Foliate Oak October 2018
A Promising Officer
By Tamar Anolic
Lt. Colonel Robert Graypool struggled to pay attention. His commanding officer, General Robert Buchanan, was speaking about incorporating the Fifth Military District back into the Union. “It’s clear now that Louisiana will reenter first,” Buchanan said. “Texas has always been its own world.”
Buchanan’s voice sounded far away as the New Orleans heat and humidity clouded Graypool’s thoughts. All he could think about was the wrenching pain in his chest and stomach. Graypool stared at the floor as the memory of two bodies, covered in white sheets, flashed through his mind. Then he saw the doctor’s hand, writing the date on the death certificate- May 15, 1868…
“Lt. Colonel Graypool!” Buchanan’s voice cut through Graypool’s thoughts.
The room was silent as all of the officers there looked from Buchanan to Graypool. Graypool looked up at Buchanan as confusion buzzed through his brain.
“I asked you a question,” Buchanan said.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Graypool replied. “I didn’t hear it.”
Buchanan looked around the room. “Would the rest of you give us a minute?”
“Yes, sir,” came the unanimous reply, and the room was filled with the sound of men standing and leaving.
When the room was silent again, Buchanan fixed his eyes on Graypool. “Bobby, you are quartermaster of this district, and our supplies are of the utmost importance,” he said. “I know you’ve been through a lot recently, but I need you to do your job.”
“I no longer care about my job,” Graypool snapped before he could command his tongue to stay still. He stared down at his hands as remorse rose within him. The silence lengthened. Graypool felt sweat dripping down his torso and a lump forming in his throat. “I am sorry, sir,” he said finally. When he looked up at Buchanan, the general was looking at him sympathetically.
“Bobby, would it help if the funeral for Rose and the baby were up in New York rather than here? I know your family is still there.”
Graypool took a deep breath as he contemplated the answer. “Yes,” he said finally. “It would help.”
The next day, Graypool began his journey to the Hudson River Valley. Two coffins were in the train’s cargo hold. One coffin was a large one for Rose; the second was a smaller one for the child they never had a chance to name. Graypool relied on his main flask, and then a second one, to get through the long, slow journey. As the train moved, his mind went back to the scene, only a week earlier, that had caused him so much pain.
* * *
Graypool and his best friend, Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, stood in the parlor of Graypool’s small home, waiting. Graypool wished he could return to the open plains with his horse and rifle. If I leave, though, Rose will kill me, he thought. This is our first child. He took another drag of his cigar, hoping it would calm him. Instead, he found himself weaving the cigar through his fingers to distract himself, making certain that the burning end did not come in contact with his skin.
Mackenzie watched him with amusement. “You’re going to start a fire if you aren’t careful,” he said.
Graypool shook his head. “No, I won’t.”
“Just like you didn’t start one at West Point the first year we roomed together, keeping a candle running past Taps so that you could study longer.”
“That was your initiative!” Graypool squawked, but he and Mackenzie were already laughing. Even so, Graypool could feel anxiety crawling at the pit of his stomach like a hill of ants. Then the head midwife appeared in the doorway. Graypool, seeing her expression, felt a new wave of anxiety hit him like a winter gale. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” the midwife began.
Graypool felt his jaw clench. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mackenzie stiffen. “What happened?” he asked forcefully.
“I’m sorry,” the midwife said again. “It was a difficult birth. The baby didn’t make it.”
“Oh my God,” Graypool said. In an instant, his limbs started working, and he ran for the door. “Rose!”
* * *
The funeral, when it happened, did little to change Graypool’s mood. Its only benefit was to make him feel that it was his duty to return to work. Once he had sent a telegram to General Buchanan, however, Graypool felt his resolve slipping away as fast as the summer heat was rising. Instead of beginning his trek south, Graypool simply rode off into the woods.
After several miles of riding amidst the dappled foliage, Graypool almost felt human again. To hell with that telegram, he thought. I’ll just stay here awhile. He rode on until he came to a camp of cabins that allowed rental by the day, week and month. He paid for two weeks up front, no longer caring about his duties down south. The United States Army doesn’t need another lieutenant colonel that will never amount to anything.
Seven nights later, he still had not found the peace for which he was searching. Instead, he was awake in the middle of the night, sweating from the heat even in the darkness. He rolled over and instantly regretted it- straw, poking through his ancient mattress, scratched his neck and face. His tiny cabin’s windows were open, and the night’s humidity rolled through them like fog. For a minute, Graypool listened to the night and heard nothing but crickets. Good, he thought. His fingers curled around the cool whiskey bottle that was on the small table next to his head. It was only when he lifted the bottle and felt its weightlessness that he remembered that it was empty. Shit.
Graypool put the bottle down and looked at his revolver. It gleamed, and for the first time, Graypool was aware of the moonlight that poured through the windows. Graypool ran his hand over the gun, knowing how quickly one of its bullets would end his pain. Suddenly, he heard something outside the cabin- the crunch of horses’ hooves on the ground, the sounds of men dismounting. He drew himself up on the bed, his heart pounding.
A minute later, a light tapping sounded at the cabin door. Graypool reached for his watch. It’s after midnight, he thought. That can’t be anyone but a highwayman. Sweat poured down his face. Then, to his surprise, someone spoke.
“Colonel Graypool,” a man’s voice said. “Are you awake?”
It’s Lt. Colonel, Graypool thought. I’m not going to live to make Colonel. He remained silent, trying to decide what to do. His thoughts were interrupted by a different voice.
“Bobby, if you don’t open the door, I’m coming in,” Colonel Mackenzie warned from outside. “I will not let you end your life, and I will not let you spend the rest of your life in this cabin, either.”
For a moment, Graypool said nothing. Then the doorknob turned. The door was pushed open, and true to his word, Mackenzie was standing in the doorway. General Buchanan was standing behind him, holding a small candelabra whose flames cast an orange glow outward. For a minute, the glow danced on the sides of the empty whiskey bottle that Graypool wished were full.
Shit, Graypool thought when he saw his commanding officer. He really shouldn’t see me out of uniform. Then he remembered, almost as an afterthought, that he was officially absent without leave. I guess that ends my career, he thought. He stood up unsteadily. My legs feel like jelly, he thought. He took a deep breath and hoped that his words came out without being slurred. “I’m sorry, sir,” he began, directing the words at General Buchanan. I’ll deal with Mackenzie in a minute.
Buchanan looked at Graypool sympathetically. “Bobby, I need you back at the Fifth District,” he said. “You’re a fine man, and there will be many opportunities coming your way. I’d hate to see you lose sight of your future.”
Graypool eyed him, and it was clear he did not believe his words.
“I mean it,” Buchanan said. “There have been a lot of changes in the Army since the end of the war, and I’ve put your name in for a promotion in one of the newly created Indian Reservations.”
“Yes, yours. But you’ll have to make sure you get back to the Fifth District to remain eligible for it.”
Buchanan continued to eye Graypool. “What are your travel plans?”
“I will leave first thing in the morning.” He doesn’t expect me to leave right now, does he? Graypool wondered. There’s no way I’d stay in my saddle.
Buchanan nodded. “That is fine,” he said. Then he looked at Mackenzie, nodded once, and disappeared.
As soon as Buchanan was gone, Graypool collapsed back onto his bed. Mackenzie dragged the cabin’s single chair over to the side of the bed and sat down. He lit the only candle that was on the small table. Then he looked at Graypool and held out a canteen filled with water. Graypool eyed the canteen. Then he looked back at Mackenzie, and his eyes said, you must be joking.
“I’m serious,” Mackenzie said. “You need to sober up if you’re going to be on the road at first light.”
Graypool groaned. “I can’t believe I suggested that.”
“It was the best response you could have made, given the circumstances. Probably saved your career.”
“Going AWOL is a serious offence, Bobby,” Mackenzie said. “General Buchanan was only sympathetic because of what you’re going through. He would have had you court-marshaled otherwise.”
Graypool looked at Mackenzie, trying to decide if he was serious. When he decided his friend was not joking, he sat up and took the canteen. The water was warm but it still felt good against his parched throat. “How did you find me here?” he asked.
“It’s not far from where you asked Rose to marry you,” Mackenzie said. “It didn’t take a genius to figure out that you would come here.”
“Am I really that transparent?” Graypool asked after he had downed more of the tepid water.
“I wouldn’t call you transparent,” Mackenzie replied. “Just grieving.”
Graypool sighed as he stood up and went to the window. He heard crickets chirping as a faint breeze swept through the trees. “I’ve made such a mess of things,” he said.
