Foliate Oak October 2017
For The Best
By Philip Goldberg
As Jim sits on his sofa, watching the Beatles’ Celebration on television, his eyes wander to the crack in the ceiling. He noticed it the first day he moved in seven months ago. It bothers him, digs into him like a splinter. Have to plaster that damn thing, he thinks. At the sight of it, he remembers the phone call 50 years ago.
Lying on his bed, Jim, then 10, stared at the small crack in the ceiling. The phone’s persistent rings sounded like an alarm. A warning. His mother, Polly, snored in her favorite armchair. The television drama played to no one. His older brother, Seth, was visiting a friend. And Jim listened to his hand-held transistor radio. “She Loves You” by The Beatles filled the radiator-heated air.
“Ma,” he shouted. No voice replied back, so he rose from his bed and ran to the phone affixed to the kitchen wall. Lifting the receiver, he placed it to his ear and said: “Hello.”
Static crackled over the line. A hesitant voice, a woman’s voice replied: “Max there?”
The voice sounded unfamiliar. The name didn’t. It was his father’s.
“He’s at work.”
After a few more static-filled moments, the woman uttered: “Who’s this?”
Jim hesitated, thought about ignoring her question, but in the end he wondered where this was leading. So he replied: “His son.”
“Oh,” she said.
“Can I take a message?”
A click followed. The dial tone hummed.
It all felt like a blow to his gut. He felt shaken. His mind revved up at the call: Who doesn’t leave a message? Wrong number? No way! The woman knew his dad’s name. She wanted to talk with him.
He placed the receiver back on the phone. Glancing above it at the wall clock, he noted the time: 10:25PM. No one ever called this late. Turning, he stared at his mom, still sawing wood through her open mouth. Drool snaked down her double chin. A familiar sight each night, he shook his head and returned to his room.
Dive-bombing face first into his twin-sized bed, Jim quickly flipped over onto his back. The radiator clanked, a hammer pounding an anvil, as steam heat forced its way through the pipes. He eyed the ceiling, painted light green and listened to his radio and Frankie Valli’s powerful falsetto voice from “Walk Like a Man”. But the sweet tones could not block his churning thoughts. He knew his father, a customs’ inspector at the recently renamed JFK International Airport, had taken to often working overtime. This helped make up for his mother, an agoraphobe for as long as Jim could remember, who couldn’t work.
He’d recalled watching Max walk Polly out of the house and to the sidewalk, where she’d always hit an invisible wall. Her legs would shake. Her hands would flail. Her voice was shrill, protesting. A frustrated, angry Max would then march her back to the house with the bemused eyes of neighbors on their receding backs.
Jim stretched out across the length of his bed. He couldn’t shake the dreadful embarrassment he felt at witnessing that sight. Slowly he calmed down. Only then did he ponder the woman on the phone’s voice. He guessed she was young, younger than his father or mother. A bevy of thoughts continued unspooling in his mind, like frames of a movie. Fact was that over the past months, his father’s appearances at home had been like movie cameos. And few words had passed between them.
He studied the crack in the corner of the bedroom ceiling, small but growing. Bothered by the call, his father’s increased absence, the crack, he rose and marched back to the living room where he found his mother still asleep. He placed a hand on her shoulder and gently shook her.
With an emphatic snort, she roused, appearing lost. Slowly she cast her dark eyes on his thin freckled face. “What’s wrong?”
“Dad,” he blurted.
Her focus sharpened. Her voice registered concern. “What about him?”
He shifted weight between the balls of his feet. “The phone call I just answered.”
“Phone call?” She appeared confused.
“Ma, you were out like a light.”
“Oh?” Her eyes widened. “He’s okay?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “It wasn’t about him. It was for him.”
“What woman?” Her brow hardened. “She leave a message?”
He shook his head. “Just hung up.”
“Probably a wrong number,” she said, her lips tightening, her hazel eyes belying her words.
He stepped back. Missing the expression in her eyes, her words made no sense. Hadn’t he told her that the woman had asked for Max? He knew his mother took pills for her condition, and that sometimes she walked about in a fog. But still, what could she be thinking? After a few moments, he said: “Dad’s changed.”
“Why do you say that?”
“’Cause he’s hardly home.”
“He’s working,” she said; her voice sounded defeated.
“I know, mom. I get it. We need the money.” He felt his anger rising. “Still he never seems here even when he is.”
Pensive, she rubbed a hand across her drool-stained double chin.
“When he’s home, he hardly says anything,” Jim cried, knowing his father was tough, fearless and always spoke his mind. Hell, his dad had survived a bullet he’d taken in combat during Word War 2. Not only that, but the man had headed back into battle after he’d healed and had continued fighting for over a year longer.
“Guess he’s tired,” she uttered in a weary voice.
“Christ,” he exclaimed, “you don’t even fight anymore.”
She took his hand in hers and focused on him. “Guess we’re both tired.”
The next morning, Jim awoke to his parents’ loud voices. He pulled the blanket over his head.
“I’m sick and tired of living with a shut in,” Max barked.
“Fuck me, right. Your errand boy. Your lifeline. That’s a good one.”
“Takes one to know one, considering where you spent time.”
“That was different,” he protested. “I’m better now.”
“So you say.”
“Shut up, shut up,” Jim whispered under his blanket.
“Face it, you’re a sick woman. You use people. You use me.”
“Believe me, you’re no prince,” his mother snapped.
“Maybe not to you,” Max retorted.
Polly let loose a sharp sarcastic laugh. “Believe me, she doesn’t know you well enough yet.”
“She knows me just fine.”
“She’ll wise up. Just like the last one.”
“So leave,” Max bellowed. “Be free of me.”
“If only I could,” Polly said ruefully.
“You can stay,” Max said. “I’ll go.”
“No, no, no,” Jim mumbled in his bed.
“You’re so full of shit.” Polly screamed. “Always making threats.”
“You think so,” Max snapped. “Watch me.” Then a door slammed shut.
All Jim heard was his mother’s crying. He lay frozen under the blanket. He imagined the ceiling crack spreading, widening until he found himself staring at a roiling void. Lying still, he feared he’d be sucked into it. Opening, closing his eyes a few times, he rid himself of the unnerving image.
He stayed in bed for hours. At times he pulled the blanket over his face. At times he popped his head out and stared at the ceiling. Had the crack widened? He couldn’t say.
Sometime later, he wasn’t sure when, his mother stopped crying. The house grew quiet except for an occasional dresser drawer opening or closing. Then approaching footsteps held the taut air. His door opened. His father poked his head into the room. “Can I come in?”
“No,” he snapped, eyeballing his father with enough glare to blind the man.
Max entered the room anyway and sat on the edge of Jim’s bed. He placed a hand on his son’s covered legs. “We need to talk.”
Jim yanked the blanket over his head and said: “I don’t want to.”
“Well then listen,” he said in a voice as calm as a windless day. “I’m leaving.”
His reply jammed deep in his throat. At 10, he understood what those two words meant. It was 1964. None of his friends’ parents had split up. Divorce meant scandal. Whispers when he passed people who knew. Strange sympathetic glances cast his way. Something always present in the air like smoke (and where there’s smoke, there’s fire).
What about his mother? Seth and he would have to split the chores: grocery shopping, prescription pickups, taking her in taxis to and from her doctor.
“I promise we’ll see each other,” he father continued. “It’s for the best.”
“Guess I’ve been,” his father confessed. His voice filled with remorse. “I’m sorry for that.” He breathed hard. “I hope one day you’ll understand why.” Again he patted his son’s covered legs. “When I’m settled, I’ll call and give you my new phone number.”
Jim lay still and fought back the tears. He heard the bedsprings creaking, a weight lifting, his father’s footsteps receding. He threw off the covers and bolted from bed and into his father’s open arms. He hugged him hard and the return embrace was of equal strength. In complete silence both held on to each other.
Four years earlier, Jim had experienced the same embrace from his father. Right after Max had returned from Grandview Psychiatric Hospital, where he’d received electroshock therapy among other treatments for his severe depression. All had been preceded by the deaths of his favorite brother and father within a month of one another.
He raced into the man’s chilled arms (it had been winter) and hugged him, having not seen him in three weeks. Held onto him as if he never would let him go again.
The night his father left, Jim sat on the sofa next to his sad-faced brother and across from his armchair-seated mother, whose face appeared knotted in anguish. They watched The Beatles perform “All My Loving” on The Ed Sullivan Show. The song’s words were swallowed up by the orgasmic screams of the teenage girls present at the broadcast. The song’s words became meaningless to Jim, washed away by his own tears.
From his sofa, Jim, now 60, watches Paul and Ringo perform for the first time in decades, singing “All My Loving”. Unlike his late father who only left his mother, his brother and him, he walked out on his first wife and two sons and got thrown out by his second. Always, he thinks, it’s for the best. He lifts the bottle of beer to his lips and glances up at the ceiling crack. Uneasiness settles within. Guzzling down the beer, he knows that it’ll help dull the gnawing dread and that he’ll never plaster that crack.
Over forty-five of Philip Goldberg’s short stories have appeared in both literary and small press publications including The Chaffin Journal, Main Street Rag, and Twisted Vine Literary Art Journal. Three of his stories have been published in Best of collections and one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently working on a novel.
* * *
By Anne Goodwin
We’d agreed not to mention the press conference until the plane was on the ground. We couldn’t predict what they’d do if they got overexcited. As it was, the girls abandoned us at the luggage carousel and rushed off to the toilets to reapply their make-up. All except Becca who leant against the wall with that same scornful sneer she’d worn the entire week; indeed, the entire time she’d been on my caseload. Jack shot me a sympathetic glance as suitcases paraded on the belt before us. Of course I was disappointed, but nine out of ten wasn’t bad.
The foster mothers waved as we emerged from the Nothing to Declare channel. I’d been worried one of the boys might be singled out for inspection – with their unlaced trainers and low-slung jeans they had the capacity to look shifty even when politely holding open a door – but we were waved through. Not that I thought for a minute they’d be carrying anything they shouldn’t. We’d checked them thoroughly on the way out and kept them too busy over there to have the energy for mischief.
The foster mothers held back as the producer positioned the kids for the camera. Jack and I held back also; entrusting the young people to speak freely about their experience had been part of the deal. I’m sure he felt as proud as I did as they spoke, boys as well as girls, about being moved to tears by the sight of the huts, the train tracks, the stripy uniforms and the mountains of shorn hair and shoes.
“What would you say to people who thought it a waste of taxpayer’s money?”
Only a week ago, they’d have dismissed the question with a stream of expletives. Even Autumn, who now brushed her hair back from her face and leant forward to respond on behalf of the group. “I’d say, I get where you’re coming from, obviously. But that was no holiday. It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever been through.”
“So more of a punishment?”
“A privilege,” said Autumn. “Totally changed my life.”
“How’s that?” said the reporter.
“Like because we can’t live with our parents we sometimes feel sorry for ourselves? This showed us we’ve got lots to be thankful for? We’ve got food in our stomachs. We’ve got clothes on our backs.” Autumn flicked her hair again. “We’ve got hair.”
My gaze drifted from the teenager to her foster mother, Marie, positioned by the coffee concession. I wasn’t surprised to see her wipe away a tear. In front of her, the twins held a homemade banner: WELCOME HOME AUTUMN AND BECCA. The five-year-olds looked positively angelic in their cotton dresses, with matching bows in their hair.
“And how about you, Becca?” We’d given them name badges to make things easier for the reporter. Part of me now wished we hadn’t. “Do you feel the same as Autumn?”
“Why should I give a fuck about what happened to a load of Jews back in the dark ages?”
The journalist recoiled amid murmurs of revulsion. Of course, that was exactly the effect Becca wanted. “Okay, let’s wrap this up.” I managed to speak with authority, but Marie’s stricken expression reflected my real feelings. “Everyone’s tired and maybe a tad emotional.”
Jack sidled up to the producer as the foster mothers claimed their kids. “No worries,” I heard her tell him. “I’ll edit it out.”
Jack said I shouldn’t blame myself, but I’ll carry that guilt till I retire. The follow-up meetings were integral to the project, the cornerstone of our application for permission and funds. Visiting the camp was only half of it; processing it afterwards would make the lesson stick. But I wasn’t to know I’d be floored by a virus hours after our return from Poland. I wasn’t to know Jack would postpone the debriefing session till I got back from the sick. But every social worker is acquainted with remorse. There’s always something we haven’t managed to do.
I was still rather fragile when I took Marie’s call. Although my hearing was patchy, the quiver in her voice told me all I needed to know. Abandoning my coffee, I grabbed my coat and car keys.
Marie and Dominic were among our most experienced foster parents. If they couldn’t turn Becca around, no-one could. I’d placed Autumn with them as a conciliatory gesture, an easy child to compensate for the problem one, and in the hope her good sense might rub off on Becca. We social workers are suckers for the improbable dream.
Parking outside their gate, I raced round the side of the house to the back door. I knocked and, without waiting for a response, entered the kitchen. My hand flew to my mouth as bile bit my throat.
