By Alex Clermont
It was robbing season where I worked. Although I didn't know why, it seemed a demonstrable fact that the warmth of summer somehow thawed the laziness of low-level criminals. Cops patrolled more often, random beatings became more frequent, and stick-up men looked for anything that shined with a focus that would be inspiring if it was directed at a book.
I don't think Doug knew, or thought about, any of that though. In his typically unenergetic voice our manager asked us to work after closing time. The temptation of overtime pay was too much to resist and most of us stayed late, despite the dangers outside.
Me and two other money-starved employees were told to clear out the sales floor of all merchandise. It was going to be waxed, or buffed, or both, and from what I gathered the flooring company offered a discount if they didn’t have to move anything. The amount they discounted was more than what would be needed to pay us to move stuff. The arithmetic probably took Doug all of three seconds. In accordance with his sound math, we pushed carts of sleeping pills and dumped boxes of energy drinks into the gated lot behind the store. We all did the work on the cheap for the company – though every one of us thought we were getting over.
Overtime pay made Jackie stay, though barely. She told me she was a little scared of the neighborhood; she said she wasn't sure if the gates were high enough to keep out the violence that the prospect of free pharmaceuticals might bring. We wouldn't be leaving until two in the morning and she whispered in embarrassed tones that she never liked being around past ten p.m. I grew up in the neighborhood though. I knew it like a close relative. And I knew that, at night, the gates would definitely not be high enough to keep out thieves for more than a few hours. Luckily, that was all the time we needed.
We emptied the store of all its unshelved items in under an hour while Doug sat in the manager's office to organize paperwork and check his Twitter feed. With a box of unpacked cough syrup in my arms, I snuck a peek of him looking through a Facebook page called "Big Ol’ Booties." He scrolled down its timeline, which was filled with a mix of candid and professional photos of women's asses. Even with my passing glance I could see Photoshop at work. Someone was using smudge tools, alpha layers, lighting and darkening effects to carve out perfect butts that could never exist in the real world. Though I didn't like it, I admired the fact that he was able to surf the net for borderline porn while I worked.
Outside, after putting down the last of the products, we waited. In folding chairs we removed from the break room, Jackie, Daryl and I sat around in anticipation. The waxer would soon be there to wax, and afterwards we would undo the last hour of work by putting boxes of product back inside the store. While sitting in the small lot we chit-chatted.
I hated the small talk but Jackie seemed uncomfortable being quiet, so she asked questions and made comments that I felt inclined to respond to. Daryl leaned back in his chair and pretended to sleep. Though his eyes were closed I could hear Lil Wayne leaking out of his headphones, and I could see his hands moving rhythmically in his baggy pants pockets as he drummed the background beat on his thigh. I had no excuse so I answered Jackie when she asked why I worked there.
My answer was short, but true. I lived a few blocks away and they were hiring. The hours worked with my school schedule, but that was just a nice bonus. I told her there was no specific reason for me deciding to work there, at least no more than any other place that paid in U.S. dollars. She didn’t seem to understand. Her, suddenly, bluer eyes squinted a bit and she told me that she started working there a few days ago because she had a duel major of pharmacology and business. She was too young for any internships, but since Doug was a second cousin she figured this would be a good substitute. She said some more things, but I didn’t pay much attention to them.
Jackie didn’t notice, and kept our conversation alive with naïve questions about the neighborhood, and what it was like growing up around there. She wanted to me to tell her my thoughts on why it was so unsafe. Why did the people act the way they did? I answered her questions with short sentences that said nothing important. Soon a van from the flooring service arrived.
Doug came out just as I unlocked the gate, letting the van drive in. The one-man crew hopped out of the driver’s side as soon as the car was in park. His light-brown hair was a tossed mess and his reddish beard was equally unkempt. His eyes shifted slightly from left to right and his uniform was stained in odd places. Judging a book by its cover I guessed that he probably stunk too. Doug was the one walking him inside, so I made a mental note to ask him about the waxer’s smell. These were the stupid things that filled my mind at midnight.
I sat back down and decided to have some fun with Jackie. I told her about the time I was robbed.
My classes finished early that day, but I was coming home late after stopping by a friend’s house to help him improve his shitty math skills. Real shitty. Shitty to the point where you wondered how he functioned in the real world. Had the streetlights been working they would’ve turned on a few minutes before I decided to take a short cut home through a church parking lot. I passed by three guys who were talking and laughing near a parked car that I assumed was theirs. I didn’t pay them any attention until I noticed, from the corner of my eye, one of them walking towards me from behind. I understood immediately what was going on and I ran, but of course, they caught up to me. One of them punched me in the back of the head and I fell right on the concrete sidewalk in front of the church. The second I was down I felt kicks and punches that I instinctively tried to avoid by curling up in the fetal position – my forehead touching my knees between my bent arms. I felt my book bag being pulled away and my pockets being dug into as they shouted angry words at me. When they were done they walked away, leaving me bloody in front of the church steps. When I was sure that the group was gone I got up and walked home.
Jackie seemed shaken up by the story. In reaction I chuckled and told her that I lived in a dangerous area. She stopped talking and I took the opportunity to relax while the floor was being buffed or waxed.
We were about ten feet away from a gate that faced the sidewalk. Through its holes I could see people coming and going. The numbers of passersby were less than they were a few hours before, but the subway exit down the street still let out the occasional group of mainly Black folks. Jackie was scared of them. She didn't know she was scared of them, and if confronted she would probably deny it, but she was. By seeming coincidence they lived in the city’s dark places. And with only coincidence she was forced to draw her own conclusions about why that was the case.
She was a little scared of me too. If I passed her on any given street or sidewalk, and she didn’t recognize me, her muscles would tense up and her mind would fill itself with the millions of police sketches she’d seen of scary men with dark skin and thick lips.
It was nothing though. I dozed off.
After sleeping for I don't know how long, I woke up to the sounds of Doug and the floor guy arguing. I turned around and saw Doug standing near the back exit with his head cocked to the side, looking annoyed. The floor guy was flailing his arms around and yelling at Doug about how he didn’t care what discount he was told, he would have to pay the bill. Dismissively, Doug said that it wasn’t his fault that the floor guy’s manager, or whoever, didn’t tell him what was going on. And it wasn’t his fault that the shady company paid commissions and not a salary. He said that in the end though he didn’t care and he wasn’t going to pay anything higher than the number he was quoted earlier.