“It could be worse,” Mackenzie said. “And if you’re on time leaving for the Fifth District, Buchanan will forget this whole episode.”
Finally, Graypool turned to look at Mackenzie. “What about you?” he asked.
“What about me?”
“You’re in charge of the Fourth Cavalry. What are they going to do without a commander?”
“They will listen to the orders of the officer I left charge.” Mackenzie stood up. “This is really important to me, Bobby. We go back a long way and you’re a promising officer. I don’t want to see you throw your life away.”
Graypool shrugged. I can’t be that promising if I haven’t been promoted as fast as you have, he thought. He said nothing, however, and silence filled the small cabin.
Mackenzie eyed him. “Promise me you’ll be ready to go in the morning?”
Graypool nodded. “I will be.”
“Yes, I mean it.”
“Good.” Mackenzie headed for the door.
The next morning, Graypool awoke with a pounding headache. He winced as he sat up. Across the cabin, the gray light of dawn was just beginning to seep through the window. Slowly, Graypool pulled his aching body out of bed, stripped off his nightclothes and put on his uniform. I’m going to be ready to move out if it’s the last thing I do, he thought.
For a second, he stared at one of the buttons on his uniform. I don’t actually know if I want to go back to my regiment, he realized. But if Buchanan was not bluffing, a change in scenery will do me good- especially if it means a promotion and being in command somewhere. Graypool finished dressing, gathered his belongings, and headed outside to where he had tied up his horse.
Mackenzie came riding up just as Graypool exited the cabin. “If I hadn’t seen you riding up, I would have thought you stayed out here all night,” Graypool said. Even if I am glad to see him.
Mackenzie looked amused. “I’m just making sure you keep your promise,” he said.
Graypool nodded silently as he saddled his horse.
When he was finished, General Buchanan rode up. He nodded at Mackenzie, who smiled in return. “Are you ready to go?” Buchanan asked Graypool.
“Yes, sir, I am,” Graypool responded and hauled himself onto his horse.
Mackenzie looked at him. “If you need anything else, you know where to find me,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” Graypool said.
“I mean it, Bobby.”
Mackenzie touched his cap, gave his horse a kick, and rode off. Graypool and Buchanan looked at each other and simultaneously gave their reigns a pull. Then they rode south, on their way to the nearest railway station.
It was only when Graypool felt the jostling of the train as they rode that he finally began looking forward to reaching New Orleans, and to whatever opportunities lay beyond that. He took a deep breath and could smell the humidity of the summer air. Maybe getting back to work will do me some good, he thought. His mind replayed the sound of Taps as evening fell, the sound of rifles at target practice, the feel of many men riding together on horseback. Army life, he thought. I can’t live without it.
Tamar’s short stories have been published in The Copperfield Review, The Sandy River Review and The Helix. Her books include the nonfiction biography The Russian Riddle and the novels The Last Battle and Triumph of a Tsar.
* * *
By Paul Lewellan
“Erotic deviance is as specially human as are murder, humor, fantasy, competitive sports, art, or cooking.” --Robert J. Stoller in Perversion
Ginger Morgan left the party early but took the path behind the house only as far as Cricket Creek. She parked her wheelchair and lifted herself onto the cedar bench. Wrapped in a Green Bay Packers fleece, she waited. As expected, Douglas Ellison arrived carrying an ice bucket filled with cans of Dorothy’s New World Lager.
“How’s the celebration going?” she asked. Ginger was Barbara Prescott’s younger sister. She lived in the downstairs of the sprawling suburban home. Shouts and laughter came from the pool deck where the party continued to rage.
“They’re arguing over which game to play.”
“We both know how that will end,” Ginger mused. “They’ll decide to play Pictionary, but it will morph into Team Strip Pictionary.”
“I know, I know,” he said shaking his head.
“You know, after the games, inevitably some drunken husband misplaces his wife and comes knocking on the sliding glass doors of my walkout.”
“He tells me he’s too drunk to drive home and pleads for me to invite him in since all the upstairs beds and couches are occupied.”
“Does he think you’ll be flattered?”
She patted the bench and Doug sat down beside her. “He assumes ‘crippled girls’ are easy.”
He handed Ginger a beer. “That ignores the obvious….”
“You’re not an ordinary “crippled girl.” You’re a disturbingly bright, smoking hot, big busted crippled girl.”
“Is that why you’re here, instead of at the games?” Ginger popped open the beer.
Doug wore Michael Kohrs khakis, Keen hiking sandals, and a tailored shirt. Most male party-goers dressed in aloha shirts and jams. “A game of Truth or Dare at the last cookout cost me my fiancé.”
“Truth can bite you in the ass.”
Ginger’s brother-in-law, Bill Prescott, was President of the Neighborhood Association and a generous party host. He served craft beers and burgers, brats and rotisserie chicken from his finely tuned Weber Summit six-burner grill. His wife, Barbara, was the mixologist and social director.
This evening the guests gathered under an awning on the patio. Protected from the mist that fell in lieu of the predicted thunderstorms, they readied themselves for Game Time. That’s when Douglas, noting Ginger’s absence and headed down the path into the trees that separated the back yard from the Prairie Links golf course.
Doug and Ginger drank in silence until lightning flashed and the thunderclap that followed made them jump. “That was close. Maybe you should go inside?” Doug didn’t say it with conviction.
“Maybe you should go home,” she teased. “Oh, that’s right,” she said, feigning surprise, “you brought Jayden, and she’s probably not ready to leave.” Ginger took a long slow pull from the can. There was another lightning flash.
“For the record, I came alone. Your brother-in-law invited my ex-fiancé. He picked her up on his way home from work.”
“Probably so he could shag her before he put the steaks on.” Ginger took a long cool drink and sighed. The lager was light and subtly hopped.
“Really? Bill and my ex-fiancé…? Does your sister know?”
“You, Douglas Ellison, are such a Boy Scout.” She sat up straight on the bench. “Swing that over here, would you?” She motioned to her wheelchair. “We need to talk.”
Douglas gripped the chair while Ginger pushed herself up from the bench with her muscular arms and positioned herself in the Karma lightweight chair so that she could face him. “My upper body strength surprises people.”
She wore an ankle-length Guatemalan skirt woven with a rich array of purples and bright blues and brilliant whites. A shimming blue turtleneck shell hugged her figure. In deference to the cool night air, she wore a lavender long-sleeved over-blouse. She draped the fleece over her lap. “Tell me again why you’re here instead of at the party.”
“Jayden loves the games, not me. She can out drink any man shot for shot, has an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane trivia, and had once dealt blackjack in the Pussycat Pit at Caesars in Las Vegas.”
“Which is where you met her….”
“I was in Vegas for a Fraud Conference. After a day of meetings, I found myself at the blackjack table where she was dealing. I was up $3500 by the time her shift ended. As she stepped away from the table, she whispered her cell phone number. She knew I was good with numbers. I waited 20 minutes before I called, so as not to seem to eager.”
“And at what point did this become more than a casual hookup?”
Doug shook his head. “I’m not exactly sure. I’ve been told that helping her move to Illinois my idea, but I don’t think it was.” He noted the expression on Ginger’s face. “Oh, I know I bought an airline ticket, wrote a check for the apartment deposit, and slapped down some plastic for her ‘interview suit’….”
“You asked her to marry you.”
“That was a gigantic error….” A cheer erupted from the pool area, followed by applause. He turned toward the noise.
“Barbara wanted to play Heads or Tails. I suspect she got her way.” Ginger paused. “At Northwestern we called it Flip, Sip or Strip.”
“I don’t know that game.”
“It’s one everybody can play even if they are really really stupid.” There was another cheer and more applause. “Barbara positions people in two lines facing each other, alternating male and female. The first person flips a coin and calls heads or tails. If she is right, the coin is passed to the person on her right. If she is wrong, she passes the coin to the left and either takes off a piece of clothing or drinks a shot. The catch is that you can’t do the same thing (sip or strip) more than twice in a row.”
“That’s the perfect game for Jayden. When men are drunk and naked, they will do anything for her.”
“And now you understand my brother-in-law’s marriage.”
“You don’t like him very much, do you?”
“I’m not very fond of my sister either.”
“That surprises me.” Ginger provided no explanation. “I mean it was generous of them to let you live in the basement apartment.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Ginger set down her beer. “I own the house. The lower level where I live is a zero-access suite with a full sauna, training room, and whirlpool. I allow them to live upstairs and charge a modest rent which they can barely afford because of their Lifestyle choices.”
“Parties, couples cruises, sex therapy….” She stopped. “I let them pretend they own the place.”
