Foliate Oak September 2017
Many Thorned Roses
By Yanhui Li
You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I’m a hopeless optimist. They say that when I was born, I came out laughing, giving the doctors quite a scare. So it would seem that from the very first moment I was a glass half full. Since then, thirty summers have come and gone, and over the years my eyes have lost their rose-colored tint. But beyond the freshly pressed suit and the expensive blue tie, is a man who would rather believe in the good, in the calm at the eye of the storm.
I discovered this about myself when I was fifteen years old, a boy by any standards.
I’ll admit, back then I’d always thought pretty highly of myself. I was a bit of a neighborhood all-star. When I was five, I was the first out of all the kids on the block to successfully ride a bike. I became king of the playground for about a week, until everyone else mastered the skill. In middle school, I came in third in the schoolwide spelling bee, and had the much-coveted pleasure of ascending the podium. My high school years were not quite as decorated, but impressive nonetheless. I was named co-captain of the basketball team my sophomore year of high school, along with a kid named Garrett Lee.
That was a time when I’d look forward, long to climb to the top of the high rises and never glance back. I was a kid drawn to the paradise in the distance—the colorful fields dripping with promise—and I’d run, feet flying, until I woke one day to see the fields in black and white, and the path back buried in the sand. The past, I realize, is a precious thing you hold in your hands, all too easy to let fade through your fingers.
But Ella Grey, she haunts me still.
A week ago, I received a surprising call from Sara Grey, Ella’s mother, to give me the news: Ella had passed away warm in her bed, surrounded by her loving family. We both cried for a bit, the loss fresh in our minds. Then I asked for Sara’s forgiveness, apologized and apologized for what I had done, but she brushed it away.
“It wasn’t you, Adrian,” she said. “I was old, and I needed someone to blame.”
So I found myself on a train headed for San Marino, California to attend Ella’s funeral. How fitting it was that the funeral would take place in her old town, where she and I had lived next door.
I step off the train to a gust of hot wind, and once more I walk those familiar streets, remembering the ghosts that had passed through long ago. When I arrive at the red house, a quiver of wind seems to run through the branches above.
For much of my memory, the red house next door had been empty, a bit of a forlorn monument in this part of town. It was an imposing sight, towering four stories high and occupying nearly five acres of land. But since the Greys had left years and years ago, the paint had begun to chip at the edges, and the expansive lawns had become overgrown with tumbleweed.
There were two most notable parties who had gone in and out of the house. The first was an artist, a renowned architect who gave the house its red walls and hanging gardens. From what I hear, the architect was a brilliant man, but he never quite fit into the town, so he left, leaving the red house behind.
Then there were the Greys. Thick and stout Mr. Grey, tall and elegant Mrs. Grey, and frail Ella Grey with her paper cranes. But before the year was over, they too had left, gone just like the others.
It was a sleepy Sunday morning, the air stuffy with pancakes, when Mom first announced that Sara Grey, a good friend of hers from college, was moving in next door with her family.
“Sara and I were pregnant together,” Mom said, reminiscing. “In fact, Adrian, you and their daughter Ella were born weeks apart.”
I was curious enough to follow when Mom and Dad went next door to welcome the Greys. We went up the wide stone pathway, our feet clicking against the tiles as we approached the tall double doors. There, Mr. and Mrs. Grey greeted us warmly and invited us in to have a look around.
It was a beautiful house, furnished classically with tapestries and oil paintings, but strangely, every one of the embroidered curtains were drawn shut, concealing the splendor from the light.
“This is wonderful, Sara,” Mom said admiringly. “I’ve always wanted to come inside this red house.”
“Honey, maybe we should do something with our house,” Dad mused. “Paint it blue, add a double French door…”
But I hung back. When Mrs. Grey saw me standing there in a corner, she smiled.
“Are you looking for Ella?” she asked. “Unfortunately, she’s very sick, and can’t see anyone right now.”
“Oh dear, what’s wrong?” was Mom’s horrified response.
Mrs. Grey opened and closed her mouth, before starting slowly, “It’s a… genetic disorder. The symptoms began appearing when she was five. We’ve had to homeschool her since.”
And that was that, the subject of Ella Grey momentarily forgotten.
It wasn’t until Monday morning that I would catch my first glimpse of her.
At a quarter to seven, I made my way out the door and started down the usual path to school. When I reached the red house, I turned and looked up at it, stopping for a moment to take it all in.
This time, the curtains were pulled back, and there behind a dusty window, a girl sat with her face pressed against the glass. She was a tiny thing, with her bone-white skin and her hair pulled away in thin, feathery strands. Five fragile fingers held a paper crane against the soft streams of sunlight.
Her eyes restless, she turned her face up to the sky.
And then she was gone, faded into the darkness.
I remember that spring, our backyard was full of mourning cloaks, brown butterflies that grazed the trunk of the oak tree. They emerged from chrysalides dangling on the branches, unfurled their new wings from their protective shells, and hurled themselves into the way of Mom’s gardening plans. Mom went on a rampage in search of the caterpillar eggs that were sure to be the ruin of her garden, but the caterpillars seemed to escape her notice until they were fat and ready to transform. From the moment they entered their pupas, there was no going back, and there was nothing Mom could do.
We weren’t supposed to have met, Ella and I; it was a series of accidents that brought us together in the spring of the mourning cloaks.
The first accident was Mom. She had invited Mr. and Mrs. Grey over for brunch, and proceeded to go on and on about her romantic weekend with Dad at the beach house. For days, I tried to erase her intimate stories from my mind, but it was simply impossible to unhear the details. It was absolutely revolting.
But Mrs. Grey seemed to think otherwise. “Anthony and I haven’t had a romantic weekend since we had Ella.” She glanced at her husband. “Sometimes I think it would be nice to get away, but taking care of Ella is a full-time job.”
I could almost hear the thoughts churning in Mom’s head.
“You should go out for a date night,” she said brightly. “We can keep Ella company, no problem.”
“But you and John are so busy. I would hate to put that on you.”
“Then Adrian can keep her company,” Mom said. “He’s a good kid.”
In the end, Mrs. Grey agreed, albeit reluctantly.
There are two things you need to know about the San Gabriel Valley: there are no winters, and it is always, always dry. As I passed through town after town, the signs of drought were everywhere. Lawns were baked yellow, and the mountains looked bare from a distance.
And when I walk down all the streets I used to know, I can see that even the sheltered bubble of San Marino has been affected. Large, polished houses gaze down at me from all sides, behind expanses of dead—dying grass. Knowing these people, I assume there must have been a battle, between the sprinklers and the relentless sun.
In the end, the sun always wins.
Yet despite all this, the red house, or the shadow of what it used to be, still stands out as a dent in the landscape. A glitch in my perfect record.
I guess some things never really go away.
When the day came, I went alone to the red house.
It was a long walk down our driveway and up the wide stone path. The sky had begun to darken, yet not a single light was turned on in the red house, casting a dark shape over the yard. When I finally reached the doorstep, I grabbed the bronze knocker and pounded twice.
But it wasn’t Mr. or Mrs. Grey who came to the door. It was the girl with her paper crane, peering at me curiously.
Her health was written all over her face, with purple eye bags that sagged into her cheeks, hollow cheeks that seemed to have never seen the light of day.
“Hi,” she said brightly.
“Hi, I’m Adrian.”
She shifted her weight on her bare, skeletal feet. “I’m Ella. Momma always said it was like Cinderella without the ‘cinder.’”
“Um.” I couldn’t help but stare, at the hat that hid her eyes and the white sleeves stretched over her thumbs. “Where are your parents?”
She shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Somewhere, I guess.” She trailed off, struggling with her words. “M-my favorite food is chicken nuggets. Do you like chicken nuggets?”
I was startled at the sudden change in subject. “Sure, they’re okay.”
“Yeah? Well I don’t get to eat chicken nuggets a whole lot.”
She fell silent and looked away.
“I once saw a platypus,” I offered, regretting it the moment that came out of my mouth. “It was at a zoo in Australia. Have you ever seen a platypus?”
“No, I haven’t.” And we both fell silent.
It was the hardest conversation I’d ever had. Never in all of my fifteen years had I struggled with my words, not when Coach was on a shouting spree, not when Callie dumped me for Garrett Lee.
So I was somewhat relieved when Mr. Grey marched into the room. “Ella, what did I tell you about answering the door?”
Ella obliged to step away, and that was when Mr. Grey saw me waiting awkwardly by the door.
“Oh hello, Adrian,” he said, breaking into a smile. “I see you’ve met Ella. Once again, thank you for agreeing to this.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
He then rattled off the longest list of rules and regulations that I had ever heard. Ella wasn’t allowed to do this, Ella wasn’t allowed to do that. Make sure that Ella eats her vegetables and keep her away from the snacks. I felt like I was being given care instructions for a toddler.
