M. Shahid Alam - "Ghazal," "Alchemy," and "Heart"

Ghazal

A night reading Rumi fills ancient wineglasses.

By day speed & freeway suck God out of me.

I have stayed up all night thinking of you.

Main street & Wall Street drain love out of me.

Who is a my brother if the world is a village?

Jet and internet pluck my roots out of me.

If earth goes toxic, let’s move out to Mars.

This devil optimism takes the heart out of me.

When the wind and sky wrap me in their arms,

Shähid, this friendship takes the dread out of me.

 

 

Alchemy

Setting broken bones is easy. A bone-

setter I knew did it for a small fee.

Mending broken hearts is harder. It takes

time: for the heartbroken, an eternity.

Fixing heedless hearts is hardest. They

must learn the arts of spiritual alchemy.

 

Heart

When the long night of insurgence

ended, what I saw I had not seen.

I saw the hills ascending, coruscating

in a thousand choirs of green.

I greeted colors by their singular names,

azure, indigo, cerulean, aquamarine.

understood why red is iridescent,

why blue is boundless, serene.

I knew why the earth shouts in colors

when the sun hits the hills and plains.

Light enters the heart when the eye

learns to see: it is itself unseen.

 

Bio: 

M. Shahid Alam’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Chicago Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Paintbrush, Black Bear Review, West Cost Review, Marlboro Review, Journal of South Asian Literature, Kimera, Sufi, Swan, Chowk, Blanket, Pulse and CounterPunch

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

Barth Landor - "Verbiage" and "Will You Marry Me, Simone Weil?"

Verbiage

Sunrise and I am on the qui vive,

a dawn sentry on red alert

at my post out back.

Pink spiderwort mass at the fence,

and daybreak flushes out the dark figures

in the ink-patch I planted yesterday:

a yield of verbiage taking shape,

rows of purple phrases which this morning

– once again! – look shabby and bruised.

Who abused my wordcrop overnight

after I left it looking so fine?

Who conducts these midnight raids

on my precious expressions,

turning them into rubbish-heaps?

In my old cracked adirondack

I pick over dead matter

looking for something to declare itself.

Is ‘verbiage’ still in leaf and should I leave it be,

or pull it out and toss it in the compost bin,

a future nutrient for some other term?

*

I kept it in its place.  I made my peace

with that bed of letters one morning in June

when the coreopsis was on the move;

I ceded my garden of verse to

whatever predator time would let in.

The phone rang, and I went indoors;

it was my lawyer, calling

with news about my divorce.

A scattershot of weekend dishes

pocked every surface in the kitchen,

and I did a load, and the urgency

of verbiage – yes or no? – disappeared,

having had its moment in the sun.

Was it the mot juste after all?

I hardly know, and no longer care –

and who will even see my backyard harvest but me?

It’s just that while I searched and nursed

as daylight was leaking in,

I felt like a child of Israel,

who wrestled with an angel of God.

 

Will You Marry Me, Simone Weil?

Will you marry me, Simone Weil,

so we may suffer this world as one,

hand-in-self-denying-hand?

You are not lovely, but you are true,

and I yearn to search for God with you.

Susie Rakosi, although you won’t recall me,

in high school your hips and thighs

turned me into a hallway-scholar;

I applied myself to study them

as if they were Fermat’s last theorem.

Three decades on, if your shape-times-motion

Still offers a solution for the eye,

would you amble up the aisle as my bride?

Virginia Stephen, shall we be wed?

We will float on waves of words

that could never let us down, for we love them so.

Mornings making phrases for the printer’s ink,

and evenings reading novels in the sitting room –

we’ll find salvation in English sentences,

whose rise and fall will always buoy us.

If I am wearing out my bended knee

proposing to so many of you,

it’s all because there are so many of me.

You, who chatted with me in the park

while your dog chased a tennis ball;

You, Tina Fey of TV, and you, Joan of Arc

(the passionate image of you, that is,

in the painting by Bastien-Lepage) –

Will you make me the happiest man alive?

 

Bio: 

Barth Landor lives in Chicago.  In 2004, his novel 'A Week in Winter' was published by the Permanent Press.'

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

John Grey - "Changing Neighborhood," "Her Ancient Orchestra," and "The Other Cabin Fever"

CHANGING NEIGHBORHOOD

The last thing to go

are the empty milk bottles

stacked on the stoop

for pickup and replacement.

For years, that familiar rattle

didn’t wake her,

merely comforted her sleep.

This silence is more disturbing.

And now she’ll have to walk

to the store, watch that odious

fishwife Mrs. Brown

drop the quarters in the till,

so unwillingly give pennies change.

The neighborhood is not the same

though she never could

give evidence until now.

Neighbors younger, less friendly?

More traffic on the roads?

The park swings stiff and rusty?

No way to prove it.

But glass no longer glints

that sweet foretaste of sun.

There’s nothing to reach for

when she first opens her door.

The milkman’s retired

and no one works his route.

The milk in her coffee

has no clue how it got there.

 

 

HER ANCIENT ORCHESTRA

Hugged by knees, her cello,

far removed from forty one

and sugar rationing,

her only light, her only lightness,

despite its somber undercurrent

to those flirty violin strings.