“It costs me nothing, but it’s very important to them.” She shifted in her seat. “My late husband Wayne was Bill’s college roommate. The night of the car accident we’d had supper with Bill and Barbara, but left after an argument. We came over a hill, and a Package Perfect driver trying to meet a delivery deadline missed a stop sign and broadsided us. Wayne and our five-year-old son were killed instantly. I was crushed against the driver’s side door: broken bones in my pelvis, shoulder blade, left leg and arm, my head slammed against the driver’s side window.”
“You were lucky to be alive.”
“I didn’t feel lucky at the time.” Ginger pulled another can of beer from the ice bucket and popped it open. Doug did the same. “I remained in a coma for two months, and when I woke up my son and husband were dead and buried, and I was a wealthy woman. Between the two life-insurance policies and my husband’s pension fund, I’ll never have to work again. The settlement from Package Perfect bought the house and pays for my medical bills and therapy. Plus, now I have my writing.”
Ginger shifted in her wheelchair and adjusted the fleece. “I came out of the coma… different. You can’t rough up a brain like that and expect it to remain the same.” She raised the beer to drink, but then thought better of it. “The things I used to do well, like math, weren’t so easy any more. I was told I’d never walk again. Everything in the world looked different.”
“Did you remember why you were arguing?”
“I did not,” Ginger sighed, “but in a surprising burst of candor my sister filled in that blank.” Another outburst from the party startled them. A woman squealed, and there was applause. “Apparently Bill and Barbara had decided monogamy was an outdated social construct. They wanted a polyamorous marriage, which was why they’d invited Wayne and I over for supper, to make us an offer. I respectfully declined.” There was lightning in the distance, and the mist in the air turned to light rain. “Let’s retreat to my place.” Before Doug could respond, Ginger was already rolling down the path.
As they skirted the house he caught glimpses of the festivities through the slats in the pool fence. There were two lines of party goers in varying states of undress. Jayden, clothed in a red lace bra and panty set, seemed to be the center of attention. Bill was down to his boxers.
“They seem to be having fun.”
“That’s good, because it’s their last party at my house.” Ginger stopped her wheelchair and waited for Doug to catch up. “I’m evicting them. I contacted a lawyer. They’ll be served papers on Monday while I’m in New York with my publisher.”
Doug handed her the beer bucket and began pushing the chair. “That will come as a bit of a shock to my ex-fiancée. Jayden thinks Bill is loaded. This house, the parties he throws….”
“It’s all bullshit.” Ginger sighed. “My sister is even worse. I overheard her talking to one of their creditors. She explained my medical issues and suggested that the reason she’d fallen behind of her payments was because she was helping with my medical bills. That was when I decided….”
When they arrived at the sliding glass doors to her walk-in, she removed a key from the pouch on the side of the wheelchair. “I have limited movement,” she explained as she unlocked the door and slid it open. She entered, then turned to face him once he was inside and had closed the door. “But I do have nerves and sensations below my waist, and a complete sexual response.”
Doug looked down at her in the chair. “That’s probably more information than I need to know.”
“It may be useful,” she smirked, “in case something comes up….”
“Oh, it’s up,” he admitted. “Full attention. You’re a powerfully attractive woman.”
Ginger waited. “No qualifiers…? No ‘…for someone who’s disabled’?”
“That’s interesting,” she told him as she retreated into her living room. “My sister groups my suitors into two categories. The first group acknowledges my allure, but with the understanding that being wheelchair bound is a deal-breaker for any long-term commitment.” Ginger took a hard look at Douglas. “At first I suspected you were in that category….”
Doug sat down in one of the two Winsor chairs. Now he was at her eye level. “What’s the other type?”
“My sister calls them My Admirers. They ask her for pictures and pump her for information but keep me at a distance. They believe being confined to a chair makes me courageous or brave or noble. How screwed up is that?” A large tabby cat emerged from the hallway and hopped on Ginger’s lap without waiting for an invitation. She began scratching the cat’s neck.
“I met a man at a charity event. Turned out he volunteered—and these are his exact words—‘to meet hot chicks in chairs.’” Doug choked on his beer. “Everything in his apartment was wheelchair accessible. Only after he showed me his photo album, did I realize how sick he was.”
“It’s called Abasiophilla: sexual attraction to partners who use wheelchairs, casts, or braces. And it’s not why I’m attracted to you. And I’m not afraid of commitment.”
“Well Douglas Ellison,” she said, “aren’t you full or surprises?” Ginger pushed the cat off her lap. “Would you like to play doctor?”
“What do you mean?”
“My bedroom has a medical bed that raises and lowers to multiple positions. My closet has bandages, swabs, alcohol wipes, tongue depressors, enema kits, catheters, restraints, uniforms, hospital gowns, clamps, reflex hammers, a Wartenburg pinwheel, stethoscope, Vaseline, butt plugs, latex gloves, and a rectal thermometer. There’s a CD with hospital noises.”
“So, this is your game?”
“It’s called medical play. It can be quite … stimulating.”
“Well, tonight I was hoping to be offered a nightcap and a kiss. Somewhere along the line I lost control.”
“Oh, Douglas, you were never in control.”
He looked startled. “Well, what if I don’t feel like playing doctor?”
“You misunderstand,” she laughed. “I’m the Dom here. It’s my game. Doctor is my role. Although there are other ways to play it….” Ginger began wheeling her chair toward the bedroom. “Lock the front door and close the shades.”
Doug did as he was told.
“Doctors have done horrible things to me,” she admitted when he rejoined her. “Some were necessary evils, but…..” She paused. “I’ve resolved not to put myself in that position again, under a man’s control. It’s you I want, legs spread, feet in stirrups. You game for that?”
“I’m not sure I am.”
“Fair enough.” Once in the bedroom she motioned for him to sit. She threw the blanket off her lap and engaged the brakes. “Let’s negotiate.”
“What do you mean?”
“The point of being a submissive is to submit. But it’s an active role. It doesn’t mean being a doormat. There’s nothing sexy about doormats. We’ll set soft limits, ones that might be negotiated during play; and hard limits, lines that I can’t cross. If I don’t respect them, you should walk away. In submission, if you don’t retain your autonomy, you have nothing.”
“I never thought of a relationship that way.”
“Well, it’s time you started.”
Doug shook his head, trying to clear it. “Aren’t the roles clear cut. The doctor tells the patient to do something. The patient complies.”
“That depends….” Ginger released the brakes and moved the chair until their knees touched. “If I want to be the doctor, you might agree only if…” She struggled to think of a scenario. “Only if you can decide what the doctor wears.”
“Thigh highs, or garters, maybe a white corset under her scrubs.”
“That’s the spirit.” Ginger smiled. “Let’s say you agree to a rectal exam, but draw the line at an enema.”
“If the doctor wants to check my sperm count, but I could insist she help me get the sample.”
“Exactly.” Ginger reached out and took his hands in hers. By now they were both smiling. “You know, I was a sexy broad before the accident….”
“You’re a sexy broad now.”
“I am. But I’m not the same sexy broad I was. And I’ll be honest with you, I wouldn’t mind having my old body back. But that isn’t going to happen.”
There was a series of knocked on her door. He turned toward the door. “Another admirer….”
“Focus, Douglas, focus.” She turned his head back to meet her lips. He broke from the kiss only to begin undressing. She murmured, “Have I mentioned my upper body strength…?”
“I’m ready to be surprised.”
Paul Lewellan lives in Davenport, Iowa, and teaches at a small liberal arts college across the river. His wife, Pamela Druger, is a certified fraud examiner and his best critic. His fiction has appeared most recently in Front Porch Review, The MOON Magazine, The Runcible Spoon, Furtive Dalliance, and Cold Creek Review.
* * *
By Marina Rubin
…Everything was going great. After a week in Barcelona I was on my way to the airport to catch a flight to Santiago de Compostela.
“You must be walking the Camino?” the concierge asked as I was checking out.
“Are you looking for God?”
“No,” I chuckled. “I just like to walk.”
The concierge was very kind, he gave me a print-out of how to get to the airport - 2 stops to Barcelona Sants then transfer for the train to the airport. I was perfectly calm as I made it to Sants, went upstairs to check which platform for the airport shuttle. Track 9-10. I got on the train at track 9 that left on schedule. A bunch of teenagers were frolicking around me. I ate an apple and a piece of chocolate. I thought to double-check if the train was going to the airport and they all said “No.”
I jumped up.