“And above all else, do not let Ella leave the house.”
I nodded, a little bewildered. “I’ve got it. No leaving the house.”
When the Greys finally left, after about half an hour fussing over their daughter, it was just Ella and me in the red house.
For a moment, the curtains fluttered under the air conditioning, and a small stream of waning light fought its way in. Ella snapped her head around and stared, mesmerized by the light, before the curtain settled, and all that remained were the intricately embroidered roses.
“Is it always like this?” I asked, uncomfortable in the silence.
She shrugged from where she sat in the corner. “Yeah they’re a little overprotective, but I can tell they do it because they love me.” And with that, she turned her attention back to her paper crane.
I hesitated. “Do you ever… mind?”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t mind.” But I saw her steal a glance at the window.
She told me that once in her old town, she saw a homeless man roaming outside in the rain, and was about to invite him inside before her mother put a stop to it. She told me that her father was really unhappy with his boss, who wanted everything done a certain way, and that she thought he was better off if he started his own company, so he could run things however he wanted.
It was one of the strangest encounters I’d ever had. Ella and I had nothing in common. She was in fact just like a child, so terribly naive and sincere in her beliefs, that I, in comparison, felt old and cynical. The realization left an unpleasant feeling in my stomach.
“Actually I’ve never had a chicken nugget,” she finally confessed. We were eating dinner, a cold vegetable stew that stuck to my teeth.
“I’ve only read about them. Momma always wants me to eat well. You know, ‘cause of my health.”
When Mr. and Mrs. Grey returned from their night out, I was glad to go. I bade them goodbye, and almost ran back to my house, to the comfort of Twinkies and video games.
That night, before I went to bed, I glanced out the window to see, in the lamplight, the rows and rows of roses enclosing the red house in a fence of white. They were beautiful little bushes, their color bright against the dark of night, as they turned gently in the wind just beyond reach of Ella’s window.
Perhaps I might have forgotten about it all. I might have let life run its course and forgotten about the entire ordeal, if not for Dad’s curious choice of dinner that weekend. It was his turn to cook that night, but he was tired, he said, too tired to mess around in the kitchen, so there were frozen chicken nuggets in the fridge if either one of us didn’t have the patience to wait.
And that was when I remembered Ella, shriveling away in that red house. I hadn’t particularly liked her much, but there was a part of me, as unpronounced as it was, that really did feel bad. She was a bird trapped in a cage, yet she went right on singing as if nothing was wrong. She sat chained to that house all day, with only her parents and her four walls to keep her company, while I went through every day carelessly, with all the chicken nuggets in the world.
I had always been pretty good about rules, so it should have been no surprise that that was the first time I ever snuck out, and for the sole reason of bringing my kid neighbor chicken nuggets. I cut across the Greys' lawn quietly—or as quietly as a heavy basketball kid could be—and carefully stepped over the rows of thorned roses to tap on the window where I had first caught a glimpse of Ella.
She appeared at the window in seconds, as if she had been waiting all along.
Her face fell. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Who did you think it was?” I asked, a little irritated that all my selfless efforts had gone to waste.
“Well...” She looked away. “It sounds dumb, but I was kinda hoping it was my fairy godmother. Momma says that everyone has a fairy godmother.”
It took a moment for that to sink in.
“I don’t have a fairy godmother with me, but I do have chicken nuggets.”
Ella’s eyes lit up in wonder. “Chicken nuggets? For me?”
Her fingers hovered over the window latch, before she slid it open and readily ate up the chicken nuggets, as if she had been starving for weeks. But before she had gotten very far, Sara Grey appeared at the window and forcefully pulled her back into the darkness.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Mrs. Grey stood at the window, a tall looming shape.
I took a step back, clutching my plate tightly. “I just came over to give Ella some… chicken nuggets.” My voice fell at the insignificance of my deed. “It’s her favorite food, so I just thought…”
Recognition dawned on Mrs. Grey’s face. “Adrian? What are you doing here?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I swear. It was just chicken nuggets.”
“You understand that she’s very sick? That she has to be protected for her own good?”
“Yeah, I completely understand.”
But I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand at all.
At that moment, I was prepared to make a run for it, mentally noting that this would be the last time I ever snuck out. And I would have done just that, run off into the night looking like a criminal, if not for Mrs. Grey, who called me back.
She regarded me for a moment. “Ella told me about you. I remember she seemed so happy that day.”
She paused, deep in thought. I held my breath in the silence that followed.
“You know, maybe it’s good for Ella to have a friend,” she said. “She’s been sick for a very long time.” She looked at me pointedly. “Remember, though, a mother’s job is to protect her children, even when they don’t think they need it.”
That night, Mom received a phone call from Mrs. Grey. I heard her tone of surprise, before her voice rose in argument over something that I couldn’t quite make out. But the conversation kept going, on and on, and I began to feel a little uneasy. My first thought was that I was going to be grounded for life, so you could imagine my surprise when Mom came in to tell me that I was given permission to visit Ella, under the careful jurisdiction of Mr. and Mrs. Grey.
Like the rest of the property, the gardens of the red house have since fallen into ruin, but the rose bushes are still there, tightly hugging the corners. Nevertheless, the white petals have all but wilted off, leaving nothing but leaves, thorns, and clumps of wildflowers that have trampled the orderly rows.
I check my watch to see that there is still time. There will be time to explore the place, to step through the gates and peek through the windows. There will be time to walk here and there and everywhere, before duty calls and I’ll have to leave.
Is it just the wind, or does the color seem to flush into the red house, breathing it back to life?
The rosebuds surrounding the Greys' house slowly reached for the sun with their weary petals, and soon it was summer, the occasional shower giving way to arid drought. That year, Garrett and I managed to take the basketball team to the state finals, only to lose to the previous year’s national runner up. So I would say that we had a pretty good season.
But I hadn’t forgotten about Ella. At first, I only visited her out of a horrible pity and a sense of obligation, but over time I did come to care for her like an older brother. You know, there’s something about the blank, unwritten mind that is so captivating in its purity. We were born merely weeks apart, but she had been so sheltered that she knew nothing of the world. I secretly became her source of all things outrageous and scandalous, giving her all that had been denied her by her parents.
Well, all except her freedom.
Once, I read her “The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, a story that we had been reading in English.
“... ‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!’”
I looked up, quite pleased with myself, only to see that there were tears in Ella’s eyes.
“But what about the dead man?” she asked. “What about his family? Wouldn’t he have grandchildren?”
Only Ella could come up with something like that. I, who had delighted in every gory detail, had never considered the dead old man.
From then on, I would stop by the red house every weekend and spend a little time with her, each time bringing with me a piece of the outside world. Everything was new to her, from the Malawi famine to the war in the Middle East. She would listen to me talk for hours at a time, fascinated by the mysterious happenings of the realm beyond the red house. In return, she taught me how to fold a paper crane and showed me how to pull on the tail so it looked like it was flying.
“There’s an old Japanese saying that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes can have a wish granted by the gods,” she explained.
Slowly, I watched Ella unfurl away from the timid little child. Yet whenever she thought I wasn’t watching, she would stare out the window at the sunny world beyond the windowsill.
Even Ella seemed to guess that there was something more than her four walls. Through that window, she saw a myriad of possibilities, but if she would ever go out to feel the wind in her hair, she would have to leave many things behind.
In mid-July, with the summer sun scorching the earth dry from high above, I decided to take matters into my own hands. By then, the Greys had learned to fully trust me with Ella, and would retire to opposite ends of the house for long stretches at a time.
It was in one of those moments that I chose to carry out my noble plan.
“Ella, do you want to go outside?” I whispered as soon as Mrs. Grey had stepped out of the room.
Excitement flashed across her eyes. “I’ve always wanted to go outside, but Momma and Papa would say no.”
I glanced at the door, to make sure that Mrs. Grey was really gone. “Here’s the deal. I can take you outside now, but only for a moment. And only if you can be quiet.”
“Really? You can do that?”
“Yeah, I can do that,” I said, so convinced in my infallibility.
And I slowly eased the window open.
I was the first to step out, and as I found a firm footing in the dirt, I could feel the heat of the sun beating down on my back. Then I helped Ella out, and watched as a huge smile spread across her face as she stepped into the light for perhaps the very first time.
She laughed as she dug her feet into the grass and ran around the lawn on her stick-thin legs, spreading out her arms to absorb every bit of this brief, fleeting moment. As the light finally hit her face, she closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun against her skin.
I turned back to the red house to keep a watch out for Mr. or Mrs. Grey. They would not approve, I knew. I smiled to myself, glad that I had at least done Ella this one favor.
Then, a scream.
I turned around to see Ella fallen into the roses, clutching at the angry red patches that had blossomed on her skin. She screamed again in agony, a bloodcurdling sound that rang in the air.