The room is without

the navy man she married,

even the child she bore,

just so there’d be funerals

that would have her,

and tears to sprinkle listless

on such homely graves.

But the music avoids sickness,

steers clear of heavy traffic.

And the song can be about anything…

fall leaves, a dying candle, tall wind-swept grass,

her first time on a train,

her last time with a man.

One slide of bow

and the tune is honey dreadful,

horrifying but resolute.

She’s in her eighties

and she’s seen it all,

heard even more out of her instrument.

God bless, God forgive, she whispers.

God don’t let me live to be an old woman

far removed from love and family.

And if not God, then Beethoven,

or Mozart. Or Carter Elliott’s cello sonata

that does her withered hand no favors.

Day after day after day,

she wields her bow,

digs into the sad, sweet humming.

awaiting mastery, awaiting death

They call it “practice”.

But they never call the hours she’s lived “practice."

 

THE OTHER CABIN FEVER

The landscape’s smothered in drifts

and yet, more snow falls.

White gravitates to white.

A foot, eighteen inches,

like a rich man and his money,

enough is always too little.

My shovel rests against the door.

It knows when it’s beaten.

Car wheels are caked in ice.

The driveway’s buried.

Journeys are off the menu.

Weather presses from all sides.

It defies us to define our boundaries.

So we must have each other,

that’s the reality of it.

So much togetherness here all ready

and yet more of it is drifting down from clouds.

A room, two rooms, the entire house,

like a rich man and his money,

we’ve all we’ll ever need,

but it keeps on earning interest.

So thank you, useless shovel.

God bless you, stock-still car.

The richer it snows,

the poorer I am.

 

Bio: 

John Grey is an Australian born poet, works as financial systems analyst. Recently published in Poem, Spindrift, Prism International and the horror anthology, “What Fears Become”with work upcoming in Potomac Review, Hurricane Review and Pinyon.

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

Judy Ireland - "Song of My Cell Phone" and "Awake at Night"

Song of My Cell Phone                       

My cell phone plays “Amor Perfecto”

when you call. I hear salsa,

and know it’s you

with your black eyes,

curly black hair, a few greys

I gave you

coming in.

Everyone else in my phone

is “Brick House” –

which is what I am made of,

fire station red brick

and a lot of smoke

(so said the bartender

the night I wore low cut black lace

and bent forward over the bar

to ask her what black label whiskey

she had).

except my other ex, who is “Wild Thing”

who made my heart sing

back when everything

was groovy.

My cell phone rings every day

and you play among the noises

in my head.  I hear the sound

of plantains sizzling in an iron skillet,

I hear the slap of your hand against

a corn-colored arepa.  I hear your clock tick

while you sleep.  I hear you singing

as you pick up palm leaves

that have dropped from the trees

overnight.

My cell phone plays “Amor Perfecto”

when you call.  I hear salsa,

and know it’s you

with your black eyes.

 

Awake at Night

A woman in a window across the way

lifts a baby from slatted bed to breast

in shadow behind a drawn shade

paper-thin, cream color turning

to darkened yolk at the edges.

A sort of siren, calling to the drowning

with her gentle lift, bared breast, slight sway

from the hips as she rocks standing.

I sit in my chair, glass and window screen

between me and the wet grass, her building

and mine.

I remember many years ago,

a friend said –

women’s energy is round.

The window is now a black square,

flat on the face of the other building.

The absence of color, I think, helpless

against the phrase.

But it is for the baby

that I pray – the thing that swam

in the woman’s sea, making mantic

shadows on the ultrasound,

circular energy moving,

the borders

between sleep and what comes

after, bound to be difficult but promising

and delivering.

 

 

Bio:

Born and raised in the Midwest, Judy Ireland’s poetry benefits from the verdancy and barefaced authenticity of that working class culture which keeps her work grounded and focused in the ordinary world where extraordinary ideas reside with great subtlety and power. Her work is also influenced by the lush excesses of South Florida, where she currently lives and works. Her poems have been published in Hotel Amerika, Calyx, Saranac Review, Cold Mountain, and Folio. In 2010 her chapbook,Cement Shoes, was listed as a finalist for the Split Oak Press Chapbook Contest and the Palettes and Quills Poetry Chapbook Contest.

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

To the Aegean - Lori Sambol

To the Aegean by Lori Sambol:

Osman guides Tina over rickety bridges made of planks laid down across the trout ponds.  She teeters in the stilettos she wears only because he likes how she walks in them.  Deep in the murky water, trout curve into question marks.  Tina imagines she is a mermaid suspended in a pool.  In fairy tales, men captured mermaids in nets, by spells, by theft of tails as mermaids danced on land.  One night, alone in the office Osman and Tina shared with four other grad students, he bewitched her with a kiss, pressing her against his metal desk.  His hands paused on her waistband; he waited to peel down her Levi’s until she breathed “please” into his mouth.

Tina trips, and Osman grabs her elbow to steady her.  At his touch, she thinks of his lips on the inside of her wrist where blood pulses from her heart.  His profile resembles the miniatures of Ottoman warriors in the Istanbul museum, with trim beards and aquiline noses.  She imagines these are his ancestors.  She is the daughter of an Iowan cattle rancher.  She wants him to wear her like the evil eye charm resting in the hollow of his throat. 