They said not to worry, just take the train back at the next station. But the problem with Barcelona trains is that unlike NY trains that stop every 3-5 minutes, the distance between stations in Spain could easily be 25-30 minutes, and the train I was on was not stopping, it just kept going and going. I looked at my print-out; I had already missed the right train, and will miss the next one and probably the one after that. Since this was a domestic flight I allowed for an extra hour, but not two. Ok Plan B – I thought to myself, get off the train and take a cab to the airport.
When I got off the train it was later than I had hoped. I stood outside the station taking in the 360 view of my surroundings - I was in the middle of New Jersey - a huge parking lot and not a single cab in sight. Sunday afternoon at the height of siesta.
Panic set in.
An old man appeared out of nowhere, I asked him where I could find a cab, he shrugged and pointed at an Ikea-like building. I bolted towards it rolling my suitcase. The security guard standing outside told me to go to the end of the mall and get out on the other side, they might have cabs there. I ran through the mall that resembled an abandoned supermarket in Chernobyl, with every storefront closed and not a single living thing around. The road on the other side was not any better, parked cars and a slumberous village.
I stood on the sidewalk.
I had traveled enough in my life, made tight connecting flights, walked through dodgy alleys to know that I was screwed. Unless there was a helicopter coming to lift me out of here I didn’t see how I was going to make my flight. So I did what any experienced, self-respecting traveler would do - I screamed.
As loud as I could, an earsplitting, desperate, unapologetic howl.
A man crossing the street with his dog stopped and stared at me. I shouted to him if he knew where I could find a cab, he aimed at some distant intersection.
I dashed down the block, yelling, crying, begging God to help me, get me out of here, send me that one freak cab that was dropping off some little old lady at the local doctor’s office, or got lost in this neighborhood, just like me. I ran into an empty restaurant and asked a Chinese girl to call me a cab but she shook her head and directed me towards the road. I continued racing, full-on hysteria now, cursing, sobbing, flagging down random cars on the street. Two women with groceries stopped to help, told me to take a shortcut through the private houses to get to the next intersection. I turned to run towards the houses when I saw him – a young man in a tracksuit and sunglasses, standing on the corner, the doors to his SUV open.
“Airport?! Airport!?” he waved to me.
“Yes,” I ran towards him. “How much?”
Without even waiting for response, I jumped in his car.
I settled in the front seat as he threw my suitcase in the trunk. He pressed on the gas and we flew down sleeping streets of Catalonia. I was talking nonstop, telling him how this whole thing started, about the wrong train, and the strange mall. I thanked him profusely.
“Tranquilo…Tranquilo,” was all he kept saying.
When I was finally able to catch my breath, I looked around the car - there was no meter or medallion pinned to the windshield, the guy wasn’t a cab driver, he couldn’t answer any questions, he didn’t speak English.
It occurred to me that it’s possible I was being kidnapped, maybe even robbed, raped, killed, it’s possible, yes - I nodded to myself, it’s possible. But can I still make my flight? flashed through my mind on a residual high. I stared ahead at the fleeting roads, the fields, the high-speed motorway, I searched for any signpost or billboard pointing to the airport. I turned my head and examined the stranger’s back seat - a baby chair and a crumpled vest in a highlighter-lime color that gave me a strange sense of comfort.
The young man pointed to the clock and threw a badge in my lap. I held it in my hand and snapped a photo of it with my phone as some kind of evidence. I looked at it closely. An airport employee badge…A highlighter-lime vest in the back seat…He is a baggage handler - I snapped my fingers in revelation! No, it can’t be. It just can’t. This kind of coincidence, the magnitude of magic, the size of miracle...I would sooner believe he was a rapist and a killer than a baggage handler at the airport.
I watched the roads carefully, nail-biting, doubting, shifting, my eyes searching for arrows to the airport, still not believing…Because if that was true - I quickly chalked a mathematical equation in my head - if that was true, if he was indeed a baggage handler, then God exists, and he hears, and he answers and he is so beautiful, so glorious, that he is the most magnificent thing in the world...No it can’t be true. I refused to believe it.
It was only when I saw the wings of the planes in the distance, giant aluminum birds standing on the ground in the afternoon mist, that I shook my head and smiled, proof on the blackboard.
He dropped me off at Terminal 2, Iberia Airlines check-in. He wouldn’t take any money, he handed me my suitcase and jumped back in his car, I sensed he was late for his shift. I looked at my watch - it was exactly the time I would have arrived had I taken the right train. I stood in the sundrenched terminal, swaying, my eyes closed...the most magnificent thing in the world...
Marina Rubin’s work had appeared in over eighty magazines and anthologies including Dos Passos, Nano Fiction, Coal City, Pearl, Worcester Review. She is an editor of Mudfish and a recipient of COJECO Blueprint Fellowship. Her fourth book, a collection of flash fiction Stealing Cherries was released in 2013 to rave reviews.
* * *
Two Poems by Jonathan Bracker
Learning Useful Skills
Miss Michaels, who taught typing
At Sidney Lanier High School
In Houston in 1951, was a terrier
In her classroom’s aisles, at any moment
Appearing at a student‘s shoulder
To observe and, if needed, yap at fingers,
Assuring their young manipulators
That in later life she or he would be grateful
For this skill they were attaining, each at an individual pace.
Miss Michaels was older than the other unmarried lady educators,
More dedicated than most,
No terror, but truly a terrier.
Then cancer stopped her teaching.
At least one student visiting her
In the small but tidy apartment downtown
Which had antimacassars on chair arms and sofa shoulders
Was glad he had summoned the courage needed
To ask if he might come to call;
And thought, raising the rose-patterened cup
To his lips, “I have a feeling
Miss Michaels is a lesbian.“
Why he felt this was true he thought he knew,
That year more deeply discovering himself
Being what in those days was called a pansy
Drinking his sassafras tea, he saw her
More as an older sister than an aunt.
Somebody was hired to take over her class,
And the boy stayed with it and learned to type.
Indeed, he is typing this now,
Surprised and glad sixty-five years later
To remember classroom and apartment, finding
He has not forgotten her name although thinking
Of her seldom after going on to college
And into life. Miss Michaels, yes, that was the lady’s name.
An Old Man Remembers Ruby Parks
He still holds a fondness in his mind
For Mrs. Galdonik, young
Art teacher at his high school
Who either had pointed breasts
Or the sort of pointed brassiere
Some women wore back then.
Her name was Ruby.
She was not short or plump
But vivacious, reminding him
Of Rhonda Fleming, or Lucille Ball
Before Lucy became a comedienne.
That semester, Mrs. Galdonik
Went through a divorce and married Mr. Parks.
The two chaperoned the speech team
At an out-of-town tournament once;
The boy he was then
Went on that excursion.
Mr. Parks was handsome
As Joe Palooka and Ruby was happier
(Though she had seemed content
To be Mrs. Galdonik.) Going to the meet,
The Parks sat at the front of the rented bus,
Turning around often to smile at debaters
And oral interpreters.
He feels he will always remember how
Football team students pressed around her desk
At Art Hour, and how content she was with that;
They called him a sissy, but Ruby exclaimed “Hush!”
And he continued, with her approval, to imagine
And then paint musclemen in bright bold colors.
Jonathan Bracker’s poems have appeared in America (May 28, 1988), The New Yorker, Poetry Northwest, Writer's Digest, and other periodicals; in several small press anthologies; and in seven small press collections. His Concerning Poetry: Poems About Poetry was published this year by the Upper Hand Press. He is the editor of Bright Cages: The Selected Poems Of Christopher Morley (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1965), co-author with Mark Wallach of Christopher Morley (Twayne Press: 1976), and editor of A Little Patch Of Shepherd's-Thyme: Prose Passages Of Thomas Hardy Arranged As Verse (Moving Finger Press: 2013). Bracker has lived in San Francisco since 1973.
* * *
Two Poems by Richard Dinges, Jr
Days defined by
clouds to sun, gale
to calm, cold to warm
to hot, climate carries
forward, time’s continuum,
seasonal. Our response
is to harp and marvel,
to disprove the old
maxim that we
and never do anything
to change it.
Birds are water -
from trees - feathers
spatter blue sky.
Beaks pierce clouds -
clouds fall outward -
mists spread, thin,
and finally dry.
A flock evaporates
and I float
on the surface,
amazed and agape,
I thirst for more.
Richard Dinges, Jr. has an MA in literary studies from University of Iowa, and manages information security risk at an insurance company. His most recent publications include: California Quarterly, Poem, Cutthroat, Blue Unicorn, and Red River Review.
* * *
The Shadowed Wall
By Kenneth Hartke
What lives were once protected
behind these shadowed walls?
What joys were shared and hopes declared
and private pains endured?
What voices spoke to say a prayer or
comfort childhood fears?
