happy manner, stopping occasionally to pee or sniff around.
The man’s steps seem labored, which, Dale assumes, is the result of spending too much time in dress shoes. He takes the man to be middle-management type, intelligent but underutilized and therefore unmotivated. Days are likely spent at a desk, seated, back-hunched, immobile. He waits all day for five o’clock when he can go home and have a beer, after he walks the dog of course.
The dog, which he thinks looks like a Murphy, is also dreary during the day. His master, and therefore his life, is gone, so he sleeps away the boredom, awaiting the crunching gravel under rubber tires that signals the return of his master.
The man returns home tired, perhaps sad, but his mood always brightens when he opens the door to find the dog. The two are best friends. Inseparable. The man pets the dog and asks the same question he asks every weekday at five fifteen.
The dog perks his ears and fixes his gaze on his master.
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
The dog’s tail wags with vigor. The next few minutes are always tough for Murphy. He knows his master must change before they can leave. He follows him up the stairs, into the closet, and the man tells him about his day as he unbuttons his shirt and wraps it around a hanger. Murphy listens attentively, eagerly, but hopes his master does not forget about the walk.
Soon they are downstairs and out of the house, where a surfeit of tantalizing smells beckon, but Murphy must stay focused, so he enters the car and the two drive to the field, Murphy hanging his face out the window the entire ride.
Dale watches as the dog gains separation from his master. Occasionally the dog turns to ensure the man is still following but for the most part, he continues onward, lost in a world of foreign smells and unrestrained space.
The man whistles. Dale can’t hear anything from his spot on the bench but the dog has stopped suddenly and has directed his attention back towards his master. Then the dog races back towards the man. It’s the fastest he has seen the dog run all day. The owner produces a ball and the dog leaps and jumps excitedly at his feet. The dog sits. Then, he lies down. The man cocks his arm back and lets the ball sail through the open air while the dog chases after it.
The man’s throwing mechanics look seasoned. Perhaps he used to play baseball or perhaps he is just an athlete. Either way, the ball travels a great distance. Only a fraction of an inch to Dale but to the man and the dog, it is quite a throw. The dog, who has now reached and collected the rolling ball, is trotting proudly back to his master.
Dale watches the pair until they disappear behind a hill. He tries to read a few pages from his book but abandons the idea and decides to return to his car. The sun is beginning to set.
Dale follows the same path he took to get to his bench and it takes him three-quarters of an hour to reach his car. On the final stretch, just before turning onto the street where his car is parked, the man notices a figure approaching from the other direction. After a few more steps he realizes the figure isn’t alone. Striding alongside the man, almost in sync, is a dog.
Ben von Jagow is a writer from Ottawa, Canada. He studied business at the University of Western Ontario before leaving the country to wander. For more of Ben’s work visit benviajando.wordpress.com.
* * *
Among the Treetops
By Gregory T. Janetka
Alfred looked up. His eyes passed over palm leaves, maple branches, firs covered in pine cones, and hanging moss. There was no sky above. Dropping his head he saw endless branches and leaves descending into blackness. There was no ground below. And so he sat in the top of an enormous tree, questioning everything that had led to this moment.
Straining, Alfred caught the illuminated, far-reaching ends of the canopy, but there were not even two, let alone four, posts. His neck and head moved with deliberate, mechanical stops and starts. Shutting fast his eyes, he bathed in the remaining senses. Between the crooks of the fingers on his left hand, which rested on the trunk, a sticky sap leeched out, shuddering as it hit the cold air. Between the fingers of his right hand, the rigidity of the branch held his fingers like a ghost.
Drawing in the humid air, the undercurrent of lavender filled his lungs, though he knew it did not grow within many miles of this forest. The scent bridged the gaps in the synapses, causing them to fire the sepia-stained images of a young girl who kept her dreams in a shoe box. On the night he stayed over she, forgoing ceremony, allowed him the privilege of seeing its contents. He did not know where she was now. Alfred exhaled sharply, shattering the images. Moving his attention to the breath as it escaped the body, he realized no other sound was audible in a setting that was normally a symphony. He held his breath.
The boy had, he believed, experienced true nothingness once in his life, and in the most unexpected of places—gym class. Having endured several forced weeks of swimming, the unwitting, on the last day in the water, were allowed to do as they pleased. Taking full advantage of this freedom, Alfred held his breath, curled into fetal position and floated beneath the surface, allowing the currents from the movements of others to take his body as they saw fit. Here was silence. Here he could hide nothing. Here was the first and last time he existed.
And so he sat on the branch, holding his breath until it became unbearable, releasing it with a whoosh that stirred an overreaching fern.
