Foliate Oak September 2016
By Jason Elford
Jeremy works at mall and in my noggin is fiftieth year high school reunion Friday night. Today Wednesday. Jeremy is in center court cleaning up sprinkle strawberry ice cream. Pain in my back as mess won’t go away. Wipe around more and still mucky.
A twenty-year-old kid walks a triangle around Jeremy, talking to a different member of the current on each edge of triangle. All these people walk in streams through centre court around me. The kid walks backward with an Internet tablet in one hand. Moves like his feet are on wheels. Dark eyebrows and straight hair. I watch him convince a young woman to sit on a bench and sign up for a credit card. Pain in my back seems more and I hate the kid with bitterness like sucking on a multivitamin.
I have been in trouble with my boss for sitting down. She said it looks bad. Whole company looks bad. Boss says she cares about the company: “Not me, not Jeremy, the company.” She says Jeremy should be like her and do his best to make certain that the company looks good. That way we all get a raise. She tries not to laugh like she thinks I’m stupid. She wears glasses and has a degree and worked at sorting papers so that by time she’s beginning old age, she can finally play boss like she’s powerful. Jeremy cleans up messes all day and can’t afford medication. He never got any job sorting papers or giving orders.
Boss pages on radio, says there’s more mess in the food court. I turn down volume. My face glows red hot with shame and rage. Always sticky messes for Jeremy to clean. No other job because my concentration and behavior aren’t as good as the kid’s.
At home Maureen has lived with Jeremy since meting on bus last year. She talks about nothing Jeremy wants to talk about. The TV is judge jury and executioner for all in-betweens. Maureen can’t afford medication or do any work. Her mind gets too distracted for most things and her back even worse than Jeremy’s. So Jeremy goes to mall almost every day to support two people. Two people mean two of everything. Too many groceries. Too many prescriptions. Too many bills.
Next day Jeremy sees the kid riding his triangle. Many of the current mutter at him saying, “Fuck off;” “Get a job;” “Go to hell.” Jeremy can’t help but go into noggin dream about changing out of uniform to walk with current, in hope that the kid talks to Jeremy so I can look into those eyes and say some mean words. Maybe feel like a normal person. It’s like someone could punch the kid’s teeth and they would magically pop back into place. My teeth are in need of dentures that I cannot afford because Jeremy pays for Maureen’s dentures first.
I watch a homeless man follow the kid to a bench and sign up for a credit card. My boss is out of nowhere all of a sudden and says stop standing around. “Make it look like you’re cleaning something.”
Sometimes there’s nothing to clean. Boss makes me clean already clean bathrooms. Mop floors without messes.
On Friday Jeremy’s patrol is an even greater circle around centre court so he makes it look like he’s cleaning while he supervises the kid. There’s something wrong with him. I get black-red mad when the little shit targets an old lady. And then idea pop in noggin: the kid is a bully. That young woman on Wednesday, homeless man yesterday, and now he’s after the elderly. I look around for boss before going into noggin dream of hero Jeremy: knight in armor, vs. Psycho-Bully-Shit-Kid. I hate the dark eyebrows and how young women, even when they say, “No thanks,” they giggle or smile. The kid is a fire-breathing monster dressed up as a kid. He must be stopped, but Jeremy cannot think how and he’s angry.
I’m full of rage on my walk from bus stop to home and through front door. Maureen gets up from couch as hero-courage-lion steps sound through hall, and Maureen, in bathrobe says, “Jeremy, honey, what’s wrong?”
It all comes out at once. In noggin Jeremy sees how sometimes I forget to take coffee breaks at scheduled times, so boss thinks I “forgo them.” I think about how mortgage for this stupid little old house should have been paid off by now, somehow. Jeremy sees how I don’t get the better pills because of low wages, and at most jobs worked over entire life it doesn’t seem that the harder I work the more Jeremy rewarded. Maureen’s depression is bullshit and life is so if you can get seven thousand dollars loaned out to you from a kid with an Internet tablet. By the time Jeremy’s crying he realizes that none of what he says makes any sense. Today is Friday: fiftieth year high school reunion. Maureen puts arm around me and we sit down on couch for a long talk.
Jeremy never graduated high school so he never goes to any reunion ever. He marks the passing of each year as if he wore a robe and graduated and had parents that were involved in his life. I thought retirement or at least some health care could come by old age. There are others like me who ride busses and sit on street corners. Jeremy tries to stay off streets. One month he lived in a grain silo, another month a homeless shelter before rehabilitation program. All Jeremy’s jobs started at minimum wage. I could never settle down in one place to work because the injustice in the world makes me crazy.
Early Saturday morning I walk in mall. Kid not at centre court. No current this early. I walk in food court and surprise: there’s the kid seated at a bench, typing something. Fingers on laptop keys going quick always tickle Jeremy’s noggin. I wonder how they remember where all the letters are.
Jeremy walks up to the kid. At same time I sit down I say in firm voice like police detective on TV: “I’ve seen you selling credit cards.”
The kid looks up. His voice this close seems like car horns and I’m afraid whole world will hear. “I don’t sell credit cards, I do surveys for the mall.” He says if I want a credit card I should go to one of those big-box stores. “I give people gift cards as a reward for the survey.”
My boss comes up behind me and asks if I’m supposed to be working. It’s only then that I realize I’m in uniform. Shit. The kid looks up and addresses my boss by her first name and she acts like she’s in a younger body, flirting with a younger man. She tells me to get to work.
I get in trouble. People report me for scaring them under my breath. “Muttering not illegal,” I mutter. And then Jeremy blows up at boss when she gives me shit. I tell her to fuck off and she tells me that I will keep getting sent home for bad moods and keep missing work hours if this keeps up. It’s on the bus ride home that Jeremy realizes he needs more currency. Next paycheck won’t be enough to cover the pile of bills. Not enough for mortgage and living expenses. How can it be so? Does Jeremy need to use food bank again? Selection is thinner every year because more and more people need it. More and more people becoming like Jeremy with their bills.
Next day after work I go to big-box store. There is another twenty-year-old kid up to me on wheel feet fast. It’s like he’s trying to make me feel stupid when he says he’s not selling anything, he’s giving people points cards. If you pay off the balance then the card does this and that for you, and who doesn’t want free—I hold up a hand as he tries to talk over my symbol.
I ask the kid how old he is.
I tell him he’s a crook. Jeremy knows that currency on a plastic card that comes out of nowhere makes no sense. I tell him it would be best if he just killed himself and then I stand back, sip my coffee.
The kid give me this blank look and for one second Jeremy’s willing to bet every moment of his working life believing I hurt his feelings, so this makes everything complete. And then the second is up and those dark eyebrows work into a shape of concern and out come the perfect teeth and he says he takes nothing personally. He says I should take a job. “We’re hiring and if you can labour language like that then maybe you can stand working with the public.” He says the job pays more than minimum wage, like he knows my life. I’m angry. I pull out my wallet and give my Identification card to the kid. Jeremy’s furious to know that he could never do an Internet tablet job.
The kid looks over my Identification and taps my information onto his Internet tablet. He says something about an approval period and I demand what for.
“They have to check your credit history to see if you can qualify for the card. In the meantime, take this free shopping bag for completing the application and thanks for helping me meet my quota.”
The kid scoots off and I stand there with the folded bag in my hand. Jeremy has never had to resort to a credit card before. Currency used to carry more value before Nixon took America off the gold standard. After 1971 more and more people resorted to credit and debt. Jeremy knows that the noggin harassment is only partially because of boss and the kid. The other part comes from thinking too much about bank bailouts. That currency should have been given to mortgage holders.
The card comes in the mail a couple weeks later. I use it to buy the meds I need so that my noggin isn’t harassed.
It’s like the moments between sweeping and wiping are blank spaces and all my boss does is say good morning and remind me to at least eat lunch. “You need the strength to keep doing your best for the company.” She says that if I keep it up, after another two more months with no tantrums, I get coverage for pills. She says it not out of kindness, but out of bureaucratic responsibility. These meds keep me focused on work. Pain meant to be in my back, not my noggin. That way Jeremy can continue working even if he can’t figure out how to pay off the credit card.
Jason Elford writes short fiction, poems, and novels. His work has appeared in The Worcester Journal, The Machinery, and STOPGap. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
* * *
By Sean Crose
Cruising northward up Route 8 on your brand new BMW K 1600 you couldn’t help but smile under your protective helmet. Zipping past one car, then another, you let your imagination run wild. You were cruising towards a bright future, after all, just as you were cruising to the Berkshires on a cutting edge pair of wheels.
Iced tea. Your future would be in iced tea – the very iced tea that old woman sold in her diner in West Virginia. The most effective way to sell a beverage, after all, was to have that beverage taste good. And this woman’s beverage didn’t just taste good. It tasted great. She had the product, and now you would come up with a sales plan.
Racing up through Torrington, you let your intellect merge with your ambition. If you could get someone to buy the product – if you could do that – your fortune would be made. Who could you go to, however? As you got off the ramp and turned right at the end of Route 8 it occurred to you that it didn’t actually matter.
You could go to anyone, after all. You were in the industry. You sold vitamin water to upscale gyms in Brooklyn. If you couldn’t get someone to listen to a ten minute presentation, then who could? Rolling along past Northwest Community, you began to fully understand that the whole thing came down to the presentation. It all, in the end, came down to the plan.
What kind of plan, then, would allow an old woman’s iced tea to compete with brands like Arizona, Nestea, Lipton and Fuze? A plan, you figured, that would appeal to contemporary sensibilities. You could push the idea, for instance (you’d actually lie and say it was a sticking point) that the iced tea be made from water which was bottled in both an environmentally and socially friendly manner.
You nodded your head at the thought. How the contemporary powers that be loved telling people they were all about the environment and the community, all while running countless factories in environmentally indifferent China.
It was bullshit, sure, but it was what it was. Why should you be blamed for playing the game? You didn’t make the unwritten rule which said surface gestures and catch phrases were more important than sincere efforts. You were simply abiding by a rule that the great unseen forces that be had created.
As you crossed the border into Massachusetts, you realized the iced tea would need both a terrific name and a marketing gimmick if it were to succeed. In short, you needed to find a way to create consumer awareness, the kind of profound consumer awareness that would lead to eventual customer consideration.
You continued racing along, running parallel now with the river on your right. You caught sight of a bald eagle soaring through the sky. Perhaps, you thought, the iced tea could have a kick ass bald eagle as its mascot. Maybe it could be called something like “All American,” or even something more upscale, like “Contemporary American.”
By the time you passed the egg farm, however, you realized that American-focused marketing would lead only to American clientele. And you didn’t want that. Nope. You wanted that old lady’s iced tea for sale in China. The more thirsty potential international buyers, the better.
Turning left towards Lee, the idea finally came to you. The iced tea would be called “Cruise,” for now you would always associate it with this ride to the Berkshires. Cruise. What a great name. Perhaps the spelling could be changed so it wouldn’t be confused with the aging star; or even, you laughed, with the seventies’ band.
Zipping past the shopping center and the McDonald’s just beyond the bridge, you figured you could come up with a marketing gimmick, something the public could engage in, before you even reached the Cranwell. You upped the speed of the K 1600. You wanted the bike to start keeping up with your thoughts. You felt this was your time, after all. You felt this was your moment.
Little did you know that drunk kid would literally tear your body to pieces with his ancient Monte. Little did you know that you’d be dead before you reached Lennox.
Sean Crose teaches Literature and Composition at Post University. He's also a columnist for Boxing Insider. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and Cody, the World's Greatest Cat.
* * *
Custer's Last Spittoon
By Sean Jackson
Nobody listened to Zach like I did. He was a talker, a storyteller who would fling his arms around if he had to, to get your attention. Other times he’d prop up on his elbows and lean in, tell you about the darkness in a way that it would never leave you.
First time I met Zach he was in a pickle in a prairie town, something about a stolen truck and a hand up a lady’s skirt. And here I come, a tall redhead with warhead bosoms, and they parted like wheat in a wind so that I could come right up to Zach and smack his face.
You see it was my sister whose skirt his greedy hand had shot up. She’d felt the warm tickle of his fingers on her you-know-what.
I struck him right across his fur-bearded cheeks. And he proceeded to start into a story about how once a city man was madly in love with this Comanche woman …
And four hours later we were in bed together. The Grand Hotel. No so grand, but the only hotel in town. We broke a bedpost.
Seemed right it would snow wet and windy for his funeral. It piled up insanely fast out by the saloon which he’d managed his last couple of years around southern Montana. It swept across the valley a good drop before it suddenly came to an end. Moe said it was similar to Zach himself: unexpected, the absolute rawness of nature, brilliant as an opera, then dead and gone.
We sang all the outlaw songs and drank whiskey and beer and cried. I had a hole in my heart which felt as if it could never be plugged again. I told them all, on the tiny stage where Zach used to introduce the traveling Texas swing bands, that Zach had stolen my very heart and soul.
I shook and stared at them, the tears hot and blurry. I never thought I needed a man until I met him. And I still don’t think I need one, like so many girls are taught to need. But I need Zach. I require him to survive. Rough and infidel as he was, my life became chained to his.
“Come on down,” Moe said, his arm around me, with a drink in his free hand. He sat the drink down on a table and gave me a hug, which ended a little low, down around my bottom. He squeezed me so tight that I felt his belt buckle press sharply into my navel.