The fish farm’s bunkhouse is built of rough wood.  When they’d visited Osman’s family, the women, in floral headscarves and long tunics, warned her the fish farm was rustic, suggested hiking boots.  She didn’t pay attention; she was learning to brew Turkish coffee.  Although she carefully hovered the copper coffee pot over the gas flame, the coffee bubbled over with the caramel scent of sugar.  The women handed her a cup and she knew she was to serve Osman as he drank raki and played okey with his brothers in the courtyard.  He took the cup without looking.  She waited.  For a word.  For a glance. 

He just rolled the dice.

Although the coffee she made tasted burnt, the women told her Turkish coffee is “as sweet as love.”  They read her fortune in the sludge at the bottom of her coffee cup and praised her future with Osman. 

She’d watched him through the kitchen window, his coffee cup untouched.

The mountains surrounding the fish farm shadow the narrow canyon.  Smoke spiraling from an outdoor grill burns Tina’s eyes with the smell of singed flesh.  The caretaker serves grilled trout and olives on mismatched plates.  The fish has been cooked whole, its skin ochre and charred.  “You’ve never tasted fresher trout,” Osman says.  A fish leaps out of a pool and then in again, threading the same spot.

Tina slips the blade of her knife into flesh, cannot remember if Osman removes the head first when deboning fish.  Her knife does not strike bone.  It’s supposed to.

“Give it here,” Osman says, “You’ll make a mess of it.”  He deftly beheads the trout, butterflies the fish and peels the backbone and the ribs out with the tip of his knife. 

Tina stares down at the fish; one eye glares back at her from the detached head.  The eye is clear, not cloudy: the trout’s been freshly killed.

On Osman’s plate, a pile of wrinkled fish skin, and the skeleton picked clean of all meat but the head.  Even his olive pits have been sucked of fruit.

            Tina sees her life unfurl like a ribbon shaken loose from its spool: Osman taking the cup of coffee without a glance.  Her waiting.  Waiting. 

            Osman says, “Before I went to UCLA, we came here every summer.”

“Sounds great.”  Tina dislodges a fishbone, as fragile and thin as an eyelash, from her teeth.  The bone’s damp and sticks to her finger.  She can’t see such small bones.  She’s ready to give up. 

“Imagine our children playing here,” Osman says.  He takes Tina’s hand.  She tenses.  She does not look in his eyes.  He says, “I have big plans for this place.”  Tina doesn’t know she’s holding her breath until she breathes again.

            Osman releases Tina’s fingers.  “We’ll take care of that after I finish school,” he says.

            “What about my degree?”

            “You’ll finish before me.”  

            Earlier, he’d told her they feed the trout pink dye in pellets, so the trout’s meat resembles salmon.  Dye spreading slowly through pale flesh to make it more desirable.  Words rise in her throat.  She will never belong here, never wants to belong. 

            She imagines the trout pool she’ll swim in tonight when she turns into a mermaid.  If Osman opens the weirs, she’ll swim to the river, down the mouth of the canyon, and to the Aeg

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

While You Wait - Taylor Koekkoek

While You Wait by Taylor Koekkoek:

Carl adjusts his crotch then readjusts it and pulls at the sleeves of his sweater. A dough-chested waitress approaches, pulling a notepad and pen from a large pocket in her apron dotted with pins and iron-on patches.

“Sorry.” Carl chuckles. “Swear I’m not jerkin myself off under here.” He laughs again and looks about the room.

“Oh. I didn’t think—”

“Just that I haven’t worn slacks for—well for a hell of a long time. Not used to ‘em. Even put on a sweater. How do I look?” Carl holds his arms out and draws a wide grin, which immediately begins to fail, giving away to nervous half laughs.

“You look real handsome, hun. Can I—”

Carl laughs more, now loud and bellowing. “Thank you. Here I was all worried of lookin’ like a fuggin' fool. Sorry, pardon my language, ma’am.”

“It’s all right. Are you waiting for someone or should I get your order started?”

“Oh no. My son’ll be here any minute.” He said he’d be here at—” Carl holds is wrist watch up to his face. “Well, he’ll be here any minute.”

“Sure thing, hun. Can I— ”

“It’s been a long while. He and I—well it’s been a long while.”

The waitress smiles and nods and looks about the room. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Yeah. What you got on draft?”

“We have a Budweiser, Guinness, a—”

“Whatever’s fine. And for him, get him a regular Coke. A large’n.”

“We only got one size. Free refills though.”

“No, second thought, how ‘bout a Dr. Pepper.”

“If you’d like, I could wait and bring him a soda when he gets here. Make sure it doesn’t go flat.”

“Nah, just bring one now. He’ll be here any minute. In fact—” Carl half stands from his seat to watch car lights roll by the window then pass and disappear. “Ah, not him. Well all the same, he’ll be here any minute.”

“Sure thing.”

The waitress walks away, ass waggling as she goes. Carl only half notices. He checks and checks again the hands of his watch and taps his doorknob fingertips gracelessly against the table edge. He nods and smiles to the couple in the adjacent booth who don’t look away from their half-eaten meals.

The waitress returns with a beer and a Dr. Pepper. Carl says thank you.

“You’re welcome.” She looks to the doorway and the empty hostess podium. “I’ll check back on you in a few.”