A green First Aid box lay on the table, a roll of cotton wool and a bottle of antiseptic alongside. Marie sat on a pinewood dining chair, one of the twins on her lap, the other standing beside her, clutching her leg with one hand and sucking her thumb with the other. At the airport the girls wore identical pastel-blue dresses and their wispy white-blonde hair reached to their shoulders. Now they were clad in pyjamas and their heads completely bald, the startlingly pale skin nicked with tiny cuts.
Marie looked up momentarily. “She’s upstairs.”
There was nothing I could say or do to make it better. My hands in fists, I marched into the hallway.
Through the open door of the lounge, I heard the buzz of TV chat. Buying time to work out how to deal with Becca, I chose to check on Autumn first. Stepping into the lounge, it took me a moment to register that the girl sprawled on the sofa thumbing her phone wasn’t the one I’d expected. I snatched the phone from her while, on the larger screen, some Z-list celebrity cracked eggs into a bowl. “How can you sit there acting the innocent after what you’ve done?”
Becca flashed me her regulation sneer. “Nothing wrong with By Hook or By Cook. It’s educational.”
Every cell of my body ached to slap her. But getting me suspended would be another victory for her. “How could you do that to those poor little girls?”
“It wasn’t me what done it. It was that psycho upstairs.”
Autumn? How typical of Becca to pin the blame on someone else. I was about to challenge her when Dominic called me from the floor above.
On the desk in Autumn’s room, a disposable razor and a can of shaving foam. Her white school-shirt spotted with blood. When I walked in, she sprang at me, but it wasn’t for a hug. If her foster father hadn’t grabbed her, she’d have knocked me to the floor.
Still my mind fought against the evidence. “Did Becca put you up to this?”
Autumn smiled. “Can’t I have any ideas of my own?”
“But why? How could you be so cruel?”
“They were always moaning. Throwing tantrums when they couldn’t get their way.” She spoke calmly, her tone as sweet as ever. Explaining, rather than complaining, her facade of reason the most disturbing aspect of all.
“But that’s how young children are, Autumn.”
Autumn tossed her silky hair across her shoulder. “I was only sharing what we learnt at Auschwitz. Surely you don’t object to that?”
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, was published in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of over 70 published short stories. Catch up with her on her website, annethology, or on Twitter.
* * *
Come Get Me If I'm Still Out There
By Sean Jackson
It’s a drowsy oceanfront cottage, with a sea breeze that blows forever, where the sand creeps into anything and everything, and the sanderlings glide along the breakers, moving southward from Corolla to the capes. This time of year, the sun fires up every day, bringing out the bikinis and the gawkers, the early surfers and the mid-morning fishermen casting for speckled trout.
“I should get out there again,” he told Darcy, who is the same age but looked much younger there next to him, with his dry-mud weathered face and neck, and the dark liver spots on his hands and forearms. “Maybe I’ll catch us a few for dinner. I’ll clean them up. You won’t have to lift a finger except to eat them.”
She blew a gray slash from the corner of her eye. She wiped sand out of the silverware drawer, because it was all over a set they got in Mexico, when they worked for Oceana years and years ago.
“You catch them,” she said, “I eat them. I like the sound of that. I really like the sound of that, Randall.”
He gazed out the sliding doors, through the glass trying to blur from the salt air, at a pair of middle-agers in frightful shorts chunking lines into the surf. It was noticeable how they stood shoulder to shoulder, in unison casting and reeling, most likely never sharing a word because they had the whole thing worked out.
“Do you remember that mackerel I caught in Tampico? The chrome-looking thing with that ferocious mouth?”
Of course she did. She spent two days in bed, suffering through dry heaves, unable to join him in the skiffs working the beaches after an oil rig fire had scorched a biblical ring just offshore. She was so sick she nearly hallucinated.
“That one almost killed me, so I’ve tried to forget it.”
He rubbed his new beard, a spotty white snowfall across rough skin.
“Maybe that’s not the one I mean.”
“Maybe you mean the one you caught for us at St. Simons, our first trip there. That one was a sea bass.”
“I remember it being a red drum.”
“Or maybe it was a red drum. But that one was fantastic, Randall. If that’s what you’re driving at. Cooked to perfection. That’s the one I’d like to remember.”
She smiled at the back of him. His hands were stuffed in his shorts pockets and he stood shirtless, so that she could see the blemishes and the moles and the scars (two successful skin cancer removals). The splotch on his right shoulder reminded her of those Thanksgiving turkeys children draw in school, using their hands as templates.
“They’re catching something out there,” he said. “That one guy just reeled in something.” He put his nose to the glass. “Looks like a flounder. Could be a small sheepshead, though.”
“Are they good to eat?”
“I suppose they are, you’d just add the typical butter and garlic. I want to say we had one right down the road there in Hatteras, years back, an old soundside joint with red walls and flypaper strips. But I’m afraid you’d say it was something else, so I won’t say it. We’ve had it somewhere, though. Sometime or another, we did.”
She took the drawer out and blew into it, saw no sand or even dust fly away, and thinly smiled at her success.
“Great. I think we’ve got our day in order then. You go out and catch us some dinner, while I run to the shelter and fetch us a puppy. Sound good?”
He nodded, and turned so that she saw the wiry, white hair on his chest. His skin sagged like an old man’s does. On her shoulder was a vaccine scar that he once drew circles around with his finger, swearing to her that it glowed in the dark, sky blue like a ponyfish. He swore he’d be able to see it forever, in the afterlife, glowing so he’d be able to find her anywhere. But they no longer talk much about each other’s bodies, content these days to see what they see and let most things go unseen.
“Come get me if I’m out there,” he said.
She gave him a blank stare.
“When you get back with the dog, come get me if I’m still out there fishing. I want to see him as soon as he gets here.”
“Could be a she.”
“Totally could. Just come get me, if I’m still out there.”
She pulled into their shell-strewn driveway with the dog in the backseat, snug in its carrier. He was no puppy. There was a female pup, a cute terrier mix, but this scraggly mutt seemed he’d be a harder sell to other adopters, so she snatched him up, to save him from the adoption deadline.
She left him on the other side of the glass door while she climbed on the deck and called to Randall. Her voice didn’t carry well through the wind and over the dunes, with those hissing sea oats in the way. But he heard her. He turned so he can see her on the deck and waved his floppy hat. (Doctors have said he needn’t get any more sun, advising hats and long sleeves whenever possible.)
“Not yet,” he said, breathing a bit from the walk over the dunes, his nose a white triangle of zinc oxide. “You look nice.”
“Thank you,” she said. “This is my new outfit from Terry’s shop.”
“What’s his name?” he asked as he stooped to pat the gray-brown head, a curly mess if there ever was one. The dog looked like someone built him from old socks.
“I don’t know.”
“He didn’t already have a name at the shelter?”
“They called him ‘number six.’”
He scruffed the head again, and the dog closed its milky eyes, which could mean cataracts. There was a lot of the quiet dignity that most old dogs have, a set jowl with sympathetic gaze toward its new, older owners who shared life’s prolonged frustrations and doubts. The man gave the dog a knowing wink.
“Thatsa boy,” Randall said.
Darcy bent down and stroked a floppy ear. “How about Muffins?”
He considered it, but said Muffins is close, yet not quite it.
“Stanley,” he suggested.
“Oh, god no. That’s a name for a doorman. What about Otis?”
“Hmm. As in, Otis, a son of Poseidon?”
“If that’s how you want to think of it, sure.” She rubbed the dog under its chin. “How you doing, Otis? You hungry yet, Otis?”
“Otis,” he said, like trying out the feel of it on his tongue. “He’s no giant though. Wasn’t Otis a giant in mythology?”
She squinted at her husband. She stood up quickly because she had a pain in her chest that immediately sent her right hand into a twitch. It’s something she won’t tell Randall about, like she never told him that she kept a few toys in her closet—stuffed inside shoe boxes—in case their grandson ever came around. Just a couple of plastic race cars, and one plastic spaceship.
“Our Otis has a very big heart,” she said.
Her doctor says she needs to address this chest-pain issue with him, that it’s got a good shot at being serious, serious enough to have The Talk. She should try to imagine it would soften the blow, with him in the loop, in a worst-case scenario.
“Enlarged?” Randall said.
“No.” She gave him a look. “I mean that he’s very sweet and loving.”
Randall plopped into a chair, a linen-draped affair that they’d had shipped all the way from Raleigh. It was so soft that they’d kidded around about giving it a name, too.
“Otis is also the dog’s name from that kids’ movie,” he said.
She took Otis over to the loveseat, and she sank into the gray linen, the dog at her feet like clouds of smoke.
“We haven’t seen little Ben in so long,” she said.
“He’s not so little anymore.”
“Just has one more year left in college.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Though I think it’s two.”
She shook her head.
“He graduates next May.”
Randall rubbed his face. The cries of seagulls pulled his attention to the glass where the birds spiraled above the small, shadowy waves breaking close to shore.
“They must be biting now,” he said. “I sure hope I can catch some later.”
“I hope you can, too. And so does Otis.”
Together they smiled at the dog.
“I’m going to doze off right here,” she said, patting the cushion, before she put her trembling hand away so he wouldn’t see it.
“Me, too. Right in this chair like this.”
“Wake me if you wake up first,” she said.
He promised he would. He encouraged Otis to curl up on the rug down there and join them in a nap. He said this was the kind of place where a lot of naps were had, so there would be no judgements from the humans, and likewise none from the dog.
When he awoke, she was still curled up, her hands in prayer pose under her cheek. He saw Otis there, under the edge of the coffee table, chin on paws, eyeing the glass doors.
“It’s four o’clock,” he announced. Otis looked up at him. “Darcy!”
Otis barked softly, a rattling grunt that only mimicked a real bark. To his relief, her eyes popped open.
“Oh,” she said. “I was so dreaming. Sooo, dreaming.” She sat up and spit a lock of hair from her mouth. When she was in her thirties, she wore braids to her waist. There was plenty of time for things like that back then, with no indulgence bringing so much effort that it couldn’t be abided, their energy seemingly boundless.
“I had a dream, too,” he said.
When he was young, he went snorkeling with her to the wrecks off Ocracoke. A Union ironclad had just been located, its tiny wood-burning oven still packed with a ham all bloated and pale from a century soaked in saltwater. Darcy was a remarkable diver and located bone-handled scullery knives and rare coins in the ship’s hull, despite treacherous currents and several lurking hammerheads. He hasn’t forgotten that first time she strapped a dive knife to her calf and said “for them sharks” in a way that made him love her more than ever.
“What was your dream about?” she asked.
“You first,” he said.
“Well, there was a lot going on in the dream. So … I was young. And you were there but you weren’t as young as me. You—” she looks at him, sees that he’s hanging on her words “—were your age now.”
“Just go on. I’m fine with old.”
“Okay, so we were down in Guatemala. It was that winter in the Bay of Honduras, when we were working with the sea turtle habitat. So, we’re there again, all of us, which includes Mike and Allie, little Ben, and Maria before she died.” She catches in her throat. They don’t talk much about their granddaughter. It’s too difficult. Mike’s never treated them the same way, and sometimes it’s more than Darcy can take. She denies that she tried to take her own life in Durham, right before they moved to the beach. (She says the clunky old garage door cut her wrist like that, but he knows better.)
They hoped the ocean would bring peace, but so far all it had done was bring them back closer to it.
She rubbed the still-healing scar on her arm. “Maria’s there,” she said.
He looked up and slapped his knee to get Otis to come over. “Was Otis there?”
“Of course he was. He was the center of attention.”
“Isn’t it? Though we’ve only known him a few hours, he’s already had a starring role in my dreams.”
“What? Why the hmmm?”
Randall scruffed the dog’s ears and considered its eyes, which were slightly green with a touch of gray, making it hard to pin down how he’d describe them if pressed to do so. The dog was like an old mop with moss for eyes. “He was in my dream, too. Front and center, like yours.”
“That’s so odd.”
“What else?” he said, wanting her to finish.
Maria was innocently wiggling her fingers over the edge of the boat when a lionfish stung her. Ow! she cried. They were all out together for a series of dives into a cave. Mike and Allie were underwater, the first pair under. Darcy tied a string around the girls’ finger to stop the venom from spreading. But it spread anyway.
“We all sat around this long picnic table, a table piled with steamed lobster and shrimp, and fresh papaya and breads like those Mayan women made, sweet breads and dark loaves baked with impossible-to-pronounce nuts. It was a true feast, Randall. And Mike rose to make a toast—”
Six years old was too young to be diving in caves, no matter how experienced the grandparents were. So, she sat in the boat. But Mike had to blame somebody. Even though these things happen in nature, somebody had to take the fall. Maria sat stone-faced in the zodiac while they raced toward shore. She wore a lime-green one-piece, her sun-kissed hair tied with a pink ribbon.
“—and that’s when Otis started barking. He barked and barked, and wouldn’t stop. Nobody could hear what Mike was saying. But Mike kept on talking. He looked angry there at the end, like he was shouting.”