The floor guy let out a sound like a growl mixed with a scream. He grabbed something from his belt and then stuck it in Doug’s chest, right below his left collarbone. The next second lasted a month and I could see the crazed look on the floor guy’s face. It was covered in sweat and twitching with a chemical rage I’d only seen once before – I was on the ground getting stomped on at the time. Jackie was screaming with shocked, wide-open eyes. Daryl was tucking in his chest with his shoulders heaved forward in a reflexive movement – as if catching an invisible football thrown low. He had his hand near his mouth, halfway through an a moan of oh shit. Doug was silent. He only looked down in disbelief at the thing that was poking out of his chest.
The second after that second went by pretty quickly. After finishing his oh shit Daryl jumped out of his seat and rushed at the floor guy who was focused on the bleeding wound he had made in Doug’s body. With the strength of his whole upper body, Daryl threw a quick punch that landed on the floor guy’s face. He fell backwards, knocked his head onto the asphalt, and didn’t get up. Doug also began to fall, though a little slower. First he fell to his knees then he collapsed on his right side.
I ran to Doug to see if he was still breathing. He was. I pulled out my cell phone, dialed 911 then frantically looked Doug up and down while waiting for a response. What was sticking out of him was a slightly curved blade with a light brown wooden handle. Doug looked like he was trying to talk, but he just kept mouthing wet noises. Behind me I could hear Daryl call the floor guy a motherfucking dust head. I could also hear a crowd that had gathered by our gate, presumably from the train station, and almost certainly attracted by Jackie’s horror movie scream.
Jackie was yelling at me to take whatever it was out of Doug. I was about to when I heard someone from the crowd shouting at me not to. I looked for who that was and as I told the operator where we were I saw a man right outside the gate. He shouted that if I took out the blade I’d cause more bleeding. My brain was overloading and I just fell on my ass. The operator told me to wait, and I did.
The man outside the gate climbed it until he was inside. He ran past Jackie to Doug, and while looking at him much less frantically than I did, he told me he was an EMS worker. I just nodded in agreement. He breathed into Doug’s mouth and listened to the gurgling sounds that came up. He asked if anyone had a ballpoint pen or something. I handed him my Bic, which he snapped the ends of. He pulled out his own pocketknife and sliced into Doug’s chest a few inches below the blade. He stuck the hollow pen in the new hole and listened again to Doug’s breathing. He asked Doug if he was all right and Doug just looked at him for a moment or two. In a low whisper he told him no, not really, then smiled a little.
The EMS worker told me that since the wound was above Doug’s heart I should keep him propped up a little so the gash wouldn’t let out so much blood. As I lifted Doug’s back off the ground I could see Jackie walk toward us still scared out of her mind, but a level below screaming banshee.
We both looked at Doug who kept a slight smile on his face. Daryl was massaging his fist as he said that all of this was some crazy shit. Using different words Jackie said the same thing to the EMS worker who was slowly getting off his knees and back to his feet. He nodded in agreement. He said that no matter where you live crazy shit could happen. We could hear an ambulance coming as he sighed and said, “There’re a lot of dark places in this city. The most you can do is just try to your best to light’em up.”
Alex Clermont has been published in the Anthologies Out of Place, The Bodega Monthly., and Scholars and Rogues."Alex maintains a blog which is filled with creative writing and news about his published titles, including the self-published Missing Rib, released last July. Alex also smiles a lot, so say hi if you get a chance.
* * *
By Gil Gildner
Within thirty seconds of seeing the freak, I'd stumbled back out into the midway and gasped for breath to fill my burning lungs with something other than utter fear. I'd never considered myself one for swayed emotions. It's a live or let live world - does it matter in truth if, for a split second, I could look into the eyes of another and know who they are?
Hovering above the canvas tents and rusted frames of carnival rides, a weak smoke in a stagnant layer. Glowing slightly through, a slow candle burn of a sun, flickering & dying in the west. Rolling in the easy breath of passing feet and frantic kicks, a mixture of cigarette embers and sucker sticks and cellophane wrappers, crackling. And among the swirling toxic fumes of humanity, a crowd of faces pulsating in and out of consciousness, mirrored reflections of the hive mind.
I couldn't understand it, further reinforcing the horrible clash with reality I'd had back inside, back between the fat man in the trucker hat swilling Milwaukee and the wrinkled black lady screaming quietly, "oh law' mama...come to mama" and then behind me the short little miserable man in the tucked collared shirt, uncomfortably peering into the freak's eyes, reflecting like a soul mirror.
Did we love the freak because we knew we were better?
And standing in that midway, like a shellshocked scarecrow in the way of everyone, a sudden clarity came to me. Everything slowed down a little bit and I felt a little bit better.
If we're all like this, I thought, then maybe it evens out in the end.
Maybe, I thought, it wasn't all that bad.
Maybe, I thought, it was merely an illusion.
But then even as I paused and wondered about the reality of pain, the truth which had been lurking in the back of my mind came to the front. And I knew that the truth wasn't something to reject merely because it suffocated.
Back there in the tent the freak had screamed at all of us.
The neon pulses of the clockwork ship, pendulating back and forth with the screams of ignorant children, drew my attention and I looked up into the dimming sky. There was a child at the very end, and with every pulse back and forth he would catch the high, and his stomach would drop out and you could see the wretched emptiness in his body every time it hit, even from far below in the dust of the midway.
Someone holding a hot dog in each hand ran into me, and relish smeared down my sleeve, and the person looked at me with a disgusted impudence and ran off into the swarm.
Screams came from behind me, and I saw the black lady stumble out of the tent with a face as white as mine. We locked fearful eyes and read the horror in each other's and she said something about mercy and heaven and the Lord, and I said something about damnation and hell and the Devil.
The trucker with the can of Milwaukee came out next with a red face and a string of curses underneath his breath, and he caught up his belt underneath his bulging paunch and tried to look as if he was okay, but his insecurities shown through like they were burning coals inside his gut. And after the trucker the little miserable man came out, eyes rolling in his head and his tongue visible between his stumpy little teeth. And then the rest of them came as a horde, the used car salesmen and the drug dealers and the gas station clerks and the prostitutes and the waitresses and all of us were wondering if what we had seen was real.