“That’s fine. I’m fine. Don’t need a sitter,” he says half to himself.

Carl watches, first discreetly then less so, the couple beside him picking at their food self-consciously. They look up to see Carl grinning widely, his crow’s feet carving deeply like dry riverbed.

“He never was any good with time.” Carl chuckles and thumbs his gut like a drum. The couple looks back to their food, nodding and pursing their lips. “His mother used to say, she’d say: that boy runs on island time.” A single laugh. “Island time.” He takes a sip of his beer and wipes a moustache of froth off on his sleeve. “That bitch.”

“Hi, hun. Can—”

“Christ.” Carl holds his hands up to his chest and laughs. “Surprised me.”

“Sorry, sug. Can I—”

“It’s all right. Just feelin’ a bit jumpy. Jumpy sort of day.”

“Yes. Can I get you an appetizer while you wait?”

Carl looks at his watch. “Sure. What the hell?” He readjusts his crotch. “How ‘bout the loaded potato skins. What comes on those?”

“Cheese, bacon, sour—”

“Yeah, one of those. And how about another beer?”

“Sure thing.”

Carl stretches his arms above his head, then, sensing they don’t belong there, he brings them down quickly and pulls at the hem of his sweater. After a few minutes the waitress returns with a thick plate of potato skins and another glass of beer.

“Could I get some ranch dressing with this?”

“There’s some there in that dish.”

“Sure hope I didn’t tell him the wrong day by mistake. Wouldn’t that be just my luck?”

“I’m sure he’s coming, hun.”

“Yeah, I know. He’s just no good with time. But you forgive your kids the little things, isn’t that right?”

“That’s right.”

“Still, sure isn’t all that respectful, is it?”

“Well, I don’t—”

“Specially when you haven’t seen your old man in so long.” Carl takes a drink. “Suppose that much is my fault though. You have any kids?”

“One little girl.”

“How old?”

“She just turned five.”

“Those are the years. That’s for sure. That age they don’t even know what a grudge is, much less how to hold one.”

“She’s my angel.”

“Eventually though,” Carl holds a finger out pointing blindly to an empty corner of the room, “eventually they get older and you make one mistake and they don’t ever forgive you for it. Like you’re the cause of all the world’s pain an’ sufferin’.”

“Adults can be like that too.”

“And then it’s like he’s doing me some huge fuggin’ favor—meetin’ me here. Maybe he ought to work for my affection just once. Wouldn’t that be somethin’? Always was an entitled shit.”

“Can I get you another appetizer?”

“For the longest time I didn’t think he was mine. Certainly wouldn’t have put that much past my wife.” Carl finishes the last of his beer and sets it down noisily. The waitress looks down at her notepad where she is drawing dots in no particular pattern.  “But the kid even looks like me, unfortunately for him.” Carl laughs.

“I could bring you some mozzarella sticks.”

“And now, Christ sake, my son’s off wanting to be a gay stripper. You believe that? A gay stripper. Christ sake.”

“I should really—”

“Only he can’t be a stripper because he takes after his old man.”  Carl watches the waitress closely who only opens her mouth and closes it, looking down and then back to the kitchen. “Means he’s and ugly sonovabitch with a little pecker is what that means. No club’ll let him up on their stage.” He bellows out a percussive hoot. “Not sure what’s worse: being a gay stripper or wishing you could be one. Suppose there isn’t much use in wondering that.”

“I should probably check in with the kitchen.”

“Sure. Sure.” Carl takes up his menu and jabs his finger at it. “Then just get me some onion rings.”

“No problem.”

The waitress walks away, leaving Carl to do his best at keeping occupied, looking over the photos and posters hung from the walls and all the specs and lines in the ceiling that, if seen just so, make up faces and sail boats and things like that. Though there are still quiet conversations in the last corners of the restaurant, most the customers have left their checks and tips and their dirty napkins. The bus boy begins working the tables against the far wall and laughter comes through from the kitchen with the clinking of dishes. Carl sits in the middle of the room with a half drank beer and a flat Dr. Pepper and soon the waitress is setting down a short tower of onion rings in front of him.

“This one’s on the house,” she says.

“Thanks, but if it’s all the same I’d prefer to pay for it.”

The waitress smiles and hooks her thumb into her apron strap. “I insist.”

“No, I insist. I appreciate it an’ all but I don’t need your goddamned pity.”

“All right.”

Carl goes on but trails off when he notices the waitress has left and walked back to the kitchen where Carl pretends he doesn’t see her lean in and whisper to a male waiter with a long neck punctuated by an adam’s apple that bobs and shivers as he speaks and swallows. She hands him her notepad before disappearing behind the corner. Carl looks back to his collapsed tower of onion rings. Mumbling quietly, he pulls a slippery onion center from its batter shell and drops it at the corner of his plate and pops the gold-batter half ring in his mouth.

The new waiter approaches Carl’s table, not looking at him until he has to, and he says, “Can I get you your check, sir?”

“What happened to my waitress?”

“I needed her to begin writing up tomorrow’s specials. Just routine business. Would you like your check?” The waitress emerges from the corner holding a new notepad and pulls a stool up to the dry-erase board across the way.

Carl shrugs. “I was getting’ fuggin’ tired of her anyway. Maybe I’ll get some peace an’ quiet now she’s not pestering me anymore.”