Returning to the present, Alfred leaned his head back against the tree. The thick air was pleasant and warm. Each exhale sent small clouds into the atmosphere and he passed a fair amount of time watching them dissipate into the ether. As a particularly deep breath disappeared, in its place, perched on a parallel branch, appeared a small, brown barn swallow. They were strangers and watched each other with great interest and intent, but no viciousness whatsoever. The swallow sang a portion of its song, mesmerizing the boy, who waited to see its breath escape in tiny clouds, but nothing appeared. The visitor fell silent, cocked its head to the right, then to the left, and flew off without a sound. Alfred, alone once more, returned to his breath.
The rough bark grew harsher under his hands, while the sky and ground remained unsubstantiated. Many of the surrounding trees seemed to match the barn swallow for depth and effectiveness. They did not move, and he could not see their breath either, yet, somehow, they lived. Weeks before, parts of the forest had been ablaze. Smoke, they said, traveled clear across the country. Hundred of man hours were spent debating and fighting over the possible causes and potential political capital of the blaze. Charts, PowerPoints, and talking points were hammered out and blanketed the land. The fire, meanwhile, grew tired and came to rest on its own. Alfred assumed the remains of such a devastation should continue to hang in the air, to cling to the branches and leaves, but all that there was was lavender.
As he swung his feet back and forth he thought it might be nice to lay in a bed, with a small green light on the table beside him—but he couldn’t be sure.
Digging his right hand into his jeans pocket, Alfred pulled out two quarters, a sticker of a cartoon rhinoceros, and the stub of a blue pencil, all of which he allowed to fall into the darkness. After wiping the sap from his left hand he brought out the contents of his other pocket—two bottle caps, a plastic pink spoon, and the second hand that broke off of his watch. These he also gave to the forest.
Alfred closed his eyes, breathed deep, and exhaled. When it dissipated, the swallow reappeared. As they watched one other, Alfred caught wind of a very faint scent of smoke.
Gregory T. Janetka is a writer from Chicago who currently lives in San Diego. His work has been featured in Gravel, Heartwood, Storgy, Dime Show Review, and other publications. He is terribly good at jigsaw puzzles and drinks a great deal of tea.
* * *
By DS Levy
Sylvia rolls over in bed, squints at the neon clock: 3:24 a.m. A silver flash penetrates the bedroom blinds. Outside, hail pelts the aluminum siding, pings against the windows.
“Carl,” she says, nudging her husband.
“I locked it,” he says.
Thunder rattles the walls.
“I think we should go to the basement.”
He turns over, hugs his pillow like a lover.
“It’s not due,” he mumbles, “not until the end of the month.”
“Don’t you hear that?” Off in the darkness, a tornado siren yowls its warning.
He snores, exhaling bursts of air through parted lips.
She says, “We should go now.”
A lightning bolt strikes. Percussive thunder rolls behind. Sylvia wonders if the neighbor’s maple tree got hit. Its leafy canopy hangs over the fence into their backyard. The tree could split, fall down, crush their fence. If the whole thing went down, it could reach their house. The thick trunk might crash through their bedroom ceiling.
“I only stopped for a few minutes,” he murmurs.
That night he’d come home late. There’d been words, nagging torments, the inevitable question, “Was she pretty?”
“Where’s Franklin?” she asks, panicked, tapping the covers like a blind woman.
Her Yorkie trembles at the foot of the bed. She pulls him close to her, under the covers so he can’t see the bright silver flash. “Oh, my poor little boy,” she coos, pats his head.
The security alarm warns: “Seek shelter immediately.”
She shakes Carl harder this time.
He wakes up, gets out of bed, stumbles to the bathroom. She hears him release a strong stream into the toilet, hears him flush. When he comes back he pulls the covers tightly over his shoulders.
“The alarm said immediately,” she begs.
He grumbles something about an important meeting in the morning.
When he’d gotten home, he’d never mentioned the three beers and vodka chaser he’d had at the bar. Of course, he didn’t have to tell her; she knew. He was still a little tipsy when his lips brushed hers with an apology. Then the torrent of words, the accusations. As always, they’d followed Father Sullivan’s advice: “Settle your differences before turning out the light.” They’d drug themselves to bed, and Carl had turned off the lamp, failing to mention Gretchen Oswald.
He’d met Gretchen, a new member of Sylvia’s book group, when the group of women had convened at their house last month. That night he’d spotted her at the far end of the bar, after Joe Willis and Bob Jenkins from Accounting had gotten up to leave. How was he supposed to know she’d be there?
“Tornado warning. Seek immediate shelter.”
“Stay if you want,” Sylvia says as she rolls out of bed. She throws on her robe and grabs the dog. “We’re going to the basement.”
Carl hears the wooden steps squeak. He knows he should get up and follow, but instead he lays there. Outside, as the wind whips and churns, he remembers the little red plastic sword stabbed through Gretchen’s green olive. “Buy me another martini?” she’d smiled, stirring her drink into oblivion.