“Now, don’t a warm body of a man up against you make you feel better?” he whispered through my funeral curls, into an ear half stopped up with a cold. “Let me make you feel whole again, darling.”
I heard a bow strike a fiddle and an old Kitty Wells cover fill the room.
“Oh Moe,” I whispered back into his hairy ear, “you don’t know a thing about a real woman.”
We all sat at a big round table near the low stage, a table the size of Zach’s infamous swimming pool. (There is more than one story about his fabled above-ground.) We sat and listened to a bona fide hillbilly band from West Virginia, by way of Nebraska, strike up a woeful ballad such as Zach used to sing in his truck. He would croon like a playboy when he had to drive at a crawl through the snow to check on the head at Grassy Ranch.
We lifted our beer bottles into the air when the song came to its stark end.
Moe toasted us. “Piss in your eye!”
Moe’s ex, Ginger, stood and reminded us that Zach had lived a helluva lot longer than anyone had expected. Don’t forget, she told us, that he’d beat leukemia when he just was a scrawny kid.
“And most kids like that,” she grinned, her raspy voice so warm and familiar, “turn out to be math wizards or businessmen; you know, fine family men and such. Not Zach. He went from a Jerry’s Kid to an outlaw. And for that, we are grateful here in Elk Spoon.”
We all gave a Here, here! and someone hooted. The band kicked into a slow polka and Ginger yanked old Moe out onto the dance floor. (She must’ve seen him whisper in my ear.) He laid his hand on her shoulder and she cocked her head and they drifted around like a cloud and its shadow until the song was over. We clapped. Moe wiped his nose and nodded thanks. Ginger looked at me and smiled. It was hard to gauge what was going on in her mind.
Then the singer, a petite gal with long pretty blonde hair and kinda plump with big teeth resembling candy, coughed into the mike and addressed us all rather formally. “Lest y’all think me and the band is strangers to the departed, to Elk Spoon and all, let me tell you folks a story.”
She told a yarn that spun itself from the heydays of the last Colorado silver mines to the Fargo bank robbery which put Zach in prison that first time. Then she pointed to the older fella playing the standup bass and said this was her daddy and that Zach had saved his life in the penitentiary.
“Show them your scar, Daddy,” she said and the man sheepishly lifted his shirt and there was a half-moon scar, like a ghost smiling through his belly.
She said Zach always spoke fondly of Elk Spoon, a town he called “a home and a haven for the derailed and the recovering.” Her daddy once told her of a time, per Zach, when there was free hard candy in the churches—a bribe to get kids to totter in, hopefully with their parents in tow.
“It was only one minister who did it,” Moe called out. “But it was the talk of the town that entire summer. That it was.”
The singer smiled. She clutched the old-fashioned microphone and twisted her cheek around it, to take a look at her sad sack band.
“We’re gonna do Folsom Prison,” she said. “Y’all sing along if you feel like it.”
Cancer eat on Zach as if he was the sweetest thing on this Earth. It started out as what we thought was a stubborn stomach bug. But once it tore into his liver and pancreas and such, it was all I could do not to weep at the sight of him. I would hold his wrist and we’d count the pulse-beats, every day a lighter thump, as if it was slowly walking away.
I was bewildered by the way Nature had turned its back on him.
See, when I met Zach, he was a full-on cowboy. Had a lazy eye from getting kicked by a horse in a rodeo and a touch of a limp from a dirt bike accident. He lived in a ranch sprawler out in the nethers, about halfway between town and Grassy Ranch. He could load a shotgun quicker than anybody I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a share loaded, often hastily during brawls).
He told me of a boy he met on the trail one autumn, a long time back when he was chasing coyotes on his Yamaha for the state of Wyoming. A boy with a love for whipping the heads from snakes and then searing that lean meat over glowing coals under moonless night skies.
Zach said the boy was almost weightless when he climbed up canyon walls to get a look out yonder, or to grab a rattler or two (snap a head, toss it down). There was no way to get the boy—he musta been sixteen—to say what he was doing out in the badlands. Zach figured he was simply another runaway on his way to Alaska.
They palled around for a week or so until the boy up and said one night, “This is my last night with you, Dutch.” Zach said he shrugged and noted that “All good times come to an end,” but that the boy grew serious and told a story that still, on up to the end of his life, shook Zach to the roots of his soul.
He said it explained why the boy was out by himself, in ten thousand square miles of nothing. He said it was a tale of child slavery, incest, Satan worship, patricide, crucifixion and a frightening old lady who ascended into Heaven. I cain’t do Zach justice. He told me the story and I cried. He swore it was true.
“Then why won’t it in the papers?” I asked him.
Zach said maybe it was, that he didn’t ever read the papers. But the boy coolly slipped off into the night, probably chewing on smoky broiled rattlesnake as he made his way. He said it had bothered him a lot over the years, and over time he wondered if it had been real. Maybe he’d dreamt it up. But no, Zach said, he had proof. To this day, and this was only a couple days before he passed, he carried proof.
“Look close,” he said as his breath wavered, faint as a bird’s. “Check it out for yourself.”
And I leaned in. He held a finger up for me to look at. It was worn and beaten, kinda hairy. A recent wound still visible on the top knuckle. It was a regular finger to me.
“I don’t see nothing,” I said.
“Look again,” he whispered. And then his eyes cracked a wee smile and I knew I’d been had. Sure enough, that sly old fart was giving me the bird.
When it came to his last hours, his eyelashes turned white. He was but a husk of Jesus there in his big cowboy bed. It was brass. Almost everything in his house was made of brass. I held his shriveled hand and it was the same as holding a stick. This one vein by his knuckle kept chiming his life along, letting me know that my fella was still there inside that pile of blankets.
And when he passed, a hot tear left my eye. The breath stopped in my throat. I touched his chin, his eyes. It is a lousy chore for those attending death—to make the face presentable again.
I took his ashes home. Moe and Ginger drove me since the beers had gone uncounted after that Johnny Cash song when I fell out of my chair. Zach felt light in my lap, his remains all packed down like potting soil.
Zach was in a spittoon we’d picked up at an auction in Billings. Folks said it was from the Custer family’s estate, and claimed the Lt. Colonel had spit in it (twice) right before the Lakota shot him from his steed.
Since Zach was a spitter, I felt it was a nice fit.
We clambered somberly into the house (it still smelled of Zach’s leather soap) and Moe immediately squatted before the dog andirons and began to build a fire. I put Zach in a window so that in case it snowed he could be close to it.
Ginger dropped into a big chair by the fireplace, facing in. She pulled her long white hair into a high ponytail, then let it fall back down. She watched Moe’s shoulders knot up as he lifted logs, before looking away.
“You can almost still feel him in here,” she said wistfully, as if she wasn’t saying it to either me or Moe in particular. “Like he’s just off over there,” she said, twisting in the chair to point to the other end of the room where he’d built two tall bookcases, “trying to find that book with Indian chiefs in it. You remember that book?”
“Great Headdresses of the American West,” I said with a smile. “He must’ve showed it to me every time he got drunk.”
“And that was a lot of times,” Ginger chuckled. She looked at me for a moment. Long enough that I saw her eyes were curious, as much as they were sad.
Moe stood up and brushed his hands off on his pants, until he realized they were his only dress pants.
“It’s only a little sap, Moe,” Ginger said. “It’ll come out in the wash.” She paused and looked my way, gave me a wink. “As long as he washes them before he wears them again.”
We watched the flames rise in the firebox, a dragon awakening. But it was a wise, gentle, beloved dragon. Our faces glowed gold with it. Then Moe excused himself and went out to smoke on the deck. (Zach never allowed smoking in the house, since his daddy had died young of lung cancer.) For a minute we watched him, from cupping the tiny flame in his hand to bending the arm with the first deep drag.
Then Ginger patted the ottoman and told me to sit there at her knees. She rubbed my shoulder and then smoothed my hair, as a mama would. I put my hand on her knee and tapped a finger.
“Between you and me and God,” she said, “and not a soul else—me and Moe is going to try it again. We hashed out the last details this morning.”
I let her hands slide along the curls, deftly, as though she’d done it a million times and had a million more to go. It would have been an odd sight for anyone to see; two middle-aged women petting each other like tweens at a sleepover.
“We’re going to make it work or we ain’t,” she said, with hardly a trace of worry in her voice. “What I told him was this: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a relationship. We can either have what you and Zach had, or we can go back to being a pair of lonely drunks stupefying ourselves in front of the television.”
I looked at her. She was watching the fire. She could have looked at me or out at Moe, but she chose the flames. There were mini fires in her irises. I could see the andiron dogs there, tiny as ants, staring back at her, the saddest greyhounds you’ve ever seen. She just kept staring into the fireplace. Maybe she forgot I was there, or decided that I was merely a doll whose hair she had to stroke so many times before she could move on to anything else.
“Me and Zach had our share of rough times,” I said. “We had many nights where we’d wonder if there was enough love to keep us going on.”
She nodded, the spell broken. She glanced out the glass doors where she could see Moe, who was gazing off into the darkness, as drunk men will do.
“I’d rather sit around together and wonder what’s left,” she said, “than sit around all alone and know it’s nothing.”
I wanted to tell her that Moe had made a pass at me during Zach’s wake. I wanted to know if she’d seen it. And if she had, how could she go on and not say anything about it? I wanted to tell her that Zach always said Moe was the sort of man who jumps from woman to woman because he is scared of what she’ll find out if he stays put long enough.
Ginger looked back at the fire. The flames and dogs were inside her eyes again.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” she said, as if I’d missed it the first time around.
Then she put her fingers back in my hair. And we watched the fire quietly, while Moe stood out in the first wet flakes of a new snowfall, with Zach sitting in Custer’s last spittoon wondering where his life went, and why there wasn’t just one more story for him to light into.
Sean Jackson’s latest stories have been published in Cleaver Magazine, Niche, Sliver of Stone, and Prick of the Spindle, among other literary magazines. He was a 2011 Million Writers Award nominee. His debut novel, Haw, was published in 2015 by Harvard Square Editions. He lives with his wife in Cary, North Carolina.
* * *
Passing Up a Date with Vin Diesel
By Sean Trolinder
Three years before Mark Sinclair became the action heartthrob Vin Diesel, he was a contestant on the dating game show, Making a Connection. It was a highly unoriginal program, a total rip-off of The Dating Game minus the walls, so the judge was able to see how the participants looked.
On that Thursday evening, I was welcomed onto the stage by host Calvin Wittek, a man with hair parted to the right and a smile that would make egg shells crack. The spotlight flashed on me as my loafers smacked the tile. Shattering applause and high whistles came from the audience, but I wondered if it was because of my tight physique, my wholesome face, or the red sign offstage that kept flashing “Applause.” Calvin forked out his hand, pulled me in for a hug, and said, “Welcome” into the microphone.
In the audience sat my mother, who had been worried about me ever since my ex-boyfriend, Khalil, died. It happened over two years ago, right after I had graduated high school. Though in my heart I had gotten over Khalil’s death, I was never able to see myself getting that close to a man again, mainly because he was one of a kind. He was a bit chubby, but loved to give me foot massages as we studied chemistry. His glasses had squared frames with a bridge far too small for his plump nose. What I loved the most about Khalil was how attentive he was about detail, which was why he helped me edit my statement of purpose to get into NYU. Despite this, a drunk driver had ran over him while Khalil walked home from my apartment one night.
Since I had not dated in two years, my mother phoned the network, submitted a head shot to Making a Connection, and they said that I’d be a judge on the show.
“Think about it,” my mother had said. “You’ll get to choose any suitor you want!”
After Calvin and I chatted about who I was (Kathy) and where I was from (New York), he asked me if I was ready to meet the contestants, so I nodded. I didn’t want to say this was all my mom’s idea, but my gaze hovered over to the right side of the stage, curious to get a glimpse of the contestants.
Over to the left sat a man with black slacks, a bulging neck, and a tight white button down. His sleeves were short, cutting off at his biceps. On his right arm was a tattoo of a martini glass with two olives. I wasn’t into tattoos, but gave this guy, Lionel, the benefit of the doubt.
In the middle sat Mark Sinclair, who would later become Vin Diesel, wearing a black Armani shirt, blue jeans, and a silver wristwatch. His head was shaved to the skin, which reminded me of the Mr. Clean man. Perhaps his most promising feature was his brown eyes, but the ladies in the front row kept whispering about his jacked arms and stern neck. Calvin said that Mark Sinclair was an aspiring filmmaker, working on a short film called Multi-Facial.
“Hello,” Mark Sinclair said, waving at me. I didn’t know what to make of his voice, since it sounded gruff like a meat grinder.
And the last contestant was Trey Zin, a web designer from Scanton, Pennsylvania. His hair was beach blonde, flowing, and as long as a rock star’s. He had a squared chin, but his teeth were even, white, and proportionate with his lips. A small twinkle flashed in his ocean blue eyes, reminding me of a lunar eclipse. On appearance alone, Trey was the frontrunner until he said, “How’s it going, babe?” Babe? I hated that term. He was the only contestant I didn’t nod to.
Lionel and Trey stared at one another, trying to size each other up, but Mark Sinclair just crossed his arms and peered into the screaming audience. Someone yelled, “They’re all hot. Pick them all.”