“At me?” he asked.
Allie fainted at the funeral. It was held in Oregon, where she was from, because Mike said there was no need to involve his family more than they already were. (Blame, he called it. Responsibility. A needless tragedy.) They’ve learned what it means to be punished, to face guilt every day. Everything gets filtered through a blurry lens and comes out the other side with a hint of darkness, a well-worn sadness.
“But, eventually, everyone began to gravitate toward Otis. They all went around the table and petted him, even let him lick morsels from their fingers. Then they all began to smile. We began to smile, Randall. Us. Not like we do around here, these little smiles that we do to cover up how we feel inside. But real smiles, true happy-inside smiles.”
“I miss those days,” he said. He patted Otis on the nose. “You wouldn’t have recognized us back then, boy. We were a lean, mean, happiness machine.”
After the garage door incident, Darcy started an online group for grieving women, those tormented by loss, and those even exploited by close friends and family—not widows, but rather life’s old dolls flung to the ground by sons and sisters, daughters and brothers. She said some of the women were headed for destruction, sure as anything. Four have died in the past six months, both accidentally and on purpose. There’s only so much a person’s faith can accomplish, she says. Sometimes it’s simply luck that pulls you through.
“What about yours?” she said. “Tell me about your dream, Randall.”
His amounted to much the same thing. A bunch of people were gathered in a fellowship hall or something, like a VFW, with sad stringed lights all around. There were a lot of familiar faces in general, but specifically hers, and some friends and colleagues from their diving days. They were all in suits and dresses, though from various eras and styles, so that it confused the eye. Maria was also in his dream, sucking the wound on her finger. And she was not her usual sunny self.
“It’s pretty grim, until Otis comes in. And it’s like he knew who I was, and had known me for a long, long time. Everybody else seemed to know him, too, even Maria. She called to him as though he was our family dog or something.”
When Randall surf fishes, he often fantasizes about diving into the waves, going under, and seeing Maria. And she takes his hand and they float away together, just rolling out there, like driftwood on the open seas, bound to wash up in Spain or the Netherlands, as pale as thousand-year-old ghosts.
“He talked to me,” he added at the end.
“Otis, he spoke to me.”
“In your dream, you mean.”
“No. He spoke to me just now,” said Randall. “While you were talking.”
“Oh, okay,” she smiled, curiously.
He looked at Otis, who turned away.
“He said the speckled trout were biting. Go out there and catch some, he said, it’s not your fault. Never was your fault. These things happen, terrible as they are. Accidents like this shouldn’t break up families, but they do. He doesn’t know why.”
He seared two good-sized trout in a skillet, serving them with black beans and a salad freckled with nuts and blackberries.
“Yum,” she said. They opened a muscadine wine.
“It’s going to be different now,” he said, “with Otis here.”
“He’s somewhat magical,” she said. “He provides us with options.”
They finished in silence, with the dog softly tapping his tail on the rug. Darcy dropped a pinch to him while Randall ferried their dirty utensils to the kitchen.
“We’ve got a deal,” she whispered to Otis. “You don’t tell him our little secret, okay? He’s—”
She looked up and saw him calmly adding more dish liquid to the sink. “—he’s so proud of himself right now. Let’s not bother him with this just yet. But promise me, Otis, promise me you won’t tell him where I’ve gone.” She remembered his heart beating in her ear one night in the bow of an island-bound sailboat, as if it would never stop. “I think he’ll know, though. He’s always known where our bright things go when they slip away from us. He has a good sense of tragedy.”
Randall finished wiping his hands in a towel.
“I’ll save the dishes for later,” he said. He caught a glimpse of light from the doors, from something out on the water, maybe a shrimp trawler calling it a night. “There’s no hurry.”
He brought the rest of the wine to the sofa.
Do we need tickets to go to Ben’s graduation?” he asked.
She sipped her glass and followed the lights outside as they passed slowly.
“Unfortunately, we do. It’s by invitation only.”
He tapped his foot on the rug so that Otis looked over.
“Then we’ll have to send something nice to him,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “I was thinking we would.”
“Do you have any of those coins left from the ironclad?”
She remembered the heavy brine in the bones, as though she’d unearthed dreadful parts of the earth not meant to be disturbed. Those she’d never mentioned to anyone.
He said, “Let’s make it a surprise. What do you think, Otis?” The dog settled its weary eyes on the floor and yawned. “Even better,” said Randall.
Sean Jackson's debut novel, Haw, was published in June 2015 by Harvard Square Editions. He lives in North Carolina and his latest stories have been published in Main Street Rag, The Potomac Review, Niche, and Cleaver, among other literary magazines. He was a 2011 Million Writers Award nominee.
* * *
For the Love of an Unknown Child
By Rebecca Missey
I don't know exactly what day it was, but I know it was late November. I had just returned home from picking up my mail. I laid it down on the kitchen table and poured myself a cup of coffee. I wrapped my hands around the cup and allowed the warmth to take the chill out of my finger tips. I pulled out a chair and dropped into it. I started sifting through the mail. About three letters down was something I had been waiting for; it was an application from an adoption agency. I was like a child at Christmas as I tore into the envelope. A nervous energy pulsed through me as I filled out the application. I placed it in an envelope and immediately took it to the post office, As soon as I returned home reality hit me like a brick. There was no way I could go through with this.
Here I was three weeks past my 45th birthday, and five years after my divorce contemplating adoption. You see, more than anything I wanted to raise a child. Where did my overwhelming desire to raise a child begin? That's hard to say. I think I wanted to be a mom longer than I can remember. When I was little I had this doll I carried everywhere with me. I carried it to church, I carried it into stores. I slept curled up next to it. For several years you would have not seen me without that doll. By the time I was ten years old I had names for a whole house full of children picked out.
My ex and I married when we were 22. We met our first day of college. For the first several years we were perfectly happy. We both wanted a big house full of children but after several years of trying, it was starting to look hopeless. He would not even hear about seeing a fertility specialist. Thinking I had found the answer to our prayers I said “Why don't we look into adoption?” , We were at the dinner table at the time. My husband dropped his fork to the table. “Absolutely not,” If you had seen his face you would have thought I had said “Lets set ourselves on fire.”
“What kind of kid are we going to get? Some kind of brain damaged kid who was born addicted to crack, and will have problems for the rest of his life? No thank you. I am not raising someone elses trouble.”
“You don't have to be so hateful about it. There are plenty of healthy children out there waiting to be adopted.”
“Yeah if you don't mind putting yourself on a waiting list for several years. We both know you do not wait well.”
“Or we could adopt a foreign baby.”
“A foreign baby? You know how my parents are. Do you really think they would welcome a grandchild from another country?” He had a valid point. I let the subject drop. I thought after a while he would warm to the idea. I was wrong. The tension between us grew worse and worse. We reached a point where we were fighting over anything and everything. What was worse, we started spending as little time together as possible. He would go “out for a drink”, and I would sit home alone.
I soon found myself researching adoption agencies online. One night as I was researching agencies an email came in for Mike. Curiosity got the best of me. I opened the email. My worst fears were confirmed as I read it. “Dear Mike, I went for my sonogram today. I wish you could have been there. My doctor says everything look perfect. I cant wait to hold our baby. I love you both so much. Love, Brittany.” To this day I have not gotten over the crippling pain of that moment. A thousand thoughts attacked my mind. I am defective. He can have children. I can not. It was a cold, hard slap across the face. I took a deep breathe. I sucked back the fist sized lump in my throat. I fought back a truck load of tears. I asked him for a divorce that night. That was a little more than five years ago.
The night after I mailed the adoption application I could not sleep. I kept going over the list of reasons why I shouldn't go through with it. What if I die before the child is grown? What if she doesn't like me? I tossed and turned Every lump in the mattress was multiplied by a million. I looked at the alarm clock. It had only been five minutes since the last time I looked. Finally, I gave up. I swung my bare feet onto the cold floor. I went to the kitchen and called the two people I knew would not be mad that I was calling at 5am. They both agreed to meet me for breakfast. Two hours later I was sitting at a table at my favorite restaurant with Beth and Mega, The three of us had been best friends longer than any of us could remember.
“Sara are you okay? You look like you haven't slept in a week.” Beth said as she reached across the table and place her hand over mine.
“Or maybe you have met someone.” Megan said as she rested her hand against her cheek as she sported her most interested look. “Come on girl, spill it. Don t drag us out this early and the spare detail.”
“No, you're both wrong. I've be struggling with a decision.” I paused for a moment. I pushed my food around my plate. I was nervous with Beth and Megan for the first time. “I have shared with both of you how much I want to be a parent. I filled out an application with an adoption agency, but I don't know if I will go through with it.”
“You should go through with it. I will help you any way I can.” Beth beamed. “You would be an amazing mm.” Megan suddenly sat her glass done.
“Are you insane? Get a dog or cat. This is the time in our lives when we can finally do whatever we want. Why tie yourself down?” So, as it turned out breakfast with Megan and Beth had not been the help I had hoped for.
For the next several days I walked around in a fog. I was unable to think of anything other than whether or not to adopt. I went to the grocery store for bread and ended up in the baby food isle. I found myself in stores looking at baby furniture. I went as far as buying a rocking chair. I had to make a decision soon or I would loose my mind.
Two weeks after I mailed the application I got a letter welcoming me to the adoption process. Enclosed with the letter was a picture of a little girl. If I was interested the agency thought she and I would be a good match. I couldn't stop looking at the girl in the picture. Her sweet little face stared back at me. I felt as though at any second she was going to crawl out of the picture and into my lap. I felt an instant connection to her. Oddly, I felt as though she and I already knew each other. It was as if she was a part of my soul. After a while I convinced myself she looked like me.
I barely slept that night. I couldn't shut off thinking about the little girl in the picture. Around three in the morning I gave up. The light in my spare bedroom was the only light for miles. As the world slept I purged junk out of a room that had not been used in years. It would be used now. My decision had been made.
Sometimes in the dead of night I hold my breath and tiptoe to my daughter's room. I quietly open the door and watch her sleep. Overwhelming pride and love wash over me. Thank God I had the courage to follow my heart.
Rebecca Missey holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Psychology. She lives in a painfully small town in Missouri. She loves music, reading, and spending time with friends and family.
* * *
Insurgentes, Zapata, Coyoacán, Pino Suárez
By Nicolas Poynter
The rooster, an animal that Pancho was certain had a demon inside it, scratched hard at the surface of the roof across from his apartment and then let loose a noise which if he had not been awake, would have certainly thrown him out of the bed and onto the floor. A warm, brown leg lazily stretched around him like a python, comforting him because it had gotten cold during the night, as they had all told him it would. The rooster again scratched violently and then again crowed, causing his girlfriend to smile in her sleep, he thought because she knew how much he wanted to kill the animal.
Pancho lit a cigarette and looked out the window towards the volcano. Even though the windows almost touched both the floor and the ceiling, the volcano filled it up to where it was hard to see anything but volcano when he looked out the windows, which was all he ever did when he was in the room. He had never seen one before. It was much steeper and more intimidating than a mountain and set off by itself which was also unlike mountains, with a split top like lips puckered up to kiss or, to be more precise, an upside-down vagina. He liked it best in the early morning when there was just the slightest variance in purple between the color of the sky and the color of the volcano, when you could just barely tell it was there at all and you had to ask yourself if something was really there or if your eyes were just playing tricks on you. How could anything be that large and powerful? How could anything take up the entire horizon like that? It had to be a trick. But it wasn’t and as the color of the sky dissolved, the power of such a force of nature, something impossible to measure, would be right there in front of you, like fingers wrapping around your throat.
Pancho turned from the volcano and focused on the curve of his girlfriend’s hip which, after so much of her tossing and turning, had become exposed in the seam between the two blankets, barely visible in the soft light. She was the same even color of a cocoanut shell from head to toe, as if she had recently been spray-painted that color, and it made him feel somewhat pale by comparison. In fact, she had, in the beginning, called him Gringo several times, but then she must have seen how the word had affected him and stopped. All his previous life, people had commented on his own brown skin and had then quickly followed that up with “are ya from Mexico?” Now, that he was in Mexico, they called him Gringo. Motherfuckers, he thought, exhaling a smoke cloud. I just can’t win.
He wished that there were more white people around so that maybe he could gain his ethnicity back through relativity, but he hadn’t seen a legitimate white person since he had left the states. He knew they were there—the Trump voters—but they tended to avoid the authentic parts of Mexico. They took direct flights and charters to the beach cities where some form of tourist colonization had been established for them, English being the preferred language and dollars the preferred currency. Of course, there were neighborhoods in the states that, in somewhat of the same fashion, seemed to belong to Mexico, captured in a silent war of attrition and Pancho knew that that was the real reason the white people were “freaking out” and why Trump had been elected in the first place and why he himself had been deported. He understood their concern but the gears of the universe were going to turn regardless. Go ask the Indians about that. Pancho had been studying engineering in the states and he recognized the laws of thermodynamics when he saw them; you can’t keep two distinct groups of people separated for very long, especially if one is exceedingly rich and the other is exceedingly poor. He looked at the naked hip of his girlfriend again and thought that some day we might even all be the same color—not white.