We knew it was, and the Belt had lied to us all.
Inside there still remained a few of the upright, the ones with the morality to stomach the sight of the freak and not become reminded of their own being.
I walked over to the opening of the tent, pushing through scum like me to get there, and I stood at the door and looked in and saw the one or two dozen who stood, transfixed at the sight of the freak, listening to the freak scream, and I slowly began to doubt that they saw the same thing I saw.
The grandmothers, and the deacons, and the men with keyrings to Chryslers, and the teachers, standing like alabaster statues in the righteous limelight of the freak, like perfect receptors of truth. Standing like those who have entered into the sacrosanct and been found clean in the eyes of heaven.
The freak stood on the stage, lights piercing down upon him and illuminating his holiness, and he stood and held a leather book up into the stratosphere of the tent and screamed down righteousness into the upturned faces.
And those outside looked back in, sick, and the ghastly truth is that we loved the freak, because we knew we were better.
Gil Gildner is a documentary filmmaker by day and author by night. He is based in Searcy, Arkansas and is installed in the corner of a local coffeeshop as part of the permanent collection.
* * *
By Philip Goldberg
Sam stood across the small room from her husband, Paul. To her eyes he appeared unsettled, unhappy, lost in his thoughts. With nothing left to say, she watched him turn and walk out the door into the bright light of day.
Instantly the thought of Paul vanished. With it went the clenched tightening in her stomach. Still Sam considered how she thought more of him at certain moments. Especially now, as the wind wound around the leafless trees, and the sweet scent of cedar perfumed the house. She envisioned his broad shoulders, eclipsing everything else. His chestnut-brown hair, trim and spiked, always commanded her attention, as did those green eyes speckled with gold. Eyes she could make out in a blizzard. Even in the one nearly a week ago. But then she would pause, the wind outside would still, and she caught the worried look in her gaunt face, her graying hair and two tired blue eyes reflected back from the mirror. Hanging next to it, she noticed herself in the photo of the two of them together: her sparkling eyes, a fuller face, rosy complexion and shiny blonde hair.
Outside the small room’s window, snow whitened everything, silenced everything but the wind. To Sam it existed as a constant reminder of the time of year and the place where she lived: the coldest days of January in the iciest part of Michigan’s north.
On the stove, the tea kettle hissed (for some reason the kettle never whistled), drawing her to it. Her cup, the one Paul had bought her while away in Montana, the one with a painting of a howling wolf on a mountainous ledge, the one she almost dropped onto the hard kitchen floor, awaited the boiled water. A tea bag filled with chamomile, flowery fragrant, her favorite, sat ready in the cup. Pouring the sizzling water into the cup, the steam washed up and over her face and tingled her opening pores.
Steam from the shower had misted through the open bathroom door on that morning many calendar pages ago. Shafts of sunlight had sliced through it as “My Best Pages” by The Byrds played softly on the CD player. Across the table from her, a freshly showered Paul sat; his hair still wet. Nestled between his two big hands was a teacup. “What makes you happy?” he said, and sipped his pekoe tea. “Real happy?”
She gazed at him as if buying time to answer. The tattoo on his forearm was of her face. It was permanent, a bond nothing could break. At least she had believed that. Yet this moment belied her belief, tested her faith. From across the room, the click, click, click of the wall clock’s second hand dragged around its face. Neither a happy face, nor a sad face. More of a poker face. It was the same as her expression at the moment, although she churned unhappily under her skin. She wanted to show something. In her eyes. Across her lips. In her tone. Instead her tears fell like stones, when finally she said, “You staying here.” The steam drifted between them.
He ran a hand across his prickly mane and said, “You know I can’t.”
“I know,” she replied in a hushed voice.
Not answering, she sipped some tea.
She sat across from the empty chair; her tea still steaming up and enveloping her face in a warm garden-fresh aroma. Truth was she hadn’t known then. She didn’t know now. Time moved on. It always did, distancing her from experiences, from joy, from pain; but time had done little to have given her a reason as to what she should have said, what they could have done to keep him from going. She stared across the table to the chair where he had once sat. Its emptiness. Its quiet made her long for him more.
Her thoughts shifted and her mind settled on her younger sister Trish, who still sought an answer.
“Just for a few weeks,” she had said during her last visit a few days ago. “That’s all.”
“I’ll think about it,” Sam had replied.
As snow had fallen outside the window, she put her hand to her mouth and began biting her nails.
Through the panes of glass she watched flakes of snow dancing through the air. The sight helped erase her sister’s conversation from her thoughts. A winter of snow, she mused. Days upon days filled with a garden of white, awaiting the arrival of spring. Before long, Crocuses would burst onto the land in their purplish glory. And with their appearance, things would change. At least she hoped for this as she sipped more tea. Its warmth spread throughout, thawing her from within. Thoughts of him sharpened. Her need to bite the nubs that were now her nails intensified.
Sam had looked up from her red manicured nails. Paul’s battered suitcase had rested at his booted feet. She had wanted to reach out to him, to grab him. With all her might, she wanted to stop him. But she stood as still as the air in the room. Say something, she thought. Anything. To finally confess what she planned to do to keep him close. But she remained wordless, watching as he grabbed the suitcase and then stepped to the door. Before it he stopped and faced her. In his eyes, she witnessed pain and frustration. Then as quickly as those emotions had appeared, they vanished, replaced by a knowing look that grabbed her, held her; it signified that nothing could change what was happening. Not a word. Not a deed. Not a thing. He turned, opened the door and walked out through it. She stood frozen, still unable to chase after him, still unable to stop him, still unable to do anything but watch the door close as she inhaled the cedar scent and listened to the howling wind.
The wind raked the tree branches against the side of Sam’s house. To her, it sounded like her cat Mo scratching inside his litter box. It represented another moment of another winter since he left. Another winter spent without sharing a word, a smile, a tear with him; without any touch or embrace. And yet the clock kept ticking, kept circling the dial, wiping the present from its face with every movement; but not the past, never the past. She stared at the clock, and with a sigh of acknowledgement sipped the last of her tea. Placing the cup down, the howling wolf staring at her, she became aware of car tires crunching across the snowy ground. She stood slowly, an anxious air filling her lungs as she stepped to the window. Peering out, she watched the blue SUV stopping just beyond her front gate. Its engine hushed, the driver’s side door pushed open; and she watched as Trish stepped out and trekked up the shoveled path to the front door.