“Can I get you your check?”

Carl slaps his hand down on the table. “Christ sake. No. I’m—” He exhales and lowers his voice. “I’m meeting someone.”

“It’s getting late, sir.”

“You closed yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Then please, won’t you get me another beer and let me alone? Look: I’ll just sit here quiet like and drink my beer and if he don’t come by the time I’m done drinkin’, then I’ll give up on him. All right?”

The waiter is quiet. He crosses his arms, uncrosses them and looks about before going back to the kitchen and returning with one more beer and letting Carl alone.

Carl drinks and pauses and looks at his watch and drinks again. He watches the waitress on top of the stool and listens to the strokes of the dry-erase pen. He watches carefully at first, as though she might turn around, but she doesn’t. Her elbow dances and stops dancing as she looks down at her clipboard before continuing.

“Look,” he says to her back. “I didn’t mean to offend you or nothing. Just that I don’t need any sympathy is all. So, you know, sorry. I just—” Carl pauses. The waitress only keeps moving her knobby elbows, and the same squeaking noise comes falling from the whiteboard. “Aw, forget it then.” He raises his glass and eyes the beer line, which is still just above halfway, then sets it back down. “Maybe I wouldn’t have come either,” He says. “I mean if I were him. It’s just—well your kids are supposed to be better than you, ain’t they? I know I’m not the most understanding sonovabitch, but—“ Carl sighs and rotates the glass in his hand and watches the amber liquid roll. “No. I figure I probably wouldn’t have come neither.”

The squeaking strokes pause momentarily and then begin again. There are no voices anymore, none except for the shrill and wordless cries of her pen. The bus boy begins putting chairs up on top of tables. Clinking dishes from the kitchen slowly stop clinking. The restaurant falls asleep.

“Want to hear a true story? Cross my heart, true as the Lord’s word,” Carl says.

“I should get this done.”

“Sure. Sure.” Carl watches her quietly then looks over the empty room. He takes a small sip of beer. “Well I was comin’ home from in town, where I used to work. I’d get on the bus at 82nd and Ferry, by the Area 69 porno shop. You know the place?”

She sighs.

“I must’ve been late because the bus was pulling away when I was still on the other side of the street. I wave my hands and holler but it takes off and leaves me there lookin’ like a fuggin’ fool. Then I look to the bus stop and I see this old feller asleep, with his arms folded round a newspaper and his cap pulled down over his eyes. I go and stand by this old guy and we’re quiet for a time but bein’ so quiet makes me feel antsy, specially when I’ve just made a fool of myself. So I say to him, where you headed? He don’t say nothin’ back and I figure the old fool’s fallen asleep and missed his bus too. I say again, hey. Still he says nothin’ to me so I tap his shoulder and he doesn’t move. I feel funny, talkin’ and pokin’ this quiet old feller, but now I’m concerned and shit for the guy. I take up the bill of his cap to see his face and the feller’s dead. Eye’s all open. Mouth too.”

The waitress turns away from the board and looks at Carl who quickly looks back to his glass, which is closer to empty than he remembered it.

“And that ain’t even the worst of it. Worst is: I take the newspaper from his arms. It’s two days old. Fuggin’ swear to god.”

“That true?”

“Yeah. Well, mostly, ‘scept didn’t happen to me. Just heard of it. Stories ain’t worth shit to some people if it didn’t happen truly to yourself. Story’s a story though, whether it’s me who found that poor dead fool or if it were someone else. Story’s the same, ‘scept for my part in it, and my part’s never mattered in anything else so I figure it don’t make any difference here neither.”

She goes back to her notepad and the dry-erase board. The bus boy puts up the chairs at the table to Carl’s left and pauses and then puts the chairs up at the table to his other side and then pauses again. Nodding to Carl’s glass, he says, “Are you finished with that?”

“This?” He looks it over carefully. “Not quite.”

The bus boy exhales and scratches a mole at his temple and looks at the waitress before walking back to the kitchen with a tupperware bin. Carl watches him go and puts his middle finger down on the coaster beneath his glass and moves it a quarter clockwise and back and a quarter again.

“Last time I saw my wife, you know what she said to me?”

The waitress doesn’t look back.

“She said you had you’re whole life to avoid this. And I said, avoid what? Dying alone, she said.” He pauses, running his thumb over his knuckles. “She said I had my whole life to avoid dying alone and, well, here I am.” Carl chuckles sadly. “Ah, oh well. Lot of people die alone.”

The waitress turns around and picks up the stool at her side and says, “A lot do. Plenty don’t. I’m going to get your check.”

Carl nods and stops tapping his fingers and stops adjusting his crotch and holds still and quiet as something newly dead, waiting for the waitress to return with his check. She sets it down softly between his hands, along with two peppermint candies and a pen.

“If my boy shows up here after I’ve gone would you tell him that I waited and—Well would you just tell him I was here?”

“I’ll tell him.”

Carl signs his name and leaves his glass part full and goes off into the night like the ghost of a lost child.

Taylor Koekkoek's work has appeared in Fogged, Clarity, Forge Journal, andThe Avalon Literary Review, among others.