As Calvin read the rules, which consisted of me asking the contestants various question to get a better understanding of who they were, the audience calmed down. My mother smiled and shrugged, her way of telling me to have fun, that they’re all hunks. But I blanked for a few moments, a bit sad that none of these men were Khalil.
Calvin shook my arm for a moment and said, “Are you okay?”
I leaned into the microphone and said, “Yes.” I must’ve been ignoring him for too long.
Mark Sinclair rubbed his bald head, a bit embarrassed by the question. He tilted his neck, flashing a sly smile. The possibilities were endless for such an answer and I felt a bit ashamed for putting him in this position. After all, the question came from the show’s producers to add comedic effect. I’m not even sure how I’d answer--If you and I were trapped in an elevator over a weekend, how would we pass the time?
To Mark Sinclair’s left, Trey—the web designer—kept twirling his locks. He mumbled about how the answer was obvious, indicating the thoughts tossing within his perverted mind. I imagined Trey and I being trapped in an elevator, how he’d repeat the word babe twelve times within five minutes before trying to grope me. I shivered at the possibility, but Mark Sinclair caught me. Before he could answer, he shrugged and relented.
“I’d ask if you’d like a foot massage and whisper sweet lullabies in your ear,” Mark Sinclair said. “Then if it got cold, I’d offer the shirt off my back to keep you warm.”
A young man in the audience yelled an elongated, “Yeah,” followed by many whistles from the ladies behind the craning camera. My mother laughed in her seat, slapping a knee. I could tell she was charmed.
I blushed, not because I was flattered, but because of the irony of such a corny answer. The response reminded me of the last time Khalil gave me a foot massage.
On the night Khalil died, thunder crashed outside my apartment window. Taxis whizzed by, splashing through puddles. A transformer rested atop a building across the way, buzzing a bit louder than usual. It was as if the electricity were warning me to press Khalil about staying the night, but I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea. We had agreed not to have sex until marriage, which enabled me to keep my chastity while respecting Khalil’s faith.
Nonetheless, his massages were its own form of intimacy. He pressed his thumbs against the balls of my feet, rubbing out the knots. Near the end, he had a tendency to coax the skin between my toes, making my joints limber. He’d kiss the top of my feet before resting them atop my bed.
“How are we going to make a long distance relationship work?” I asked.
Khalil gazed out the window and adjusted his sliding glasses. Sighing, he said, “Boston’s not too far away. We can visit each other every other weekend.”
I cradled my legs and rocked back. My shoulders leaned against the wall and I couldn’t understand why he would not look at me in the eyes. A tear formed in Khalil’s eye, but he blinked, trying to hide his emotions.
He stood up, yanked his leather jacket off my nightstand, and said, “Everything will work out. I know it’s meant to be. I think that I might be in love with you.”
For a second, I pictured what our wedding would be like—Khalil wearing a brown tuxedo, me wearing a floral dress and carrying violets while walking down the aisle, my mother crying in the front row, and ocean waves crashing along the beach. It would be a summer wedding, seventy-six degrees out, and not a cloud in the sky. Every chair would be filled and all eyes would be on us as we’d say our vows. When we’d say, “I do,” Khalil would move in slowly for the kiss, taking his time to lift the veil. Such a promising dream, but it would only be that—an idea, a trick of the imagination.
“I love you, too,” I said to Khalil. “It’s awful out there. Why don’t we watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?”
With his eyes closed, Khalil leaned over and kissed my forehead. He gave a reassuring pat on my shoulder.
“It’s just rain. My mother said that she’d have dinner ready by eight, so I better go. My family wishes I could spend more time with them before I move to Boston.”
Right before he reached the threshold of my door, I said, “Be careful and call me when you get home.”
A minute later, I watched Khalil from my window. He ran across the street and turned down an alley. I decided to put in my VHS copy of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but twenty minutes in, Khalil never called, so I began to worry.
“Suitor number one,” I said before clearing my throat. After fifteen questions, the words on the cards became a ridiculous blur. I couldn’t get over how cheesy these lines were. “If there were three things you’d like to do with me before dying, what would they be?”
Lionel rubbed his arm as if trying to blot out the martini glass tattoo. Over the past fifteen minutes, he had caught me staring at it, so he must have picked up on how it was a turnoff.
Blinking, Lionel said, “The first thing I’d do is have this awful tattoo removed from my arm and I’d replace it with your name.”
The audience cackled and some said, “Awe.” Lionel squirmed, probably because he didn’t intend for it to be funny.
“Then, I’d take you to a wine and cheese festival, since it would be on my bucket list.”
Trey Zin thrusted his hair back, rolling his eyes. Mark Sinclair leaned over his knees, a bit intrigued by the response.
“And with my last few minutes of breath,” said Lionel, “I’d like to spend it kissing you while the sun sets.”
“Such bullshit,” said Trey.
The audience mumbled amongst themselves and it caused me to laugh. I pictured the producers up in the audio/visual room trying to figure out how to bleep the cuss word out, since the show was live. To my right, Calvin Wittek pushed his hands out flat palmed, pleading for Trey to calm down.
“Okay, wise guy,” said Lionel. “What would you do?”
I was afraid of what Trey’s answer might be.
Trey stood up, pressed a hand over his heart, and said, “I’d write some love poems for Kathy, make her a candlelight dinner, and as that other dating game show would say, I’d spend my last moments making sweet whoopee to her in a hammock.”
As Trey sat down, the audience continued laughing and some of the adolescent men in the audience stood up, pumped their fists, and yelled, “That a boy, Trey.”
Another guy in the crowd said, “He’s telling it like it is,” before a security guard came over and escorted him out.
In his seat, Mark Sinclair shook his head, covering his mouth. Was he ashamed or chuckling? There sat this beautiful, chiseled man, but he didn’t seem the least bit interested in competing against Trey’s ego. Even though Calvin Wittek nudged me to move on, I did not continue to the next question. I wanted Mark Sinclair’s response, too.
“Suitor number two. If there were three things you’d like to do with me before dying, what would they be?”
Mark Sinclair shrugged. “I’m sorry, but I don’t even know you. But if we were to really hit it off and I knew that I was dying, I’d like to get married.”
When the camera cut to commercial break, Calvin Wittek reminded me that I had three minutes to decide between the three contestants. The make-up artists came on stage and powdered my cheekbones. My mother waved at me and twiddled her fingers—was it going to be suitor number one, two, or three?
Mark Sinclair glared at the floor, a bit disappointed in his performance. Out of the three contestants, I believed he was the most honest, but his answers to several questions kind of freaked me out. He liked the idea of giving foot massages, like Khalil. Also, he would like to get married before dying, which was something Khalil had expressed to me in the past.
For a brief moment before the stage director warned us that we had fifteen seconds, Mark Sinclair glanced up and stared into my eyes. His brown irises were enchanting, but he was not Khalil. None of these contestants were on my ex-boyfriend’s level, but I gave a courtesy smile. Mark Sinclair grinned back, nudged his head forward, and then sat up straight before the countdown. The stage manager held out five fingers.
The red “Applause” sign flashed, so like drones, the audience clapped upon command. Throughout the history of dating game shows, the female judges were always asked to pick a suitor, and no matter how bad the contestants were, there would always be a winner and two losers. My mother smiled, excited about how I would go on my first date in two years. Part of me worried about picking the wrong guy. After all, it would probably be a one and done date no matter who I chose. The truth was that despite the show’s name, I didn’t feel any romantic spark between myself and the three men.
“Welcome back to Making a Connection,” said Calvin Wittek. “I’m here with Kathy Barnes and she’s about to pick one of our three suitors for a chance to go on a romantic cruise to the Bahamas. Again, suitor number one is Lionel Young, an auto repairman from Yonkers. Number two is Mark Sinclair, an aspiring filmmaker from here in New York City. And number three is Trey Zin, a web designer from Scranton, Pennsylvania. So Kathy, who’s it going to be?”
I gulped. The easiest decision was who to eliminate first.
“Well, I’m going to have to say that Trey, I feel you’re a bit of a sexist jerk, so I’m definitely going to say no to you.”
Trey stood up, cleared his throat, and said, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life, lady,” before exiting stage right.
Moving on, I peeked at Lionel, who still covered up his tattoo.
“Lionel, you do seem like a nice guy, but I’m going to have to pass.”
“It’s because of the tattoo, right?” he asked.
“Sorry,” I whispered, shrugging. However, I offered him a nice, somber hug before he exited. It was only then that I realized that Lionel probably was a gentleman and he handled himself with class and dignity.
Mark Sinclair smiled and stood up from the chair, assuming that he had won. My mother had thrown out a thumbs up, indicating that I made the best choice, but even then, I felt it would be wrong to string him along.
Before Calvin could embrace him and crown Mark Sinclair the winner, I said into the microphone, “And I’m sorry, Mark. You’re gorgeous and charming, but I’m going to have to pass.”
The audience rumbled in their rows, baffled at the unexpected response. My mother’s smile flipped into a frown, so she slid deep into her seat.
“Come on, Kathy,” said Mark Sinclair. “Don’t you think it is worth having one date with me? You seem nice.”
I nodded and said, “You don’t need a television show to get a date. There is a crowd full of people out there that are willing to line up just for a chance at your number.”
Some ladies in the front row stretched out onto the stage, trying to will Mark Sinclair to come their way.
“But I’d like to get to know you,” he said. “Forget the trip. Why don’t we just go get coffee?”
Though my good sense tried to kick in, thinking about how Mark Sinclair’s film might be a success, I hugged him, said that I was sorry, and exited stage left, questioning why I just rejected someone who might become a superstar one day, but to me, he was just another face in the crowd.
He was no Khalil.
Sean Trolinder received his MFA in fiction from Texas State University - San Marcos, where he was a W. Morgan and Lou Claire Rose Fellow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Midwestern Gothic, The MacGuffin, MARY, The Sand Hill Review, Oracle, and many other journals. Currently, he teaches at Valencia College and is the Fiction Editor of Newfound Journal.
* * *
Long After Conventioneers
By K J Hannah Greenberg
Long after conventioneers, those ticky-tacky suits
Pandering dictates of bottles, aspirins, unsorted lust,
Hailed cabs, squished into planes, flew homeward,
I lagged to empty dust bins.
Sheets, wine, sweat, pee, and semen-dabbled got flung.
No cart’s deep enough to contain overgrown kids’ budgets
For candy floss women, weed, adult hotel channels, rum,
Leftover pizza or toupees like inert sea creatures.
Damp girlie magazines remain nothing relative to dry
Tip envelopes, rude lobby countenance, racial slurs.
We’ve named diseases for those guys, yet they continue
Imbibing all manners of binders’ glue, even gummy worms.
My brother, who vacuums hallways, usually winces
Upon unearthing, in cigarette trays, bits of gems.
Those gum ball machine-quality charms hide interns’
Authentic attempts to buy status among good ‘ol boys.
So, we spray, rinse, scrub at their ill-meant efforts.
Ward off microbes, try to deter international
Attention to downtown halls regularly trashed
By managers fancying partying over work ethics.
KJ Hannah Greenberg eats oatmeal and keeps company with a prickle of (sometimes rabid) imaginary hedgehogs. Her critters, in turn, take bites out of brooding critics, uncomplimentary readers, and assorted nocturnal terrors. Her newest poetry collection is The Little Temple of My Sleeping Bag (Dancing Girl Press, 2014).
* * *
Memo in re: Goodbyes
By James McAdams
Texting is the way we say goodbye now.
Anecdote #5: male, mid-30s, slouched against toilet in nightclub bathroom,
three gunshot wounds in mediastinum, taps with index finger: i’m dying jon you & kds 4ever.
Jon texted back.
He never did.
Anecdote #8.3: female, just turned 18, prone against bookshelf 602.35-604 of Fairfax Community College Library, uses phone with Hello Kitty case to take Snapchat selfie with text: bye friends it was fun, before the combat boots turn the corner...
Multiple people responded: What was?
Some searched for the deleted snap.
(This is of course before the news coverage broke.)
Anecdote #29.34: service dog, owner in diabetic coma, nudges phone’s home button:
Siri says: What can I help you with?
Siri says: Sorry, I missed that.
Question. We carry insurance cards in our wallets, why not our goodbyes in our pockets? What if we composed goodbyes and saved them in our phones, like digital wills, so, when, through glazed eyes/bloodspattered bodies/numb fingers, we text goodbye, we can share this file, since in this condition of course how can you:
(as the combat boots implacably proceed) express what life was?
How can you (as the Sarin gas depresses your CNS) express what love was?
How can you (as the towers fall) fully express how you felt about your time on earth?
James McAdams has published fiction in decomP, Superstition Review, per contra, Literary Orphans, and B.O.A.A.T. Journal, among others. Before attending college, he was a social worker in the mental health industry in Philadelphia. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he also teaches and edits the university's literary journal, Amaranth. His creative and academic work can be viewed here.
* * *
By Carrie Naughton
Late last night or is it early this morning
I felt the earth moving
and the bedside lamps rattled and cried out
in reply wake up
and the streetlight flickered on - wake up, we're shaking -
flicked off and one lone bird cried out
wake up get up and run.
Early this morning or is it every morning
a stranger's words killed me a little
my spirit smoldered in childhood fever dreams of
puffy orange balloons burning
like the ends of my mother's cigarettes.