“Ella!” I cried and rushed to her side, terrified that I was going to make it worse, yet frozen in the knowledge that I could not do nothing. She writhed as the red patches spread across her skin, and then without warning, she fell motionless.
And I could not, could not, would not believe my eyes.
Mr. and Mrs. Grey ran out of the house, swooping in to save their daughter. They scooped her up from where she laid on the thorned roses, and shot me one last agonizing look, before they rushed her back into the house.
A few minutes later, the ambulance arrived to bring Ella to the hospital. The Greys no longer spoke to me, but I later got wind of the turn of events from Garrett, whose mother was a doctor at the hospital. According to Garrett, Mr. and Mrs. Grey had caused quite a bit of a stir. They refused to leave Ella’s side, and had to be forced away by the nurses so the doctors could do their work.
Before long, the winds of change drove that heated summer away, and the bright orange leaves of fall scattered across the ground. The Greys left, while the red house remained, a ghost crumbling in the wind. Every time I passed by the empty red house, I thought of Ella, safely trapped in a place far from here. Her parents would continue to shelter her from the harsh, unyielding light, because as she said, they loved her.
It seems that it is only in darkness when we reach for the light, for the knowledge we think will set us free. I think of Ella in the sunlight, the joy across her face as she felt that warmth for the very first time.
But the truth is, perfect bliss is such a rare and fragile thing, it can’t help but wilt in the face of so many thorned roses. So we leave it behind, among many things, shove it in the back of our minds as we reach for more… push on for something good that we know is there…
I believed in Ella and all that she was. Somehow in the hardest of times, I found myself looking for the light.
So we sit here today, our heads turned down away from the sun, as we remember Ella Grey. Finally, Sara Grey walks to the front in her long black dress, and reads from a poem.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
Now I know, I think. I know why the specter of Ella Grey has followed me across continents, lingering in the corner when I least expect it.
She was purity, she was innocence, and she was you.
Yanhui Li is a senior at Arcadia High School, and has taken a fiction writing course at Savannah College of Art and Design. Her short stories have received both silver key and honorable mention in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and her essays have appeared in numerous school publications.
* * *
By Reece Snyder
Someone wrote that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. By that definition Harold was surely insane. Once again, he was sitting at his desk furiously scribbling away what appeared to be a personal letter. It has become part of his ritual. Just after breakfast, and before Wheel of Fortune comes on, Harold sits at his desk and writes. He had been doing this for so long now that there have been rumors around the nursing home about what it could be. Some would say he is writing medical boards to try and reinstate his license. Others say he is writing any friend or family member he can think of, and plea with them to take care of him instead of this nursing home. Or maybe he is writing a long-lost love. Hoping to see them again before his time runs out. The most likely and agreed upon reason by the workers is he doesn’t know what he’s writing at all. They are all just ramblings of a senile man who forgot what he wrote the day before and he is just trying to tell someone how his life is.
Harold had become somewhat of a mystery around the Shady Point Nursing Home because he doesn’t speak very often. The staff will give him a greeting and they would be somewhat ignored. He would smile sometimes or give them a polite nod, but seldom replied. The only staff member he would speak to was the man in charge of the home: Dr. Leonard McAlister. A very kind man in his mid-50’s with thinning red hair, brown eyes, and a very pleasant smile. Whenever Dr. McAlister would make his rounds a calming aura seemed to follow him around and wash over each patient he interacted with. Once upon a time he used to work for Harold, when Harold was the Chief of Medicine at a hospital a few miles away. Dr. McAlister used to look up to him, and Harold, who had bared no children, would treat him as a son of sorts. So, naturally when Harold became too ill to care for himself, Dr. McAlister insisted he be put in his care.
There are plenty of examples of residents in Shady Point whose brain had deteriorated, and Harold was far from the worst case. He was able to clean himself, dress himself, and he never missed a meal. On most days, he could either be found in his rocking chair by the window that over-looked the vegetable garden, or walking in the half-acre of grass behind the building. He was always by himself, but never appeared to be lost. Even in the communal areas, Harold would not interact with anyone. He preferred to be alone, but nothing about his demeanor suggested that he held any contempt for the people that lived and worked there. Instead, he had the appearance of a man preoccupied. As if there was something echoing in his head that required long hours of uninterrupted focus.
Due to his lack of socialization and apparent signs of deterioration, Harold was often discussed. It made his fellow residents uncomfortable, and it confused the staff on what type of treatment and medication he should be receiving. Dr. McAlister would constantly remind them all that Harold is receiving the adequate amount of care, and he poses no threat to himself, or anyone around him. Dr. McAlister’s lack of specificity did not ease the forest fire of rumors and myths that surrounded Harold. Everyday Harold would finish his letter and hand it to McAlister. Neither the envelope nor the letter inside it had been looked at or read by anyone other than the two people handling the message. The only information that anyone else had in the nursing home was that there is something written on the front of the envelope that was not an address. Mrs. Mahoney is one of the other residents, and she swore she saw “CONFIDENTIAL” written on it. She was one of many people around the nursing home that claimed to know what was written on his letters. A wide range of accusations had been made, ranging from Mrs. Mahoney’s claim of:” CONFIDENTIAL”, to “MOTHER” to “TARGET” meaning that it was someone for McAlister to assassinate. But they all did agree that there is no address on the envelope.
The ritual and the mystery surrounding it continued for years. Harold would write and write. McAlister would drop by his room, and do with it whatever the two men agreed should be done. Until one day, Harold did not sit at his desk after breakfast and before Wheel of Fortune. As soon as breakfast was over, Harold finished his orange juice and stormed out of the cafeteria. He was out of sight before his cup settled down on the table. He walked with purpose. He would have run if his knees and back could take it. Harold continued his hunched lean-sprint past one of the nurses who tried to grab him by the arm. Ripping his arm away before the nurse could get a solid grip, and letting out a grunt, all while keeping his eyes straight forward. He continued his staring contest all the way to McAlister’s office.
McAlister looked up from his desk to see an elderly man in a red sweatshirt, out of breath, with what’s left of his thin silver hair pushed back as if he held his head out of a car moving down the highway at 80mph. There was a young and concerned nurse standing behind Harold. The look in her eyes said she did not know what he
wanted her to do about his old mentor-of-a-patient. When Harold caught his breath he finally spoke.
“Lenny, we need to talk. Now!”
McAlister put down his pen and looked back at the nurse and nodded in a way that gave her approval to leave this situation.
Smiling, McAlister said, “Sure, come on in Harold. Have a seat. What can I do for you?”
McAlister stood up, walked around his desk and went to close the door. He then guided Harold to a seat before returning to his desk.
“When was the last time you looked at one of the letters, Lenny?”
Squinting his eyes and angling his head slightly, McAlister said, “Well, I try to read them daily, but I don’t let them gather for more than I week before I go through them.”
“Don’t be a chicken shit, Lenny. When was the last time you read one?”
McAlister leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. Then said, “three days ago, I believe.”
“And what did it say?” Harold snapped.
McAlister then closed his eyes trying to recall. “I don’t remember anything out of the ordinary. Just your thoughts on the day, and a brief self-assessment of your mental capabilities. What’s this all about, Harold?”
“I don’t remember what it said. I don’t remember even writing the damn thing.”
“That’s perfectly normal. A man of your age is expected to become more forgetful. Nothing to worry about. Just write them whenever you can.” McAlister then revealed his ever-calming smile to help ease him.
Harold leaned even further over and was staring at the ground. “Those letters were the only thing that I had going for me. I was a doctor for 45 years, and even coming here, I could assist you in a study on Alzheimer’s, documenting my day to day memory as best I could. It gave me purpose. What now?”
“You don’t have to stop documenting. Your lack of writing on some days would actually be one of the best ways to document your condition.”
Harold didn’t comment or motion one way or the other. He was frozen stone cold.
A few seconds went by with no one speaking. McAlister then stood up and walked to a bookshelf where he pulled a cardboard box down from. Placing it on his desk and removing the lid he said, “look at this, Harold.”
Inside were countless envelopes, with dates spanning almost five years and some were yellowing from age. “This is every letter you have written since you’ve been at Shady Point. You’re quite a persistent man.”
Without looking up Harold said, “That’s what Becky used to say.” And McAlister swore he could see what resembled a smile start to show itself on Harold’s face.
“I know it has been a hard 5 years for you, Harold, but just look at the work you’ve put in. So rarely is it that someone who knows what they are looking for in a disease becomes diagnosed, and has a first-person account of what is happening. It’s like you’re dissecting your own brain. You’re work has been marvelous.”
Whatever evidence of a smile that was on Harold’s face disappeared, and he slowly looked up at McAlister. Anger in his eyes was now what stood out on his face. His dry, leathery lips began to curl and quiver.
“You little shit. How long has it been? How long did you say it has been since my wife died?” Harold’s voice was bordering a scream. Easing up to his feet he began to walk over to McAlister.