What buttons sewed?
What wondrous weavings wove?
What feasts enjoyed? What cheerful toasts proposed?
What missing friends or long-lost parents mourned?
Like brushstrokes on canvas, these past lives
paint shadowed lines on old forgotten walls
Ken Hartke is a writer and photographer from New Mexico but was firmly planted and nourished in the Midwest. His New Mexico images now inspire much of his writing. He has contributed work for the Late Orphan Project's anthology These Winter Months (The Backpack Press).
* * *
Context and the Lake, Old News, and Resting Between Revelations
By Sandra Kolankiewicz
Context and the Lake
In order to be found, you must first be
lost. Who’s going to look unless you’re gone,
having missed the mark, misjudged the turn, failed
to post for the boat? Still he floats above
the waters of the lake trying to come
home, coast down upon the living that he has
never met. I can put him anywhere,
and I do, sometimes to my detriment,
others to my relief. He realized what
is best as he lay dying, too late to
apologize, mouth lined with the cotton
of regret. What matters is not if you
changed your life before you left, but if you
wanted to and whom you would have dragged with
you into the future, born on your back
or pushed in some contraption you don’t know
the name of. To say I did not conquer
a mountain is fair. Instead, what I saw
was the snapper, its long neck, the pointed
head rising from the darkness below, too
much distance between the thin shore and me.
When we looked, we held the image in place
like a thought we should have resisted. We
opened up our heads and poured in doubt, so
inadequacy became the constant
flavor on an otherwise sensitive
tongue inside a changing body. For this
was during the long July, thirty years
of golden sunshine reduced to yellow
snapshots, and then there’s Indian Summer,
which though distinctly named is probably
an insult to someone. Old news, old news,
that you will compare yourself to others
most at puberty and as you’re choosing
the kind of cane you want to sport, one that
signals you weren’t always like this, chasing
away your thoughts, substituting them one
by one with deliberate butterflies,
calming phrases, and plates of gratitude.
Resting Between Revelations
Is the pronoun ‘whose’ meant just for people?
Though you can always reach out and touch life,
so what? What if you’re tired of extending
your hands? Make a crack in your head, you said,
and my field went black with just a shaft of
light hitting the top of a stone wall, tips
of a fern trailing down, the hole above
nearly engulfed in water beginning
its long swirl toward the ocean. When I peeled back
a seam in my arm, I saw the brickyard,
the open oven doors, smoke and flames, then
later the long drive down the paver-lined
street, turning left at our childhood church sold
to a Center for Genealogy.
Sandra Kolankiewicz's poems have appeared widely, most recently in Adelaide, London Magazine, New World Writing and Appalachian Heritage. "Turning Inside Out" was published by Black Lawrence. Finishing Line has released The Way You Will Go and Lost in Transition.
* * *
By Marc Livanos
On comfy lounges I sit
observing the panoramic view
of the green valley below.
Clouds blanket the horizon
but here and there
bits of blue peek through.
Live oak’s shimmering leaves
mingle with the evergreens
towards the far-off skyline.
Chattering bluebirds fill
the air with chirps longingly
sung for like-minded brethren.
Satisfied, my mind wonders how
people on a day-to day basis
are so preoccupied with themselves,
their work or lack of it, private lives
or whatever else they do
that they just don’t see each other.
But as noon draws to a close, I smile
ready for my nap knowing how others think
will remain unchanged in the morrow
and that opinions, even mine,
just darken my inner light.
Mark Livanos' poetry appears in Straylight Magazine, POEM, Sheepshead Review, Artifact Nouveau, Old Red Kimono, Ship of Fools, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Wordeater, Glass Mountain’s Shards, Poets’ Espresso Review, Song of the San Joaquin Quarterly, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Red River Review and other journals.
* * *
Three Poems by Ted Mc Carthy
The lemon sweets are like the sun, its skin, its heart.
A couple of kids are stacking shelves. How did they catch
that moment, years before they were born: what sense
of déjà vu electrified not sight but taste buds, shell-
crack on the tongue, the spill of sherbet like an invading
army? A row of jars are squat, lidded, disarmed
Daleks; and the window is dark too, as it should be.
But there will be no going in, for fear of the smell of the new,
a spell-breaking space that has earned no right
of being there beyond its time, must be resisted.
The door opens and an air gentle with sandalwood
and turps, stirs itself into the wake of traffic,
it is a kind of incense, a blessing on those with teeth
to crunch, a palate ripe for the first shock of fizz.
You could never turn. I remember
your first backstroke, moving away
over the hidden spring,
the appalled silence of boys
as adult arms stretched to bring you back.
A branch that wouldn’t bend,
cracked within, unlashed, strong
round its secret loosening,
you never saw the thinned-out copse
gathering, turning the flooded shore
to a bayou when rain and heat
hit off each other;
there was one line of sight.
Whatever chords gathered in your ear
merged and starved to a persistent noise
and because you couldn’t turn
you travelled light. No clothes, no stones.
A day like any other, a day to end all days.
Like a medieval king you walk
through corridors, carrying in your head
the enterprise of the universe
until the sky falls with the flitting
of a crow across a window.
Ted Mc Carthy is a poet and translator living in Clones, Ireland. His work has appeared in magazines in Ireland, the UK, Germany, the USA, Canada and Australia. He has had two collections published, November Wedding, and Beverly Downs. His work can be found on www.tedmccarthyspoetry.weebly.com
* * *
The Old Armchair
By Eira Needham
Merging with mizzle
I turn the front door key
until I step into her parlour where
gold velour drapes the window bay;
keepsakes clutter the sill.
Her talent covers the walls; landscapes
in oils. A 1960’s stereogram
stands in in the corner gloom.
Past guests brush by, once
welcomed in for tea and cakes,
chatter tinged with laughter,
but her mind became scrambled
and friends dwindled. She mistook
her friend Sheila for cousin Lily May.
I pack memories into boxes,
dancing china ladies, a glass fish;
smiling grandparents in embossed albums.
I sag onto the dusty armchair
nudging back time -
more than forty years:
Kissing on the sofa, breathlessly
in love, lusting more, while parents
watch TV in the adjacent room -
I take Dad’s hand, anticipating
my wedding car
nerves gnawing inside -
cushioned, I nursed my boys,
inhaling their baby scents,
lulling them to sleep -
over-feasted on Boxing Days,
we gathered in the mellow gold
of Cognac snifters and firelight -
Mam sat on this chair, awaiting
the doctor, her bible up-side-down,
tea only half drunk and cold.
I plump up scatter cushions,
snuggle into time-worn arms,
kiss goodbye as she fades away.
Outside the clouds open; I hear
her voice through the deluge.
It's only a chair, love.
Eira Needham is a retired teacher from Birmingham, UK. Her poetry has been published in print and online. Some of her recent and forthcoming publications are in Autumn Sky Poetry, Poetry Pacific and Nine Muses Poetry. She has also been Featured Writer in WestWard Quarterly and came first in the InterBoard Poetry Contest, August 2017.
* * *
Brave New World
By Dorsía Smith Silva
You walk past me like a stranger,
knowing that I cannot rush towards you
with this pierced flesh.
I do not question you,
but I wonder what it is like to be so cruel.
Who taught you to avoid youth’s hunger,
especially from an eager kiss?
I would have gladly shown you how to empty yourself,
how to brave the bare longing of waiting for hands
to trace the outlines of your body.
I would, without hesitation, shape the voids,
draw you into an endless particle,
purposefully keep us entwined like double strands
in an identifiable world.
Dorsía Smith Silva is a Full Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, and her poems have been published in Bright Sleep Magazine, POUI: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing, Adanna, Rigorous, Shot Glass Journal, Tonguas, and the book Mothers and Daughters.
* * *
By Christopher Stolle
Papa rose from his grave to witness
solar–lunar phenomena he missed
while driving his ambulance in Italy.
Sirens sounded for him one month later.
He caught shrapnel at Fossalta de Piave
while handing out chocolates to foxhole prey.
He carried an injured man to safety
and ignored scorching heat burning his skin--
not unlike wounds healing and unhealing before his eyes.
Like then, now he knew he needed to go west,
where crowds gathered to see if eschaton would descend.
But everyone went home alive, sullen or overjoyed—except Papa.
“They used to come here to revere me,” he thought.
“But I’m an afterthought who curries no visitors.
Ghosts can’t compete with shadows anymore.”
Christopher Stolle’s writing has appeared most recently in Tipton Poetry Journal, Flying Island, Edify Fiction, Contour, The New Southern Fugitives, The Gambler, Gravel, The Light Ekphrastic, Sheepshead Review, and Plath Poetry Project. He works as an acquisitions and development editor for Penguin Random House, and he lives in Richmond, Indiana.