Can anyone hear me cry out
can anyone hear me wake up.
I cried on the side of the road
across from the Big Hole Barbecue
across from the girls staring and
gearing up their Clackacraft on its trailer
to float away on the river
as the sun melted off the clouds
drifting up from the edges of mountain ridges.
A dusky grouse saw my tears and
scolded me from beneath shady
stalks of houndstongue and musk thistle
preened his wings whispered Confucius-style
hey lady wherever you go, go with all your heart.
And I was angry at the dead snakes
gritty and flattened on the asphalt
and I was angry at the rotting deer
flyblown and damp with runoff
and I was grousing yeah grousing
because suffering is an art I try to ride
but this afternoon - oh wake up
it's every goddamn night - I let it ride me
right off this road and into the gutter.
There's a heat haze a smoke daze
a pollen count in the billions in my brain
where the rain is made of dust
where the cottonwood fluff
ignites like a line of gasoline
a drawstring of flame
a zipper ripping
apart this pavement-schism down to the caldera
so this cobble-and-sand conglomerate layer cake
valley landslides into the desert while I'm
choking on ditchweed and drinking cheap wine
because it's so much more fun being drunk alone
than it is being sober with you.
Early this evening yes and every evening
I clear my own zone of alienation
like Chernobyl's poisoned perimeter
that impact crater when Wormwood
fell from heaven a radioactive hot glass brick
or a fiery green star dripping absinthe-soaked sugar
Do Not Enter
remain on the periphery until
I crawl out of the quackgrass like a rangy spectral cowgirl
emerging from a craftshow painting nailed
above a plastic-bagged bed
one foot on the spongy mattress
one hand clutching my limp bouquet of spurge and toadflax
wake up now the walls are quaking
and it's midnight in this seedy Idaho motel.
Carrie Naughton is a freelance bookkeeper who writes speculative fiction, environmental essays, and poetry. Her work can be read at Strange Horizons, Zoomorphic, Star*Line, and The Tishman Review. Find her here - where she blogs about whatever captures her interest.
* * *
They're all Players by Ravi Durairaj
By Ravi Durairaj
Mr. Lophorina superba flies onto my branch
expanding his breast shield flickering
his cape feathers around his head, iridescent streaks
and eye spots in a circle of black, begins spirited dance,
moving wings in clicking sounds,
corners me between a branch and trunk,
woos me with hypnotic screeching,
I fall in love just a little bit
every day with someone new….”
His plumage is a parasol of shimmering black
like a black-light turned on,
shape-shifts into a glowing face
performing a ballerina dance and goes,
Love with every stranger,
the stranger the better….”
We live in a rich rainforest with plenty of food--
so my wooer has nothing to do.
I have a homely look of gray and brown,
but the more I turn away, the more he hops,
swings, struts, shakes and buzzes,
transforming his body into an ellipse
of metallic greenish-blue and black
and goes on for hours with violin-like shrieks,
“I wake at the first cringe of morning,
how pure, how sweet a love….”
How nice if we just sat on a tree,
looked over the canopies
and love was about more than just sex.
The shape shifter does seem to have some talents
besides just pouncing on me for one-minute of…bliss,
which I like once in a while, but its a hassle--
I’m left to hatch the eggs and raise my chicks.
Yawn. Not impressed. Next….
Ravi is nearing completion of his MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University and plans to continue his literary studies with a PhD in Literature at ODU. Ravi has a background in Science and Engineering. The past twelve years he has been working as an IT Architect at a financial services company that serves the military. He has lived in Texas for nineteen years with his wife, Selvi, and his two children, and loves nature, hiking, traveling and reading.
* * *
By Rachael Peckham
I had just reclaimed the white square of foam my cousins and I surfed atop when Dad's voice stopped our splashing: I need you kids' help. He stood at the patio’s perimeter (he didn't want to track in manure) in full coveralls he’d tailored for summer, cutting the sleeves off above the elbow but below the pale bicep. My dad has a tall and wiry kind of strength, the kind that burns on a diet of bacon every morning, ice cream every night; the kind honed from constant waking and walking, of pounding and pulling the land into shape, or pushing the boulder weight of livestock when instinct locks their legs. It is a quiet and patient strength that hogs will bend to more easily than with other means of force—that is, most of the time. I need your help, he repeated, with a dead sow. Funny that my first thought was not gross, but rather, right now? I glanced at my cousins, girls like me concerned with sharpening the tan lines formed by our first bikinis, lending our bodies at least a shadow of a shape. There's no one else around, Dad said, and I could tell from his tone that he was sorry for that; that he genuinely dreaded asking us as much as we dreaded stepping from the pool into his truck, a sauna of stink and hog dust that stuck to the seat of our suits. In the nursery barn, Dad told us to watch our step (the floors are slatted so that waste can slip into a pit below), but even so, the aisles were slick and our flip-flops squished. Dad chuckled, I didn't think about your feet. I stopped thinking of them too when we got to the sow, her blue belly taut as a balloon, the mouth an emptied bowl of sound. Dad caught my stare. Pneumonia. He bent down to tie a rope around her legs. If you all take hold and pull, he said, I'll take her back weight. We did as we were told. We pulled and as we did, her blood and bowels came too--keep going—painting the aisle behind. My feet were wet and my face was wet and with the last shove we pulled her from the barn so hard I fell back in the gravel. I began to laugh—what else can you do?—we sure as hell didn't go back to the pool. Dad delivered us to the house and thanked us again but we had already piled out, calling first dibs for the shower. Later, I would stand before the mirror reveling in feeling clean again, assessing my tan and the bruise beneath one cheek, already blooming a faint shade of blue, already tender to the touch.
Rachael Peckham holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Ohio University, where she specialized in the lyric essay and prose poem. Her chapbook of prose poems, Muck Fire, won the 2010 Robert Watson Poetry Award at Spring Garden Press. More recently, Peckham was a finalist in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award; the National Poetry Series Open Competition; and the Pleiades Press Robert C. Jones Short Prose Book Contest. Peckham teaches at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where she lives with her husband, poet and essayist Joel Peckham, and their son, Darius.
* * *
By Behlor Santi
Vickie pressed her hands against the glass of the storefront. Here she was, at Saks Fifth Avenue – the flagship store in New York City. Gucci. Fendi. Marc Jacobs. She now could buy all the designers she read about in her magazines, the clothes she yearned to fit into. The afternoon was perfect. Sunny and warm, with shoppers in impeccable dress surrounding her and her boyfriend Jay. Vickie wore head-to-toe Forever 21, including the pink, fake-suede flats that People StyleWatch claimed looked surprisingly stylish with her black-and-white dress.
Jay embraced her. His chest touched her back. He smelled like expensive cologne, a bit of acrid sweat mixed in. He laughed, before whispering, “Vickie?”
“Hmm?” replied Vickie.
“Your b'day's coming soon. Why not get something special?” He then pressed his hips against her butt. “Cake is fattening, in my humble opinion.”
Vickie wiggled herself away from Jay's crotch. Not now. She and Jay had driven down to Manhattan from Rhinebeck, freed from the country estate of Jay's family, with its tennis courts, orchards, and trim relatives. Before the weight loss, Vickie's legs looked like bratwursts in her Old Navy skinny jeans. Jay would blissfully, and defiantly, hold her hand in front of his mom and dad, even as Jay's father, the erudite Jewish physician, grumbled about the high sugar intake of today's youth, and Jay's Irish-American mom urged Vickie to live on the cabbage soup diet she first tried as a co-ed.
Vickie remembered Jay's dad. She remembered the cabbage soup diet. She told Jay, “Yes, let's get something.”
The handbag section of Saks was dark and cavernous, full of noisy salespeople scurrying about, trying to make commission with red-skinned, plump tourists from places Manhattanites either ignored or loathed. At the Fendi boutique, a tall and slender black girl wearing long, blonde braids – in the style of Bo Derek in that 1980s movie – stood around, slight smile on face.
When Jay approached the salesgirl, and caught her big dark eyes, he blushed a bit. “I'm looking for a Fendi bag for my girlfriend's birthday,” he said. “What do you have available?”
Vickie kept her distance from Jay. She felt conflicted, wanting to feel his warmth, desperate to get away from him. Would buying this bag prove Jay's love? Or was it just proof that Jay – like everybody else on the planet – preferred skinny girls?
The salesgirl showed Jay a blue leather bag that cost four thousand bucks.
“You know,” he said, “I'll think about it. It's my Jewish side acting out, heh heh.”
He slipped away from the boutique. He walked towards Vickie.
“You look like you want to eat me.”
Vickie nodded. “Yep,” she replied. “With sweet and sour sauce! What's with the cake jokes?”
Jay narrowed his eyes.
“Cake jokes? Cake is fattening – that's why I like it!”
“And women shouldn't?" ranted Vickie. "You're becoming the jerks who made fun of me back when I was huge.” Vickie looked down to her now skinny legs. She shook her head. “I don't care if you buy me cheap earrings from Chinatown. I don't fancy gifts for being a twig – especially on my birthday!”
Vickie held out her hand. Her heart raced. She smiled, before saying, “I want an hourly hotel room instead!”
Jay looked into Vickie's large brown eyes. He laughed loudly, ignoring the pinched expressions of the salespeople surrounding him.
Jay held Vickie. "How sleazy," he murmured, before rubbing his lips on hers, kissing her passionately. Vickie could taste the hot dog Jay had for lunch – and still smell his cologne. She wiped the kiss clean from her mouth. The heat of Jay's tongue continued to burn.
Jay said, "Let's go."
“Feeling you,” whispered Vickie. She followed her boyfriend back to Fifth Avenue. Clouds started to obscure the sun, the clouds heavy with grayness. When a fat tourist couple started to pass by, Vickie rolled her eyes towards them. She almost said something. Instead, she shook her long dark hair. She leaned against Jay. She stepped ahead with her man.
Behlor Santi is a writer, journalist, and sex worker.
* * *
By Amy Nemecek
Mimi adored her girls. Since Jack died, she sometimes forgot to change her clothes or comb her hair. But she always made sure her girls looked their best. She brushed their hair every morning. Her knarry fingers fumbled to fasten their miniature bodice buttons and tiny shoe buckles. Mimi talked to them constantly. Sometimes they talked to her.
Mimi gave her girls pretty names like Shirley and Charlotte, Maureen and Helen. Some days Mimi had the feeling she once had a pretty name too. Always it played on the overcast edges of her mind. But the grandkids called her Mimi, and Sunday school students called her Mimi, and everyone else followed suit. She wished she could remember her name before children, before this small town, before Jack even.
Jack. He’d been gone twenty-some years. Or was it thirty? A heart attack. Or maybe cancer. Still, she had her girls. They stayed by her side since the hip replacement last March…or was it the year before that? She’d have to ask her daughter during their weekly phone chat.
Mimi winced as she slid toward the front of Jack’s tattered easy chair, convinced she could still smell his aftershave all these years later. Using the armrests, she heaved herself up on the third try, shuffled into the kitchen, began fumbling for her car keys. Her children insisted she shouldn’t drive, and one son even took away her keys. But Mimi hid spare sets all over the house. If she could just remember where.
Today she found a set under a flower pot in the kitchen cupboard. She needed to pick up her mail, and the post office was only a stone’s throw from her door. Besides, it would do the girls good to get out for a bit, though carrying them to the car was becoming harder. She half sat, half fell into the driver’s seat, then arranged her girls on the bench seat beside her.
Mimi backed out of the garage and barely scraped the passenger-side fender against the weathered trim. No matter. It wouldn’t show much. She turned the wheel and let the car idle along her street. When she came to the two-way blinker, she braked to an almost stop and glanced as far as she could both ways before pulling onto Main Street. A horn blared from somewhere to the right.
“My stars, Helen! Folks are so impatient these days,” Mimi fretted as she pressed the gas pedal.
A splash of blue diverted her attention to the sidewalk where a little girl skipped parallel to the road. She looked like a doll Mimi owned as a child. Blonde curls bounced with every hop. Navy smocking puckered around the middle of her sky-blue Polly Flinders dress.
“Little girls don’t wear nice things like that anymore, Shirley.” Mimi tsked. “Such a shame. Where’s her mother? She shouldn’t be out by herself!” The child didn’t even glance at Mimi’s compact green station wagon, just kept on skipping.
Mimi took her foot off the gas and angled the car toward a blue handicapped space out front of the post office. The little girl stopped skipping and bent to adjust a cotton anklet, retied a shoelace with concentration. Mimi’s foot found the pedal and gently applied the brakes. The car kept moving. “That’s odd. Remind me to call the mechanic this week, Charlotte, and get those checked.”
In the meantime, she pressed harder, worried her tires would hit the curb.
The little girl straightened between Mimi and the post office door. Porcelain eyes grew round. The engine revved higher and tires slapped concrete. Blonde curls and blue smocking disappeared as the grill of Mimi’s car ripped through the red brick façade. Window glass shattered and the front end crumpled. Rear wheels spun freely, but the wall of sturdy PO boxes stopped forward progress.
Mimi’s girls sprawled on the tan vinyl seat. A single rag doll figure lay behind and to the right of the car, legs akimbo and blue dress torn. Mimi could hear panicked wails, but she couldn’t open the door to reach her, to comfort her. A second of clarity. She knew dolls don’t cry, felt the keening in her own throat, understood some things could not be mended.