Holding up one hand defensively, McAlister said, “What’s the matter Harold?” with a shaky voice.
With his liver-spotted hand, Harold grabbed McAlister by the shirt and got four inches away from his face.
McAlister was impressed by how much strength he had for appearing to be so frail. “You just said she died five years ago. It has only been three. Now I’m going to ask you once, and you better be honest: how long has she been dead?”
McAlister let out a sigh and looked down. He gently grabbed Harold’s hand and removed it from his shirt. “It has been 5 years.”
Harold’s eyes looked down at the ground and away. He took a few steps back and turned around with his back to McAlister.
“Did you know?” Harold said.
“Did I know what?”
“That I don’t remember these last two years.”
“I had my suspicions that your condition had worsened, but I didn’t want to take away your purpose. The letter everyday appeared to be the most important thing in your life. Who am I to take that away from you?”
Turning back around to face McAlister, with watery eyes, and a realization that he was on old man, with practically no memories left, Harold said, “A friend.”
“I’m sorry, Harold, but nothing was better documentation than your lack of awareness of your digression. Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t feel guilty about not telling you when you are repeating yourself, or you forget some of your closest friend’s names. It would have been embarrassing for you, and painful for me. I’m fearful of the day when you forget who I am all together.”
Harold began to move his mouth but no words came out. He was finally able to whimper out a few words, “Have I been here before?”
“In this office before? Yes, plenty.”
“No, have I done this. Have I stormed in here because I thought you weren’t reading my letters anymore? Have you told me how long my wife has been dead before?”
McAlister took a few seconds and said, “About 2 weeks ago you did. You weren’t as hostile, but more or less the same conversation took place.”
Harold began to shift his eyes back and forth across the carpet of McAlister’s office.
“I…I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything, Harold. It’s okay. We can give you medication to help calm you down, and slow the progression of the disease.”
Harold looked up and said, “No. No medication. We will continue as normal. Over these last…I don’t know how many years, I have forgotten most things. I would imagine I would forget this too. I’m hoping that I will anyway.”
Harold slowly turned around and shuffled out of the room. McAlister put his hands in his pockets and let out a sigh. He had hurt his dear old friend, and Alzheimer’s is going to help him be forgiven. He knew the progression would accelerate, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He just had to watch his idol wither away.
He continued to write letters for several weeks after that, never bringing up his condition worsening, nor the deceit of Dr. McAlister. The letters became simplified, until they were basically the same letter over and over again, with very minor changes to wording.
One day, Harold did not write, nor did he storm down to Dr. McAlister’s office. He spent the last weeks of his life sitting in the rocking chair forgetting what he once knew like the back of his hands, which he now barely recognized either. He would wonder out into the half acre of grass behind the building with one of the nurses nearby and thought to himself, “It has been a long three years.”
Reece Snyder is a U.S Marine Corps Veteran who lives with his wife, Emily, and his two cats, Salem and Diego, in Buffalo, NY. He is an aspiring writer who enjoys watching football, traveling, and critiquing movies.
* * *
By Rudy Ravindra
At Martha’s approaching trip to Dallas, Bob is deliriously happy. With the control freak gone for a whole week, he’ll be free to indulge in a few of his favorite things. To get pleasantly tipsy, that extra drink without her look signifying her censure. First a couple of beers to flag off the festivities, Bach or Mozart playing in the background, certainly not that blaring gospel music favored by the pious lady. Then a glass of red wine with dinner, and finally savor a stiff single malt while watching offbeat French movies—too risqué for Martha, which have more artistic merit, compared to Hollywood’s guns and gore.
The very thought of his forthcoming freedom, the eager anticipation of madeira and movies, gave him goose bumps. On his morning walks—thank goodness the dragon lady preferred to sleep in—he wondered what else he can do. While trying to avoid a boisterous bulldog—he didn’t share his fellow countrymen’s love of canines—thankfully on a leash, he got a brilliant brain wave. Why not invite Donna, to share a few laughs and drinks, and of course, lots and lots of steamy sex. What a great idea! Yes, Donna can drive down from D.C. in about five hours. They can stroll in the Umstead park, catch a concert in downtown, dine at that new Lebanese restaurant.
Donna didn’t judge him, didn’t criticize him, and didn’t make him feel like a heel. On the same wavelength most of the time, they blend together like coffee and cream. They both love literature. They both love art, particularly the impressionists. They both love classic movies. And they both are anything but prudish (unlike you know who), love drink and dance and fun and frolic. At another time, if not already married—albeit to incompatible spouses, it was not inconceivable to contemplate a future together.
He met Donna a few years ago at Iowa. Actually, he applied for the Iowa writing workshop on a whim. He knew his chances to be among the few finalists were very remote indeed. For him, writing is just a hobby. If he depended on writing for a living he would have surely perished of privation and starvation. He enjoys dashing off a humorous short story or a scathing polemic. Surprisingly, from time to time, a few obscure on-line magazines accept his prose. He was, however, ecstatic to be chosen for the highly competitive workshop. And excited to get away, though only for a few weeks, from She Who Must Be Obeyed, to borrow the great Rumpole’s favorite phrase.
Since the workshop schedule was not that tight—the instructor, a distinguished writer, met with the small group of students, five men and seven women from different English-speaking countries, for about four hours in the morning to critique their work and impart words of wisdom on how to write riveting prose. So, most afternoons and evenings the aspiring authors were free to roam around the wooded campus, or relax by the Iowa river, or explore the downtown, or simply stay put in their hotel rooms to read and write.
One evening, while he was intently perusing the menu of an Italian restaurant in downtown, he heard a voice, “Oh, hi, Bob!”. Smelling a subtle scent of gardenia, he turned to his side, “Hi, hi, you, you, you are in the writing group, right?” he was embarrassed for not remembering her name.
She giggled, “I’m Donna.”
“So you too are looking for an eatery, huh?”
“Yeah, had a good swim at the gym, now I’m famished, gotta stuff my face. Lemme look at the menu.” She fished out reading glasses from her bag, and peered at the menu. With damp, dark tresses down to her sculpted shoulders, her chiseled face devoid of any makeup, not even a trace of lipstick, she looked fresh and fabulous. She removed her glasses, “Pasta bowl with seafood sounds yummy, or maybe pan seared scallops, hm, are you gonna eat here?”, She peeped into the window, “The place looks clean, lots of people, hopefully the food’s edible, ha, ha.”
While waiting at the bar for a table, they sipped white wine. “So, Bob, how long have you been writing?”
“When I was young and ignorant, I wrote some silly stuff for my college rag,” He laughed, “I continue to write this and that, um, mediocre prose. What about you?”
She laughed. “Oh, I’m like you, just write for fun. We are gonna critique your piece tomorrow, right?”
He waved dismissively, “I’m not looking forward to it. I’m sure the comments are bound to be brutal, ha, ha.”
“Actually, Bob, I liked it, surprising, ah, I mean, if I didn’t know that you, um, a man wrote it, I’d have assumed it’s by a woman, a really great POV, takes a lot of imagination.”
He flushed with embarrassment. “You are too kind, much too kind. By the way that piece was rejected by a few magazines.”
She took a big sip and waved a friendly finger. “Rejection doesn’t mean your work isn’t good, ah, there might be many reasons, space, style, taste…”
“I teach physics at a small liberal arts college in the Raleigh area. How about you?”
“I’m an analyst, uh, ah, at the State Department, in D.C.”
During the course of the evening, he learned that she got degrees in political science and international relations. That her husband a CEO of a pharmaceutical company. That her first son a freshman at college and the second boy a high school senior. That she wanted to be a writer, in fact took a couple of creative writing courses. But her dad, a career diplomat, steered her away from her futile fantasy.
The waitress came to clear the plates. “Did ya’ll save room for dessert, huh?”
Donna dramatically patted her flat stomach. “Oh, gosh, no, no, that was a pretty big portion.”
Out on the street, Donna said, “Do you wanna stroll by the river? I’m in no mood to go back to my bitty hotel room.”
Apart from a few dim lights on the track around the river, it was rather dark and the air still and hardly a ripple in the waters. Fire flies flickered, an owl hooted, cicadas chirped, and a distant dog barked.
During the next few days, their after-dinner strolls progressed to holding hands to chaste kisses to French kisses to ecstatic embraces and carnal encounters.
They kept in touch, mostly by e-mails. He set up a secret e-mail account, and checked it only on his office computer. At home he didn’t have any privacy as Martha made it her business to peruse his emails, calls and texts. Occasionally, Donna called him on his office landline. When he went to the annual American Physical Society meetings at different cities, Donna joined him, whenever her schedule permitted.