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

The Side of the Road - Rebecca Andem

The Side of the Road Rebecca Andem:

The time spreading out between them worried her more than the miles, but until she came up with a plan, momentum was all she had. Allison whined in her car seat, and Evie groped for a package of cookies. In three days they’d already consumed more sugar than they’d eaten in a month, but vending machines were quick. The choices were limited, and the machines didn’t allow time to sit and reconsider anything else. Plus, when they climbed back in the car to continue on, the ramps out of rest areas only pointed in one direction. North.

“We’ll have supper soon,” Evie said when Allison, unappeased, dropped the cookies onto the seat. The collection of wrappers and crumbs was startling.

“Is Daddy cooking bar-a-cue?”

Evie hesitated and gripped the wheel. She shook her head. “Daddy isn’t cooking tonight.”

“I want bar-a-cue. Shrimps.”

“It’s not Sunday, Allie.”

“I want Sunday.”

Evie closed her eyes. The road was straight, and she wondered how long she could allow it to steer them. If she didn’t move her hands, did the car have decent alignment?  Would it save them?

“No shrimp this Sunday,” she said and glanced in the rearview mirror at her daughter’s matted hair. “Sometimes it’s fun to do something different. What do you say, baby?  We’ll worry about Sunday when it gets here.”

Allison’s eyebrows pinched together, and she turned her gaze out the window. Along with her father’s eyes and freckles, she had inherited her mother’s thick eyebrows. At every family gathering, the in-laws argued over whose family she would eventually resemble, but with her softly boned pixie face, it was still too soon to say who she would favor. Evie always responded by saying she looked like Allison, end of story, but she often wondered herself. Would Allison’s sandy hair stay light like her father’s or turn dark like her mother’s?  Early years in the sun had bleached everyone’s guess, and Evie wondered if the effect was already permanent. Maybe a different climate could change them both.

“What do you think of New England?” she asked. “We’ll go from one corner of the country to the next. Maybe Seattle someday.”

As soon as she spoke, Evie felt her dreams spinning, her compass pointing. She could see them in Maine, dressed in rubber boots and baggy jeans, thick woolen sweaters. Allison would be a picture, a postcard sent to relatives, her elfin grin on a dock full of lobster crates or in a boat with a faithful dog, on a rocky shore draped in seaweed. Imagining a catalogue with slick pages of contentment, Evie mentally flipped through their new lives, scene by picturesque scene, but she also saw the colors cast in a thin light, a hue of hardship. She needed a challenge.

“What do you think, baby?”

“I want Daddy.”

Evie shook her head. She didn’t want to let the image in, the possibility of Ben standing in the blue dusk of Maine, his hair salty and tangled. She knew he would never leave what he had built in Florida, their home, a reliable business. Even if it wasn’t his original dream, it was the one that had come true, and his grip had always been so tight on anything he claimed. There was a time when it made her feel safe, but Evie didn’t know how to exist inside it any longer. She must have been gasping for air for a long time now. Otherwise, why would she break their lives?

“Daddy can’t come this time,” she said.

In the rearview mirror, Allison pouted and plucked at Lamb’s ears. “It smells,” she said, and Evie smiled. The accidental poetry of children always took her by surprise, and she lingered for a moment in the idea that an undesirable situation could take on concrete aromas simply by smelling instead of stinking. She wondered what the scent of missing your daddy might be and suddenly knew it would be caustic. Like oil burning.

“Oh shit!”

Smoke billowed out from under the hood, and when Evie glanced at the thermostat, the arrow was quivering far above the red zone. She stepped on the brake, but the car didn’t respond. Nothing did. The engine was dead along with everything connected to it, including the power steering. Holding on, she waited for the car to lose momentum, and when it was barely rolling forward and honking cars were blaring around them, she threw her weight into the steering wheel and aimed the car at the shoulder.

They came to a stop with two wheels on the pavement and two in the dirt, a steeper incline than she would have expected with the long, flat scenery. The slant pressed Evie’s hip against the seatbelt and Allison’s head against the wing of her car seat. It was difficult to straighten her spine, and Evie had a fleeting urge not to, to simply unbuckle the seatbelt and allow gravity to pull her torso prone across the seats. But she knew if she didn’t stay upright, she would cry.

“Are you okay, baby?”

When she peered over her shoulder, Allison nodded, but her face puckered into pre-scream stage.

“It’s okay.”  In a seamless mother motion, Evie unbuckled her seatbelt, twisted her torso in order to support her weight against the other seat, and reached to catch her daughter’s tantrum before it happened. “Look. You held on tight to Lamb. Good job. How is he?  Is he okay?  You better give him a kiss, tell him it’s okay. We’re okay.”

After a moment Allison nodded to herself and whispered in Lamb’s ear, gently kissing its grimy curls as Evie continued to caress her knee. She wished it were that easy to convince herself and wondered what Allison was telling her pet, if maybe the words would soothe all of them. The car reeked of burnt oil and electricity, and smoke continued to seep through the seam around the hood.

“We need to get out of here,” she whispered, and then she slapped a smile on her face in an attempt to mask the fear in her voice. But Allison heard it, and she started to scream. “No. No, baby. It’s okay. Don’t worry.”

As she spoke, Evie groped around Allison’s legs and belly. She hated the buckles on car seats, and when she pinched her finger for the millionth time, she swore and pulled Allison too roughly through the gap between the seats. Allison dropped Lamb, and the screaming swelled.