Pancho closed his eyes and carefully listened to the footsteps below on the street, reverberating off the crooked buildings, back and forth, until they entered the room through the open windows. He could distinguish between them and guess as to where each set of feet was and in what direction they were headed. He thought he might be able to map the entire city from the bed, listening to the sounds of Mexico—church bells, the thumping of bicycle tires on stones, the demon cries of roosters, the street grills—mariachi music blaring, the cooks rhythmically slicing potatoes into a giant pile to the chaos of the music--ricas papas fritas.
And then there was, of course, the smell of the streets. He hadn’t been prepared for that. He was certain, being a student of engineering, that it was the thin air because the city, although appearing flat, was actually at an elevation of more than 7000 feet. It must be the thin air that allowed smells to penetrate the brain like tequila, the cooks on the street luring you to them without even making eye contact. Eat with your hands, cabrón, standing up or sit in one of the plastic folding chairs circling the piece of discarded metal being used for a grill, wait your turn without complaining, pedestrians flowing around you like a river around a stone, everything aire libre because at high altitude you don’t have to worry so much about heat and insects, not like the Trump voters sweating it out at sea level.
At Observatorio there are exactly two hundred steps leading from the metro stop to the hospital and Pancho climbed them every day, then, sitting on the top step, he always lit a cigarette and looked for the volcano. He thought that maybe the entire city was just one endless ring of steps that eventually led to the volcano. It was always there, at the center, and he was always climbing and climbing, gasping for breath, circling towards it. His favorite uncle had told him to “hold on,” that Trump would be gone and then the new president would change everything and he would be able to come home. “Like a street dog?” Pancho had asked him. “And then another Trump gets elected and I’m deported again?” No thanks. Pancho wasn’t waiting for some politician to whistle for him to return. He was waiting for the volcano to set him free forever. Climb those steps, cabrón, step to the beat of the music. Forget about your pain. Listen to the howls of the vendors who will sell you anything and everything you could ever possibly need in this life for a handful of pesos.
“I don’t know anything about Mexico,” he had begged the judge. “I don’t even speak Spanish that well. How am I going to survive in Mexico?” He was ashamed at how he had behaved at his deportation hearing and that his uncles had seen him like that. We wished there was such a thing as time travel. If he could travel back in time, he would return to that courtroom and, given a second chance, he would not beg or cry. He would stand there like some renegade Apache surrendering his rifle, and he would only respond to them in Spanish.
The last conversation Pancho had had in the states was with his favorite uncle, inside the detention center. “Look. Forget everything I ever told you” he had said to Pancho as if in a confessional, taking Pancho’s hands into his own stone fists. “It was all bullshit. Mexicans take it because they don’t think they have another choice. We have been living in this country with fear for so long it has crept into us like a disease. This system has been taking advantage of us for so long, we don’t even feel it anymore. We work like slaves for nothing and then they call us names, tell us we are why America isn’t great anymore, and deport us. We let them do it to us. But that is not who we really are because our blood is a DNA-soup of the most fearless people this planet has ever seen. Mexicans fucking invented revolution, right? So this Trump is playing with dynamite and he doesn’t even have a clue. He tries to take our pride and self respect and maybe in truth he has already taken those things. But someday we are going to want that shit back and then you will see the true Mexicans take to the street and it won’t be like college kids standing up to tear gas. It will be like nothing you have ever seen before.”
Pancho had been thinking about his uncle’s face and how that had been the closest he had ever seen him to tears, when he had almost tripped over a young woman with rich brown skin the color of a cocoanut shell, her hands aggressively on her hips like a linebacker staring into the opposing team’s huddle. “Nunca,” she had growled at a police officer, just as Pancho had passed her on the street, her eyes partially obscured by a cascade of black hair which made her appear ferocious to him, goosebumps forming on his arms and legs. The police officer, a shotgun slung over his shoulder, had taken two steps backwards. “Nunca!” She had repeated, closing the distance. “Jámas!... Nuuunca!” Pancho thought that just like those Eskimos needed all those words for snow, Mexican women needed two words for never because never was an important concept for them and they didn’t play around with it. For instance, “we are never going to pay for that stupid fucking wall.”
“Insurgentes,” she repeated aloud whenever they passed that particular metro stop. At first, Pancho had thought it was worrisome the way she called out the stops when they arrived, the pneumatic doors popping opening, and then again after the doors closed, “Insurgentes!” But then he realized there was a pattern to it, that she didn’t read all of them, only half of them, a select half. “Insurgentes,…Zapata,…Coyoacán,…Pino Suárez.” She would read them aloud, as they arrived at the respective stops, her and Pancho’s bodies smashed together, their arms interlaced up above their heads for the metal bar that kept them from being thrown across the car. He had finally asked her why she did that, his chin firm on the top of her head. “So we don’t forget who we are,” she had whispered into his chest.
Pancho crushed out his cigarette and again turned from her cocoanut-shell hip to the volcano, the light steadily accumulating, the small room gently coming into focus like a polaroid photograph, still no shadows because even though the sun was above the horizon, it was trapped behind the volcano. It would take another hour for it to break free and for sunlight to enter the room. Until then, they would live in the shadow of the volcano. It was Pancho’s most favorite time of day, because it had taught him where real power existed in the universe and released him from all his fears. Whatever was wrong with him, the volcano was fixing it. Whatever wounds he had, the volcano was healing them. He stared at the cold, dormant silhouette, backlit by the sun. The volcano was watching everything and waiting, and when it had seen enough, it would show cruel men who thought they ruled the world what real power looked like. He leaned over and kissed his girlfriend softly on the cheek, then whispered in her ear, “call out the names as we pass, amorcito. So we don’t forget.”
Nicolas' work has appeared in many publications, including North American Review, Citron Review, Chagrin River Review, Gravel, and Eleven Eleven. He is a high-school dropout (not quite finishing the tenth grade) who now teaches AP chemistry in México City.
* * *
By Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri
Matthew stands on the sidewalk in front of the Luther Street railroad crossing. He stares at the train tracks which run down the middle of the street, cordoned by a concrete barrier. He waits for the train to draw closer so that he can leap in front of death. The butter-colored light breaks through the hush of evening, the train snaking its way toward him. The whistle rises, a hopeful, optimistic roar. It reminds Matthew of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp.”
Matthew imagines the praise he will garner when he tells his classmates of this feat, cheating death. He imagines how it will play out, the thrill of missing the iron monster by a mere second, the engine bearing down, the agile motion of leaping back to safety. Yes, his classmates will deem him stupid, but in a way tinged with admiration and envy. And perhaps, the trajectory of his life in the program will change. He will be the boy who played chicken, not just another face in the MFA program, another writer, alone in his own sphere. They’ll talk about him in the computer lab before class, point at him. They will call him out in a crowd. This will be the new label and he will wear it with pride. It is not the best kind of friendship, he knows, but he’ll take what he can get. Real friendship is almost nonexistent here. He has tried to play by the rules, tried to make friends the way his mother and sister taught him to, but to no success.
It beats the kind of life Matthew has come to expect day in, day out. Classmates grunt greetings from across the quad, the space between them vast. They pay occasional compliments on his stories, stories of detached youths, people neither brilliant nor idiotic. Even in the post-workshop beer sessions, Matthew feels like he cannot become a part of their conversations about the mysteries of dating and relationships, in part because he has not lived such lives.
Matthew is a stranger looking in on this world. He is an observer, someone who cannot join in. All he can talk about are his own dreams, the life he thinks the MFA program will give him. He has told classmates time after time, his dreams of being a film critic by day and a writer of the great short story by night, a sort of Clark Kent in MFA-world. And all it has garnered are looks of boredom and feigned interest. He wishes he had better stories to tell. But that is the paradox of going to such a program, Matthew thinks. One must get away from home to find true and compelling tales to tell.
He decided to play chicken with the train after reading his classmates’ stories, tales of soldiers fighting on vast battlefields, people struggling with identities, with lives that seem utterly baffling. He was in the computer lab one day when the thought rose to him like a flood: His life seemed too perfectly arranged for their tastes. Matthew had a loving mother, an older sister, a nice middle-class upbringing. His classmates were people who had seen dysfunction and depression, people who thrived on drinking and poking the proverbial bears of society. A dark twisted part of him wanted to feel their underworlds, their tensions, their destruction, everything in between.
The lights begin to flicker from the crossing a half mile down. On and off. On and off, a red glow through the dusk’s haze. Matthew positions himself on the sidewalk, legs stretched, ready to fly across the space between sidewalk, street, and track, between life and death and back again. He brushes a strand of hair back and watches in anticipation as the train draws close, its horn a clarion call warning the foolish to disperse. It rolls slowly at a sort of leisurely pace, establishing its presence. It has a certain commanding presence that Matthew can only envy.
The train rolls toward Luther Street, drawing nearer and nearer, its lights bearing down. The lights on the Luther Street crossing spring to life. The time is now. Matthew smiles, imagining his classmates. He almost wishes one would walk past now. This would hold more power than simply telling them the story. They would capture his daring in their minds, comment upon the swiftness with which he moved. But the street is populated by a few couples, people absorbed in their own secrets and lives. People moving with ease and laughing, unaware of the impending events. This unawareness, this seeming ability to detach themselves fills Matthew with envy and anger, and he leaps, unprepared.
He takes a flying leap only to feel himself losing control, the sense of being propelled into some vast void. The downfall is a kind of rushing sensation, as though he has been pushed, rather than the slow-motion effect one might imagine. Matthew lands on the street between the sidewalk and track with a sort of thud. He has fallen on his ankle, and he feels a kind of throbbing pain. Sprawled in the street, the world hangs above him, the vast sky tinged with a deep purple dusk, tree branches beckoning, swaying in the breeze. The rooftops of bars and houses stare down. Everything seems so open. Perhaps, Matthew thinks, perhaps there is still time. Perhaps he can still get it right. The train is still approaching. And this time he will get it right.
He slowly tries to rise, leaning on his left leg, grabbing his right leg with his hand. But he trips and falls again, consumed by heavy spasms of pain, just as the train rolls past. The bright orange Burlington Northern engine passes him, followed by a litany of tank cars and boxcars, replete with graffiti. On one of the cars, he sees the word FUCKING LOSER spray-painted over the image of a geeky looking boy in stick form and Matthew wonders if this is some grim cosmic intervention. An intervention driven by his attempts to better himself. Perhaps he was meant to lead this life, in the netherworld between mediocrity and brilliance. Maybe this is his lot.
The cars roll by, one after another, and over their low rumble, Matthew hears voices around him, rising like a chorus. A crowd gathers, shaking their heads, staring at him, even as they slowly extract him from the street and onto the sidewalk. He hears disgust, judgment being levied, levied by strangers who know so little. It is a judgment levied without sympathy, but with a cold confidence as if they know who he is, as if they have his character pinned down.
“What the fuck is his problem?”
“He needs to go to the nuthouse.”
“He needs to see a psychiatrist.”
Another boy stands in the crowd laughing at the spectacle, as if this is some comedy. And Matthew can’t help but want to laugh and cry. I have tripped, he thinks, trying to play chicken with a train. He repeats this to himself as the crowd swells. The last of the train cars rolls past, fading quickly onto the horizon as the judgments pile up around him, leaving him to grapple with this scene, which he cannot comprehend now, a thousand unknowns rushing in front of him. What is to become of me now? What will they think? The train horn wails in the distance at another crossing, on its march out of town, wailing, over and over and over, a lament, while people close in, moving around him.
Mir-Yashar is a third year MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University. His short-stories have been published or are forthcoming in various literary journals such as Monkeybicycle and Crack The Spine.
* * *
By Beau Boudreaux
Wildfire, riots, return to calm
my folks fly from Louisiana
take me and a girl for brunch
off Sunset at the Wilshire Hotel--
I recall mimosas, rising from the table
a bit tipsy searching a bathroom
lost in the carpeted lobby
I press a door that locks
behind me, panic on a cement
stairway have to find a dark corner
and relieve myself—
the end justifies the means
at the stair bottom
I empty into a side street
where I jog for the entrance
and return to our table
no one mentions my absence.
Beau Boudreaux teaches English in Continuing Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. His first book collection of poetry, Running Red, Running Redder, was published in the spring of 2012 by Cherry Grove Collections. He has published poetry in journals including Antioch Review and Cream City Review, also in anthologies along with The Southern Poetry Anthology.
* * *
Three Poems by Brian Fanelli
During rain-heavy April,
we planted Snow in Summer,
purchased for its price and name,
its retail promise to last until first frost.
For weeks, we watched, waited
for bees to pollinate and encourage life,
for stems to inch up and then stand tall,
like a child stumbling towards first steps.
After weeks under a mass of gray,
we noticed brown petals, shriveled
like strands of hair on the dead.