Before emailing the specific dates to Donna, he has second thoughts of his audacious plan. He pondered about the neighbors. The nosy Nancy who camped out on her front porch and waved to all and sundry. The anal Annie, puttering in her front yard, making sure every blade of grass is the exact length. And the jumpy Jean who popped in often to discuss her aches and pains with Martha, who, though just a nurse practitioner, behaves as if she’s a doctor. Inquisitive of an out-of-state car in his driveway and wonder at the dazzling Donna, these gossipy women might think of the worst and will not fail to inform Martha.
It will be outright silly and awkward if he asks Donna to arrive in the middle of the night, hide her car in the garage and not step out of the house for the duration of her stay. Even if he did that, won’t Martha, with her overactive olfactory sensors, smell traces of Donna’s signature perfume? In the hot and humid summertime, he can hardly afford to air out the house.
Well, that’s it. He just can’t entertain Donna at his house. How about putting her up at a hotel? But, how will he pay for it? Martha manages the bank accounts, checks the credit card statements and pays the bills. It’ll look very cheap indeed if he asks Donna to pay for the hotel etc.
When he shared his concerns with Donna, the ever considerate lady suggested that they meet at Wrightsville beach.
He can tell Martha that he got bored at home without her company and drove to the beach, about two hours from home, for a few days. Martha will not question the hotel charges appearing on the credit card.
He waved bye to Martha and drove to the beach, into Donna’s welcoming arms.
They basked in the sun, frolicked in cool waters of the Atlantic, strolled on sandy shores, cuddled in candle light, and woke up in each other’s arms to welcome yet another bright day.
The exciting times in the rearview mirror, he drove back to his humdrum life. To Martha who tortures him with gourmet dishes from recipes in Bon Apetit—which of course never turn out as tasty as promised, to Martha who hassles him about his liver—as if he guzzles gallons upon gallons of Glenmorange, to Martha who ceaselessly strives to save him from his adamantly agnostic ways. The list goes on and on.
On a slow Saturday, while he is lounging in the living room, cell phone beeps. He keeps his book aside and picks up the iPhone.
He’s surprised at the text: A few pics, until next time, honey pot!
And then shocked at Martha in a lacy thong and a skimpy bra, Martha and a blonde, their bare-naked bodies in a tight embrace—thighs to thighs, crotch to crotch, breasts to breasts, cheek to cheek, smiling broadly at the camera, the blonde suckling Martha’s mammaries, Martha kissing her lover’s blonde bush, the woman with a strap-on dildo penetrating Martha.
Who sent these to him? Then realizes that he is holding Martha’s phone. She must have grabbed his iPhone by mistake when she went grocery shopping. He kept the cell phone back where it was and retreated to his den. Better to be as far away as possible from the embarrassing evidence.
He just can’t believe that the bible-thumping, gospel-singing Martha is into women. Yet, during their marriage of many years, she appeared to have enjoyed—albeit in her own muted manner, their connubial couplings.
Now he is curious whether Martha got together with the blonde when she went to her professional meetings, continuing medical education courses, or other trips. Of course she must have.
Should he confront her with these salacious pictures and express his righteous indignation? And make her beg for mercy and demand that she change her ways and not bother him about every little thing he does or doesn’t?
But, on further reflection, he decides to keep quiet and let the status quo prevail. Just like him she must consider her affair merely a fling and not worth ruining their marriage, however imperfect it might be. A known devil and all that.
Rudy Ravindra lives in Wilmington, NC. His fiction has appeared in Lunch Ticket, Route 7 Review, Bewildering Stories, Saturday Evening Post online, and others.
* * *
By Husain Abdulhay
I bestride a fleet cloud
and rove somersault athwart hither and yon.
Whilst I’m smiling at the levity of the wind whizzing by
and reveling in the mercurial waltz of brume and the void of its woo,
I descry a rain shadow far aloof,
as if a Helot is fanning a Queen,
whose beads of sweat riffle through the umbra,
like dawn drizzly dews dripping down daffodils,
ablute the emerald-clad leafy mien
and bedraggle the pallid petal beneath,
howbeit, rousting her drab siesta,
lave her arid complexion effulgent as blithe as the visage of moon,
then grovel and genuflect prostrate to the terra firma,
and vanquished leave her lonely behind.
Husain Abdulhay, born on 26 August 1979, is from Iran. His poems appear in such journals as Cacti Fur, Eastlit, LangLit, Spillwords,The Criterion and Ygdrasil.
* * *
By Robert Beveridge
They turn, wheel, stroll
about in front
of the door to the unemployment
office, scavenge cigarette
butts, caw, walk into walls,
too busy to look
where they're going,
but for some reason never,
ever fly away
Robert Beveridge makes noise and writes poetry just outside Cleveland, OH. Recent/upcoming appearances in Neologism, In Between Hangovers, and Clementine Unbound, among others.
* * *
Three Poems by Donna Dallas
This is what I want love come here……see me
for the monster I am see my wiry hair / graying roots see
my crow’s feet love me still
tuck me into your nook……don’t be afraid of the lunacy
I cannot control
I can only lie down
ask you to listen to this old tinker of a beating heart / centuries old
somehow still beating
you see my frumpled body and…..love me still
my heart still holds the fire
it grades up with age because we never know what we are
before we are thirty…….stay with me love
as we wait at some precipice
for all the wretched heartaches we still hold cradled in our boney hands…..to pass
I feel you creep
out of bed
slip from my grip
read your texts
check your bank statements
clock the mileage on your car
search your glove compartment
count your condoms
caught you before I will
do it again
I wait and watch
for the next epic event
when the moon is full and you
you stage a brawl
that will send clothes flying
into bags lined up at the door
though you’ve nowhere to go
it will surface
when I peel the layers
of stories from you
when you are broken
you want a soft lap
and a heartbeat in the bed
want back in
want to be
in the ghost wars
we fight to know
fight to gain some power
or is it self-esteem?
but we fail miserably
Love, I dreamt you centuries before
I’ve seen your eyes, blue crystal drops on the leaves
Of trees thousands of feet away
I’ve touched you in the horizon
With my heart
I felt you before
You were passed down to me
Under the starry eyes of God
I’ve given every breath
Rib and meat
To feed you to grow you
I am unclothed
I bleed the truth for you
I scrawl a name into air
I push you out of my womb
I can do the pain
Again and again for you
Dreamt you forever
Your code embedded in the stars
Through the passing of my breath
Onto your perfect face
Donna Dallas studied creative writing and philosophy at NYU. Donna has been published in Mud Fish, Nocturnal Lyric, The Café Review and The New York Quarterly. She took a slight hiatus and is recently found in 34th Parallel, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Opiate Magazine, Sick Lit Magazine and several other publications.
* * *
Goodbye Letter to Crystal
By Raymond Merrill
I remember the night we met. I was out having a few drinks at a popular gay bar in New York City, and meeting new people when someone invited me to a private party. There, I met others who seemed glad to meet me and eager to introduce me to you. I should have known that first night that you were going to be trouble. As I hastily reached out to take hold of you, my fingers were instantly burned. Then someone explained how to treat you more carefully, and within minutes I was filled with an energy and confidence I had never known. I even felt desirable, and sex with you was the best I ever had. I spent that night and the next morning with you and my new found friends. I thought to myself “This is the start of something beautiful.”
I would meet you again at other parties. At first it was just occasionally, like on long weekends, and you introduced me to two of your friends you called “G”* and Xana X.** Soon we were hanging out once a month, and eventually every weekend. So I began a relationship with you even though I already had another, who loved me and cared for me deeply. Being with you each weekend gave me so much energy. You made me feel sexy and uninhibited and I couldn’t seem to get enough of you. On Mondays I was exhausted and it wasn’t long until I began sacrificing each Monday at work because of my weekends with you. I knew it was a bad pattern, and yet I continued until my job was taken away, and you didn’t even seem to care. You often called me to come have fun with you, and each time I did, it seemed I lost something important. First my job, then my discipline and patience, and then another job and yet another. Before long, I lost my previous loving relationship.
Then I became the one who was always calling you, and we spent even more time together. Next I began to lose my money, and never could recall where it all went. Eventually all of my savings was gone. Whenever I did make some money, I would call you with the intent of spending just a small amount to be together. But you always wanted it all, and got it all. After that my good health began to deteriorate and you didn’t seem to care about that either. I tried to get together with you less often, like it was in the beginning. But each time I tried I would eventually return to the same pattern, because I missed the exhilaration and the passion that always flooded my body and mind. I couldn’t seem to enjoy anything, especially sex, without you.
Next, I began to give up everything that made me who I was, just to be with you. I gave up creating art, for you. I gave up singing and dancing, for you. I gave up sunny days at the beach, and star-lit nights in the mountains to spend time in a dark cave, with you and your vampire bats, with their needle point teeth, that sucked up my blood and then injected me with more of your poison; so much that I didn’t even notice the roaches and bedbugs that would crawl into my backpack and come home with me.