* * *
By Robin Turner
I would go to you weekends
in that falling down dump
of an apartment. You had
one table, one chair, one
thin mattress on the floor. One
lamp for dimmed light. One
bowl and one spoon. We would curl
spent, one breath in the silence.
My children away with their father.
My life in the suburbs shuttered
shut out. This was the place
on Hawthorne Street before
everything there was razed.
Robin Turner is the author of bindweed & crow poison (Porkbelly Press). Her work has most recently appeared in Whale Road Review, SWWIM, Psaltery & Lyre, and in the magical White Rock Zine Machine. She works, plays, and daydreams in Dallas, Texas.
* * *
All Of A Flutter
By Lynn White
Here I come
all of a flutter,
a flapping frenzy of feathers
determined to find a space
in the cooing crowd.
A space that fits me.
A space befitting
a bird of a feather.
And now I’m ready,
red legged and pigeon toed ready
to strut my stuff with the rest.
We’ll take those tasty tourist titbits
with a bow here,
and a coo there.
We’re their strutting stars
making their day
until our finale
when we rise
up as one,
all of a flutter,
a flapping fluttering frenzy
ready for the next audience.
Lynn White lives in north Wales. Her work is influenced by issues of social justice and events, places and people she has known or imagined. She is especially interested in exploring the boundaries of dream, fantasy and reality.
* * *
By Mary Shanley
Their last name was Smith, but that was the only ordinary thing about them. Two wayward teens, being raised by a waitressing Mom, who was divorced and in her late thirties. Dorothy was her name, but everyone in town called her Dottie. Her Grace Kelly looks were fading, but she still turned heads when she walked down Grand Avenue.
With her mane of blond hair, high cheekbones and bright blue eyes, Dottie was definitely considered a looker. She smiled and enjoyed the compliments and cat-calls; but, as far as going out with any of the guys in town, Dottie was spoken for.
Dottie was hitched up with Auggie Verso, a regular at the Sunset Diner, where she worked the day shift. Auggie was a sad looking character, with long, droopy bags under his eyes. Some of the waitresses at the Diner thought Auggie looked worse than the broken- down cars he repaired
Although Auggie was half Dottie’s size and nearly twice her age, he did have a kind heart and a hot looking, red Chevy convertible. He used that car to chauffer the Smith family around town. Weather permitting, the top was always down. Dottie didn’t have much to take pride in; Auggie’s convertible was just about it.
Lately, Auggie has been accompanying Dottie to the Thursday night prayer meeting in the basement of the church. Seems her kids are going wild; they’re driving Dottie crazy.
Her daughter, Lola, was turning tricks at the local lake and her son, Billy, became a thief; robbing neighbors’ homes and local stores. Dottie told the members of the prayer meeting that she used to be able to sit down with the kids and talk some sense into them, but, they changed. “They gone dark,” is what Dottie said about her kids. “They gone dark, like evil got into them.” When Dottie asked Auggie to speak with the kids, he called them to the side, stood quietly and finally said, “Take it easy on your Mother, O.K.? she’s been through a lot.” Auggie was hardly authoritative and the only reason the kids listened to him was because they wanted to continue riding around in that red, hot Chevy.
Dottie got down on her knees in the prayer meeting and asked God to bring her troubled kids back to church, or at least keep them out of jail. As she prayed, Auggie slumped by her side, in a metal chair, mopping his ever-sweating brow. A few faint grease stains marked the spot where Auggie sat, half asleep after putting in a twelve- hour day at the Mend-It-All Body Shop he ran with his brother Vinnie. When Auggie was introduced to members of the prayer meeting, he would always say, “My mama raised two grease monkeys.” It was his favorite line.
As the Thursday night prayers rose from the church basement, Lightning Man shuffled up Grand Avenue to Roy’s Luncheonette. He propped himself up on a counter seat and ordered a coffee. He wasn’t able to hold the cup in his hands, so he lowered his mouth to the cup and lapped the coffee up, like a dog.
Everyone in town knew Lightning Man. The story goes that Jerry Dodd was struck by lightning, twenty years ago. He was crippled in the most grotesque way. He was twisted like a pretzel, but his brain worked just fine.
Even so, it was nearly impossible to understand what Jerry was trying to say. Most people left him alone. Lightning Man rented the basement room in Dottie Smith’s house on Loft Avenue, just up the block from the lake. He’s lived there for five years.
I was visiting the prayer meeting for the first time. and introduced myself as someone who recently felt the grace of God on my dope addict life, and I was now free of drugs. Everybody clapped their hands and said, “Praise the Lord.”
The prayer meeting began with “Singing in Tongues,” the spiritual language Lady Healer used when she prayed over me. I began to sing in tongues. I had no idea what “Tongues,” were. I was told it was the Holy Spirit’s language, but I was never convinced. I must admit, though, it was fun to be free of the predictable patterns of traditional speech; I simply sang notes spontaneously. The harmonies we created in the prayer group were spine-tingling. The chilling sound of our soaring voices never failed to flash me back to the Fillmore, where I received the same, spine-tingling charge from sitting in the front row of a Jimi Hendrix concert. Jimi played his guitar like it was designed to transport listeners into other worldly dimensions. I never had any problem drifting into other dimensions; matter of fact, I preferred it. Take me away, Jesus. Take me away, Jimi Hendrix.
Dottie Smith came over to me and asked if I would stop by her house and have a talk with Lola and Billy. “Be happy to,” I told her. I asked. She said, “Why don’t you come over for lunch tomorrow.” “O.K.” I said. “What time?” “One o’clock would be fine.” “That’s good for me, too.” I said. “Well, I’ll see you then.” Dottie was so relieved that help was on the way, she began bawling her eyes out. Auggie guided her collapsing body into a chair and held her until she stopped crying. He then helped Dottie up from the chair and they left the prayer meeting arm in arm.
The next day, as I approached Dottie’s house, I was surprised by the sight of three police cars parked in front of her house. There was an ambulance in the driveway, blocking Auggie’s red Chevy. Lola was sitting on the front stoop, smoking a cigarette and looking bored. There were six cops standing on the front lawn, speaking with Dottie and taking notes. Auggie was leaning up against his car and motioned for me to come over. He was mopping he brow and looking no more broken down than usual. Auggie told me the shocking news: about one hour ago, Billy Smith killed Lightning Man. “What? Lightning Man is dead” I asked in disbelief. “Yeah, that’s what I’m telling you. Billy killed Jerry Dodd.”
Auggie said, “Billy and Dodd had always gotten along. Billy played rock n roll records on the turntable I gave Dodd for Christmas. They enjoyed listening to the music together. “You know what the kicker is?” Auggie said, “Billy killed Jerry Dodd with his favorite Christmas present.” Auggie shook his head and slowly walked over to take his place by Dottie’s side. I stood alone, wondering what the hell to do? Dottie was crying as she answered the cop’s questions. Billy, was handcuffed in the back seat of a cop car and Lola hopped off the stoop; sashayed past the cops and casually announced, “I’m going for a walk.”
As Dottie Smith wailed, “Oh God!” over the din of the commotion, I backed out of the scene and took off down the block. When I passed the lake, Lola was strutting her stuff until a car pulled up and she slid in the front seat. I turned away, not wanting to see her head go down into the driver’s lap.
Mary Shanley is a poet/writer who lives in NYC. Four of her books have been published: Hobo Code Poems by Vox Pop Press; Mott Street Stories and Las Vegas Stories; Things They Left Behind and Poems for Faces by Sidestreet Press. She publishes online at: Long Shot Journal, Mr. Bellers's Neighborhood, Blue Lake Review, Logos Journal, Hobo Camp Review, StepAway Magazine, Anak Sastra Journal, Shangra-la Magazine, Underground Voices, Edge, Garbanzo Press, Tell Us A Story and Flagler Review.
* * *
By Amber Christopher-Buscemi
I placed the dried red rose, hunched beneath its wig of starched baby’s breath, on my dresser, in a white, ceramic bud vase. I chose this vase, not because it is particularly elegant, but because it is the only bud vase I own. Bob and I acquired each other in the same way. How else should one feel about a step-parent, or anyone who doesn’t have to stay?