Each morning, still, we checked,
hoping the flowers would spread like a silver carpet,
show neighbors that we could play house,
take care of it as well as the last owner
everyone still mentions.
Each morning we knelt, dreaded
the suck of mud at our feet,
flowers drowned in weekly downpours
before they could breathe.
Only a few humid days in June, as soft
as a mother’s kiss, caused the plants to plump up.
We still water and tend them, but learned
half of their health and fate is left to luck.
If I Had a Few Million
I’d buy a beach house,
plant my chair by the shoreline,
watch the crest of waves, shiny like coins.
Every hour would be sun o’clock.
No news about the president hissing,
We’re going to build the very best wall.
No news about North Korea
torpedoing another missile into the ocean.
No worries about how the world will end,
either from climate change catastrophe
or a quick nuke strike on a big city.
I’d only worry about when to eat,
when to water the flowers.
I’d invite everyone over, ask political enemies
to inch their chairs closer to each other,
closer to the Atlantic and really listen
to the rhythmic rise and crash of waves.
I bet after a few hours they’d remember
something ancient and common within all of us.
After a few hours, I bet they’d shake hands,
drink beers and martinis together.
At night, while fireflies play tag around the house,
I’d pass out on a netted bed, beneath stars,
my great work done.
I Wanted to Be a Bloodsucker
A boy, I wanted Dracula’s cool,
to be a young Christopher Lee with slicked-back hair,
a castle to call my own, gothic archways,
rooms filled with books,
immortal brides in flowing gowns
who’d never leave me
because I’d always know what to say.
I wanted to bare fangs at enemies,
turn into a wisp of smoke,
a screeching bat like Bela Lugosi.
I wanted to sleep all day,
learn the coolness of night,
unbound by curfews,
other than first light.
I always dreaded mornings anyways,
squinted at first rays seeping into my bedroom,
pulling me from dreams where I wore a cape,
feared nothing but the sun upon my skin,
a reminder that nothing is immortal.
Brian Fanelli is the author of the poetry collections Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil's Kitchen Poetry Prize, and All That Remains (Unbound Content). His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. He teaches at Lackawanna College.
* * *
Two Poems by Wendy Gist
Fresh leaves green of oak-tree
fountain about the flaméd sky
holding constant warm bird songs.
Clouds split, sharp arrow
of lightning strikes:
another generation of man dies
another decries while another
is welcomed by the machines.
In the dark cool shade
of the oak-tree, a nestling
bluebird has dropped dead,
its silenced beak piercing red earth.
The Watch from Above
Thrown into blue-green globe
Tick, clock, tock, bold,
Turning Earth, churning.
Breathe down rough winds and showers,
Tick, tick, timer, round and round,
Stirring rhizomes, seed pods and bulbs.
And now comes Iris-sewn elegance,
Displayed, hands gathering
The bruised blossoms
Withering perfume of
Wendy Gist's poetry, fiction and essays have been featured or are forthcoming in Amsterdam Quarterly, Empty Mirror Arts and Literary Magazine, Fourth River, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, New Plains Review, Rio Grande Review, Soundings Review, Silver City Quarterly, St. Austin Review, The Lake (UK), and many other fine journals. She's the author of the chapbook Moods of the Dream Fog from Finishing Line Press. Gist is a Pushcart Prize nominee and semifinalist for Best Small Fictions, 2017.
* * *
Three Poems by John Grey
Touring The Islands
No one asks these ships to come.
But here they are, lined up in the docks,
emptying out their passengers.
Every island is the same.
They see glimpses of its civics, its civility,
as the tour bus rattles and bumps
its way to the duty free shops.
I slip away from the credit-card waving throng
into a. small municipal garden
a few roses, a brackish pond,
but tall wide palm trees for shelter.
is the grimy statue
of a long gone Spanish governor..
His eyes look heavenward
though the stores are somewhere
to the west.
A few people mingle
in this patch of green.
They chat, they laugh
in a language I do not understand.
I imagine there's no word
for cheap liquor, cigarettes,
perfumes and German chocolates
in their dialect.
Actually, it's more of a prayer
than an assumption.
Her Eating Habits
Donna haunts the food chain
looking for her place in it.
She wishes she really could eat dirt
like she was feeding off the planet.
Or that the insects that
nibbled off a chunk of her
had somewhere to go with it.
Or that everything half-empty
wasn't half-dead as well.
Or that the menu got her right.
Or that the juice would not just
be in the stolen fruit.
Or that she didn't feel such affinity
with the leftovers,
dry and crinkled as old peoples' grins.
Or that she could sip lakes like horses
freed of harness,
loosened, from the air
like flapping sheets,
collapsing in the cool,
in the pleasure of dust
Or be swallowed by lights
or darkness completely,
not left behind in small doses,
like an unfinished painting,
like the best laid plans of mice and machinery,
trapped, back broken,
or irretrievably rusted.
Or if only she could bite off
more than she could possibly chew
and then spite the world
by swallowing it whole.
Or if just once
the ones who nibbled at her ear
could suck the rest of her
up into that solitary lobe.
Eat or be eaten -
she could live with either one.
The Peace is Impossible
Can I have this moment free and unencumbered?
No, it must be stifling as Times Square on a holiday weekend.
What should be solitude is ringed with tourists.
Can't even share a thought with myself.
Not with the tuneless band still playing in my head.
Good grief, Marjorie, must you live where I live.
Isn't there space enough for all
as the Baptist preacher wants us to believe.
God made man with room to spare, so he says.
So why do children crawl up and down my skin?
And here comes Rod, the boy with a problem,
and another's woes are like stepping on an ant-hill.
Up through the body hairs they crawl toward the throat.
I can't... she won't... it's over... it's beginning.
Who can breathe through such a swarm.
And the telephone is ringing. So demanding is its bell,
I stand to attention, inarch like a private to its
sergeant major's insistence. And the television's on
though no one's watching, which leaves the television
free to watch me. Murder. Explosions. Sex. We see you.
And all I want is a world no bigger than a chair,
population one, wars zero. Maybe a book, no not
even that, eyes closing, body dumbing down.
But life is always at me, commanding me to live it.
And there's only the one life...everybody else's.
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Front Range Review, Studio One and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Naugatuck River Review, Abyss and Apex and Midwest Quarterly.
* * *
By R. W. McLellan
Being alone in a hotelroom is worse
than an empty house, much like empty
photo albums are more depressing than
full ones forgotten in attics.
Muffled noises on the other sides of
walls, thick carpet and heavy doors.
You will press your ear to the wall
like you may have peaked through the
window of a barroom you aren’t welcome
in anymore, hear noises that sound like
what it feels like to find out your friends
got together and didn't invite you.
You will turn on the TV the moment
you enter, just to dull the silence. You
will look for forgotten things, a bottle
of beer or a broken flip-flop, beside the
bed. You will open every drawer, talk
to yourself, or strip naked and stare into
the mirror, let your belly sag like it should,
like it wants to. You will lie on the bed,
wonder if there will be a knock. There
will not be. You will look out the window
more than you ever do when you are at
home, scan the parking lot for anything.
You will pace. You will call the front
desk and ask questions you already know
the answers to, bounce on the bed like a
child while you make calls to people who
will not answer, leave messages that will
not be returned. You will pace. The pillows
will be soft but you will not sleep until
dawn. You will call the front desk again
to ask for a late check-out. You will clean
the room more than you need to and leave
a large tip for the housekeepers. Before
you go, you will stand in the doorway for
a long time when you are finally ready to
leave, stare into the silent room, wonder
what you left behind.
R.W. McLellan currently writes and works in the woods of western Maine, where he lives with his wife. He is the author of Plenty of Blood to Spare (Sargent Press, 2012) and his work has most recently appeared in The Lake, Lagan Online, Buck Off Magazine and Boston Poetry Magazine.
* * *
Two Poems by Cameron Morse
Late Evening in Mid-July
At dusk, Burr Oak Woods brings my wife and I
to the edge of a meadow in which deer stir
and graze as the lights go down.
A pregnant doe raises her head and stares back,
her flanks flecked with starlight, fur coat
imprinted with the constellation of her birth,
the shooting stars of future offspring. White clouds
of Queen Anne’s Lace float around her ankles.
She cannot see herself as we see her.
Beside me my wife glows, wearing my oversized
Symposium blue T-shirt in lieu of maternity wear.
Strands of black hair stick to her sweaty neck.
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
After dragging the jubilant golden retriever
to his kennel in the garage, I level
with the fixed black eye of the black-breasted
male house sparrow that lies, served
upon the platter of the back patio. I lie down
in peace beside the deceased. Observe
his ruffled mane, his tiny feet stiffened
around an invisible perch,
the finger of my future son, as if the dead
bird were counted among the beloved.
Cameron Morse taught and studied in China. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2014, he is currently a third-year MFA candidate at UMKC and lives with his wife, Lili, in Blue Springs, Missouri. His poems have been or will be published in over 50 different magazines, including New Letters, pamplemousse, Fourth & Sycamore and TYPO. His first collection, Fall Risk, is forthcoming from Glass Lyre Press.
* * *
Two Poems by C.A. Murray
The Treasure of Her Honor
What a sight if the sight was seen,
And what a scene that will incite;
The unfastening of the day
And a hunt ensuing on a shrew.
In a dark grove, a canopy
Hides a perch where yellow eyes perk
And claws sink deep inside a birch.
Folded over the bird’s bosom
The shrunken appendages poised
In a silhouette in the dark;
She gazes clear and clairvoyant.
In a tight dive that strokes the night,
Her talons cede after a glance
And far off out of underbrush
The moonlight catches the smooth fur
And for a moment glistens off.
In a great thrust toward the unseen,
The pinions pointed in attack
In a stalking of pure delight,
A firm hold has taken ahold.
The grip girdles the small body,
The two cleave out through the tree line
And one devours the other.
A Poem Written in Lama, New Mexico
Stalking at the edge of the dusty road
tucked in black sagebrush that is burnt and charred,
hides a scared coyote watching the slowed
lights that approach over the cattle guard.
As he skulks down the side of a small bend
a howl is heard but never translated
and through the vastness of the desert wind
life lasts and nothing new is created.
To hear the howl is to not understand
and unlike the sun that faded away
in the limp hold of the horizon’s hand,
the sad lament lasts until the next day.
Like a night ambulance that faded soft,
the rooster has picked up where he left off.
C.A. Murray is currently enrolled in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. He is a resident of Alaska and is an outdoor educater seasonally in New England. Murray writes poetry, nonfiction, and fiction.
* * *
Bobby at Thirty
By Michael O'Brien
still the family’s
and passing a joint
one hot sunday
on the eel river
when july’s water
covers but half the bed
your back the color of
a new leather belt
but your coor’s gut
hangs over your fly.
swimming in your levi’s
toward someone else’s
you coax her onto the log
high above water
teach her the
her all the time screaming.
you emerge from
your face as you were
when a child
and wanted our love
when you were not
For over fifty years Michael Jack O’Brien has published in print and on-line journals, most recently, Blue Heron Review, Madness Muse Magazine, One Person’s Trash, and Colloquial. Also, his work has appeared in three anthologies: Gridlock: Poetry of Southern California, Proposal on Brooklyn Bridge, and California: Dreams and Realities.
* * *
Three Poems by Maribel Pagan
Every word has already been scribbled,
every word overtaken, pasted upon books
by the gods of writing: Apollo, Bragi,
Tir, Lugh, Seshat, Homer, Virgil, Dante,
Petrarch, Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf,
Hemingway, Orwell, Faulkner, et. al.,
and we would quote words
that they have all spoken
and place bibliographies
at the end of our books.
In alphabetical order, a house of dreams
storing away endless shelves where
life vanishes, and a door in the mist opens.
Silent warriors lend fantasy after fantasy,
carriages of hopes and fears driven
beyond the sight of these warriors.
They give away what could not be
taken. They give what they are able,
what will disguise the person's escape,
a masked dreamer diving into a world
that cannot be touched, cannot be
seen. A relief of sorts, until the world
of the dreamer is finally theirs
to behold, theirs to keep and cherish.
And when their silent warriors perish,
others replace them.
A room full of tears & grace,
the Lord of Beginnings with me
till the foundations crumple
& I flatten beneath its weight
of stars—twelve of them--
and the dragon swaps a third.
The iron scepter is not enough
to cast out a beast of any means,
nor hurl a vicious serpent—with its
tongue lashing at the sunrise till
it fades—and you say we can trust
that 1,260 days will pass in silence
when the world is waning beneath us.
Maribel C. Pagan has appeared in 7x20, Cuento, Blue Marble Review, Zaum, and others. Additionally, she is the Editor-in-Chief of Seshat Literary Magazine, a Prose Reader for Apprehension Magazine, a Poetry Reader for Frontier Poetry, and a singer and musician for The Angelic Family Choir. Visit Maribel here.
* * *
Poet in Costco
By Scott Starbuck
Where are the bulk villanelles,
endless aisles of free verse?
even marriage partners,
If we are
what we eat,
what have we become?