So instead, I stayed at home and invited you over. I allowed you to keep me from my family and my true friends. You didn’t care at all; not one bit, and astonishingly, neither did I. You robbed me of my faith and spirituality. You took away my joy and sense of purpose. You wrecked my soul to the point that I didn’t even recognize myself.
Then one night, your overwhelming energy and strength caused my heart to race at such a pace, that my limbs felt as heavy as concrete and I almost lost all power to move. I could barely speak and yet somehow I was able to eke out a faint “Dear God help me! I am weak and powerless.” Suddenly, there was this peace; a peace that transcended my fear.
For the next six hours, I allowed a team of health professionals to care for me. They sent me home to rest, and even though my cry was sincere that night, I still had to face you in the morning. “I must throw you out”, I thought. Just then the phone rang with a request from a sick loved one who needed my help. I couldn’t tell of my own depleted state. I was obligated. But how would I be able to do all that would be necessary in my condition? With a knowing smirk across your face, you so gently called my name and said, “I’m right here to help, my Darling” and with an insidious laugh added, “I’ll always be here for you.”
Feeling as though I had no choice, I reluctantly allowed you to help. In small doses over the next few days you encouraged me to do what I must. However, you were not satisfied with a supportive role and wouldn’t stay in the shadows for long. You couldn’t stand having my time split between you and another. You constantly called to me, distracting me from caring for one so desperately in need. I couldn’t endure the tug of war any longer, so grabbing you by the hand I ran out, headed back home leaving my dear sick friend alone, and in pain, waiting for his much needed medication.
There I gave you my full attention. But somehow, you weren’t the same. No longer was there a thrill. The euphoria that I once knew was replaced with a dark heaviness. It seemed as though my soul had separated from my body and watched as you had your way with me. My eyes blurred as I tried to focus on what you now required of me, there before the light of only a computer screen. Another twelve hours would pass, and as my body grew weary, I turned to look for you once again, but you were gone. I searched the room high and low, but you were nowhere to be found. There I was, abandoned, with only the raw, naked images on the computer. Eventually, as the morning sun peeked around the window shade, I could no longer keep up with this indulgent madness. With my ears ringing and my head pounding from the pressure of your vice-like grip, I stumbled to the bed with a great crash. Nothing would stir me, but the rising of the next morning sun.
I was met that morning by an image in the mirror I hardly recognized. A face, grey and gaunt. Eyes as dark and hollow as the tunnel from which they just emerged; reflecting only the image of my selfish, heartless conduct two days earlier. At once my ears echoed with that same prayer: “God help me for I am weak and powerless. My life is unmanageable and I hate what I have become.” I could not go on like this any longer. I picked up the telephone, made the call and confessed to the helpful individual on the other end, “I desperately need a refuge and that Higher Power to restore me to sanity.”
Somehow my cry was heard by that Power that is greater than me, and greater than you; because my desires have changed. Although the insidiousness of the disease you had awakened within me, at times calls to me with the tempting sweetness of your voice, reminding me of only the fun times we had, I will instead call on my Higher Power for strength. I will recount all the good things you took from me.
So, dear Crystal, I now live each day turning my life over to my Higher Power; one day at a time. Asking only for the knowledge of His will and the power to carry that out. Behold, all things have become new! Goodbye Crystal.
*A street reference for GHB. In certain subcultures it is often used in conjunction with crystal methamphetamine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamma-Hydroxybutyric_acid
**Refers to the use of Xanax, a brand name for Alprazolam. In this context used to off-set the effects of anxiety associated with methamphetamine use. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alprazolam#Recreational_use
Raymond Merrill is a native of Northern New Jersey who after a progression of unsettling life changes found himself indulging in drug use and sex parties. He subsequently found recovery through professional treatment and a supportive 12-Step program. He now works as a Substance Abuse Counselor. Raymond is part of a writing community in New York City called Meet the Writer Workshop as well as the online literary community Silver Pen Writers.
* * *
By Eva Ferry
I know a man who always wears bright green wellies. To me, the wellies have become his very essence - well, that and his beard. It’s full and curly and was pitch black not long ago; now is growing patches of gray. You can tell he makes every effort to keep presentable - which mustn’t be easy for a farmer like he is -, but it doesn’t quite sit well with the rest of his face: round and red, long eyelashes, cheeks slightly sharp at the top. Still, I cannot picture him without the beard - or the wellies.
I walk past his farm whenever I go for a stroll in the countryside. It’s never long before I hear his wellies - squelch, squelch - coming to meet me. I should say first hear his dog - a pocket-sized breed of Pekingese and something else: she smells me from her cubicle in the backyard and rushes to chase me away from her property. After all this time, she sometimes still finds me unprepared. My heart jumps in my chest. I very seldom see her companion, who is four times as large as she is: small dogs are quick, sharp and noisy; big dogs are strong, resilient and sharp-clawed - and, it would seem, best kept out of sight.
“Would you please forgive Ruby?” the farmer says every time. “She’s just an old crazy dog, this Ruby. Don’t you know the lady already, eh, don’t you know her, Ruby?”.
He squats and caresses Ruby’s head, and Ruby lets out a high-pitched squeal, as if agreeing that she is indeed going old. The next time, she still runs after me.
It admired me at the beginning that he always had his wellies on; never slippers, trainers or nothing at all. It also embarrassed me: it was a reminder for the idle stroller that some people never get time off.
The farmer shares his farm with his parents and wife. I first thought the wife was an older sister or a young aunt - because in the countryside families are peculiarly put together, and one tends to find a sediment of relatives of all ages, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all sorts of in-laws, living under the same roof. Her face is wrinkly and bony, as if dried up, her hips incongruously broad.
After the wife saw me a few times and established that I was trustworthy, she started scoffing him in front of me.
“Take those wellies off!,” she would command him, in a raspy voice. This frightened me the first couple of times, almost as much as Ruby’s barking did. Then I realized her tone lacked any thrust or any emotion, almost as if she felt she had to say it.
Sometimes she would add: “Don’t you walk into my living room with dirt on your feet.”
She never looked or talked to me beyond saying “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” (never “Hello”; she was polite in her own way). I developed a theory: she was from a city and still ill-used, even after decades of marriage, to the ways of the countryside. Otherwise, she would have known that the farmer may have to run at any time to tend to a labouring cow, or to cornfields harassed by heil: he should never have to waste a minute getting rid of his slippers and putting his wellies on.
There was a flaw in my theory, though: her accent didn’t sound from the city, but very local.
One spring, the farmer didn’t come to greet me in his wellies for two or three times in a row, although Ruby still did. I thought he might have fallen sick, and didn’t see the wife either. After a few days, I knocked on his door.
The farmer’s mother came to open, her hair tied up under a headscarf. I explained that I hadn’t seen her son for a few days and was concerned he may be unwell.
“No,” she shook her head. “He is perfectly well, or so I hope. In fact, they are now in Romania.”
It seemed too exotic a holiday destination for a couple who, I supposed, had never travelled much in their lives, but I didn’t comment anything.
“Well, please let me know if I can be of any help,” I said instead. “I don’t know much about cows or harvests. But -”
She shook her head.
“No, dear. There aren’t any cows here anymore, and we don’t harvest either. But they might cows again in the future. And harvests. It all depends. Although, let us not be too optimistic.
I said goodbye and kept walking. I realized I had never heard the mooing of cows or felt the sharp smell of manure.
The farm was a carcass, the green wellies the last splash of colour left on it.
The farmer resurfaced a couple of weeks later, and trailed after Ruby in his bright green wellies to welcome me.
“Your mother told me you were in Romania,” I said after the customary exchange with the dog. “How was that? Did you enjoy it?”
He shook his head.
“I always knew it would come to nothing,” he said. “But the wife wouldn’t believe it.”
We stayed silent for a minute, then he looked left and right.
“Would you care to come somewhere with me? It will only be a few minutes.”
We crossed the road, treated into the deserted esplanade where fairs used to be held and walked past the parish church - home to an effigy of Our Lady very popular among sailors and fishermen. He then turned left into the cemetery, which resembles most rural cemeteries in those parts - a square of land encircled by brick walls, still to be painted white (in many places, this never happens at all), rows of three-storey niches on a floor of nude concrete, the heart and soul never quite settling on the idea that this is a place of eternal rest.
The farmer stood in front of one of the niches and made the sign of the cross. On the tombstone I read a name.
“Our boy has been dead three years,” he said. “Our boy, our only boy. I don’t know how we could ever think that taking in a child of strangers, and from the other end of the world, no less, would work. Now we know it wouldn’t. He could never be our boy.”
I still walk past the farm and the farmer still comes to see me in his wellies - squelch, squelch. On one occasion he was missing for a few days and I wondered whether he was in Romania again, but the issue of his son - either the deceased or the prospective one - has never come up again. We talk about all sorts of things and I’d like to think that nothing has changed. He still wears his wellies and grows a beard. Cows don’t moo, manure doesn’t stink, but things do inevitably change. Ruby doesn’t come chasing me anymore every day. She only does every now and then and her hips oscillate. The farmer’s father, on one of the rare occasions he’s opened his mouth in front of me, told me that it is an illness that affects ageing female dogs, particularly those who have never bred and also large ones - although Ruby isn’t, by any means, large.