Sam opened the door before Trish arrived. The frigid air rushed in advance of her sister, yet Sam felt little of it. Or so it seemed to her as Trish walked past her and into the house. Shutting the door behind her, Sam embraced her younger sibling.
“Some tea would be nice.” She smiled. “Sure would stamp out the damn cold.”
Sam nodded and went to get her a cup.
“You know what I was thinking about driving over?
“How you taught me to roll snowballs big enough to make a snowman.” She removed her wool gloves, placed them on a small credenza against the wall.
“Why recall that?”
“From time to time I remember the things taught me when we were kids.” She removed her coat and draped it across the back of a dining chair. “Like swimming for one, down in Pine Pond. Riding a bike for another. Or tying my shoe laces.”
Embarrassed, Sam blushed and said, “That seems so long ago.”
“Just twelve or thirteen years.”
“Still, what’s the point?”
“I felt you raised me, that’s the point,” Trish said in a hurt tone.
“Mom and Dad did their share too.”
“They always appeared to have a lot more on their minds than raising me.”
Through the kitchen doorway Sam turned and looked at her sister, nearing 23 years old, pretty as a pin-up; so Swedish, like their late mother, with her creamy skin, her cornsilk blue eyes and her blonde locks that were never out of a bottle. “At that time, they probably did,” Sam said. Her voice masked the pain at the thought of her mother’s early death not long after those days.
“I get it now, but then I didn’t.”
“Anyway, I still don’t see how it’s relevant to today.”
“It is,” Trish said, “ because now I feel like I am raising you.”
For a few moments, silence held the room; until Sam mustered up her voice and said, “Is that how you see it?
“What do you think?”
In the kitchen, Sam’s face flushed. Her jaw stiffened. She closed her eyes and listened to the clock tick. She let out a long breath and then said, “How’s everyone?”
Trish peered into the bedroom through its open door and spied the clothes piled on the floor, the soiled plates near them, and the unmade bed. “Jim’s good,” she said. “Kids are all right.” Her sister’s approaching footsteps filled her ears and she faced her, seeing the cup of tea in the extended hand.
“It’s a mess,” Sam acknowledged. Her cheeks grew red and hot.
“Not again.” She stared at her. “Why?”
Sam turned from her sister’s stare.
“I thought after you were released, this was behind you.”
Sighing wearily, Sam cast her eyes at the floor. Painful images flashed before her: a sterile white wall, two stoic eyes of her psychiatrist and three small crimson scars slashed across her right inner wrist. She blinked a few times to make them vanish.
“Have you thought any more about staying with us?” Trish asked; her tone steady yet pleading. “You could spend time with the kids. They’d love it. I’m sure you would too.”
Sam fought to not scream and in a forced level voice replied, “I’m still deciding.”
“How much longer do you need?”
“As long as it takes.”
Each grew quiet. Sam drifted away and followed the whistling wind. Her eyes shifted to the window. The whiteness outside illuminated the panes of glass.
The sun had shone bright that spring afternoon. A day that had been bereft of any breeze. Fragmented light beamed through trees and danced across the grassy knoll. Blue Jays perched on branches above and whistled a cheerful tune. Yet Sam focused little on these sights or sounds. She was aware that Trish and her family sat on her right, aware of the voice, a man’s, orating. His words flowed from his mouth. Each carried its own power. Each exploded on the ears of Sam, who sat still; her fingers worried the folds of the flag resting on her lap. The spoken words ended. A moment of silence followed, broken by the pop, pop, pop of the rifles fired by the soldiers on the knoll. Sam heard each shot but never looked at the men in uniform. Behind her dark glasses, she shut her eyes and tightened her fingers around the folded flag. Sam fingered the cloth napkin on the table. “I still see him leaving,” she said. “His boots. His bag.” She stared at the napkin. “I still hear the door shut.”
Trish absorbed the words. “He didn’t walk out on you.”
“But he did.” A few tears washed over Sam’s eyelids and dripped down her cheeks.
Trish stood and stepped behind her sister, placing her hands on her sister’s shoulders. Bending, she rested a cheek on Sam’s hair; an act each had done for the other for as long as either could remember.
“Sam, you know the truth,” Trish said in a soft, comforting voice.
Sam felt an ache winding around her like a noose. She struggled against it, fought it as hard as she could. But in the end, she stopped, exhausted by it, giving in to it and the darkness attached to the pain, the hole within her.
Later as darkness fell, after Trish had driven home, Sam sat on the couch in the small den. Outside the wind howled like a wolf on a cliff. Although she couldn’t see through the window out into the blackness, she knew it was snowing still. Wrapped in a wool blanket, she saw Paul standing in the archway that led to the kitchen. She wanted to stand, go to him and embrace him. She wanted to, but instead she sat and gazed at him in his uniform. From his buzz cut head to his boots, he was her man. He would always be her man no matter what others said or did. Yet she uttered the words that she had to say. “You’ve got to leave.”
“I know,” he said in a voice that was thin and uncertain. He appeared uneasy, as if he wanted to say more, something, anything, but he stayed silent and then he looked again at her.
A weak smile crossed her lips. A distant memory filled her mind. In it she saw a shovel throwing dirt on wood. A scratching sound that pulled her back to the present as outdoors tree branches at the mercy of the wind clawed at the house. Pulling the blanket tighter around her, she felt the words force their way up from the darkness within. They found her voice and struggled up her throat and through her lips. “Please go. Now.”
With rueful eyes, he whispered, “You sure?”
She peered at him without a word.
After a few moments, he leaned over, grabbed his bag and left as he had done before. He never looked back.
With the wind’s fury in her ears, she sighed. She knew in her heart that this time he had left for good. Her eyes darted around the room; searching, seeking, and then she tugged the blanket hard around her.
Philip Goldberg has been published in over twenty-five magazines.