The day before his funeral, I ordered two-dozen long-stemmed, white and red roses for him. Roses seemed appropriate. He loved my mother’s temperamental rosebushes for their fragrance, their fragility, and their short-lived perfection. No — I won’t guess. Those are my reasons for loving roses. He probably loved them because he had found someone who cared to labor over something so difficult to nurture, as all five of us kids were, having been left by one parent and loved too much by the other. But that, too, is a guess. I could always only guess about Bob, his thoughts, his motives, his feelings. He left me few and uncertain choices. How generous of him, I always thought, to limit, so carefully, the ways in which I could define him. It seemed that he’d wait for me to determine what I needed from him, and then he would provide it. That is my best guess.
After the burial, the funeral director held the car door open for me and handed me a red rose from the flower arrangements that would be strewn across the freshly covered grave. He stood there and gave me specific instructions to hang it upside down and let it dry out. It would be perfectly preserved, he said. It was clearly something he’d been told to say to mourners who sobbed well. It was supposed to comfort them. But his gift only puzzled and irritated me. This funeral director had selected me out of Bob’s five children, three of whom were “really his.” Why weren’t we each given a rose? Was it because I spoke at the service? (But one of his sons spoke, too.) Was it because I am female and linked to my mother through our mutual gestures, even in the act of mourning? (But my sister is equally linked).
I decided to keep it.
I went home and did what I was told without knowing exactly why. After all, the giver of this gift was just a funeral director/limo driver with an embarrassingly stark Long Island accent, calling me “Sweed-art, “ and saying things like, “If yez iz awl ready, I’ll gitcha home now.” But I listened to him, like a superstitious child who’s told that Santa Claus knows when you are bad or good. At twenty-eight years old, I still wanted to be good. So, I hung the rose and baby’s breath upside down from a magnetic chip-clip on my refrigerator door. For two days, I watched it die.
I had thought it my daughterly duty to watch him as well. I had watched for three months as he dissipated. He shrank. He shriveled. He stopped eating. He stopped walking. Finally, he stopped laughing. And when he stopped breathing on his own, he was forced to stop talking. So, when I visited him at his last bed, he spoke with his faded blue-gray eyes that sounded to me just like his voice -- full of air and spaces that always had invited me to fill them in. He tried to smile with a tube like a bicycle hose stuffed down his throat and taped to his face with what looked like electrical tape. All for me. Sometimes he’d gag on it and squeeze his eyes shut momentarily. I tried to normalize this choking and gasping as we’d normalized the other unconventional situations we’d found ourselves in as “steps” – belonging to “us,” yet not belonging. I used my playful name for him – Bobert – a silly combination of Bob and Robert that I’d started using at some point to avoid the awkwardness of speaking an adult’s first name, and the risk in calling him Dad.
When I said, “Love ya, Bobert,” before leaving him to rest, he didn’t look directly at me. I had said it – even though “love ya” isn’t quite “I love you” – I had said what we didn’t say, knowing that he and I had agreed long ago not to use big, silly, truthful words like that.
When are unspoken rules meant to be broken?
He had broken that rule only once. I was thirteen years old, and he’d only been my Bobert for about a year. He was dropping me off at my junior high school on a Saturday morning for my first overnight trip alone, the annual eighth grade trip to Washington D.C. He knew the distance between Long Island and D.C., and it worried him, I guess. In our house, we all knew that sometimes people don’t stay. Perhaps Bob’s worry came from his additional knowledge that people don’t stay the same, and that distance grows closer when a group is disrupted – even for just a few days and nights.
The other parents were kissing their own children goodbye. Most of the kids were protesting the kisses as social destruction, as any normal thirteen-year-old would. Bob saw this and made a quick judgment. He bent down and kissed my cheek before I could tell what hit me. “Bye,” he said, “be good.” As I feigned a promise of goodness, my eyes told him not to change the rules without asking first.
He didn’t kiss my cheek again until my wedding day, fourteen years later, sheltered by tradition in the ceremonial giving of the bride. And again, under the duress of the wedding photographer: “Give ya dawta a kiss on da cheek, huh? An’ give us a big smile.” I was similarly prompted by tradition and lens. Daughter kissed and father smiled. I have the photo to prove it.
On rare occasions, we chose to play traditional roles, regardless of our separate beginnings. He bought me a corsage of pink sweetheart roses on my sixteenth birthday because, he told my mother, if anyone was a “sweet sixteen,” I was. I wasn’t supposed to hear that, but I let myself listen instead of entering the kitchen where they were talking. I could be as quiet and sneaky as he was sometimes – the way he would walk softly to the room he shared with my mother when he had waited up for one of us on weekend nights, or the way he’d ask questions designed to catch us in a secret when his concern prompted him to nosiness about our weekend plans. We do learn by example.
I acted as if I didn’t like the princess treatment as I posed for my 16th birthday picture. I opened my Bob gift first and found a mug labeled “Born to Be Spoiled.” I protested immediately. “I’m NOT spoiled,” I said, with a sixteen-year-old’s indignation, thinking You don’t know what wasn’t here before you arrived. My eyes darted intolerance at him, and I moved on to my mother’s present. My mother, I thought, always will love me, and she will remain as long as she can. How long will he stay, and how briefly will he spoil me?
My mother said, “You’re right, you’re not spoiled. But is it so bad that Bob thinks you should be?” She smiled teasingly at me and flashed Bob a sip of that smile – as if proof of their agreement -- as he quietly left the room to get more film. I continued to unwrap my new and tangible things. When he came back, his face was hidden behind the camera, and the camera was looking at me. I smiled for my next picture. I still have it --corsage on my right wrist, long blond hair curled only at the bottom in an ‘80s’ bouffe, and a smirk-like smile on my spoiled face. That one was for the man behind the camera. At the time, it was the best I could do.
For the next few years I distrusted his quiet presence as much as he distrusted my teenage tendencies. He watched sixteen morph into seventeen without saying a word about his disappointment at the loss of youth, obedience, innocence, and all the traditional things he thought children should be. He listened in on phone-calls, I believe, and he developed a habit of driving in the vicinity of every party I ever was forbidden by my mother to attend. He never would stop, or even look directly at me as I made my way with a friend toward a loud crowd congregating at the end of a driveway; he simply would drive by and count on me to do the rest. I resented his trust in me even more than his distrust. I wanted so much to have earned it. At seventeen and eighteen, I was unappreciative of all gifts – especially those I’d never allowed myself to covet.
By my twenty-first birthday, I had better learned the art of gratitude. That year Bob gave me a T-shirt that read: “Give me ambiguity or give me something else.” I had learned to laugh with him at the ironies of life and language – the two things that always had linked us. I had learned to hum to his Sunday afternoon ditties around the house. He’d make up lyrics and sing them to a well-known tune, capturing a moment of frustration or truth.
“The sun goes in and out
the sun goes in and out
I don’t know what mood I’m in
the sun goes in and out.”
I sometimes find myself making up these little ditties and singing them around my house for my husband. I relish the ability to sing my frustration. Funny how we often feel compelled to share what we hardly recognize as having been a gift.
It was on my twenty-eighth birthday that Bob gave me too much. He was home bound and on oxygen. His lungs and back muscles ached to the point that he couldn’t sit up in a chair without discomfort or pain. My mother had invited the family over to celebrate my birthday a week early this time, just in case Bob’s planned stay in the hospital the following week extended beyond the actual date. She had told the rest of us the purpose of the gathering was more to bring up Bob’s spirits than to celebrate my birthday. He was doing this for me; I was doing this for him; and we were both doing it for my mother, who always had supplied our common ground.
Bob came to the table and remained through the birthday cake. When he got up from the table, trailing his oxygen line behind him on his way to the only chair that allowed him any comfort -- I saw what he’d given me.
As he started from the table, he had trouble rising from his chair at first. He had to sit and start up again. In this second sitting, he threw a look of contempt at the oxygen line. It was in this action that I saw something I’d never seen before: his anger. A fifty-four-year-old man should not know such limitations, especially when his doctors have promised him a “cure.” One had come in the form of a lung transplant two years earlier, and it was slowly being taken back in the form of his doctors’ neglect, indifference, inability – or a combination of all these abused privileges. His anger grew in the hospital, but it was only visible in what was no longer there: the blue of his eyes, the ease in his voice, and a genuine urge to smile. His blue eyes had turned gray, his speech became chokes, and he only smiled to ease our minds. Each time he had to be reconnected to the ventilator his eyes narrowed and darkened. He had been betrayed. He did not want to go. He was not finished.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that it was his heart, not his lungs, which finally gave way. The doctor said his heart had started to beat irregularly and then to race. They could not stabilize him. From this, I was left with one more uncertainty: had his heart given way at the crescendo of his final frenzy; at the injustice of his doctors’ privilege and false confidence; at his last calling out into life, as if to say: I will not quietly stop beating for you – I am here and I am gone, at once? Or was it that too much had pulled it, prodded it, and depleted it of its best talent – to keep on going with its rhythm undisturbed. To remain.