What is the point, anyway,
of a product
Scott Starbuck’s new book of climate change poems, Hawk on Wire, was an "Editor's Pick" at Newpages. YouTube has a 24-minute video of his book launch sponsored by La Jolla Historical Society's Weather on Steriods: The Art of Climate Change Science. His ecoblog is Trees, Fish, and Dreams.
* * *
The Plastic Organs of My Youth
By Caleb Bouchard
Last week, at my new job with the university library, a student asked to see my disarticulated skull. My disarticulated skull? For a prolonged moment, I was flabbergasted. My knee-jerk reaction was to order the student to immediately put her hands on her head, thereby dropping any sharp instruments she might have been wielding for the scalping process. A flurry of questions entered my mind, chief among them being: What the hell does disarticulated mean?
Sensing my befuddled apprehension, the student nodded toward the door behind me. “You know, the anatomy model?” she clarified.
“Oh right!” I said, my tone tinged with naïveté. I jumped up from my chair at the check-out desk and bounded into the staff workroom, where I was met with the two towering shelves reserved for anatomy models, a one stop shop for prospective RNs.
I took a deep breath. I had been warned about this. Practicals: a week in where science and nursing students of every stripe converge on the university library, grabbing up whatever plastic organs they can from the check-out desk, ogling hearts and skulls and muscled limbs until they had memorized every tendon, every artery, every exposed vertebrate. All of this in preparation for the exam that would make or break their college career. I exhaled, as an ad for the upcoming week broadcasted in my head: If your idea of Mr. Right is a cardiovascular man, you’ve come to the right place! We’re up to our elbows in muscle arms! Heart models? Here ya go — while you’re at it, eat your own out, why don’t you?!
There were a number of skulls on the shelf — five, maybe six — and since I didn’t know the unique characteristics of a skull of the disarticulated variety, I decided to lug them all out to the check-out desk and let the student decide. The Tupperware cases rattled and bumped together as I made my way back to the check-out desk. Carrying them in my maladroit way, I must have looked like some hack shaman, or an inebriated one-man percussion band.
The Tupperware containers crashed on the desk. My manager, a tall, wiry woman with stony features, rolled her eyes.
“Have at it,” I said with a sweaty smile.
“None of these are a disarticulated skull,” the student said. This was so obvious, apparently, she didn’t have to open the Tupperware boxes to know.
“The disarticulated skull?” My manager chimed in. “That one was checked out about fifteen minutes ago.”
The student responded with a miffed half-frown, as if I were a waiter who had just informed her that although we were fresh out of poached cod, the pureed donkey shit was surprisingly delectable.
In the end, the student settled for a muscled arm. We had plenty of those.
As the week progressed, so did my knowledge of the anatomy models. Before too long, I felt as though I was studying for a big test myself, as students constantly quizzed me to see if the Pink Torso or highly coveted Heart of America models was checked in.
Today, Sunday, I sensed practicals were near, due to the spike in fretful foot traffic. In the common space area on the first floor, groups of students sat huddled in circles around a grey brain or a mid-sagittal head, as if these things gave off a much-desired warmth in the frigid tundra of their mid-semester. They hardly spoke to each other, but when they did their words were accompanied by the motion of a pencil pointing out a note-worthy vein or hunk of tissue, as if making out an uncharted constellation.
It’s Tuesday. The models check-outs have subsided a good deal the past few days, but not completely. Tonight, a student was charged fifteen cents because she returned a torso model three minutes after the due time (one minute overdue amounts to five cent late charge). The student — a tall, attractive blonde — groaned when I informed her of the fine, and even the lifeless face of the model had a strained, petulant quality about it, as if to say, “C’mon, dude. This is for science.” I wasn’t expecting this to be a surreal moment, but it was. We were approaching closing time, and I was dog-tired, so I forgave the fine.
“Is it too late to check out another model?” the student asked. “The small heart is the last one on my study guide.”
“Not at all,” I said. “Just keep in mind you’d have to bring it back ten minutes before closing, which is in about five minutes. That’s the only catch.”
Also, your days of getting out of late fines are over, I thought as I made a notation on her account.
The student sighed heavily, mulling over her options.
“What if just snap a couple pictures of it? Is that allowed?”
I looked over to my manager. She rolled her eyes, then nodded curtly.
The small heart came with a small pedestal and rod, but everything was disassembled when I opened the box. The student grabbed the two avocado-shaped halves of the heart and pulled out her iPhone. As I watched her take the pictures, I was reminded of my own heart, beating away to little fanfare, doing the quiet work of keeping me alive.
The student snapped her last photo. “Thanks a lot,” she said as she walked away. “You’re a real lifesaver.”
Caleb Bouchard is the author of Inevitable Blindness, a poetry chapbook. "The Plastic Organs of my Youth" is his first essay to be published. He lives and writes in Acworth, Georgia.
* * *
By Kenneth Lee
Whenever I’m behind the wheel, there’s a dark urge to careen off the road and crash my car. Zipping past wide cotton fields and worn billboards, my right foot pushes the accelerator.
I’m going forty-five. Fifty-five. Seventy.
Ben’s dad shot himself a month ago. In my head a thunderous gunshot echoes as the image ricochets endlessly.
I imagine his body writhing in agony. Gun dropped at his side. Ruptured flesh. Blood spilling on the wooden floorboards. His family screaming and crying as they dial 911.
The news traveled fast. I was in my dorm room when my mom sent me four short text messages:
Jeff Carver tried to kill himself.
In hospital right now.
Pray for him.
He always seemed invulnerable to misery, like he was being watched after by a higher being.
For eight years I watched Mr. Jeff strike snare drums and bronze cymbals for our church’s worship band. The other musicians gave stiff, wooden performances when on stage. It was all too rehearsed. Too careful. You could see right through them.
But Mr. Jeff was different.
There was a casualness, like he was playing in an empty garage instead of a church packed with people.
He made God seem more human.
Time slowed and stood to a halt as I stared at my phone. The world had all its color washed out, leaving nothing but black and gray. I was desperate for my mom to send another text, one to dispel it as a false rumor, a sick joke. But she never did.
I couldn’t pray for him. Instead, I deleted the message, pocketed my phone, and walked to class. The evidence had been destroyed.
Thoughts would haunt me. I was afraid I would end up just like him – that even after starting a family, I would want to end my life. I saw myself in my late thirties, lying limp and lifeless, syrupy red splashed on the ground.
I would draft sentences on my phone to send to his sons, to his wife, to him. Saying it aloud before deleting it immediately, each draft felt unconvincing, like it was never enough.
The sun, extinguished hours ago, has left no evidence of its existence, creating a sweeping blackness over the flat Georgia landscape. Nothing exists except for what’s caught within the illuminating glare of my headlights, and for the moment, all I’m able to see is an endless, empty road.
The only thing I have to worry about when driving is staying inside the lines. Almost like working on a coloring book. There isn’t a particular destination in mind, but I know I want to drive as far away as possible and find escape. That’s the only plan I have, to wander aimlessly and seek shelter until everything realigns.
But I actually don’t get that far. Before I even reach the interstate, a dark-brown Labrador jumps in the middle of my lane.
Without thinking, I hit the brakes, but my car fails to stop. It skids on the blacktop like a struck hockey puck, like a bullet ignited after triggered, speeding through the air until impact.
The loud screeching of rubber tires pierce the night air, the dog jolts out of the way. I lose all control as my car swerves left into the other lane where incoming traffic would normally be, then swerve right into a grassy roadside ditch.
I punch the gas but the tires squeal loudly with my car entrenched. I try and go in reverse, but nothing.
Stepping out, I stand beside my vehicle, unsure of what to do next. The air feels cold and restless. I see a man wearing a white tank-top and faded blue jeans running towards me with a leash in hand. He has a grizzled beard, brownish-white hair, and looks like he might be in his late forties. He quickly grabs the dog by its collar and attaches a leash. The task complete, he rests his hands on his knees and catches his breath.
The man asks if I’m okay. I lie and tell him I’m fine.
“This damn dog,” he says. “Opened the front door to my sister’s house and it got loose. I’ve been chasing him ever since. You sure you’re okay?”
I inspect the damage, relived to see that there’s not much. A noticeable but small dent on my front bumper. Strands of high grasses wedged between the hood and windshield. Everything is largely intact.
Giving the grass a kick, I tell him I’m okay, but my voice doesn’t sound like my voice. It’s soft, calm, and feels like it belongs to a stranger.
“Damn thing always tries to get out,” he says, looking down at his dog. “Thanks for not hitting him.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
The dog is unconcerned with death, running around the man’s legs, forcing him to keep a strong grip on its leash as it attempts to escape once more.
The owner’s eyes dart from his dog to my car. “Are you able to get out?”
“I tried. Can’t leave.”
A grayish, charcoal sedan approaches. The driver stops and he and the dog owner decide to push my car. I’m in the driver’s seat again, my foot stomps on the accelerator, and soon enough, my car slowly escapes the ditch. I thank the both of them, and as the driver is walking back to his car, he gives me a piece of advice.
“Next time, don’t try to stop,” he says. “Run over that fucking dog, man. Just keep driving.”
He said it with such conviction.
Exhausted, on the brink of collapsing, I turn around and drive back. As I pass familiar cotton fields and billboards, I muse on the driver’s words and where I might have ended up had I followed them earlier.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have stopped.
Perhaps I would be on an interstate or highway, driving without purpose or direction towards some fictional, undiscovered oasis where I could take refuge.
Perhaps in wreckage, after I finally concede no such place exists.
I think that’s how Mr. Jeff felt, like he was alone, trapped under twisted metal and gasoline. Maybe he felt stuck when he was on that stage bashing his drum set in front of us. He was recreating the sound of a crash, the pounding of his own heart.
*Names have been altered
Kenneth Lee is currently enrolled in Georgia Southern University, in which he is pursuing a journalism/writing double major. His writing has appeared in The Collapsar and Entropy.
* * *
To Clean a Bathroom
By Stephanie Anderson
Cleaning toilets. That’s when I feel close to my mother. Something about the determination it takes to scrub a shit bowl, the overlooking of smells and hairs and flecks and stains, the loneliness of cleaning up after loved ones who do not notice your efforts, as she did all those years.
My mother taught me to clean bathrooms when I was young, and even now I consider myself an expert, a perfectionist. That’s what she was, a perfectionist. She allowed only Fantastic on the vanity—other cleaners would mar the laminate, she insisted—and only Windex, never the off-brand crap, would work on the mirror. We used certain rags to clean the bathroom that we never used anywhere else. She even had a separate laundry bin for them. And another for kitchen rags, another socks and underwear, another for bath towels, for whites, for farm clothes, for nice clothes, for sheets. Almost a dozen bins, each with labeled lids.
I use the past tense as if my mother is dead, but she’s not. She’s alive. But the person she was, the person she truly is—multiple sclerosis has so obscured that person that, when I am with her, she seems like a stranger. It’s partly the medicine: steroids, opiates, muscle relaxers, the alcohol. The isolation: confined to the ranch house in South Dakota, stuck in a scooter, unable to work (and work is how my mother judges her worth and that of others). The ranch is remote—two and a half hours from the nearest mall, airport, or decent restaurant—and she rarely goes to the nearest small town. She doesn’t want those 300-odd people to see her in the scooter, those same people who watched her barrel race as a girl, who went to her wedding when she was 19, who criticized and praised her all those years she ran the music program at the Lutheran church. There’s also the depression she will not admit or treat, the suicidal talk, her refusal to even glance at acceptance and consider a modified form of happiness, eight years after her diagnosis.
I hear her voice when I scrub my toilet in Florida, remember working alongside her. She was a backseat cleaner, correcting my scrubbing methods, pointing out spots I’d missed. Sometimes I hear her in real life because I call her while I clean, putting the phone on speaker while I wipe down the vanity. Her voice echoes on the tile, sounding far away, and I never let on that I’m using an eco-friendly cleaner, not Fantastic, on the quartz. I don’t tell her that all of my dirty laundry goes in the same bin. Sometimes I don’t even tell her that I’m cleaning, the smallest secret I keep these days.
Growing up, we cleaned the bathroom last before guests arrived—she wanted it sparkling when they walked in, not a drop of dried pee on the toilet rim or a water spot on the faucet. I, too, save the bathroom for last. Sometimes I clean it the day before a party and shut the door, warning my husband not to open it. I have even left cautionary notes on said door. My mother can’t clean anymore, and my rancher father has learned to do dishes but little else, but she can’t bear to hire help because they might use the wrong rag to dust the coffee table or, God forbid, the wrong brand of cleaner on the sink. If you don’t watch them, they’ll just wreck stuff, she complains on the phone. She doesn’t have the energy to hawk-eye them as she did me; many days she can’t get out of bed, let alone get dressed and, as she puts it, give orders. My mother’s world is her house, and it’s filthy, but dirty isn’t as awful as being unable to do anything about it.