* * *
By Clare Goldfarb
I’ll bet you know that old State Farm jingle, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” Betty was like State Farm, a good neighbor who was always “there,” wherever “there” was. She brought brimming casseroles wrapped between hand-embroidered dishtowels to new families in the neighborhood. She was a den mother, a homeroom mother, and a Girl Scout leader. She volunteered as cake baker, slumber party giver, field trip chaperone, lunchroom aide, paper drive chauffeur, decoration committee member, potluck supper organizer, and hospital auxiliary worker. She always said, “yes.”
All that “yes” came to an end a few years ago. She got depressed and wound up going in and out of the State Hospital, a much more serious place than the psychiatric wing of our hometown hospital. When she came home for an interval, those times when she felt sort of “ok”, she would wander up and down the street, looking for someone to talk to; any neighbor would do.
The first time she came home for the weekend, I was eager to see her. After all, she lived right across the street. She came into my kitchen, and we talked, or rather, she talked and I listened. That first weekend she talked about everyday things—like the weather, the brand of coffee we drank, the latest cookie recipe, what vegetables I was putting in my garden. As she talked, I knew something was not right. There was something wrong with her sitting there in dirty shorts and unpressed shirt, her hair unwashed, no makeup.
The Betty I’d known when we first moved into the neighborhood never would leave the house without perfectly groomed hair, freshly laundered shirts and slacks, and flawlessly applied lipstick and makeup. That Betty rarely wore jeans, but when she did, they were ironed with a sharp crease. I joked once about ironing, and she told me that she ironed sheets and pillowcases. She was serious and self-critical when she said she knew someone who boasted, “I iron my husband’s socks.”
The untidy, unkempt Betty who sat with me that first weekend home from the hospital had stopped looking in the mirror. She paid no attention to the nice cup of coffee—with a homemade cookie—that I put in front of her. While the coffee turned cold, and the cookie lay forlornly on the plate, she talked and talked.
After that weekend, there were other visits all similar to the first one. I sat with her at my kitchen table and listened, unable to get even one word into those monologues. I always put a cup of coffee in front of her, where it always remained untouched. After the second visit, I stopped offering cookies.
By the summer of the second year of her hospital stay, Betty was coming home every weekend, and her husband, Hal, called and invited us over to their annual July 4th holiday pool party. Except for last year’s holiday, when Betty hadn’t been allowed to come home, the party was a happy tradition for the entire neighborhood. This year, Hal explained, there would just be our two families. I figured that meant Betty was not quite up to a crowd of more than a dozen adults downing beer while two dozen or so kids yelled and splashed in the pool. Although I accepted the invitation, I hesitated because of what had happened the weekend before.
That Saturday, I was enjoying a rare second cup of coffee; Laura, our daughter, was at a sleep over and wouldn’t be home until midafternoon; Marsh was riding bikes with Zach, our son. The house was quiet and calm, and then I looked out the window and saw the mailman putting mail in our box. Betty was standing next to him, talking.
Letting my coffee sit on the kitchen table, I backed into the living room and hid behind the curtains. I could see Betty and the mailman, but they couldn’t see me. Finally, the mailman got away from her and climbed back into his truck. Betty stood there for a moment and started up the path to my door. Terrified that she might see me, I slid to the floor and crawled out of the room. When the knock came, I held my breath and listened to several more knocks. My coffee was cold by the time I went back to the kitchen.
July 4th arrived, and we went across the street to the party. I brought a freshly baked loaf of bread that I wrapped in a pretty paper bag. Around the top of the bag I tied a ribbon; it was the kind of presentation that the old Betty did so effortlessly. If Betty could see some reminder of her old self’s behavior, would she get better? I made Marsh shave before we left. He grumbled, “We’re only going across the street.”
I relaxed a little bit as the kids, neighborhood friends, gave each other high fives and jumped into the pool. The two husbands huddled near the grill, cold beers in their hands, and started cooking the usual hamburgers and hot dogs.
After looking around and making sure that our towels were handy so that we wouldn’t use Betty’s stash, I dunked myself into the cool water. Then and only then did I realize Betty wasn’t in the middle of things, either getting more toys out of the garage or bringing snack food out of the kitchen. Where was she?
She was at the deep end of the pool with her arms spread-eagled on the side, as if she were holding on for dear life, as if the water was a place into which she could slide without any of us noticing. She didn’t say anything, not even, “hello.” No snack food appeared until her older daughter, Joanie, went into the kitchen and brought out a jumbo size bag of potato chips, something Betty would never have done. No junk food in her house. Betty would have produced pool safe bowls filled with fresh carrots, celery, and zucchini sticks. Another quick trip to her immaculate kitchen, and voila! Homemade dips!
Betty didn’t even look at the bag of chips. She stayed in her spot in the pool, looking off into a place where she had slipped away, further and further from all of us. She didn’t even respond when her husband Hal called out, “Come and get it!”
I ate about half of my burger, and out of the corner of my eye, I watched Betty, who ate nothing from the plate her husband had placed by her side. When my usually last to leave party animal husband gave me the “let’s get the hell out of here” look, I told the kids, “It’s time to go.” Without a single, “oh, Mom!” they dropped their plates in the garbage can, wiped their hands on their wet suits, and off we all went—after thanking Hal for the nice party. We were quiet as we entered our house, and Marsh broke the silence by saying, “what say, you get out of those suits, take quick showers, and we go out for ice cream?”
A few days after the party, we went to our lake cottage, and when we came back, we were busy and there were no visits from Betty. I figured she was back in the hospital, but on the last Saturday of September, I heard a knock on the door, and I knew it was Betty. This time, I opened the door, and there she was, dressed in jeans and an oversized shirt. She came in and started talking immediately, a monologue that I couldn’t interrupt. She talked about her children and said all three were defective. Then she said that she was going to go away and take them with her. I listened and smiled. Was she really thinking about a trip to Disney World?
On the next Monday afternoon, I was at work when Marsh called. I left the office immediately; he was at home, waiting for me, and he hugged me hard. He’d heard the news from Hal who had called him first. We neighbors told the story over and over, and in the evening we all drifted over to Hal’s, carrying comfort and casseroles. I put a homemade macaroni and cheese dish into the oven for their dinner. By that night, Betty had become a legend.