I have kept the ferocity of his end next to the image of his blue-gray eyes. I have kept whatever I could of his humor: the songs in my mind, the T-shirt in my closet. When I was younger, I was accustomed to filling boxes that I intended to open, only rarely, as a reminder of what had been given to me. For a while, I had even kept the dried corsage, I believe, in a box of things I didn’t know how to relinquish without admitting to myself some loss. The few cards my biological father had sent between my tenth and fourteenth birthdays; notes from my first grade friend who no longer spoke to me; a lock of hair from what I’d cut off, in seventh grade, to force myself out from behind a curtain that had little or nothing to do with hair; and a letter from the first boy who ever asked me to dance -- all these objects were in the box. But as with all short-lived, beautiful things, the box was lost.
Perhaps it’s time to start a new box, for the rose and baby’s breath, and the other new, old things given to me to keep. Maybe it will help me to remember what I have known and what I have guessed. Ambiguity, I know, must be carefully preserved.
Then again, maybe the rose should stay on my dresser in plain view, to fill a space, and remain as long as it can.
Amber Christopher-Buscemi teaches literature and writing at Suffolk County Community College. Her work has appeared in The Collapsar. She lives on Long Island with her husband and two sons.
* * *
Enlightenment About Darkness
By John Wykle
I grew up in a small, bigoted, Southern town. A black man, who was called “Shady”,
worked on a farm near our home. I never knew his real name.
My first memory of awareness of color difference was a day when Shady was at our house helping my father. My father thought it was a good joke to tell me that Shady’s black skin would rub off on me. He told Shady to rub my face with his hand. Shady willingly went along with the joke. I rubbed my face to see if any of the black was there. They both laughed heartily. My six-year old self was frightened and embarrassed. I thought the joke was on me
But, the joke is more profound than it seemed on the surface. As I have thought
about this joke over the years, I had thought it was a prejudice against Shady. There was that. But, as I have reflected more and more on this experience, I realize the joke really was on the difference in the color of our skin. I sensed camaraderie between my father and Shady. They were in league with one another trying to cope with the fear of their color difference.
As I grew older in a culture of segregation, I had very little contact with black
people. They lived on the other side of town and went to separate schools. They had separate drinking fountains and sat in the balcony at the movies. I was oblivious to the injustices perpetuated against them. I absorbed the local prejudice that black people, Negroes, were somehow inferior but I was never sure exactly how.
I was jolted into awareness of my deeply ingrained prejudice during my first year in
college vis-a-vis a man named Albert who was from Kenya. The college we attended together was committed to integration and equality.
When we happened to be together one day, I asked Albert about the Mau Mau
movement in Kenya. He described with a sophisticated British accent the injustices
the British had inflicted on the citizens of his country. I was impressed with his
intelligence, his knowledge of the world, even his condescension. He was superior. I felt a strong resentment, or was it fear, that a black man, a Negro, could be superior to me.
A year and a half later I had my first black friend. His name was Henry. We attended a special summer work program, working as psychiatric technicians at a psychiatric hospital. I made a special effort to be his roommate. We had long talks together. He was kind and generous and intelligent. I was proud I was overcoming my prejudice.
It wasn’t until he took me to meet his relatives that my real feelings were exposed.
It was my first time in a black home. His young cousins stared at me with curiosity.
Their mother was polite, but I could see the tension in her face. I too was
uncomfortable. So much so I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was barely able to
answer their questions. I had prepared myself to be accepting of this black family.
Instead, I became concerned that I might not be acceptable. Henry said I did “just fine” but he was disappointed. I was disappointed too. We both expected me be
comfortable with color difference.
As I was writing this, the frustrated words of a depressed black client came to mind.
He said the cards of prejudice were stacked against him, that languages use the
word “black” in a negative way – “film noir”; “the dark side of things”; “black
humor”; “it’ a dark day”, he said. Dark and black contrasted against white, light, and
enlightened. His words have stayed with me.
This prejudice apparently is woven into many languages. Awareness of differences
is part of our survival instinct. To be alert to differences helped our species to
defend against a dangerous world. This instinct is still with us, but just like anxiety
its function very often becomes overworked and misses its mark. Learning to use
other parts of our brain in a process of discernment, rather than the older
“instinctual brain”, and being mindful of our language’s negative associations to
darkness is an evolutionary task.
The joke that my father and Shady played on me was about a wish that color
differences be removed. It was a wish that our struggle toward common bonding
be beyond color.
John Wykle is a fledgling writer of fiction, memoir and essay. His work has been recognized by The Wayne Literary Rerview, Memoir Magazine, Halcyon Magazine and Ruminate Magazine.
* * *
By Ken Poyner
There are so many of them, each without the grace of even looking wounded. I gather
them in the folds of my apron, not unmindful that, were I to clasp them too tightly, the
yellow skin might dimple, or reverently pop completely in. And while, for some, the skin
would pop back, for many the crease would remain.
Oh, I remember now, it does not matter. We are to do with them as we will, either way.
Not more than fifty yards away, the struggle still rages. My children at waterside reach
as far as they dare to snare yellow duck after yellow duck from the mass that is working
to go past this point. As the children make a hole where once a duck unwisely floated,
another duck fills in – and so the mass by mutual gravity and the tension of free water is
All of these ducks were released not more than half an hour ago, dropped individually
into our river by people who paid a dollar to paste them with some private list of wants
and then set the burdened ducks loose to dumbly find their way supposedly to the sea.
Wishes for fine mates, for a healthy pet, for the recovery of a grandmother, for wealth,
for children, for the injury of a transgressor. Wishes, wishes, wishes. The ducks do not
care, and dutifully ferry their releasers’ scrawled wants idly along the river’s dominant
stream. Ducks set free.
Free? What good is a plastic duck without confinement? What good does it do anyone?
What child names it, what bully smashes it, what parent hides memories in it?
I say it is nothing but plastic trash: trash made in a recognizable shape. You might see it
as something resembling the pliant bath mates of your childhood. Do not be fooled.
Free, it is only unlikable plastic given a sympathetic shape.
I hold as many as I can in this apron. They would not have made it to the sea, anyway.
There are too many squares in the river, too much marshland, too many masters of trash
that have been in the water longer and that will not abide trespassers.
My eldest daughter sorts them: ducks that can be resold to the releasers upstream; ducks
that should be buried or burned; ducks that might go to the cousins or nephews or the
lukewarm friends of bathing relatives. Every so often I keep one for myself, and add the
re-enlivened object to my flock on the kitchen window sill. I have them in rows, leaning
over-grayed inward, where I can watch them envy the rain outside, beyond the window of
my work parlor.
Every so often, saturated from its time in the water, a wish falls from its mooring under a
duck. Carefully, without reading it, we pick the spent paper up, pat it out, and paste it
back as best we can. The glue would have never held in the ocean, anyway. Once that
work is done, then we can continue to process the resupplied duck as though nothing had
happened. Placed on my window ledge, or sold again, or given to bath mates, buried or
burned. It is really all the same.
Ken Poyner’s collections of brief fictions, “Constant Animals” and “Avenging Cartography”, as well as poems, ”The Book of Robot” and “Victims of a Failed Civics”, can be located through links at www.barkingmoosepress.com. He has had recent work out in Analog, Asimov’s, Café Irreal, and other places, both print and web.
* * *
Little Big Details by Ginger Beck
Ginger Beck is a tattoo artist, writer, urban explorer, and English teacher in Little Rock. She advocates for at-risk youth, loves to travel and is obsessed with dinosaurs and space. Her most recent work appears in Foliate Oak, The Molotov Cocktail, Red Savina Review, Blue Lyra Review, Intrinsick, and Pithead Chapel, among others.
Artwork by Cindy Matthews
Cindy Matthews is a visual artist from Canada. Her artistic expression is loose and unstructured. She feels excited when a picture reveals itself through movement of the medium rather than commencing with a target in mind. The submitted pieces are mixed media encaustics.
Visual and analytical, Lynn captures the world around her through the lens of her camera and then processes it via the written word. However, sometimes a picture says it all. Short fiction and poetry have appeared in several online and print publications, and photography in SandScript, Art and Literature 2018.
Tranquil Grounds by Joel Whitehead
Joel Whitehead has lived in Taos, N.M. for 25 years. He has an enthusiasm for art, nature & technology. He received a BA in Applied Arts & Sciences emphasis in Graphic Design & MA in Education which had led him to an Associate Professor position at UNM- Taos.