Mimi gathered her girls to her chest and rocked them until a white sheet obscured memory’s face.
Amy Nemecek (@Beloved_Delight) lives in northern Michigan with her husband, son, and two cats. Her poetry, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, appears in The 3288 Review, Mothers Always Write, Indiana Voice Journal, Snapdragon, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. Amy works part-time as a freelance book editor and enjoys long walks along country roads.
* * *
Tartarus, Part One
By Kristie Letter
gate-of-hell cafeteria breathes chili, quick push to the mouth of the food assembly line, metal-track links you to the others, all sliding, three peaches in syrup, a pile of spreading peas, armored smile
three kinds of cardboarded milk, train of touching trays splits, then- gaping room, table, positions precarious, deliberate pauses in speech struggle to rip open soggy spout, cork ceiling tiles fascinate, mouths move beans between teeth
a huddle of styled heads petals open, fueled by truth, by dare, you wish your mouth a valentine, or your hair a fragrant curtain, but too much blurs past on bus rides, reading makes the milk rise, so stare up
let throat adjust to pushing sound out rather than sliding food in, let words (bright shiny pennies) drop, not disembodied, but on script, navigating through the sound the smell the yes, all the words you feel in stomach but cannot wield (yet)
In the intensification June heats into July, vibrant fade, lifeguards and busboys, cashiers and camp counselors, all eyes and moving fingers, lethargy coupled with insistent scratching, sister’s sleep beneath trees and Alice alone seeks elixir.
Through intervening darkness, Alice observes an eagerness, a desire to taste, a collection of bottles, some full, candy-colored syrup, thickly present, falling slowly down the throat, curving to coat.
On picnic tables in dappled shade, they bring combs and brushes, boys and girls alike groom each other, using splayed fingers, combs, brushes, branches, keys, while swelling and receding comes and goes, in caterpillar dreams.
They brush hair in circles, scratching at each other’s scalps, mouths slack, eyes heavy, insistent hands, combs toothy touch, syruping sleep, itch morphed into movement, as experts lament, parents wail, the truly old regret bodies.
Upon waking, shaking back stupor, breathing through itch, blinking away Technicolor iterations, they find scalp hatched, throats un-itched, playing cards scattered, with no memory of the game.
Kristie Letter's work has just been recognized in Best American Short Fictions 2017 and has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, Washington Square, Passages North, Pangolin Papers and The Southern Humanities Review (among others.) KT Literary represents my novel Snow and White
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By Dick Bentley
She wasn’t a girlfriend. She was a member of the “Sexy Seven,” those 13-year-olds who were everybody’s girlfriends.
The “Sexy Seven,” that’s what they called themselves. They would drive around the streets of Lake Forest in Sol Smith’s convertible. They wore red cloche hats which they would wave at people as they drove through town.
Karen proudly claimed that she was the only member of the group who wasn’t sexy.
She said she would never marry. She preferred horses to boys. She seemed uninterested in passion or puppy love, but she had a temperament that encouraged friendship. She was an only child, and she lived with her parents in a remodeled farmhouse that had once been part of a vast estate. She kept a couple of horses, and I would ride beside her, galloping over fields and splashing through ponds.
Years passed, and the Sexy Seven married or moved away. But Karen stayed in the Chicago area. One afternoon, after a good ride together, I sat with her on the top rail of a fence that overlooked the pasture behind her house. We were in our twenties by now, and we talked about our lives. She was no longer a teenager who threw erasers at her teacher. After college she became, herself, a teacher of young children. She wondered how, besides the reading and math, she could help them find purpose in their lives.
“What’s the point of education, the reading and writing, all that adding and subtracting?” She smiled. “What does all the adding add up to?”A few weeks after that conversation I went east to visit some friends, two of whom were once members of the Sexy Seven. They had found important husbands, and they were starting in on careers and babies. They were glad to see me, they said. They asked about Karen, and I told them she was starting to get serious about things.
When I returned home I found that Karen had gone to Silver Hill, a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut. I was especially upset because of our talk on the top rail of the fence that overlooked the pasture. I visited her at Silver Hill. We walked the grounds together, but I never asked her why she was there. She gave no information, and the fact that she was in a mental hospital seemed to have no meaning for her. She was casual, and she acted secure. I knew that at last it was time to fall in love with her. She was working to give her life meaning and could possibly help me do the same.
But a job change moved me away from Chicago. Karen married and moved to Arizona.
Soon the Carefree calls began. Every year around Christmas she would call me or I would call her. The years passed. I told her about my marriage and the birth of my children.
She talked about her marriage and her divorce and her mother’s move to Arizona after her father died. I now lived in New England, and I told her about our family’s Christmas drive through the mountains --- the Taconics, the Berkshires, the Holyoke range, the ski areas. I told Karen that after Chicago, you could be nostalgic for a place even if you had never lived there, or had just arrived.
She laughed and said she felt the same way about Arizona. She said she was moving to Carefree to be closer to her mother.
“There’s a town in Arizona called Carefree? Could someone like you ever be happy in a place called Carefree?”
“It’s nostalgic,” she said. “Your word. I ride my horse through the Ponderosa. I take care of kids who need help.”
Over the next few years she told me about her second marriage and the birth of her daughter. She told me casually about the brief trip to Silver Hill. It had been her decision, she said. She had been feeling depressed but after a few months, the depression went away. That was all. Now it was over. She looked forward to raising her daughter.
One year, the Christmas calls stopped. I tried to reach her a few times. At first, the phone didn’t answer. Then I found it had been disconnected.
She had disappeared.
The searches began.
A few months later, the police found her body in the hot desert. She had been taped inside a cardboard moving box. The killer had assaulted her, broken her ribs, gagged her,
choked her, and placed a bag over her head to suffocate her.
The killer and his wife worked as day laborers. They were helping Karen move to a new house. According to the police, they killed her because they didn’t want her to find out that they had stolen some of her jewelry --- earrings, a necklace, some rings. They pawned the jewelry, then went off to Las Vegas for some gambling.
Even though the case has been solved, the facts refuse to reduce themselves to any kind of meaning.
Karen suffered in the desert, untouched by God, by grace, or by purpose.
Dick has published fiction, poetry, and memoir in over 260 magazines and anthologies on three continents. His books, Post-Freudian Dreaming and A General Theory of Desire, are available on Amazon. His new book, All Rise, contains, along with poems and short stories, samples of his inventive “wall poetry” ---- poems that are displayed as part of paintings and graphic art. These fresh and unusual works have been shown in collections and art galleries. Dick has served on the board of the Modern Poetry Association (now known as the Poetry Foundation). He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee and was prizewinner in the Paris Review/Paris Writers Workshop International Fiction Awards. In 2012 and 2013, Dick gave readings of his poetry at the famous Paris bistro, Au Chat Noir. Before teaching writing at the University of Massachusetts, Dick was Planning Director for the Boston Housing Authority. He is a Yale graduate with an MFA from Vermont College.
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By Paul Beckman
I hear them and look around. I should either get off my meds or increase the dosage, but my doctor has no appointment openings for three months and he won’t prescribe over the phone. By then, the dead could be walking beside me. I show up at his office and stay from eight-thirty in the morning until five-thirty at night hoping he’ll step out and see me, but his receptionist tells me he already left. I leave too and buy a noise filtering headset, but the footsteps still come through. I walk miles with the footsteps following, and go see my mother at the Assisted Living and crawl in bed and under the covers with her, like I did when I was little. Unfortunately, I am now persona-non-grata at Harmony House. “Fight fire with fire” my previous shrink advised but he wouldn’t say any more.
Now that dusk is here, the footsteps seem more pronounced. A huge boot hangs from a post over a door and with all the walking I’ve been doing my feet are sore from my worn down heels, so I go in and ask the cobbler if he has time to replace them while I wait. He tells me that my soles are good and there’s no reason for my heels to be so run down and he’ll put metal plates on them and they’ll last longer. You must be a heel walker he says with a row of nails held by his lips. I nod for lack of an intelligent shoe answer. Haven’t put these on in years, he tells me, while he nails one metal to each heel. Before leaving I take a couple of steps with my new metals and the clacking sound brings me back to my younger years when they were all the rage.
Once outside, I hear the footsteps again. I wheel around and walk towards the sound, sparks shooting from my heels as I go, and the footsteps now quickly walk the opposite way. I’ve chased them away. I buy a Creamsicle from a Good Humor ice cream truck at a park’s edge and look for a bench to savor both my ice cream and my victory. I finally find one that doesn’t say, Wet Paint.
Paul Beckman was one of the winners in Queen's Ferry Best of the Small Fictions (2016). Some publishing credits: Literary Orphans, Thrice Fiction, Connotation Press, Existere, F(r)iction, Matter Press, Molotov Cocktail, Pure Slush, Jellyfish Review, Blink-Ink, Litro, Soundzine, Opium, Playboy, The Connecticut Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and his flash story collection Peek is Big Table Publishing
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Echoes From a Future Diorama by Peter Baltensperger
By Stephen Faulkner
I speak from an experience which is still ongoing when I say that depression, or the not so simple state of just being depressed, is an eminently fickle thing. For me it strikes when I am alone and have little or nothing to occupy my time or my mind. Lately it will come upon me during one of those limbo periods that we all occasionally have when there is just nothing at all to do.
This has only been a recent thing for me, though, perhaps coming on me in this past year or so. Before that my depression was not so intense or periodic. It was a constant of non-caring and an absence of interest in fun, sex, food, playing, joy, people, loved ones, life – nothing, just trudging through all the positive properties and qualities of living with a blank look in the eye that for long periods would let the world outside know that there was no one (or, at least, no one of interest) at home. And then there was the non-feeling; no hate or love or anger or joy – just a pall hanging over me and with me always. At that period of my life it was like a black cloud hovering just inches from the top of my head with tendrils of its dark, foglike substance hanging down, enveloping me as if preparing to draw me up into its colorless interior of eternal non-caring nothingness.
Evidence of what my depression had done to me finally hit home when, after being told by my wife that something I had done (or not done, I forget which) had hurt her very deeply. She asked me then how that made me feel. I decided to forgo the immediate retort that I usually resort to of bullshitting my way through by telling her that it hurt me to hear her say that and that yes I certainly would try my best to be more supportive and caring in the future. This time, I instead opted to tell her the truth in hopes that it would help to clear the air. “I don’t feel anything,” is what I told her, thereby bringing that particular conversation to a sudden and stinging halt. It was the truth of the moment, but certainly not what she expected, nor wanted, to hear.
Now, though, depression, as if it were an enemy with which I have been at war, has changed its tactics. Instead of hanging over me like a cloud ready to either pull me up into its evil interior or else drop down to envelope me with much the same result, it now comes at me as if in a blitzkrieg of debilitating crying and an intense bundle of negative feelings that seem to have no reason for being and which drag me through a maze of fragmented thoughts of finding a means – any means – of stopping these horrible feelings from continuing within me. I knew that I had a sizeable supply of hydrocodone on hand from when I had had my hip replaced and when my wife had had gastric bypass surgery. I put the idea of using them right out of my head. At that point, it seems, my depression made a quick retreat and I was back to my old non-caring self again.
At this point I fully understood the phrase used in articles about Robin Williams’ suicide which stated that he had been “battling depression for some time.” What battle, I asked myself at the time. How do you battle an emotion that culminates in your wanting, or needing, to end the horrible feeling by killing yourself? That’s not a battle or a war. It’s something else altogether. The problem in this was that I could not determine the definition of what that particular “something,” actually was.
Of course now I know what it is; simply put, it is a battle for my very life.
This all beggars the question, however, of exactly what depression is, of what it feels like to be in its midst, of what it does to the way the depressed person feels and thinks and reacts to the usual, normal situations of life.
If left unchecked, a true depression grows in exponential waves, from a gut feeling that something is indefinably wrong to a long period of pursuing a hermitlike existence, wandering through life without feeling, hope or joy, allowing feelings to sink into the mire of the non-caringness of being, telling all who will listen that nothing matters anymore, or relying on the more simplistic, fall back, catch-all answer to any question posed: “Who the hell cares?” For me it suddenly ballooned from there into periodic crying jags, first at the sound of a formerly beloved song or the sight of a picture of myself when I was a smiling, happy-go-lucky six year old. Then, later, the triggers for my weepy sessions came from nothing concrete, nothing seen or heard, but from the memories of my parents, now deceased, and how wonderful it was when I and the rest of my family were when we all were together at home. When the full force of the depression hits, I cry at the thought of just about anything: memories of plays seen, friends from high school and college, immediate family members, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins, music I remember and even unfamiliar songs that I hear as long as the lyrics connect with my memories in some direct or even an obtuse manner. Cry, cry, cry me a river and wonder from where the waters of this sad stream of tears flow. Cry and the world cries with you – what a crock of horse poop that thought is. We are alone in this free form sadness that has turned my mind into a bowl of jelly, my suddenly renewed negative feelings coming to the surface, intensified to the point that they are a physical pain that needs to be stopped, pinned dead in its tracks. RIGHT NOW! Before any of this goes any further.