When we pieced together the day, we had to go back to Sunday, with Hal’s driving Betty back to the hospital. He told us that he always left her at the gate with her suitcase because she didn’t want him to see the other residents. “They’re real nut cases,” she used to say on the few occasions when she talked to anyone about “my home away from home.”
We figured out Betty must have waited at the hospital gate until Hal drove out of sight. Without going into the hospital, its hallway crowded with residents returning from their weekend outings, she turned around and walked to the bus station, which was about fifteen minutes from the hospital. She had to take two different buses to arrive at our downtown station. Had she figured this escape route out ahead of time? Whatever the answer, she got home at dark, so she and her suitcase checked into the Super 8 near the station. When the maid knocked on the motel room door the next day and no one answered, she went in and found Betty’s suitcase on the perfectly made bed.
Betty knew the family’s Monday morning routine; she knew when the house would be empty. Becoming the old Betty in preparation for the event, she made the beds, changed the towels in the bathroom and left a pot of coffee plugged into the wall. Sometime in the morning she combed her hair, put on one of her church dresses, and went into the garage. She used old rags to stuff the cracks between the doors and window frames. Then she got into the car and turned on the motor. When he came home for lunch, Hal found her, nicely dressed, laying on the garage floor, near the car’s exhaust pipe, a pillow—with a perfectly ironed pillowcase---under her head. The Fire Department emergency unit came and took her to the hospital, but she was D.O.A., dead on arrival.
There was a memorial service at their church, a very quiet one. Everyone in the neighborhood came; clusters of cooing and clucking sympathizers all acting as if this were a normal death. After the service, one of our neighbors, whose name I never can remember, gave a buffet lunch, a simple spread, and we talked over chicken salad and chocolate cake. The next day, people went to work; children, including Betty’s three, went to school. Hal took out the garbage.
If I have to chat with a neighbor about Betty, that person may ask, “was it a chemical imbalance?” I shrug and think instead, “did she get tired of being a good neighbor?” After about a year, a “For Sale” sign appeared in Hal’s yard. It was only there for a month before it was replaced by “SOLD!”
My kids don’t seem to be missing their old friends. They are busy with soccer and new friends. Marsh got a promotion and is travelling more. As for me? I tend to avoid my neighbors; a new family with two kids moved into what was Betty’s house. The kids’ ages don’t match with ours, and I see no good reason for getting to know their parents. Sometimes I stand behind the curtains and look out at the house. Then I go back to my cooling cup of coffee and home-baked cookie.
Clare Goldfarb is a retired teacher and never retiring writer who lives in Atlanta with her husband and dog, Maggie.
* * *
Fish Out of Water
By Brittany Little
The afternoon sun cast a sharp shadow on the dirt road. Mingli had been traveling longer than he could recall. His days were turning into one long nightmare of continual abandoned paths. He set forth to America for freedom but found himself a prisoner of wasteland. Mingli watched with a concerning stare as images in the distance grew large the closer he walked toward them. He questioned if his sight were playing tricks on him.
Mingli’s slicked back black hair dripped with sweat onto his over worn shirtsleeve. Confused, he blocked his scrunched eyes from the harsh beams of light from the sun. He dragged his feet in slow steps; frayed threads from his pants followed behind him. He came to a stop when he reached a small group of buildings. Nearby, a large sign carved from wood acquired a picture of a young cowboy riding a white horse. In red paint it read: Welcome To Rusty Ville, Alabama! Hangin’ In There Like A Hair In A Biscuit!
Mingli recognized the state on the sign from boxed orders he helped ship out during his overtime in Shenzhen, China. Things looked much different than expected. He always believed America, in all of her forms, would be better developed than what he saw before him.
The buildings looked as though they were built from rotting wood. Dust winds kicked up in front of him, piling thick layers of debris on the steps leading up to each door of every building. Everything was dull. Bright colors did not exist; only minimal color schemes straight out of an old western civilization thrived.
Black smoke from one seemingly abandoned building drifted upwards to the sky and the smell of barbeque chicken flowed with the wind through the small town of Rusty Ville. I made it, thought Mingli.
“Yehaw!” screamed a native bursting through the front door of Hank’s Original Grub Café. An oversized pot-bellied pig, with barbeque sauce spilling out if its mouth, ran frantically down the road squealing along the way. The middle-aged southerner walked casually in the direction of the wild omnivore, laughing hysterically while shooting his rifle in the air. The blows startled Mingli and he hit the ground like a young soldier in war under attack. Hank turned around toward a rustling near his boots.
“Hey boy!” Hank said with a twang. He aimed his gun at Mingli. “Yeah, you. Get up now, you hear?”
Mingli stared blankly at Hank. He didn’t move. He never disobeyed orders, especially when glaring down the barrel of a rifle held by a very large white man, but the language barrier handicapped him speechless.
“Get up, boy!” Hank repeated. He took one hand off the rifle, relaxed the other, and gestured for Mingli to stand up. Slowly Mingli did, his arms were held high in the air. “Put your arms down.” Mingli’s tasseled hair and ragged clothes served no threat to Hank. He lowered his rifle completely.
“Well hell. You one of them Chinks, ain’t you? Yeah, I done heard about your kind. You’re a long ways from home. Where you come from?” Hank said. Mingli said nothing.
“You speak English boy?” Hank said.
Mingli’s eyes showed life as he heard a familiar word. In broken English he said, “English. Little.”
“You ever tackle on some true southern barbeque?” Hank said. “Hell, never mind. Follow me.” Hank slapped him on the back, which made Mingli flinch and take a step away from Hank. Mingli hesitated in fear but Hank’s smiles and gestures convinced him otherwise.
Behind Hank’s café, Mingli found himself face to face with a large black grill. The smell of cooked chicken was potent. Starvation and dehydration settled in. Hank lifted the opening to the grill; shelves with whole chickens were being roasted. Mingli lingered on the smell in defeat.
“You hungry?” Hank said. “Well, just this one time. But I don’t do handouts. You work a full day, and then you eat. You understand?” Hank handed Mingli a freshly cooked chicken. “Go on. Take it.”
Mingli graciously accepted. He bowed his head in appreciation. He tore the chicken’s limbs apart, starting with the arms, then the legs, and finally the body. He shoveled the moist meat in his mouth, barely chewing. At least American food met my expectations. They don’t have a clue.