“I got it. Here. I got it.”

Evie stretched and groped under the seat to retrieve the filthy toy, and then with her hands full and her mind echoing Allison’s screams, she somehow managed to haul them all to safety. Except she didn’t know where safety was. She jogged several yards down the road and collapsed on a fallen tree rotting in the ditch. Swaying side to side, she tried to rock away their frazzled nerves, but ants swarmed around her feet. She stomped their tiny bodies into the sand, but it didn’t stop them. A few died, but more crawled over her sandals. One bit into her toe and wouldn’t let go. Sputtering her frustration and one brief sob, Evie ran back to the pavement, where she hopped on one foot like a Native American dancing a prayer.

No one stopped. Eventually Allison’s screams turned to sniffles and smoke stopped seeping from the engine, but cars continued to speed past. The sun reached the top of the pines, and gravity assisted the day’s plunge into evening. Evie couldn’t feel the sun’s heat anymore, and she shivered. She carried Allison back to the car and settled her in the car seat, and then she climbed back into the driver’s seat. It was time to call home.

Ben answered on the first ring.

“Where are you?” he asked, without a hello.

Evie shook her head. Her bottom lip quivered, and her throat constricted. She wondered if she looked anything like Allison gearing up for a good cry.

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

“Evie.”  His voice was far, far away.

She shrugged. “Somewhere in North Carolina.”

“What’s in North Carolina?”

This time she could barely hear her own voice. “I don’t know.”

He sighed. She felt it more than she heard it, and the second that long hiss of impotence hit her intentions, her shoulders dropped, her spine sagged into the worn-out support of the seat, and she started to cry.

He waited a moment. “What am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know.”  The silence was more than the distance could support, and the sounds of dusk on either end of the phone began to intrude. Between the rush of cars, Evie heard frogs singing, Allison breathing. She heard the porch door, that familiar clatter of wood on wood, more hollow than she remembered, and she wondered if Ben was walking in or out. “What are you doing?” she asked.

He grunted. “I don’t know,” he said, a childish retort that made Evie glance over her shoulder at Allison sleeping. As always, they thought of her at the same time. “How’s Allie?” he asked.

“Tired. She wants barbecue.”

“That’s easy enough.”

Again silence spread over the distance between them. After a moment Ben breathed. Evie breathed back, but she didn’t have any words to fill the air between them.

“What do you want, Ev?”

“Can you play me a song?”

A single note thrummed in the distance. He must have been on the porch, ready to serenade the sunset with his guitar and old dreams, his evening routine. “I’ve played every song for you,” he said.

Red and blue lights spun across the rearview mirror, and catching the reflection, Evie allowed the pulse to mesmerize her for a moment. A state trooper unfolded out of his car and walked toward her. He carried in his step an air of authority, but in his pace Evie detected caution, or maybe a resigned competence, boredom. Helping her would be another task in a long day, perhaps a story he would relate to his wife to assuage her fears or to make her believe in his job again. Evie wondered what his wife would have to tell.

“What do you want?” Ben was asking again.

Evie rolled down the window and gestured to the officer to give her a second. Across the distance another lone note reverberated, and as it faded into another silence, it all made sense.

“I want to play my own song.”

Rebecca Andem earned an MFA through the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine.  She’s had stories published in magazines such as Relief Journal, The Meadow, Prick of the Spindle, Word Riot,and in online collections such as Alfie Dog in the UK.  She’s also published two novels, If the Ocean Were Empty and Marathon.Currently, she lives in China, where she teaches English at a university near Guangzhou.

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

At the Terminal - Elizabeth Genovise

 At the Terminal by Elizabeth Genovise: 

When Rachel disembarks, Gate 22 is empty except for a custodian sweeping up the floors. He glances at her as she passes by and she averts her eyes. She hurries into the first bathroom she sees and chooses a sink in the back corner, setting her bag down on the shelf under the mirror. In the same order that she checks herself in the mornings at home, she adjusts her hair, her lip gloss, and the drape of her skirt. After a long moment of staring at herself in the glass, she takes out a comb and tries to shift the part in her hair. But the tendrils won’t fall where she wants them to, and when she shakes her head, the old part just realigns itself. Cursing, she jams the comb into a side pocket of her bag and exits the bathroom, brushing her skirt down again as she goes.

He’ll be waiting downstairs, she knows. He’ll be leaning against something, wearing that expression of adoration that she has carried with her like a locket since she saw him at a conference in Chicago two months ago. In Rachel’s carry-on, stuffed into a tiny pillbox, is her wedding ring, along with the delicate silver necklace her husband gave her on their fifth anniversary. Heat spreads from her neck to her cheeks as she readjusts the bag on her shoulder. Underneath the cover of a notebook and makeup case, she has silk camisoles and teddies, pastel blues and soft violets, wrapped in tissue like gifts and fragrant with an eau de toilette she bought yesterday.

It is strange to her, what comes to mind after she steps onto the moving walkway and no longer hears her own heels on the linoleum. She thinks, maybe it’s the terminal shops with their displays of candy and gum. There has to be some explanation for why she would be thinking of Frankie Torres, her neighbor and schoolmate when she was ten, the kid with the speech impediment.