Here is where I step into the realm of wanting the thoughts, and the pain that they bring, to stop. Now is the time that I look into the medicine chest in the bathroom, searching for something, something to put an end to this crying, this feeling, feeling, feeling all of the things that had been bottled up inside me and have now come out in full force from somewhere near the center of my being, the very heart of who I am, from the very epicenter of my soul. This is the time I again find the bottles of hydrocodone from my and my wife’s operations several years ago; this is the time I go onto the internet and type into the Google search line, “What dose of hydrocodone is necessary to kill a human being?” The answer quickly becomes available: nine 10 milligram caplets would be enough, but ten of them would definitely give me the results that I sought.
Here is where I step into the realm of wanting the thoughts, and the pain that they bring, to stop. Now is the time that I look in the medicine chest in the bathroom, searching for something, some anything to put an end to this crying, this feeling, feeling, feeling all the things that had been bottled up inside me and have now come out in full force from somewhere near the center of my being, the very heart of who I am, from the very epicenter of my soul. This is the time I again find the bottles of hydrocodone from my and my wife’s operations from several years back; this is the time I go onto the internet and type into the Google search line, “What dose of hydrocodone is necessary to kill a human being?” The answer quickly becomes available; nine 10 milligram caplets would be enough, it tells me, but then I reason that ten of them would definitely give the result that is sought.
Something, though, seemed wrong in all of this. I remembered that there are ways of dealing with these feelings and thoughts without relying on such a radical solution as the one I had devised. Back on the internet I searched for the telephone number to a suicide prevention hotline. When a person finally answered and asked what she can do for me, I asked, very simply, for her to give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill myself. I asked this even though I really didn’t even have a good reason myself, save the cessation of the pain, of going through with it. The idea of complete oblivion, after all, was not something that appealed to even the most desperate of individuals. And the woman told me, “Every breath that you take finds a reason for the next one to follow and that finds reasons for the next, and the next, and the next, and so on. As long as you keep breathing, you keep living. As long as you keep living, there is always hope for things to get better….”
After this, as she began to ask me the usual set of mundane questions of name, phone number, age, address and the like, I hung up the telephone. The crying had stopped as had the thoughts of committing the act that a few moments ago had seemed the only alternative to what life had recently thrown at me. I went about the little errands that I had listed out the night before to help me fill my day. The phone rang several times. Once I looked at the number on the caller ID screen and, finding that it came from the hotline, I did not answer. Another time I was too busy with some chore or other to take the call and the third one I just ignored. The fourth time the call was attempted I picked up the phone and talked to the woman who had been quite worried about me and my state of mind. I told her that I was all right and thanked her for her concern. Then I answered her list of questions and, after further assurances to her that all was well, she and I got to go about the business of our individual lives.
The next day while I was on a break at work I talked to my wife on the phone and told her what had happened the day before. The admission of what I had almost done didn’t seem to worry her until I told her to please go into the bathroom and throw out all the hydrocodone pills that she could find in the medicine chest. It was then that the gravity of the situation seemed to hit her full force and she made me promise that I would call the psychiatrist with whom I already had an appointment a week away and let him know what I had just gone through. After that, she was very commiserative and supportive of me and my state of mind – something I wish she had been all along when I kept insisting to her that I wasn’t just being lazy all the time I had been insisting that my problem was depression, that it was an unusually formless kind with no real cause to which I could point out with any amount of certainty, for her, myself, or anyone else. Now that she knew what I had been telling her for months was true; now she understood. Now I would begin to find the help that I so unquestionably needed.
I recall once either hearing about or reading a quote (that I can no longer locate) from some existentialist or other that said (and I paraphrase) “the only sane decision a person can make is when to commit suicide.” I would say that if you rely only on others for showing you the way to finding your self-esteem and not having done the legwork of finding it for yourself, then that quote might have some validity to it. Otherwise, as I have said before in this essay – what a crock of horse-poop that is!
Stephen Faulkner is a native New Yorker, transplanted with his wife Joyce to Atlanta, Georgia. Steve is now semi-retired from his most recent job as an administrator at a small college and is back to one of his first loves – writing. He has recently had the good fortune to get stories published in such publications as Aphelion Webzine, Hellfire Crossroads, The Satirist, Liquid Imagination, Dreams Eternal, Sanitarium Magazine and Impendulum Magazine. He and Joyce have five cats and a busy life working, volunteering at different non-profit organizations and going to the theater as often as they can find the time.
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By Laura Grassman
Simon is a survivor. He walked down the steep Auburn hill to my home eleven years ago and never left. At the top of the hill lived his owner, Teddy, Simon’s twin brother, Solomon, and two border collies, Rosy and Finn. Teddy was a crotchety old man from New Jersey who resided in the granny cottage of his daughter’s home. A home that marked the 99th mile of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.
A feral orange tabby, Simon’s adoption hiccupped to completion. Teddy waivered on whether Simon should stay. Simon knew that staying was the only option to avoid the boisterous New Jersey barrage of commands to “shut-up” barked at the dogs, the canines’ incessant yelping, and the drumming engine of the maroon Toyota mini-van.
Teddy visited early one morning before his trip to the dog park to inspect Simon’s new yard, his food dish and water, and to finalize Simon’s release to my family. “Just promise you’ll take good care of him,” he whispered with a catch in his voice. “Of course, Teddy. You can come by any time to see him.” He didn’t. Simon was fine with this arrangement.
Simon weighs six pounds during the dry summer months and a bulky eight pounds during the Sierra foothills’ winters. The cycle of weight gain not too different than my pre-menopausal figure. For the first eleven years, Simon lived outside, hunting rats and robins, sleeping on the roof of the neighbor’s shed, and entering through the garage vent with the raccoons to eat his Friskies.
I learned to peak around the garage door to ensure that Simon wasn’t crouching in wait. Simon lacks patience when hungry and is quick to release the right front claw. The claw cuts like a rusty fisherman knife used to fillet sea bass.
I was scared to move from my home thinking that Simon would not adjust after such a long period of time. With his eyesight deteriorating, Simon required a step to perceptually navigate the jump to his food dish. How would he acclimate to a new neighborhood’s terrain? A host of scenarios ran through my mind. He would be hit by a car, be devoured by a black bear or coyote, or would attempt to jump across the irrigation canal and drown. With my divorce final for close to two years, I knew it was time for a fresh start. I needed to move on emotionally and physically and the cat needed to move on as well.
My fear that Simon would die manifested in a projection of insecurity of uprooting my daughter, Frieda, from her only home since birth nine years ago and the thought of change that unsettled my teenage son, Hans, every time it happened. To my children’s defense, they perceived that there had been nothing but change the last two years.
I bought a small ranch style home a mile from our former house. Simon stayed inside his new abode for the first two weeks to acclimate to his surroundings. He slept for long hours on the chocolate leather sofa and the orange throw on my bed. We relaxed in a home filled with love, let our guards down, and released stress. No one pounced while we rested.
I gradually let Simon out to explore. The second day of his release from inside he climbed the chain link fence. Simon crept along the canal, across Brook Road toward Terrace Street, meandered through Teddy’s old property, and returned down the Virginia Street hill to our old home. There, he was the orange ghost in the new owner’s yard. Sightings reported in the Oleander tree, under the Japanese maple, and behind the bushes next to the trash bin. Locations texted to me for assurance that Simon was alive.
After several failed rescue attempts, I found him waiting for the new owners to remove the garage vent grill so he could eat. I climbed into the bushes to talk with him about home, to remind him that he was a member of the family, and we were not leaving him. I loaded my grief, fear, and hope on his bony back. He then turned his backside toward me and waited. Did he want me to pick him up? Was this a test to ensure that I truly wanted him? And I did. “Come on, Simon, time to go.” Cradling him in my arms, I gently placed his shaking body in the back seat of my small car and drove. He would never leave home again.
Months later, we settled into a new routine. In the middle of the night, Simon climbs up behind the blinds above my desk. He sits in the window seat and howls at the moon with a deep guttural cry. The wail bounces off the walls, down the hallway, and lands in his empty food dish. He is trapped like my memories. Instinct smothered in a cage of the mind. The past locked from the present and somehow needing to find a way to adapt and be released.
Simon has an Indy 500 raceway he travels in the middle of the night. He starts in the bedroom on the windowsill, races down the hallway, slides the hall carpet runner, returns to leap on the bed, and lands next to my head. His soft paw gently pats my face with the aroma of kitty litter. Simon punches at other objects, though, like the bed skirt ruffle to ensure they’re not predators waiting to attack. His vision left to shapes, memories, and the scent of his home. His cataracts robbing his sight---the closest he comes to hunting for prey are the creatures that pass outside the window at night or the blue jays under the Oak tree in the morning.
During his laps around the house, he peppers me with pit bull kisses, little nibbles that don’t break skin but incrementally become sharper if I ignore him. His feral spirit, like my memories, awakens compassion, pain, and tears. And ultimately adaptation and transformation. Ideas plucked from the creative canal in the middle of the night. If I ignore the calling and roll over, the thought continues to flow in the current. I have learned to listen. Not always the opportune time, like these moments with Simon. The memory arrives, wakes me, and the universe speaks.
At 2:00 am, Simon hooked the back of my calf while I was sleeping. His right claw pierced my flesh, shaking me to consciousness, and then followed with a bite below the wound. As I laid there in pain, I heard the thought murmur, the “edge of your dream lands where the relationship to the present walks to the edge of possibility.” We each found what we needed. Like Simon, I embrace the courage to be wild, raw in emotion, and even when I can’t see, trust my instinct.
Laura Grassmann, a single mom of two, resides in Auburn, California. A former school administrator, Laura returned to the classroom as a special education teacher. She learns to honor her dreams through brave and thoughtful actions. In Laura’s new home, a daddy long leg resides at the corner step of the garage. Every weekend, Laura uses the shop-vac to clean his cobweb and every workweek he rebuilds. Attempts to keep the entrance tidy weaken as Laura sheds her armor of perfection. Laura walks through doors that are messy, painful, and filled with joy---all of them important to discover unimagined possibilities..
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By Shannon Magee
The most significant fall of my life occurred when I was thirteen, the summer my brother and I sailed a two person racing boat called a 420. It was my first summer sailing that kind of boat, but for this fall I blame the trap—a trapeze contraption made of bungee and lines knotted on either side of the boat so the crew can throw on a harness, clip herself to the bungee, and stand on the rail of the boat, throwing all her weight out to counteract the weight of the wind in the sails and keep the boat upright. The only problem is that sometimes when the crew throws all of her weight out of the boat, she also throws herself out of the boat.
On the day of the fall, the sky was swirling shades of gunmetal and feather grey. The trickle of the rain increased in pressure and intensity as the wind picked up, carrying us deeper into the channel. The water welcomed both wind and rain, adding its own temper to the mix, becoming ridged and rippled and speckled with white caps. The wake the 420 made as we tacked sloshed up on the rail, over the side, and filled the boat. Beneath our feet, the auto-bailer slurped and gurgled, competing with the rumble of the waves on the other side of the fiberglass. Since there wasn’t any lightning and the wind was tangling sail lines and hair with a malicious glee, it was a perfect day for trapping. So I found myself tied down and clipped up in the trap harness, which was thick and padded with straps over each shoulder and a metal bar spanning the front like a belt, a rounded, open hook where the belt clip would be. It felt like wearing an industrial, heavy-duty diaper and being strapped into a roller coaster ride at the same time.
One moment I was standing on that rail, boots planted and hand gripping the trap through salty, squishy gloves. The next, we flew over a particularly large wave, were airborne for a hundredth of a section, and landed with a wet, hard thud back onto the tumultuous surface of the water. I lost grip and slipped. The minute I was actually flying, suspended in the air before gravity kicked in, lasted about as long as it took me to realize the boat rail was no longer under my feet. Blink—I was in water, clumsily trying to balance a life jacket and a heavy trap harness, watching my brother speed off into the grey. He tacked around, annoyed I’d fallen and that we’d be slowed down while I tried to clamber over the side of the boat. My arms were up, hands ready, when the slick vessel aimed its blunt nose in my direction. But the sides were slippery with salt water and rain. My prune-y, gloved fingers had no grip on that squeaky surface. To complicate this problem, the bar built into the waist of the trap harness added unnecessary weight and jutted out to stall any effort I made to hoist myself over the side of a boat, especially a boat moving very quickly. Blinking the sea and rain water out of my eyes, I lost my grip on the boat and my brother, cursing, zoomed away once more.
The second time my brother tacked my way, he misjudged the distance. One moment, I was staring at the bow of the boat, blinking water out of my eyes and putting my hands out to catch the boat. The next, the boat was over me and I was using my hands to push my body away from the 420 so the centerboard and rudder extending from the bottom of the boat wouldn’t get anywhere near me (there are reasons those two parts of the boat are collectively called “the blades”). The water felt thicker—heavier and colder as I sank deeper, and my mind was very calm—thoughts seemed to seep out of it as I drifted down in slow motion. It thought: what if I don’t come up? Maybe I’ll just stay here for a while. Everything slowed down.
When I was little, my mom and I used to play a game when no one else was home. This game was my introduction to playing with perception. We would lie on the big armchair with our legs up and our torsos curving down the seat of the chair so our heads were inches from the ground. We’d look up and pretend to be walking on the ceiling. A room is completely changed when seen upside-down. The faces in the pictures look too large, with too small features and distortions around the eyes and mouths so, even though I knew it was my mother’s or brother’s or father’s face in the frame, it was just wrong. There always seemed to be more space in the room when we were walking on the ceiling. We could never stay up there for too long, and when we flipped the world back to normal my stomach rolled a bit. I felt like I imagine astronauts do when they walk on the moon. Everything looks a little different when you picture it from the sky.