“I will teach you how to make roast chicken, fat man,” Mingli said in his native tongue. He smiled for the first time.
“Boy, I don’t understand a damn word you say, but you’re an okay kid.” Hank said. He slapped him on the back, shoved a piece of chicken in his mouth, and the two men shared their first meal together.
Brittany Marie Little is passionate about thriller and horror genres but enjoys writing quirky flash fiction on the side. She is currently seeking a degree in creative writing and hopes to one day be a writer in the television industry.
* * *
Poetry by D.M. Aderibigbe
The morning keeps us silent,
Silent from each other. A line
Of textbooks, a row of pens,
2 skirts on 2 chairs in a
Compartment. You are there with
These ladies I know, but wish not to
Know. One of these ladies types the
Keypads of Steve Jobs' cranium,
The other reads a manual on how
To become a character in J.K Rowlings'
I invite you to the other half of my
Clouts. A dead phone, plucked to
Life, 2 swivel seats calling for
Buttocks to caress. A part of your
Lineage spread on the smooth desk.
Now, darkness is now, we go to
That graveyard roofed with
Starry night. That graveyard i used
To push up your orgasm with
My frisky forefinger, and counted
The spangling nails of God, needling
The sky, that graveyard where no
Tombstone stands, where no
Epitaph is seen.
We are back into the
Afternoon, we are back doing
What we used to do in that darkened
Graveyard, when all eyeballs are
Buried inside their lids.
Before you, mother Idoto,
naked I stand; - Christopher Okigbo
I stand here before you this
Metal god, with your head bigger
Than the rest of your body,
Like my siblings stricken by
I stand here before you, like
I stood here exactly one year,
Begging you to invent another father
For my craves, not one with a
Heart of stone, like the rock,
Not one with a friable heart,
Like rotten papaya. Mum had a
Friable heart, and intimidation cleaned
Up her voice, when dad swaggered
In with the keys of the car of his
Mistress dangling in his finger, like the
Bum of an Indian dancer. He brought
Out a bag under the bed, and packed
Out his dark deeds, tendered them on
The table where my sister was
Born. Angry for a reason, angry for
We didn't perceive the perfume
That used to announce his arrival in
French anymore. We heard
Miscellaneous truths from rumour's
Mouth- we heard the Queen of Snow
Had him wrapped around her
Ring finger, we heard he would
Never see a cluster of black skins
Anymore. We Just heard and heard,
A herd of heard.
This woman knocked on our door,
Holding my father's identity with
Her right hand. She came to
Straighten our doubts, to
Clarify and verify the heartbreak
Dad spread on the table the other day.
The pond will remain
Still if no one stirred it, mum's reaction
Was a pond - still, after she heard the
woman. She caked her salient wrinkles
With white lead, compressed some
Of her finicky interest - yellow, white,
Black, green into a travel bag,
"Where's your mum?" Was the
Question that trailed her departure.
"Where's your mum?" A bearded man
asked the day-after-day-after she
Went. "She's with my baby." He would
Say and turn to turn the knob of our
I stand here before you this metal
God, your humongous eye, seeing
My past and my future, seeing my
Previous life and my next life,
I beseech you, if I ever have to live in
The world again, please grant me
Parents that comprehend the
Essence of doing deeds, where light
D.M Aderibigbe was born in 1989 in Lagos, Nigeria. He is an undergraduate of History and Strategic Studies of the University of Lagos. His work has appeared or will soon appear in journals across 14 countries around the world including; Poetry Kanto, Rampike, Anomalous Press, B O D Y, Word Riot, and elsewhere. And a couple of anthologies, including the Kind-of-a-hurricane Press Best of 2012 Anthology - Storm Cycle
* * *
Poems by Valentina Cano
Your eyes have never been that color,
glass just fired into shape,
its edges still bending at my touch.
I’ve never imagined them on me
when the moon tried to battle them
And what should I do when
my hands want to stifle the light
you blink from across the street?
A torment of mirrors.
That’s what you’ve become.
Breaking him would be
a matter of choosing the right
Not the one that jerked like
a shopping cart,
twisting at the slightest pressure,
but the one
that was like an origami sculpture.
One twitch of it,
one look of it resting on the desk
and she’d hear his body
cracking open like a scallop.
You, as Temptation
I’m holding this door closed
with both hands.
They shake like grass stalks
as your presence pulses
like a light beneath them.
One more word,
might do it.
Leave me poised on nothing
but a curl of your hair.
I deal in obsessions,
trading the glass-like gaze of repetition
for the endless movement of the heart.
I swap faces,
mating movements to intentions
to create the perfect creature.
The one I will never find.
He beats himself over the unsaid.
The threads of it sticking
between his teeth like mango pulp,
digging into his gums
until he fears
they’ll force his teeth apart.
Valentina Cano is a student of classical singing who spends whatever free time either writing or reading. She has been published in many journals, some of which include:Exercise Bowler, Blinking Cursor, Theory Train, Cartier Street Press, Berg Gasse 19, Precious Metals, A Handful of Dust, The Scarlet Sound, The Adroit Journal, Perceptions Literary Magazine, Welcome to Wherever, The Corner Club Press, Death Rattle, Danse Macabre, Subliminal Interiors, Generations Literary Journal, A Narrow Fellow, Super Poetry Highway, Stream Press, Stone Telling, Popshot, Golden Sparrow Literary Review, ,White Masquerade Anthology and Perhaps I'm Wrong About the World.
* * *
By Rob Hicks
Like Jack London
I sit in a cubicle most days
drinking free coffee and twiddling my thumbs
I go to the grocery store most nights
to buy dinner and the odd box of Raisin Bran
Like Jack Kerouac
I get my car inspected each April
and the oil changed every 3000 miles
Like Charles Bukowski
I only make the sure bet
and drink moderately on the weekends
I go to bed by ten most nights
exercise four times a week
don’t break too many rules
have a healthy respect for authority
eat plenty of vegetables
treat most people with respect
including those I don’t like
hardly ever speak up when faced
with something I violently disagree with
have never been in a fight
and most importantly
know that some day
I will explode
whether it be across this page
or on that poor kid in the grocery store
who was just doing his job.