The farmer still always comes to see me. His face has aged: the cheeks rounder, the nose bigger, although you only notice if you pay attention: the gaze always goes to the beard, which is
magnificent as ever and now fits better with the rest of his face.
The wellies don’t, though. I have been thinking and conclude that a man who is past his youth should never wear green bright wellies. But I don’t say anything and pretend nothing has changed, because I appreciate the farmer’s company.
I hope he appreciates mine.
Originally from Galicia in Spain and a resident of Glasgow in Scotland, Eva Ferry's fiction and non-fiction work has been published or is forthcoming in the journals Salome Lit, The Public Domain Review, The Creative Truth, Novelty, The Cold Creek Review and Jumbelbook, among others.
* * *
Some Jokes Just Aren't Funny
By Brett Riley
When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I had a wart on the outside of my right wrist. I treated it with some over-the-counter medicine from Wal-Mart. The product eventually did the trick, but for a while, the area was enflamed, split open, and dry. I covered it with gauze and medical tape. A few days in, while riding the bus home from school, one of the kids in my neighborhood grinned, mischief in her eyes, and said, “Hey, you’re doing it wrong. Next time you try to kill yourself, make sure you cut the veins on the inside of your wrist.”
To be clear, she was my friend. Neither she nor anyone else had ever bullied me. She no more wanted me to die than she wanted to sit on a land mine. Later that day, we hung out with a bunch of other neighborhood teens, laughing and joking about harmless things.
I’ve never forgotten that moment, that so-called “joke,” because if she had said it some other time, my reaction might have been different.
My friend could not have known that I sometimes considered suicide. The catalysts for those moments were legion. Sometimes, they represented the pretty common, overly Romantic stage that so many teens pass through, the one where death seems like both an escape from a mean, uncaring world and a means of revenge—“Boy, they’ll be sorry when I’m gone.” At other times, my suicidal ideations stemmed from certain traumas I had undergone, from parts of my core identity that my community had deemed unacceptable, from the typical heartbreaks every teenager experiences but that always, to that individual, seem fresh and earth-shattering and unconquerable.
Kids often suffer trauma that no one sees or understands. Everyone endures a broken heart, usually several times. And as a white male, I could hardly claim to have cornered the market on being marginalized for my identity and beliefs. But this commonality is part of the point. We never know what someone else has been through. We never know what they are truly thinking or feeling. We laugh and we kid, we trash-talk and insult as a matter of course, but we can never be sure if we’ve said exactly the wrong thing to exactly the wrong person at exactly the wrong moment.
What if, on the bus that day, I had been fighting an undertow inside myself, swimming desperately for the surface, the light, the air, knowing--knowing!—that no one cared much if I drowned? What if that joke, which nobody really found funny, had hit me like a cramp? What if I had spiraled the rest of the day, and I had locked my door and opened my wrists with a razor blade or shot myself with one of the many guns we owned? What would the consequences of those careless words have been?
The end of my life, for one, which means my three children and one grandchild would never have existed. I would never have met my wife. No degrees earned, no teaching career, which means no positive effects on those students I have managed to reach. No writing career, thus robbing—some might say sparing—the world of whatever entertainment and enlightenment my works have brought.
On Salon.com in 2012, Roxane Gay published an article entitled “Daniel Tosh and Rape Jokes: Still not Funny.” Using Tosh as a specific lens, this piece raises questions about how we define “comedy” and when humor can be an appropriate response to trauma. This question gets incredibly tricky, as it raises issues of authority, of the line between empathy and censorship, and more. For her part, Gay rejects rape as a subject for humor, stating, “I don’t have it in me to find rape jokes funny or to tolerate them in any way. It’s too close a topic. Rape is many things — humiliating, degrading, physically and emotionally painful, exhausting, irritating. It is never funny for most women. There are not enough years in this lifetime to create the kind of distance where I could laugh and say, ‘That one time, when I was gang raped, was totally hilarious, a real laugh riot.’”
In October 2016, my Tour of American Creative Nonfiction students at the College of Southern Nevada read a revised version of this essay, now titled “Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others,” as part of Gay’s book, Bad Feminist. Much of our discussion centered on issues of free speech and censorship, of empathy with victims and laughter as a coping mechanism. Many students agreed with Gay’s assessment of Tosh’s joke as offensive, tasteless, and dangerous. Others strongly disagreed with the notion that, for comedians and other artists, any subject should be off-limits. No one defended rape, or rapists, or even rape jokes per se; even those who championed Tosh’s free speech expressed some amount of distaste for the man himself and/or the “joke” in question. But they were very concerned that Gay’s rejection of rape jokes could, if broadly applied, lead to limitations on freedom of expression, particularly for artists.
I understand these concerns. As a writer, they are, in fact, my own. Freedom of expression is sacred to me. I would never condone censorship. But, as we discussed in class that day, censorship is not Gay’s point or her goal. In her essay, she says, “We are free to speak as we choose without fear of prosecution or persecution, but we are not free to speak as we choose without consequence.” In other words, just because you can say something does not mean you should, and if you do, you may pay some cost, even if the government does not arrest you. The idea that we can say whatever we want to whomever we want whenever we want with impunity is a dangerous misreading of the First Amendment. It ignores slander and libel laws. It ignores the illegality of, for instance, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded venue when there is, in fact, no fire. It ignores that speaking your mind can lead to societal marginalization, broken relationships, or getting your ass kicked. If you are a comedian who makes a lousy, unfunny joke about a sensitive topic, you might get heckled. You might find yourself the subject of articles written by people who find your brand of humor problematic. And, as Gay points out, if your “humor” leads even one more person to believe they have society’s permission to traumatize someone—and why wouldn’t you have permission, if it’s so funny?—then you have directly contributed to the culture of violence and misery that many of us are fighting against.
I say “many” because, as events constantly remind us, some people support that culture. When the infamous tape of Donald Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush was made public, Trump called his remarks “locker-room talk.” When directly asked about his comments during the third presidential debate of 2016, Trump continued to paint “grab ‘em by the pussy” as mere banter between guys because, you know, that’s just how guys talk. Having been in many locker rooms, and in other all-male, allegedly heteronormative spaces, I wonder what kind of locker rooms Trump has frequented. I have heard the word “pussy” used freely in such places, mostly in three contexts: as part of a statement of desire, as in, “I’d sure like to get some pussy”; as part of a statement of inquiry about recent sexual exploits, as in, “Have you gotten any pussy lately?”; or as part of macho posturing, as in, “If you can’t play with a sprained toe, you’re a pussy.” All these statements and situations are crass and indefensible, but none rises to the level of trivializing sexual assault. Once Trump moved from discussing how easily he could get laid and admitted to unsolicited and nonconsensual groping, he abandoned any pretense of even the problematic and Neanderthal normality that mars talk among macho men in locker rooms. He suggested that sexual assault is no big deal, and he reiterated that statement while standing on a stage with the first female major-party nominee for President of the United States.
On Twitter, after the tape’s release, the poet and memoirist Alice Anderson said, “Rape culture is when a presidential nominee is discovered saying ‘Grab them by the pussy’ on tape & millions will still vote for him.” This tweet, which also appeared as a Facebook post, went viral to a certain extent, eliciting tens of thousands of “likes” and hundreds of comments, many of which were supportive of Anderson’s position. Others repeated two or three long-debunked stories about Hillary Clinton (“She once laughed at a rape victim!” No, she didn’t. Quit it), as if a mistake of Clinton’s would somehow excuse Trump. And still others, resorted to pathetic, juvenile, ad hominem attacks on Anderson herself. These commenters would certainly make Trump proud.
One person wrote, “It’s not rape culture u over sensitive bitch. It’s how guys talk. Including ur husband if u got one.” There you have it, straight from the horse’s ass. Rape culture does not exist. If you believe it does, you’re an oversensitive bitch. All guys think and talk alike—even the gay and asexual ones, apparently, and even the ones this person clearly does not know. The irony of a mansplainer using aggressive and hateful language to deny the existence of rape culture and silence a woman was lost on this guy.
In response to this comment, another man wrote, “Bet she’s single.” Yes, because the goal of any woman, including queer women, should be to land a man, presumably men like the ones responding to the post. I bet the ladies are lining up.
The message seems clear: when men joke about rape or brag about sexual assault, we’re supposed to believe it’s all in good fun. When women speak out against such a culture, they must be insulted and harassed into silence. Their voices, like their genitalia, exist at and for the pleasure of men, and woe to the woman protests. She will be attacked online, perhaps in real life. A President might call her a liar on television. The onus, as always, is on women to get with the program and accept their objectification, their subservience. To laugh about it all.