How can I help my mother? Anymore I don’t think I can. Because for her, life is like a bathroom. There’s only one way to approach it: full-speed ahead, go-go-go, work hard—or you’re worthless. I don’t do slow, she says all the time. And if there’s one thing she hates more than being slow, it’s change. Incorporating MS into her life—into her identity—would be the equivalent of mixing bathroom rags and nice clothes in the same bin. Some things do not belong together, and that, as she says, is just the way it is.
Stephanie Anderson holds an MFA from Florida Atlantic University, where she serves as an instructor. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Kudzu House Quarterly, Grist Journal, The Chronicle Review, Sweet, Farm and Ranch Living and others, and her book on regenerative agriculture is forthcoming with University of Nebraska Press.
* * *
Mom on the USO Circuit
By Paul Beckman
Mother tells the story about meeting Elvis in Germany. She almost didn’t recognize him because he had a military crew cut and no pompadour but as soon as he began their duet, Bi Mir Bist du Schein, she was so taken aback he had to start over so she could jump in.
My mother’s never been to Germany and she won’t eat sauerkraut or drive in a VW Beetle because of the Camps. Yet, she insists he gave her a box of chocolates, a Whitman Sampler two pounder, after the show. She says that hip gyrating playboy asked her out to a Schnitzel buffet but she turned him down—she heard the Priscilla rumors—everyone did, she wasn’t about to play second fiddle for Elvis anymore than she would have for Bing when he came calling.
Because of her sexy voice and body she was the object of her fellow USO members desires but she saved herself for that slick bucket salesman from New York who, with the aid of a fake quarter carat diamond ring, swept her off her feet and away from the stage to the thrill of a cold water flat on the lower east side. When they returned from their honeymoon at Busters in the Catskills he carried her over the threshold. Her first instinct was to run back to show biz; but he had a way about him. Plus, she was in a family way.
Life went downhill from there. Dad lost his bucket territory and opened a pickle stand on Delancy but mother turned allergic to the spices in pickles and thus to my father so, now, expecting her second child, they divorced and she got in vaudeville right at the tail end and was an understudy for Gracie Allen who, thankfully was a hypochondriac, so Mom had a fairly steady income until she got pregnant again and she swears that the boy came out looking like George Burns, cigar and all.
Her show biz career over we moved in with her parents in their two bedroom third floor flat where her sister Dee was living with husband and baby. Mom became a torch singer in the Flamingo Club. Aunt Dee raised us when Mom left to go on the circuit. Elvis tracked her down to be one of his back ground singers.
There are no pictures of her show biz career and no one in the family will talk about it, so while Mom, whose brain is addled from reefer and gin, mumbles out her stories, we kids think of her as our crazy aunt and Aunt Dee as our mother.
That seems to work for everyone so let it lie. Strangely enough, Mom can’t carry a tune in a big red bucket.
Paul Beckman’s story, “Healing Time” was one of the winners in the 2016 The Best Small Fictions and his 100 word story, “Mom’s Goodbye” was chosen as the winner of the 2016 Fiction Southeast Editor’s Prize. His micro story, “Brother Speak” will be in the 2018 Norton Micro Anthology.
* * *
Mom's Not Talking
By Jeanette Garrett
It had been two weeks, three days and 17 hours since Madelyn Moore had said a word to any member of her immediate family. Not to her husband Arthur, her 13 year old daughter Allison, or her 10 year old son Ben. Not even to the dog Rex who she really had nothing against, but, hey, he was a member of the family too. Nothing in particular had provoked the silent treatment, rather it was the culmination of years of wifehood and motherhood, a million tiny annoyances and a few gigantic grievances. All of which she played over in her mind, as if watching a silent movie, one night as she lay trying to sleep next to her husband who was hogging the sheets, but who had not yet started snoring. “This is Not the Life I Wanted” would have been an apt title for the movie.
At work, where she was the chief compliance officer for a chemical manufacturing firm, she chatted freely, perhaps more freely because of her muteness at home. She was a downright little hummingbird, flitting from office to office, inquiring about this report or that deadline, or perching on the arm of a co-worker’s chair just to dish for a few minutes.
“Mom’s gone bonkers,” she overheard Allison say on the phone one night. Madelyn didn’t feel bonkers. Actually, she felt just fine. She just needed a break from dispute-settling, question-answering, forced good moods. As a parent sends a misbehaving child to his room with no TV or phone, she had sent herself to a time-out, but without the misbehavior. She sure as heck didn’t have anything to feel guilty about. It’s not like she wasn’t doing her part. She still made dinners – vegetable stir fry, Allison’s favorite – on Wednesday nights. She still signed permission slips for school field trips, did the laundry, all after a full day at work. Much to Arthur’s amazement, she even still had sex with him.
Months went by like this. Madelyn had no desire to leave the familial nest. It was comfortable, with cashmere throws on the back of a chintz sofa, a swimming pool that glistened in the sun, walls painted a neutral palette that was restful to the eye. No, she was quite content here, having managed to zone out her family, their peeves, their peevishness, their crises – real or imagined - all without meditation or a half bottle of wine at night.
At first, Arthur, ever the typical husband, had anxiously asked, “Have I done something? Is it me? What have I done?” Madelyn had begun to shake her head “no,” but caught herself, for wasn’t nodding of one’s head communication as surely as uttering the words? She wanted to be uncommunicative, so uncommunicative she would be. That included no smiling, no frowning, nothing to indicate what was on her mind. For in truth, nothing much was on her mind, at least not at home. Arthur had even tried writing a few sentences on a notepad, as if she had lost her hearing. She waved the pen away and went to watch TV, her hearing perfectly fine.
Ten year old Ben was the family member most baffled by his mother’s silence and not a little frightened because of it. Thinking the reason she didn’t talk was because she was sad, he tried to make her laugh. He combed the internet for the funniest jokes he could find, one-liners he could easily master. Longer ones, reported the next day from late-night TV, he rehearsed over and over. He viewed countless YouTube videos, shyly putting his phone in his mother’s face while she peeled potatoes. Nothing worked. His sister and father were grateful for them though and responded appropriately, which made him feel a little better.
Eventually, as weeks turned into months each member of the family, in their own way, came to accept that, for however long it might last, their mother, their wife, was simply not going to talk. They gave up trying to engage her, not bothering to compliment Madelyn on the dinners she made, her new hair style. Instead they chatted amiably with each other over the dinner table about the “B+” Allison had made on the math exam she had so dreaded, the deal Arthur was negotiating at work. Ben, being the youngest, was the last one to accept the situation, the one who still wanted his mom to not just bandage his scuffed knee but to coo words of comfort. Needless to say, they couldn’t have people over for dinner, a plus as far as Madelyn was concerned.
Her self-imposed silence gave Madelyn time to reflect, and she found herself watching her family as if a stranger peering in through someone else’s open window to a scene of domestic harmony. There was the time Allison, trying to take Ben’s mind off a bad bicycle spill that produced copious tears asked him about his favorite video game. Within minutes, they were playing the game intently. Madelyn was touched by Allison’s patience. Arthur had even taken to playing “Wheel of Fortune” with both children, something she had never seen him do before, everyone laughing at his wrong guesses. Her husband’s interactions with his children, rare before, occurred more often and he began to show something approaching a tender side, at somewhat the appropriate times.
The silence that had begun in the summer continued into the fall and winter, the days shortening, the air becoming cooler. Christmas morning Madelyn was the last one down. The children and Arthur were sprawled on the floor in front of the blinking Douglas fir, laughing and shaking presents, trying to guess what was in each one. Madelyn stood behind them, unnoticed and opened her mouth: “I love you all so much” she said, but they didn’t hear her. She watched silently as they started ripping packages apart, tissue paper flying everywhere, floating down like snow in a Christmas snow globe.
Jeannette Garrett is a freelance writer and a former staffer for an international magazine who is now focusing on fiction. She has participated in numerous workshops at Inprint and Writespace in Houston, Texas, where she resides.
* * *
By Paul Germano
Lily Nguyen closes her bedroom door. But still, she can hear them. As usual, her parents are unhappy, their weary voices, ripe with frustration. They are in the kitchen, seated at the table, where the air is thick, arguing about what color to repaint the living room. Her mother has it narrowed down to Seafoam Green, Turquoise Haze or something “yummy” called Lemon Sorbet. Her father scoffs at her mother’s use of “yummy” and tells her “we’ve got to paint the damn walls with it, not eat it.” He couldn’t care less and makes no bones about it. “Just pick a damn color already,” he tells his wife.
“It’s your living room too; I want you to have a say in the choice,” she tells her husband in a demanding tone.
“Hey, I don’t care; I just really don’t care,” her father says with a heavy sigh, followed by an even heavier sigh from her mother. “Okay, fine,” he tells his wife in a disinterested voice, “let’s go with the damn yellow.”
Lily hears something slam down hard on the kitchen table and makes an educated guess that it’s her mother’s coffee mug. “Lemon Sorbet,” her mother says in a snippy tone. “It’s called Lemon Sorbet!”
Lily tries her best to block out their bickering and thinks instead about school, specifically Chemistry class. She used to hate science, absolutely hate it, but not anymore. Chemistry class was so much fun today. Thoughts of her Chemistry teacher make her body tingle; she thinks she is falling in love.
She positions herself in front of her bedroom mirror. She is still wearing the blouse she wore at school today. It’s one she truly likes, both for its color, Robin’s Egg Blue, and for the feel of its silky texture. “That’s a great color on you,” her Chemistry teacher had told her after class while Lily lingered by the teacher’s desk. “Thanks, it’s one of my favorite tops; it’s a silk blend,” Lily had shyly said in response. She wishes she was in the classroom right now. She closes her eyes and pictures her Chemistry teacher. Her sweet thoughts are interrupted by the sniping in the kitchen, which is getting louder.
“Stop trying to guilt me about the damn color of the effin walls!” her father shouts. “Guilt you?” her mother grumbles in a defensive tone. “Asking your opinion about paint, is guilting you? Well shame on you, you stupid ass! And shame on your arrogant attitude!”
Lily covers her ears with her hands for a quick moment as if such a futile gesture could actually block out their bickering voices, then laughs at her own foolishness. She re-focuses her mind on her joyful day at school. Yes, a compliment in class today from her Chemistry teacher; she smiles at the thought of it and sees from her own reflection in the mirror that she is blushing slightly. She begins to unbutton her blouse, lingering on each button. She unfastens her bra; she is wearing the Peach colored one today. She lets it slide off her shoulders and watches as the bra drops down to the carpeting. Her bedroom carpeting, wall-to-wall and Egg Shell White, is fairly new. Her mother told her she could choose any color “your little heart desires” and then strongly advised against the color that Lily chose. “Gee honey, I don’t know,” her mother had told her, shaking her head from side to side, “that color, Egg Shell White, it’s going to be awfully hard for you to keep clean.” Lily looks down, right now, at the carpeting and thinks to herself that the rug is in desperate need of a good shampooing and that maybe, just maybe, her mother was absolutely right.
Returning her attention back to the mirror, Lily smiles coyly at her own reflection. She thinks about her amazing Chemistry teacher, so charming, so sexy, so utterly mesmerizing. “Oh Miss Madison, she says in a whisper. She doesn’t know Miss Madison’s first name and decides she should find out. But for now, she is content with calling her Miss Madison. She cups her own breasts and imagines they are slightly larger, more buoyant; she imagines they are Miss Madison’s beautiful breasts. She squeezes them hard and then squeezes them again even harder. She closes her eyes and feels no shame.
Paul Germano’s fiction (flash and otherwise) has been published in roughly 30 print and online magazines including The Aroostook Review, Boston Literary Magazine, The Fictional Café, Vestal Review and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana. His story “Sweet Land of Liberty” was published in 2012 in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.
* * *
Someone Is Always Gone
By Dante Modaffari
I sneak into your home when you leave. I don’t steal anything; I just live there. When you are at work I walk around and live as you live. I sit in your chair and read your magazines. I go through your drawers and find your sex toys. I know where your drugs are. When you come home you wonder: “Now did I leave that there?” You didn’t. I live in the neighbor’s house when you come home. Someone is always gone. I’ll come back eventually and throw water on the cat. I ate the rest of the ice cream, but I’ll wash the silverware. I am in your home when you’re not there and I do what I want: I live. I feed your dog. I sleep in your bed. I sleep in your daughter’s bed and I come all over the sheets. I think your carpet’s depressing. Your son questions the new high scores. If something got spilled, blame me. If you thought you locked the door, you did. I drank the last soda. I smoked the last cigarette. I looked at your porn and I wasn’t thrilled. Your neighbors aren’t as fucked up as you are. Your neighbors have pictures of your wife. I live in your home when no one is there and I stand with the fridge wide open and I think about things that have nothing to do with the food. All the sneakers have been rearranged. I reset your alarm clock. I am 12:00, flashing. I am in your bed and I am in your life. I deleted all your shows. When your daughter leaves homework out, I do it. All her answers are wrong. I practice your penmanship and I hate the coffee you buy. I don’t like your music either but sometimes I find a good song and listen to it in the bath, when I waste your expensive stuff. I smell like you. Your daughter wants to know who refolded her clothes. You wonder why the dog’s fat. You wonder why you’re uneasy when you go on vacation. Don’t. I’m coming inside and I do what you do and I leave everything warm to the touch and you are very, very disturbed by it. A house sheds everything, like a snake. Even you. I go into your garage and fiddle with the tools. I tangle the Christmas lights. I step into the car and roar the engine. I wrote that message on the mirror, I ate that last piece of pizza. I am you while you’re away: you’re not needed. I readjusted the tint, because you don’t know how to watch TV. You should go out with the neighbors more often. I fling your wife’s panties across the room and bury my face in her underwear. When I take a shit I imagine: I am you. It’s easy to step into other people’s lives because all Americans are alike; none of them go outside the prescribed lines. You don’t think for yourself and your life is no mystery. I see you...because I see your stuff. Your son’s key just hit the lock—I have to go. You should vacuum more.