Rob Hicks prefers writing to many other activities, including but not limited to Pétanque, work-sponsored Happy Hours, oohing and ahhing to 14th century Italian paintings, and pop culture.
* * *
Two Women in One
By Julia Hones
Two women inside one
are begging for survival,
roaming over a steep hill
that becomes a mountain,
a tight snare at times,
so tight it is
that there may not be enough room for
the two of them.
Yet this would not be feasible,
so the two women inside one
support each other,
stubborn as they are,
by lifting the pillars
that keep their balance,
brick by brick,
fending off the attacks,
even when the air that surrounds them
becomes stale and thick
and there is no clear horizon.
One of them is wild;
her poems, buildings of words and forests of stories
through uncertain tunnels of magical illusions.
The other one is her mask,
and carries the outside compass.
They forge elusive dreams.
There are not enough dreams,
and not too many either
because they cling
to their struggles,
straying in the same direction.
There is not enough coldness
to freeze them,
no forces to paralyze them.
Like anchors to a tiny island,
they are two women inside one
trying to survive.
Julia Hones has an incurable addiction to literature and writing. She writes poetry, flash fiction, short stories and essays. Her work has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies such as Epiphany Magazine, The Greensilk Journal, The Voices Project, Coffee Shop Poems, Skive, Flash Fiction World, "You, Me & a Bit of We" Anthology and Freedom Forge Press Anthology. She is the poetry editor of the Southern Pacific Review.
* * *
Poetry by Clinton Van Inman
Just two of you I need to lend a hand,
First to measure the rope from base to base
Then here along the wall and here to where
The rope is tied around the ceiling post.
Careful there, because all must be exact.
The tale is always in the tape you know,
Just an inch or so, an inch here or there
Even one and it would be a different story.
But we can rule that out because here
Is the can he must have stood upon.
He was often seen here from time to time,
Once it seems to look for work I’m told,
And must have known the garage to be a quiet
Place, but still it doesn’t do a business good
For this sort of thing—everything is as it should
All looks typical enough, all is in order.
One last entry and my work here is done.
Thank you for your help now cut him down.
ONE LAST LEAF
The way one last leaf
Upon a winter’s branch
Held by will alone
If not by chance
Had reminded me
of the coming cold
Branches will break too
Before I grow old.
Through cracks in old cabin wood
The sun’s eclipse ran across my floor
Like a garland of little golden smiles
Across the table and up the wall
As if they meant to give me call.
Perhaps the sun was all the whiles
Trying to show me something more
Than any store bought telescope could?
Clinton Van Inman was born in Walton-on-Thames, England in 1945, grew up in North Carolina, graduated from San Diego State University in 1977, and is a high school teacher in Tampa Bay. He lives in Sun City Center, Florida with his wife, Elba.
* * *
By Ruth McNeil
Sometimes I remember how your skin looked, blistered and moist from laying still for so long. Some days, as I’m sitting doing something mediocre, a smell passes gently past my nose and I remember the smell of the hospital mixed with the sweet scent of oil seeping through your sores. I know why I've blocked these memories, these grey ghosts of the past. When that week from hell pulled you away from us. How Beautiful and full of vibrant life you were. There was a certain spark that I have yet to see in another human’s eyes. They way you loved so completely, yet erred so humanly. I often think back and remember that night of my 21st birthday when you helped me drink myself to sleep. When you showed me you weren't just a Christian at your core, but also a young girl with a fire blazing in her heart. Struggling in your later years to make peace with that wild spirit, and somehow tame what always lurked in the depth of you. Trying to make us better women. Trying to keep us from what you spent so many years crying and aching over. The realization that this world we are conscious in belongs to self-pleasing arrogant men. But underneath all that realization of greed and pleasure seeking selfishness was your need for hope. Hope in humanity and love. Hope in a God you devoted your life to and hope for your children that you would have ultimately given your life for.
I remember those memories because they don't leave my soul with a stabbing pain that cuts to my heart. I remember those memories because I remember the essence of who you were. Not whispering goodbye in the ear of an unconscious body.
Did you hear me when I said my goodbyes? Did you understand me when I told you I was sorry for not loving you more? I don't know. I would like to pretend that you weren't aware of the doctors releasing you of your pain. I would like to believe that you weren't in there anymore trying to say your goodbyes to us. So I remember the bedsores and breathing machines to remind me that I need to love what is in front of me, and not wait until my last breath to remind me of what I live for.
Ruth McNeil a stay-at-home mom to 3 wonderful but crazy boys in NH. She is originally from California but moved to New England with her husband. She loves anything creative that feeds her soul.
* * *
Photography by Shelly Drymon
Shelly Drymon spent 16 years in the non-profit sector. When she turned 50, Shelly decided to pursue her creative side and took off on an adventure. She picked up a pen and camera and today her writings and photos depict the journey of her second half of life.
* * *
Photography by Susie Garay
Born and raised in Portland Oregon, Susan Garay received a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Brigham Young University, spent some years in the Ohio Appalachians and currently lives in the Willamette Valley where she works in the Vineyard industry. She has had poetry and photography published in a variety of journals, on line and in print, and is a founding editor of The Blue Hour Literary Magazine and Press.
* * *
Photography by Richard Ong
Richard Ong's painted artwork, stories, poetry and photos have appeared in several issues of bewilderingstories, yesterdaysmagazette. and The Blotter Magazine. One of these stories has been republished in print as part of an anthology titled, “Toys Remembered.” (compiled and edited by Madonna Dries Christensen). He is also an executive producer of a promotional movie short, “A.R.C. Angel: Kalina,” nominated for Best Guerilla Film Short at the 2013 Action on Film Festival at Monrovia, California.
* * *
Photography by Daniel Romo
Daniel Romo is the author of Romancing Gravity (Silver Birch Press, 2013) and When Kerosene's Involved (Black Coffee Press, 2013). His poetry and photography can be found in The Los Angeles Review, Gargoyle, MiPOesias, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He teaches high school by day and college by night. He’s, currently, the Guest Poetry Editor for Cease, Cows. He lives in Long Beach, CA and here.
Photography by Louis Staeble
Farmhouse, Waterville and Peeking Through
Louis Staeble has a webpage filled with info about himself.