Just before I fell from the 420, my perception was flipped the same way it was with the ceiling game. I saw the sea from the sky.
The entire boat was tipping, the wake from the wind and the current was climbing up the opposite rail, itching to grab the canvas sails and hold fast. Standing on the other rail, I kept zooming my gaze further and further back, imagining how it looked from above, from afar: I was standing on the highest point on the boat. If the 420 rolled, I’d plummet right on top of it, possibly into the sail. I caught myself leaning into the boat as I saw that blue-green line breaking up the white of the boat and the sails. I imagined falling straight under the boom, right into that hungry ocean, the sails settling on top of me like a thick comforter. It’s happened to sailors before; sometimes they can’t find the edge of that canvas blanket and it tucks them in for good. But I fell out instead of in. Before, I had always told people I was afraid of heights because it seemed easier than to explain that it wasn’t the height I was afraid of, I was scared of falling from that height, of being surrounded by nothing until my body smashed against whatever surface waited at the bottom of that fall.
You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you fall? It’s the feeling that someone just launched a golf ball down your throat and it rocketed right to your gut with enough force that you’re sure it’s ready to explode right out of your stomach. And even when that ball of nervous/excited anticipation is gone, the ghost of it ripples through your system like shockwaves for several moments afterward. It is very difficult to forget the feeling of falling. Like a tongue salivating in preparation for a certain taste before the food enters a mouth, only stronger a body anticipates the sensation of a fall before the actual fall occurs. It’s the same feeling you can get when you’re reading a really great story—when the action picks up and you’re mentally and emotionally invested in whatever drama the characters are facing, so much that you start becoming physically invested too. Maybe your heart rate picks up or an angry flush splotches your face or you have to blink double-time to keep your eyes clear enough of tears that you can keep reading. Maybe you become so frustrated with the story you throw the book as far from you as possible. Even after you finish the book, you remember the way you felt while you read it. Those feelings mark how immersed you were in another time and place, those offered by the story.
Some days it isn’t about sorting out what is up and what is down or where any direction is. Directions and positions peel away from the world. Sometimes the world narrows to a space too tight or too immediate for language and intelligence and emotion. Sometimes all you know is that all around you is movement, but no one action is distinguished from or greater than another. Sometimes you’re caught in the middle of that tide and you don’t know if what you’re feeling is anger or excitement, joy or frustration, but you feel the energy crackling through your nerves, charging your movements in shockwaves. The day I fell was such a day, and I found myself jolted the energy and movement of it all. It was like falling into the outer bounds of space; I was surrounded by the ocean on all sides, but nothing was stable. The water slowed everything: my fall, my thoughts, and my concept of time, and I was able to experience the moment fully, unhampered by the distractions of the world above the water. It was like being caught up in a story, with all of the possible outcomes of the story revolving through my head, but the story was mine. I was stuck on that page, suspended in time, in that moment.
Most readers have probably felt the way I did when my brother ran me over. It felt like reading a really good book. Everything around the reader seems to stop—real life pauses so the story can rise from the pages and reach out, opening a window in the reader’s mind, a view with a new perspective. This makes the story another kind of real, the kind that sticks in the reader’s mind and shifts the way she sees the world. She surfaces from the pages with blurred vision in glassy eyes, forgetting the time and place in which she’s reading. Maybe she even forgets herself for a moment. Even through everything is pretty much the same, something changes. She’s back in the world above the water, but she always has that memory of the world she experienced while submerged.
Years ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Eve did it to us.” Blame Eve for the Fall and blame the Fall for humanity’s faults. This is one of the earliest ways that the idea of falling has received a bad rap. People fall out of favor with others, fall from grace, fall from their high horses, and how about the archetype of “the fallen woman?” For the most part, the idea of falling carries a negative connotation. Still, people fall in love, they can become so immersed in a story they feel like they’re falling into it, and if they fall at just the right time or in the right way their perception may shift just enough to see “falling” as more than a stumbling act, like mine did when I fell from the 420 that summer. Then, falling becomes a positive idea, a way of seeing and experiencing the world with a widened perspective.
When you fall into a story, becoming so engrossed in it you forget where you are, who you are, when you are, the experience of the story becomes yours. No one can take the world you create for the story from you. It creates active power in a moment that is absolutely yours, unique. If you let it, falling into the ocean or through the air can be the same way. Falling into an idea or a conversation or a moment can make time fall away. This is the fall Eve also offered us: a fall that opened up the way people perceive the world, with the power to choose how we experience a moment.
Shannon Magee is a graduate of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she livened up campus life by running around in a cow onesie and sharing Irish poetry with the community. A passionate writer of both poetry and prose, she is pursuing a career in writing, editing, and publishing.
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By Ani Tascian
I was one month from turning 36 and in a small waiting room. I had my first appointment with Dr. Grief, my surgeon, my point-person. Magazines were stacked on the worn brown coffee table, which looked like it had retired to this office from one of the doctors’ homes. Kyle and I were sitting side by side, our legs touching. A large art book filled with drawings by people with cancer laid on top of the National Geographics and Cancer Todays. I opened the art book and stared at a self-portrait by a cancer patient, limbs bent, face disfigured. I shut the book.
A very pregnant woman came out of the doctor’s office. She was crying. Her husband followed her out calmly and I wondered how he could be so professional—he was probably screaming inside.
“Ani, come in.” Dr. Greif popped out, hand outstretched.
He was white haired and balding, just like I wanted my doctors. I took his hand as if he was throwing me a life preserver, with both hands.
He sat behind a brown desk that divided us from him, pictures of his grown children behind him. Kyle and I faced the window, which looked out toward gray medical buildings in Oakland. The landscape was the color of cement.
Dr. Greif pulled up an x-ray image of my breast on his computer. I saw the bright lumps, a gang of four. I started rubbing my sweaty palms over and over, back and forth, on my blue corduroy skirt. Kyle and Dr. Greif pretended not to notice that I looked insane.
“Here they are,” he said like he was showing me old friends.
“Uh huh,” I nod, rolling back and forth.
“Let me pull up a scan of another patient of mine with the triple negative diagnosis,” and in a blink, I am looking at another woman’s lump. A light-filled mass occupied more than half her breast. I stared at it and thought, My lumps are smaller than hers.
“Her story is sad. She didn’t have insurance and it took her a long time to begin treatment.” Dr. Greif said this in a way that made me believe he helped her personally. I noted the present tense. She was still alive.
Dr. Greif brought out more papers. Papers that had results of the needle biopsy, the one that made me feel like I was being stabbed in the chest despite the numbing medicine. I had asked the nurse what the specimen looked like.
“Pink,” she said, through pursed lips. The nurses didn’t have poker faces.
Dr. Greif gave me a run down of the proposed treatment. He recommended that I get everything modern science could give me for my type of tumor: Taxol infusions for six months weekly for two months, then Carboplatin every three weeks; lumpectomy to remove margins and any cancer not destroyed by the chemo; radiation every day for eight weeks. Ten total months of treatment.
Taxol came first in weekly infusions through a surgically implanted port in my chest that made me feel robotic. The nurse leaned over me and impaled me with the I.V. Dad received his infusions the old fashioned way, through a vein in his left arm. The trouble with that method was that veins could collapse, making it nearly impossible to find a viable thoroughfare for the chemo. The first surgery in my life would be placement of a circular-sized port right below my left collar bone. It stuck out from under my skin like a button on a robot.
But it was the Carboplatin that almost broke me. The weekly Taxol was a pleasant vacation in comparison. Carbo infusions were every three weeks, a clinical trial, not the usual treatment for Triple Negative breast cancer. A round of Carboplatin made it certain that I would be in bed for a week. By the time I felt like I could make the walk around my block, I was scheduled for another infusion. By December, a month away from the end of chemo, after having caught cold after cold back to back, a cough that sounded like a call to seals on a harbor, I would want to give up.
“What does chemo feel like?” I asked Dr. Greif.
“Like the flu.”
Dr. Greif and I talked about the impending loss of my menstrual periods, a side effect. My cycle may not rebound. Greif reached behind my shoulder for a pamphlet in one of the many clear plastic file holders hanging on the walls of his office.
He handed it to me. It read: “Fertile Hope.”
“Have you thought about having more children? The therapy can put you into an early menopause.”
This was an afterthought for him, I could tell. He was in the business of prolonging lives, not making them. But he said I should seriously think about it before he let me go. I looked to Kyle. He looked at the floor.
“Whatever you want,” Kyle said. He meant it.
Two days later, I was in Orinda at Reproductive Science Center. Fertile Hope, a program that helped young cancer patients keep the hope that they would be fertile, was subsidizing about half of the cost, which was upwards of $20, 000. Kyle was at his contract job at Kodak, so I was handling this on my own. My friends all had young children; we formed an army to corral the kids that we unoriginally called Mommies Group. They were watching Ian at a nearby park. I never met the woman who organized the group. She died of ovarian cancer the same year we formed.
This waiting room had green tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies. The fashion magazines were current, filled with women who didn’t have cancer. A young couple was led out by the receptionist, but I was otherwise sitting by myself on white pleather. I pretended I was here on a regular visit. Some fertility problems. No big deal. It wasn’t cancer, for God’s sake. The office was sunlit and warm. A thick Harper’s Bazaar sat on my lap and I let myself wonder if our second baby would look like Ian.
Dr. Willman’s desk was at a diagonal, the wall-to-wall window at my left when I entered. She stood for a moment at her desk, near the window. Tall green pine trees swayed in the wind behind her.
“I just want to tell you that you aren’t alone. I see two women like you a month,” she told me as she sat down.
Wow,” I replied. I mentally added the other faceless young woman into my cancer-world, which was growing daily.
“Do you have kids?” she asked me. Her eyes were soft and brown.
“Yes, one.” I smiled back.
When I wondered aloud if I could bring him, her tone changed.
“Seeing children can make the patients here upset.” She strongly suggested that I not bring him. She looked at a fleck of dust that had settled on her desk for a long minute. I scanned the room and didn’t see any pictures of children in her office. This was just one more place where Ian got left behind.
She sent me home with hormone injections and an ugly plastic box the color of rusty blood to discard the needles. I would have to come in for blood work weekly to gauge my hormone levels, to see if my eggs were ready to be fertilized.
“Inject yourself every day about the same time.”
She gave me more details, and I nodded my head dutifully, pretended to understand about levels and hormones. She showed me how to grab my belly fat and inject myself and, for the first time, I was grateful for the extra pounds I gained with Ian.
At home, I flicked the syringe like a pro with my middle finger to get rid of the air pocket. Standing with my pants around my thighs in our pink-tiled bathroom, I laughed inexplicably. My belly became bruised from the shots, battle wounds from round one. Me taking charge: 1. Cancer: 0.
I thought of a friend from the Mommies Group, who went through two years of this, the process of fertilizing the egg then the short surgery to implant an embryo back inside her. The treatments didn’t work. She had two beautiful girls through open adoption now. With a flat, “Congratulations,” my friend disappeared from the email list for weeks at a time whenever one of the moms announced she was pregnant again.
Two weeks after the meeting with Dr. Willman, Dr. Greif phoned me.
“Where are you in the fertility process?” His tone was insistent.
I think we’re getting close to egg retrieval.” The fertility process had been a welcome interlude to the impending cancer treatments.
“Good. We need to start treatment as soon as possible. Time is ticking.” The last time he examined the lump by hand, it had grown larger.
Most women get at least two or three eggs from the fertility process. In the end, I had one to save for after treatment. If I wanted more children. If I couldn’t have one on my own. If I lived.
I called the fertilized egg, “She.” She was in this paper on my desk, but that was the only thing I was sure of. Bills came from the local storage facility for a while and we paid dutifully.
Then my father died. And the bills that came afterward were placed on this desk. Then the bills stopped coming. Nothing. The truth was, I didn’t know where She was right now and I couldn’t bear to make the phone call. I couldn’t play another game of probabilities. I folded the old bill neatly and put it back into the file folder for the time being. She would have to wait.
Ani Tascian writes from a green bungalow on a farm table built by her father. A VONA/Voices alum and recent Vermont Studio Resident, she has her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary's College of California. You can find her work at Citron Review, Cahoodadoodaling, MARY, A New Journal of Writing, Buddhist Poetry Review, Bird’s Thumb and Raising Mothers.
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By Darryl Graff
“Hey, boss, how was your weekend?” the man said as he picked over the pile of bananas on the fruit vendor’s cart. He quickly squeezed each one until he settled on three, and then put the bananas in his briefcase.
“Okay, doing okay,” the fruit vendor replied to the businessman in his brown suit, and the businessman hurried down Park Avenue.
Whenever I see a businessman with a briefcase, I often immediately think of my father.
Our family never spent our summers in the City– we always went upstate, to the Catskills, spending our entire summer in a small house on the edge of a small lake. On Fridays after work, my father would drive up in his white Buick. At the house at the lake, my father had a routine: Every Saturday morning, with the house smelling of bacon and coffee, he sat down at the small table in the living room, placed his briefcase on the table and, with his left and right thumb, slid open the metal latch and unlocked the case. This would make a loud, snapping “unlocking” noise. When my father finished catching up on his paperwork, he would close the briefcase and with a satisfied smile, place the briefcase on the floor next to the front door.