What would we do if we made comments like those above to someone at their lowest point? What if our words were just enough to push past their point of endurance? What if they experienced a breakdown? What if they died?
The right to make such comments is indisputable. But why would anyone want to exercise that right? And if we should not want to hurt others, when, if ever, are trauma jokes and insults potentially funny?
Perhaps trauma should only be joked about, if ever, when the jokes are told by the traumatized or when the joke comes at the expense of the perpetrators. Certainly, this guideline is overgeneral and imperfect, but I wonder if it could be used as a rule of thumb.
Domestic violence is never funny, but I recall an episode of the sitcom Grace Under Fire when the titular character, a survivor of domestic violence, listens to a typical explanation for another victim’s black eye and then says, “Yeah, I used to tell people that my husband was cleaning his fist, and it went off.” I feel comfortable laughing with this character about her trauma because she is clearly using it as a coping mechanism and to reach out to another victim.
Similarly, racism is never funny, but comedians of color often lampoon ignorant or just plain stupid racists, and they use their own experiences with racism as a means of addressing a societal horror through the shared experience of laughter. One might argue that these words and jokes hurt the racists who hear them and similarly push them toward negative outcomes. This is a point worth considering, though others might argue that participating in the oppression of others means you give up the right to be defensive or sensitive about how they react to you.
White comedians from Mel Brooks to Louis C.K. have also done good work in using their art to critique the idiocies of racism. They condemn both the acts of violent domination and the perpetrators. It is unlikely these artists’ works would be well-received, though, if they had made fun of the victims.
Rape—like racism, like homophobia—is an ever-present threat to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of millions of Americans. The wrong joke, at the wrong time, told in a careless way, can inhibit healing. And if that chips away at your will to live, if you find yourself finding death preferable to fighting against the world’s tide, you might decide to stop the pain.
Just because we have the Constitutional right to say something doesn’t mean we should. Our words carry weight. We can use them as blunt instruments to batter each other into unrecognizability. The jokes we tell, the comments we make online, the names we call each other, the ways in which we use our common language to deny someone’s personhood—these things matter. They can make the world better or much, much worse. While the best comedians, and the best people, choose their words carefully and think deeply about what they say, too many of us check our empathy at the door and demand that everyone, regardless of their experiences and their pain, conform to our own viewpoints, including our perspectives on their own traumas. Perhaps, instead of calling someone an oversensitive bitch, we should think hard about why people might be sensitive in the first place. Perhaps, instead of accusing a sexual assault victim of lying, we should consider the evidence we’ve seen and heard and ask ourselves why we automatically support the alleged perpetrator. Perhaps, instead of leading with a suicide joke, we should show we care about the wound.
Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press). His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. His nonfiction has appeared in Role Reboot.
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By Edward Ahern
“He isn’t servicing her. Lisa.”
“Andy. He’s not having sex with Charlotte.”
“Well, I guess I sympathize with Charlotte, but why is that bothering you so much?”
“They’re endangered, Lisa. Unless we breed them in captivity they’ll go extinct.”
She patted his hand. “Timmy, okay, you’re responsible for their care, but if Andy isn’t randy, how can that be your fault?”
He smiled ruefully at her, noticing again how her silver-gray hair resembled the fur color on his chimpanzees.
“I’m not feeling guilty, just as inadequate as Andy must feel. That’s why I asked you to come to the zoo. Maybe you’ll think of something I haven’t.”
Andy crouched in the far corner of the enclosure, well away from Charlotte. When he saw Lisa and Tim he shambled up toward them, staring at Lisa’s hair.
“He seems to like you as much as ever, Lisa, that’s as lively as he’s been in a week.”
Lisa smiled at Andy. “What about artificial insemination?”
“Good idea, but aside from the expense and electroshock trauma to Andy, we need him to be enthusiastic about inseminating all three of our female chimps on a regular basis.”
They stood in silence, then Tim gently took her arm. “Lisa I’ve had a wild idea that just might work.”
She brightened. “What? Can I help?”
“Promise me that you’ll hear me out?’
“Don’t I always?”
“We were really good together. It’s a damn shame we’re still not, but what if we give a benefit performance for Andy’s sake?”
Lisa giggled, then stopped herself. “That’s more than a little pervy.”
“No, really it’s not. I can see that Andy is still attracted to your hair color. What if we were to shoot a how-to video together. I could show it to Andy after hours until he gets the idea and does right by Charlotte and the girls.”
“I want to help, Timmy, but starting that fire again is probably a bad idea.”
“No, it isn’t. We’re good friends, what surprises could there be? Dinner and hotel, it would just be déjà nue, with a discreet camcorder. Personal desires aside, you’d be helping me out of a tough spot, and helping a species to survive. Just think about it, and I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She smiled wanly at him. “I don’t know, Tim.”
“Please, we’ll talk again tomorrow.”
Tim walked Lisa to the front gate and helped her into an Uber. He walked slowly back to the chimp enclosure. Andy shuffled over to him on all fours.
Tim put his palm on the Plexiglas and Andy put his spatulate fingers on the other side against Tim’s.
"I’m really sorry to be doing this to you. With any luck I’ll take you off the meds in a week or two. But you don’t get to see the video.”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He's had a hundred-sixty stories and poems published so far, and three books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the Review board and manages a posse of five review readers.
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My Wife, the Therapist
By Dave Barrett
Me: “Hey, honey? Have you ever fallen in love with one of your clients?”
Her (smiling): “Sorry. That’s strictly confidential.”
Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana. His fiction has appeared most recently in Midwestern Gothic, Gravel, Cirque and Cowboy Jamboree. His vignette--"RED OF 10,000 Years"-- can be heard in Episode 85 of the No Extra Words podcast. He teaches writing at Missoula College and is at work on a new novel.
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By Salvatore Difalco
When my father was dying of lung cancer, a friend of the family, Antonio, who was also my father’s barber, suggested a remedy from the old country that he said would cure him. Antonio was known as a bit of a story-teller. He also didn’t believe men had landed on the moon, that it was a hoax. After two operations, the doctors had already given my father little hope of surviving beyond the year. But, perhaps out of desperation, he agreed to try the remedy. It couldn’t hurt, he argued with my mother, already heartbroken, and dismayed that Antonio was offering him false hope. The remedy consisted of peeled hard-boiled eggs and garlic cloves pickled in lemon juice and vinegar with a secret blend of Sicilian herbs and roots. The idea was to let the eggs ferment
for a few weeks, then strain off the juices and drink them. It’s a remedy passed down through generations, Antonio claimed. It had cured scores of people back home, and not just of cancer. At my father’s urgent and heartfelt request, my mother purchased all the necessary ingredients, which included dozens of lemons and eggs and festoons of garlic, and allowed Antonio to prepare 20 or so Mason jars full of this stuff and store it in the fruit cellar next to the wine demijohns. My father’s condition worsened over the next few weeks. And the condition of the Mason jars also worsened. The eggs in the jars had blackened and started decomposing, and their greenish discharge had darkened the liquid in the jar. My mother, horrified, said under no circumstances would she permit my father to drink such filth. Antonio e pazzo, she concluded. I thought she would just throw out the Mason jars and be done with it. But she left them in the fruit cellar. My father was hospitalized a few days later, coughing up blood and running a high fever. He spent a week in intensive care and then was moved to a semi-private room he shared with a startlingly jaundiced man dying of liver cancer. Antonio came to visit my father a few days later. When he asked if my father had tried his remedy my mother sharply told him to drop the subject. My father died about a month later. He never tried Antonio’s concoction. Indeed we forgot about it until a year later when we were clearing out my father’s things from the fruit cellar. The Mason jars were clouded now by thick swirls and clots of green and black mold or fungus, whatever was festering inside them. I held one and it was warm in the hand, like a living thing. Disturbed, I quickly packed the Mason jars in a crate and took them out to the trash.
Salvatore Difalco lives in Toronto. His work has appeared in various magazines and journals.
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4 Images by Elaine Verdill
A long time poet and photographer, Elaine Verdill paints with acrylics as well.
Creatures by Roger Leege
Roger Leege started out as a painter, printmaker and analog photographer, earning BA and MA degrees in Visual Arts from Goddard College. During postgrad university study in computer science, he was an early adopter and evangelist for digital art and artists’ tools. With gallery, print, and online publishing credits in the US, Canada, Europe and Asia, he especially enjoys working with writers and the “literate” press.
Santa Fe Enchantment by Judy Quitoriano
Judy Quitoriano has been doing and showing fine arts in the Bay Area for decades. She does at least two--one woman shows per year and eight group shows per year. She has been awarded for her work and has her first museum show for her photography coming in 2018 at the Tulare Historical Museum where she will show forty-four new works. She has been married for over four decades and has one adult son.