Later, he’d followed her out into the humid night where fat June bugs flickered against the orange streetlights. In the distance, heat lightning lit up the sky and thunder began to rumble.
DS Levy has been published in Little Fiction (nominated for Pushcart), The Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, South Dakota Review, Brevity, The Pinch, and others. Her collection of flash fiction, A Binary Heart, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press. She lives in the Midwest.
* * *
By Lorena Swift
“Never invite a whore to a funeral,” he thought. Mike reached for his lighter pausing, watching the whore with a “tramp stamp” on her lower back. The ink signified ownership that she belonged to someone. Scanning the room, others appeared startled by her presence, but not really, she was expected.
The funeral, like most, was stagnant. The air was laden with smoke, the stench of whiskey and greasy food also hung in the air. Beer steins overflowed among the strangers and friends. The old wood tables had cheap decorations and religious pamphlets proclaiming salvation was near. Mike disagreed.
A makeshift altar with plastic crosses housed pictures of Dan in his younger years. A few pictures signified he never really lived. His life was on display with old, faded snapshots of a long, and lost loves. No children donned the tables, Dan could never commit to anyone, or anything. He had a few faithful dogs though.
The table was scattered with useless affirmations that never represents the darker side of life, which was most of his life. The church pamphlets suggested God was ever present, just maybe not at the Joe’s Bar. Dan always spoke fondly of his brief excursion with God. He would tell people he met God on Second Avenue in Seattle, waiting for a bus. I think Dan would have made a run for God if he could rise above the family speculations that he was joining a cult. After all, they preached something called hope.
There were pictures of all those who passed, most needlessly. Dan’s brother John died from Vietnam, right here in Bonner’s Ferry, carrying the demons from a faraway land. One could not kill little babies without the rhetoric and blowback from the mainstream America at the time. Mike muttered, “Truly, all the vets suffered.”
His sister Luetta drank herself to her grave. I remember how beautiful she was in high school. Young men often caught themselves staring at her astonishing looks, until she was “knocked up.” The once, beauty queen faced the reality of one-night stands with dirty diapers and hard liquor stains on the nightstand.
An old minister started to read Corinthians 2 without missing a beat while the music faded in and out from the cheap sound system. Sasha stood against the bar, drinking a Seven & Seven, swaying to classic Creedence Clearwater in the background, with a one-month-old baby in her arms. She appeared ridden hard, almost broken. “You can’t fight the demons you opened the door for,” Mike thought.
Sasha handed off the baby when the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd came across the jukebox singing, “Mama told me when I was young…Come sit beside me, my only son...And listen closely to what I say...And if you do this it'll help you some sunny day."
She danced seductively, as Dan’s family attempted to pay their last respects. Sasha swayed slowly to the words, mesmerizing the drunkards. Aunt Thelma, the last known “true” relative, stared at Sasha with distain, “If looks could kill,” Mike thought, enjoying the show. Sasha danced rhythmically, slowly winning over the crowd.
The tension in the room increased, as the baby lay forgotten. The older wives, the worn ones who held two or more jobs to pay for the all the alcohol going down, did not appreciate Sasha. Her tramp stamp became clearer as her clothing loosened with the amount of alcohol she downed between songs. The stamp simply read, “El Diablo.”
Walking past Dan’s urn, adorned with the funeral home’s logo and a plastic Jesus seemed disgraceful. He was a survivor, a commando of his family’s war. He kept everyone together, attempting to be like other families, loving. On the outside, Dan carried a façade of normalcy, somewhat.
In the end, his funeral procession was the cream line, the ones who made it. These were the representatives of his life. A few muttered the prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
To no ones surprise, Dan’s eulogy came dancing as a whore.
Lorena Swift is a local fiction writer from Walla Walla, WA. Her works can be found published in the Washington State University literary magazine, The Element. In addition, Lorena is the 2008 winner of Lit Fest, for her short story "Toe Tag." Lorena has published The Iron Box, as well as some of her photography pieces. Her writings often reflect life's realities, the lesser of two evils, that often never seem to get any glory.
* * *
Family Album by Allen Forrest
Allen Forrest is a writer and graphic artist for covers and illustrations of literary publications and books. The winner of the 2015 Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University's Reed Magazine, he lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada. His Bel Red landscape paintings are part of the Bellevue College Foundation's permanent art collection in Bellevue, WA. To find more of his published works, please visit him online at http://art-grafiken.blogspot.ca/2016/04/poetry-and-prose.html to browse his poetry and prose collection; and http://art-grafiken.blogspot.ca/2016/12/graphic-narrative.html to browse his graphic narrative collection.
Photography by Helen Geld
Helen Geld is a graphic designer living near Seattle, WA. She has a passion for art, photography and digital painting. Among the publications which have published her work are Cirque, The Blue Hour Magazine, All Roads Will Lead You Home and Gravel.