Dante Modaffari is a writer from Anchorage, Alaska.
* * *
Feeding the Hurt
By David Rae
I found the tiniest of things lying on the pavement as I walked past. It was so tiny that I almost never saw it. I almost stepped on it, but I saw it just in time. I picked it up and held it in my hand and felt it tremble. It was so frail I could have crushed it in an instant. I could have made an end of it then and there. But instead, I lifted it up and slipped it into my pocket where it made little, chirping noises. When I got home, I put it in a box lined with cotton wool and pushed the lid over. I could hear it singing softly to itself. That night, I turned off the light; I lifted the lid and looked in. The little thing was still alive. I reached in and stroked it gently. Two dark eyes stared back at me. From a small bottle, I filled a dropper with inky blackness and let it drip, drip, drip into the tiny thing’s mouth. I picked it up and settled it in close to my chest. I could feel my own heart beating slow while the tiny thing’s pulse raced. I held it close all night and kept it warm.
In the morning the tiny thing was still alive. I lifted it gently and put it back in the box where it would be safe from sunlight and brightness. I hoped it would still be alive when I got home.
After work I took a cab home, and when I opened the door, I could hear it calling to me, and so I pulled the curtains close and lifted the box from under the bed. It was waiting for me and opened its mouth demanding to be fed.
For the first few days, drops of darkness were all that it needed, but as it grew, it needed more solid food. I chipped little spikes of resentment into bite sized pieces and used a pair of hair tweezers to feed the thing. Each morsel was devoured with relish and delight, and then it demanded more and more.
It continued to grow, and I started to measure it with a sewing tape. Some days it would grow by almost an inch. Soon it would be too big to stay in the shoebox during the day. I cleaned out my cupboard and made a space beneath my hanging shirts and suits where it could nestle during the day away from any danger. At night it would curl up on my bed like the black dog. I could feel its warm breath on my face and the weight of it growing heavier and heavier on my chest. It was all so comforting.
It was hungrier than ever. Now it gulped down whole pieces of anger that I held up, and, when it sat to attention, I would drop the anger down for it to snap and tear. It loved to get its teething into tough, hard anger. It preferred cold anger, but would happily eat it hot if that was all I had to give it. After it had fed, it would lie down and sleep while I sang to it gently. Music seemed to calm the thing, but thankfully my voice is harsh and tuneless. Now it was too big to measure with a tape. I made it sit by the door frame and marked its height with charcoal. Each day the marks were higher and higher. I was so proud of the thing. I could hardly believe what I had done. At nights I would sit and watch as it basked in the darkness. It would roll over me in waves and wrap itself around me in cool, smooth coils. I took all my anger and all my resentment and gave it to the thing.
“How beautiful you are,” I whispered.
It was my most valued possession. If I could, I would have kept it with me always. When I left during the day, I worried about it. I longed to get back to it and to be with it. Sometimes, for a treat, I would bring home hate and put it down on the floor wrapped in newspaper, raw and bloodied for it to eat. It would come and sniff the hate, at first unsure then it would take the hate in its mouth and throw back its head a swallow the hate down whole.
The hate I bought was strong and highly spiced. I could see that the thing’s coat became thick
and luscious with bristling resentment. I buried my finger in the things coat, twisting it into thick ropes.
“Stay with me forever,” I whispered. I pulled the dark thing to me and embraced it, and in return it looked at me with its dark eyes as if to say. “Yes, forever.”
Once, someone came back to the flat with me. It hid behind the couch while we sat talking. After my visitor had left, it wouldn’t come out until I fed it with a whole pile of rage. It took me days and days to find enough rage. I had to sit at street corners and collect as much discard anger as I could find, but even that was tainted with regret that I had to pick out. I never let anyone else into where I lived after that. From now on it would be just me and the thing. That’s the way I wanted my life to be; just the two of us. And it felt the same way too.
Now it was fully grown it could have left at any time. It could have slipped out into the night while I slept but it never. It stayed with me because we belonged together; me, the thing, darkness, envy, hate, rage, resentment. There was no room for anyone or anything else in my life. Finally, it had grown big enough to consume me completely. Now we were always together. It held me in the palm of its hand, and if it wanted, it could have crushed me in an instant.
David lives in Scotland. He loves the stories just below the surface of things, like deep water.
He has most recently had work published in: Helios Quarterly, Gnu Magazine, The Machinery, Three Drops From The Cauldron, Summer Fling -Tales Of Seduction, Short Tale 100 And 50 Word Stories.
* * *
Anna and Molly
By Robert Penick
Anna Wilson stands in the middle of the Conway Road Dog Park. In one hand, she holds a leash attached to Molly the Wonder Dog, an obese beagle afflicted with an unusual and aggressive skin condition. In her other hand, she holds a paper bag full of dog poop. Anna is three months behind on her rent, her car is in the shop for the second time in six weeks, and last night at work she received a layoff notice. It seems that the worldwide market for disco balls is not what it used to be. To top it off, it is raining, and her paper bag is turning into a distended, lumpy mass.
Things are actually looking up for Anna. In one hundred and ninety-three days she will win a lottery jackpot worth just over 100 million dollars. Her financial problems will be solved, her future assured. Molly will visit Albany Animal Hospital, the veterinary equivalent of the Mayo Clinic. Within three months she will have a full, shiny coat. And, at this very moment, Lt. Rene Durand, just mobbed out of the French Foreign Legion, is boarding an Air France flight that will take him to the United States. The two lovebirds shall meet and the rest, as they say, will be history.
But right now, the paper bag has succumbed to the various forces of nature and dropped a grenade of Molly-poop directly onto Anna’s right foot. She is wearing open-toed sandals. It does not concern or vex her. This is simply the way things have been going. Lightning flashes and she thinks;
“Yeah? Well, here I am.”
The work of Robert L. Penick has appeared in over 100 different literary journals, including The Hudson Review, North American Review, and The California Quarterly. He lives in Louisville, KY, USA, with his free-range box turtle, Sheldon, and edits Ristau, a tiny literary annual.
* * *
Shadow on the Sundial
By Shelley Smithson
She lies in bed, the Midwestern morning light highlighting the surprisingly few wrinkles on her eighty-five-year-old face. Her expression is neither of contentment nor sadness, but some space in between, an affect that has been emanating from her face for much of the past eighteen months—An acceptance? A peacefulness? A resignation? One would think that the daughter would have a strong intuition about what that withered quiet look means or hints at, but frankly, I am mystified, if not angry at times. I want to shake that increasingly frail frame and ask, “What are you thinking about inside your head? What memories are floating around?” I want to know when she is going to start talking again, more than her small utterances here and there of one or two words. I want to yell, “Do you remember that Dad has died?” because maybe that’s part of what is going on here. Mostly, I want to scream, “How can we help? Clue us in!”
Life goes on as usual, at least for what “usual” has become. In attending to her needs, there are twelve-hour-a-day care shifts, with a sibling living at the house as well. Then, there are the visits I occasionally make, my face staring out the train window as I approach Chicago from Michigan, watching all those verdant fields and picturesque barns, the countryside undulating with life. Then the train winding through the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, and finally slowing down to snake through the south side of Chicago into the myriad of tracks that mark the end of the line. Then, to the suburban train and out to the quiet tree-lined streets and into the house that has the slight stench of urine mixed with the smell of body lotion that reminds me that I am the daughter of a mother who is, for all intents and purposes, paralyzed, except for her face and neck, living in a bedroom that serves as the sundial for my mother’s life. As the caregiver prepares and feeds meals, turns my mother, rubs her gently with lotion, talks soothingly to her in her melodic Haitian accent, and is the most successful of all of us in getting my mother to express herself verbally, the light changes on those bedroom walls, highlighting the Mexican artwork in the morning and casting shadows on the African art in the afternoon, and bathing the room in a golden hue at dusk. The volumes of books on nightstands and shelves show a thick layer of dust.
The visits grow depressing and the inevitable begins to intrude. Conversations lead to worries about finances, as the payment for care and maintenance of the home is a staggering monthly cost, hence the ultimate decision to sell the beloved home of my parents, a home they had designed and built, every square inch telling their story.
The reality is that a declining life, of what quality we cannot measure, is persevering and the bank account is getting frighteningly lean. Where will my mother live if not in the home she has loved with all her being, a house that tells her story within every square inch of it? The sale of her home will yield funds for her continued life, a life that is defying all the odds and marching on in some semblance of comfort and meaning.
And so it is that life-altering decisions have to be made. I know that the act of kindness would be to move her, if possible, to a family home, my home being the easiest to access, just four hours from Chicago. Yet, through the years of connection, there has been the caustic sarcasm, the sadness of her too-early-in-life aneurysm, her strange detachment over the years, the intellectual whip of her mind, and her own form of loving—it is all there with an edge I choose not to confront. We opt for searching for a skilled nursing home instead, with my stunningly clear awareness that I am not moving on a plan to bring her to my home. My brothers have no expectation that my house would be the next landing in the journey, yet I rake myself on the insides with criticism and self-contempt.
We are all on board. On the day of the move, my mother loves the ride over to the nursing home, clearly not yet comprehending the impending turn of events, smiling at the handsome broad-shouldered men taking such fine care of her. The medical transport ambulance has such shiny fine equipment, all designed to save or extend life. Within minutes, it seems, my mother is transferred to a bed in a quiet, somewhat austere room with a large window. I am thrilled with the window until I realize that, although daylight will pour in on my mother, her apparent lack of visual depth will mean she won’t see the far-off trees with their soothing foliage. She might not even see the few pieces of framed art or the large pottery planter we have brought from her bedroom to make her feel more at home. If she could see these, would they simply be sad tokens of a life now behind her, forever?
For fourteen weeks, there are visits, there are calls, and a constant churning that I feel in trying to make a skilled nursing facility feel like a home. There’s her skin that erupts with blisters, a geriatric skin condition often associated with stress in the elderly. The rash evades any treatment. And the food is all pureed. And no matter the instructions we impart to staff for music to be kept on, or chocolate to be given from the treats we leave, or meals to be fed without hurry, our wishes are not attended to with much adherence. Fourteen weeks of this, of not having been able to absorb the shock of the change that has been imposed on her, my mother is now dead.
Shelley Smithson is a female writer and psychologist, practicing as a psychotherapist full time in East Lansing, MI. She holds a BA in Spanish, and a PhD in Counseling Psychology. She writes for both children and adults. Previous work has appeared in The Sun, Garfield Lake Review and Psychological Bulletin.
* * *
What's Not to Like
By Phillip Sterling
I was packing a backcountry trail when a seagull blocked my way, perched on an aerosol can as if it were a wharf. You look like the rustic type, he said, all woolshirt and Timberlanes. Have I got a deal for you. No thanks, I said quickly. I recognized the pitch, everywhere the same—urban, rural, wilderness. But the seagull ignored me. Liking it, he said, picking up and putting down his foot, one eye focused on mine. I’m sorry? I said. You will be, he said, his one foot up and down. Liking it, he repeated. I could let you in on the ground floor, if you don’t mind the pun. The pun? I said. Lichen, he said, from a can, just spray it on. Makes woodwork look natural in minutes. He gestured to the fructicose, the tree’s beard. All natural, he repeated, I make it myself. Oh, I said, “Lichen It.” I get it. But no. I stepped around him. I refused to be seen as gullible.
Phillip Sterling’s most recent book is And Then Snow (Main Street Rag 2017). He is also the author of the story collection In Which Brief Stories Are Told (Wayne State University Press) and his flash fiction has won international recognition, including selection for Best Small Fictions 2017.
* * *
[XX] LUME by S. Martin
S. Martin read his first comic (Peanuts) on the seat of a Farmall Super M, and although locations have changed, the reading continues. He frequently haunts libraries and teaches at a community college.
Shadow Speak by Archita Mittra
Archita Mittra is a wordsmith, visual artist, and tarot card reader with a love for all things vintage and darkly fantastical. She can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and at Architamittra.
PILSEN SUITE Revisited by J. Ray Paradiso
J. Ray Paradiso is a recovering academic in the process of refreshing himself as an experimental writer and a street photographer.