Over the years, I would come to know many “unlocking” sounds: the sound of a key unlocking an apartment door; a gang box lock on my job site, or the sound my bike lock makes as I unlock it before my Sunday bike ride. Yet, none of those sounds ever make me think of anything. But every time I hear the unlocking of a briefcase it brings me back to that small house on the lake, the house that smelled of bacon and coffee, and watching my father open and close his briefcase.
One summer, during my mother’s chemotherapy treatments, we had to come back into New York City in the middle of August. What I remember most about that time was how hot our apartment was: My father had all the lights turned off and all the windows opened, and when I opened the refrigerator, there was no food, only a bottle of beer and an empty jar of mustard.
I sometimes think about my father, sitting in that hot apartment with all the lights turned out and all the windows open, drinking beer every night, alone.
Each morning before work, I buy a cup of coffee from the coffee cart, and then I sit on the wooden bench– the one that faces City Hall where my wife, Regina, and I got married all those years ago. We were very young, and it showed in our wedding outfits. We looked ridiculous; a friend who saw the pictures then said our wedding photo looked exactly like an album cover. I wonder, still, sometimes: What album cover? What band? Maybe our wedding photo reminded him of Jim Carroll’s album, Catholic Boy – with his parents, both in raincoats, his father in a beat-up fedora and his mother, clutching her heavy black pocketbook.
Before I start down the subway stairs, I always buy a newspaper with the dollar change from the coffee cart vendor. The newspaper vendor has a small cardboard box that he’s filled with neatly folded dollar bills from all the people with their own routines. Every day on the subway, I think to myself: Everyone has a routine. Otherwise, the subway would never be crowded.
When I stop at the coffee shop on 83rd Street and Third Avenue, there’s always a guy there, drinking coffee and reading a book. Every now and then, he sets the book down on the small glass table in front of him and stares up at the tin ceiling of the shop, and he smiles. That’s his routine.
On weekends, we go to our beach house at Rockaway. In the mornings, Regina and I always go to the beach for a swim, and I always go in the ocean first, with a fast running dive. Regina likes to wade slowly into the water. I always turn and look over my shoulder to make sure she’s all right.
Later in the day, I’ll put my briefcase on the kitchen table, open the Velcro tabs, and catch
up on some paperwork. Just like my father used to do. That was his routine, and now it’s
mine. Although I never will have the same satisfied smile on my face that my father
somehow always had, after I close my briefcase, I place it on the floor by the front door.
Darryl Graff is a New York City construction worker and writer.
His stories have been published in Akashic Books,Heart and Mind Zine,Hippocampus, Bio Stories and Gravel.
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What More Is There Possibly To Ask For?
By Lisa Mae DeMasi
Lots of people talk to animals. Not very many listen, though. That’s the problem.
It's Friday night and I am sitting down to dinner. I want to relax, delve into an episode of Breaking Bad and savor my meal in peace. My beloved cat Jontue is gone. The salmon on my plate is safe. The soft tissue interior of my nose is not in danger of being ripped by her ferocious forepaw. My cheek won’t be swatted either. And no one is staring at me with the intensity that could move a mountain. I miss that someone. That “fur person” as May Sarton said.
I first spotted Jontue in a pet store, a small kitty in a huge enclosure all by her lonesome, crying out for my attention as I shopped for cat food. I already had four at home. But this one’s eyes were pleading take me; I need love. Those eyes also said, I can love you too. Of course you can, little cat.
A strange looking thing, Jontue was six months old and resembled a prehistoric creature with her brindled coat, fangs, and wiry tail. Exotic or not, no one wanted her. I understood this all too well. So I paid an extraordinary amount of money for the pure breed Cornish Rex because she needed a home, someone to take care of her.
She entered my life when I was particularly vulnerable and lonely; she captured my heart and I like to think I captured hers. Over the years, I’d come to know Jontue so well. She was a cat driven by instinct and visibly affected by subtle shifts of energy. She was small and silky-haired and stuck close to me at all times. She was also needy, affable. She liked to hold my head in a firm grip with her paws and lick the tip of my nose.
Jontue was my last live connection to the desert, another planet called Tucson, the barren landscape where I lived a few difficult years of my youth in personal chaos. She was the fifth cat I adopted during those years when I was living by my lonesome and she was like all others in this one way: they were all abandoned and unwanted. That is, until I came along and laid claim. I adored all five of my cats. Jontue held an especially beloved place in my heart.
She was my protector, my nurse and deeply in tune with how I was feeling. When I’d cry myself silly or stare off into space feeling blue, she’d whack my cheek as if I was in a diabetic stupor. Mama, snap out of it. Caring for her and the other cats gave me the reason to drag myself out of bed at times when I was overcome with illness and depression, those heavy burdens of being human. When these feelings took over Jontue knew and she came and offered all she could: her soft coat to pet, her warm body and a purr, her kind eyes holding mine for a moment before looking away.
I've met many irresponsible people in my life but never an irresponsible cat.
—Rita Mae Brown, author of Pawing Through the Past: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery
Jontue even made living in Tucson at times fun. She got frisky when she had a productive #2 and frolicked out of the litter box and across the kitchen tile floor like a filly with a belly full of bedsprings. A supreme hunter, she dismantled geckos in the apartment, danced about with flesh-colored scorpions, and swatted down flying insects with incredible precision (inside the apartment). Outside, she could leap six-foot fences in a single bound. Nimble, she was!
The Rex Club of the UK says this about Jontue’s breed (my comments are in parentheses):
Cornish Rex cats make excellent pets (if you don’t mind being treated like prey). Aristocratic in appearance (hmmm, not this one), they are charming (huh?), acutely intelligent (vibrational), very affectionate (suck you dry of the sentiment) and gentle (uh-uh) whilst full of mischief (yes), never seeming to grow old (she was the last of the fivesome). Their long toes are a distinctive feature which enables them to use their paws like little hands (“I slap my mama in the face”). The breed is adaptable to new environments (she yowled the entire 2,300-mile drive from Tucson to Boston) elegant (?), agile (incredibly so) and active, demanding constant companionship and closeness (as in Velcro). In some cases, they crave closeness so much that when their owner is out at work all day their Cornish Rex will go visit with a neighbor! (Segue: The Doberman story.)
Jontue once scaled a six-foot stockade fence and landed on all fours in my neighbor’s Doberman pen. In the early evenings when the desert cooled off, I had a habit of letting my cats out into my “yard,” an eighteen-foot square dirt floor absent of vegetation and enclosed by a fence. The cats would roam about, sniffing, digging, grooming and sprawling themselves on the warm earth without any concern for what lay beyond the fence. Watching them relaxed me; I wanted to learn their carefree nature.
Why that night? Why jump? I’ll never know. In the blink of an eye, Jontue was over the fence. The first otherworldly wail shot the remaining four cats through the screen and into the house. My adrenaline soared and I froze. Fence. Dobermans. Cat. Screeching. What could I do?
I cupped my hands over my ears and darted into the house. Leaning up against the closed door, my heart pounded. My flesh churned out perspiration. I was in a sort of paralyzed shock. Then the mama bear stepped in and I moved!
Back into the yard. I am a grizzly and begin tearing down the fence one picket at a time. Crashing through it with the fiercest mothering instincts I will save my young or be shredded by the hounds of hell while trying.
That’s my cat, Dobes!
The crazed attack dogs are in full view. I’m in their territory now and I don’t see Jontue. There’s no flesh dangling from their teeth—I take note of this—but their focus has turned to me, canines barred, hackles raised. I’m about to be torn to pieces.
But where’s the cat?
The enclosure is barren with the exception of a cinder block here and there, and a sizable pile of 2x4s, sticks and brush off to my right.
How could that flimsy form of refuge protect her?
I don’t spend too much time on the question. I fall to my knees before the brush pile. The dogs are going to eat me rear-end first!
Out of my periphery, I see a woman approaching, running, arms flailing. Her mouth moves, I hear nothing; it has no effect on my mission. I am feeling recklessly enthusiastic and plunge my hands into a desert den that would make even Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin hesitate (and we all know what happened to him). Colors and textures pan before my eyes; I’m chucking sticks and 2x4s over my shoulder. The woman is dodging the debris, unsteadily pulling back the frothing beasts while fragments of my terrycloth dress catch in their teeth.
Jontue is there, I’ve unearthed her. She is balled up, disoriented and trembling; her coat is slick with dog saliva. She does not look, as the Rex Club would describe, “charming” or “elegant.”
I grab the cat, secure her to my chest; I turn my back on the beasts and my neighbor, and swiftly attempt to retreat through the makeshift opening in the fence. I can’t make traction. I take a giant step forward then snap back to the fence like an elastic band. “Wait, wait, I’ll help you!” my neighbor says, but now just as crazed as the dogs, I bulldoze forward and my dress rips even more. A long and twisting fragment of white terrycloth remains caught up on the nail, an ironic white flag signaling—a little late—for peace. Jontue’s claws dig deeper into my chest, I’m bloodied yet free.
Dumping Jontue inside, I collapse flat on the kitchen floor and gaze at the geckos scurrying across the ceiling; wait for my respiration and heart rate to fall back into normal range. The other spooked cats tiptoe around and come in close; Jontue eventually perches on my thigh. She has fared much better than me—she doesn’t have a scratch on her. She is safe. I would do it all again; I would have done just about anything for this cat.
Many years have passed since then. I left the desert and eventually lost Jontue’s sisters to renal failure, ketosis, and lymphoma. Not one of them lived past thirteen years. But Jontue did, she moved residences a total of ten times with me in a span of eighteen years.
Her life, dictated by mine, changed dramatically and often—fluctuations in places, people, animals and my emotions. Four months into our latest move, Jontue’s health deteriorated in a matter of days. Just three of them. She wasn’t well; at times she suffered from blindness and would curl up in her heated bed and stare into the space in front of her. I could read her eyes, her body; I could hear her thoughts--I feel terrible, I don’t understand what’s wrong, the pain won’t go away.
The day after Thanksgiving, I made her pain go away.
Jontue. She was my last live connection to the desert, to that painful time of soul searching. But the pain made me a writer and I soothed this sorrow by bringing home cats. One after another and particularly the ones nobody wanted. And those felines repaid me—by making me laugh, making me play, giving me the strength to tear down a stockade fence when I thought I was broken and weak.
These unwanted animals are the best ones to love, they become the dearest companions because animals know when you have saved them. Our pets remember. In return they nurture us, protect us, see our truths, and they love us. What more is there possibly to ask?
There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.
Dear Jontue: It took me so long to write this little memorial for you, weeks and weeks, and I needed to distance myself from home, miles and miles. I couldn’t bring myself to write it, you see, where we shared an abode, where your bed has been taken over by the bunnies, knew it would force me to mourn your passing. I pretend that a big piece of my life as I know it, isn’t gone, that the vibe of the house is still in check. That you’ll still be there when I return home, come squawking on your tippy toes to greet me, wrap around my leg and rub your butt on my shin. The last few moments of your life haunt me—you did not struggle, lay right down quietly and slipped away. In the end, it turns out, you were oh so “elegant.” Thank you for coming into my life when I needed you most, trying the various people and places on for size right alongside of me, and being my true companion for all these years.
Lisa’s work has been featured in East Bay Review, Shark Reef, HuffPost, Midlife Boulevard, Elephant Journal, Rebelle Society and her personal blog, Nurture is My Nature. When she’s not writing, she practices Reiki specializing in unblocking creatives in all mediums and moving them (with humor and love) to the highest vision of themselves as artists.
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Photography by Grace Chrysler-Stewart
Grace Chrysler-Stewart (also known as KarshaForever) is a freelance photographer who enjoys placing her own surreal twist on the fashion trends of different eras. An artist of more than four years’ experience, Grace is passionate about striking emotion through the use of colorful new characters and the delightfully bizarre worlds they call home. For most of her shoots, she runs a one man's show. All lighting, makeup, camera work, modeling, and post production are self conducted to bring these characters to life. She hopes to show how wonderland can bring out the best—and the worst—in all us with each life experience, positive or negative. Grace also writes and illustrates with her husband, Connor, in her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.
Photos by John Chavers
John Chavers enjoys working as a writer, artist, photographer, and general creator. Most recently, his work has been accepted at The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library - So It Goes 2016 Literary Journal, 3Elements Review, Ascent, Birch Gang Review, Four Ties Lit Review, Ground Fresh Thursday, Silver Apples, and Verity La among others. John’s residency fellowships include Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He has a fascination for the diminutive, works of art on paper, and the desert.
The Forensic Forage by William Crawford
William C. Crawford is a writer & photographer living in Winston-Salem, NC. He was a a combat photojournalist in Vietnam. He later enjoyed a long career in social work. Crawdaddy also taught at UNC Chapel Hill. He photographs the trite, trivial, and the mundane. Crawford developed the forensic foraging technique of photography with his colleague, Sydney lensman, Jim Provencher.
Photography by Roxana Doncu
Roxana Doncu is a Romanian writer and photographer living in Bucharest. She works as an English teacher and translator, and in her free time she loves exploring the world around, either by traveling or reading. She loves experimenting and working with different media. Her poems, stories and photographs are attempts to capture the magic of the fleeting moment.