Rachel’s best friend then, Lacy, used to yell things at Frankie when he came out on his front porch with his water guns or GI Joe’s. She’d say things like, “Tell us the biggest word you know, Frankie. Say ‘rudimentary.’” Rachel never knew where Lacy got her words. Frankie would go on playing, but his face would turn different colors, red and then a little blue like he was holding his breath, and Lacy would laugh from over on Rachel’s porch and say that Frankie had his own language, retard language.

Once, right before Christmas, Rachel was in the White Hen Pantry down the block from her house and she saw Frankie there, standing at the counter. She came up behind him holding a Snickers bar and heard him trying to talk to the cashier. He was trying to ask, “how much is this gum,” but it came out garbled and sputtering and the cashier kept his mouth straight for just a second and then burst out laughing. Rachel felt her eyes burning and so she focused them on the gum, the mint green packages. When Frankie turned around and looked desperately at Rachel, she tried not to see him. She did make herself look at the clerk, though, and she said, “He wants the green kind. Just put it with mine.” But Frankie had walked out, his dollar bill crunched in his fist and straining out from between his knuckles like some growing thing.

The crowd thickens a little after she steps off the walkway and starts toward the escalators. The rising white noise of voices and the occasional sneeze or laugh is startling to her, like a radio wakening in the middle of the night as a truck passes by. She hears a violent cough somewhere to her left and then she is thinking of Renee Mingott, her first boss back in high school when she worked at a daycare center. Mingott’s trinkets, that was the joke. The woman kept a pile of medals and crosses in her top desk drawer, a discovery Rachel and her friends made halfway through that first summer working there. Rumor had it she buried the things outside evil places like abortion clinics. When Mingott was done barking at the girls about whatever it was that day—forgetting to disinfect the toys, leaving the TV on longer than it was supposed to be—she’d hack and cough and retreat to her little office where the girls could hear those Saint-this-and-that medals clinking together. They found out later she had cancer of the throat. Their new supervisor told them that Mingott had insisted the whole way through that she would be healed.

She thinks now of making love with Carthy Adams, next to the iced-over lake south of Ypsilanti where she went to school. It was her first time and when he lifted her with him into the back of the car she looked out the rear window and saw the lake under the moonlight and was absolutely certain that she wanted it to be him. The water wore the new ice like a veil, the moon sparkling in the eyelets. Rachel kept her eyes open. She wanted to watch Carthy and she wanted to see the clouds they made with their breath. Carthy was not so long ago the rough-limbed boy she liked to steal the college president’s canoe with. But he moved so slowly in her that in her mind she saw a boat tied in for the night, rocking on harbor waves. At one point he said into her hair, “Don’t you forget this.”

She wouldn’t, because a few weeks after that, Carthy went back to the lake with his brother and decided to walk out onto the ice. He fell through and by the time his brother had hauled him out of the black water, Carthy was gone. She thought of him at strange times during the next few years, like at a Christmas dinner or a baseball game, and then later when she met her husband, whose eyes made her remember.

On the escalator, she grips the rubber railing. The crowd swims beneath her, brown and blonde heads, caps, scarves, bright jackets. It is frigid in Chicago—she can feel the draft already, seeping through the parking garage doors on the lowest floor. Halfway down, she sees him waiting for her. He is leaning against an abandoned rental car counter and in his hand is a red fleece, no doubt for her.

Her backpedaling steps surprise the people behind her—This is a down escalator, what are you doing—but she turns all the way around and begins to zigzag between them, flailing for the rail as she goes. Though her steps are uncertain, she doesn’t fall. She did this as a child and she can do it again, this awkward ascent, this stumbling toward solid ground.

Elizabeth Genovise is a graduate of the MFA program at McNeese State University in Louisiana. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Pinch, Yemassee, and other journals.

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

Far - John Vanderslice

 Far by John Vanderslice:

The car slows to a halt almost before I realize it’s there.  Stop walking and pay attention to what is going on, Marijo.  I know this, all right?  I know that if you don’t know it and don’t practice it you can end up hurt—or worse.  I’ve seen worse.  I have seen worse.  But this night, when I see who is riding shotgun, when I note the expression of disappointment on his wide blonde face, when the all-too-familiar question forms in his blue eyes, I know I have nothing to fear.  I also know what he is going to ask even before he starts.   I wonder why he stopped beside me in the first place.  I wonder what gave him hope.  Maybe it’s the dark knotted hair curling up around my neck, or the tanned color of my exposed arms, the milky brown that looks more shadowy in the cheap streetlight of 10:00 p.m.  Almost certainly, though, it’s my butt.

“Any of you girls black?” the blonde man says.

“Who wants to know?”

Sly smile.  “We all do.”

I study the inside of the car—a champagne Impala—and see a jowly guy behind the wheel.  He has a light brown crewcut, peachy skin, and moist optimistic eyes: a kid’s face in a 30 year old.  I see a third guy—stringy hair and a long, thin face—huddled tightly in the back, as if afraid to be seen.  But he’s there all the same.

“What for?” I say.

Blonde smiles bigger.  He thinks he’s enjoying this game.  He doesn’t get it, though.  I’m not playing.  I am trying to keep him stuck on a skewer for as long as possible, just so I can watch him flail.

“I think you know what for,” he says.  Then: “Come on.  Please?”

There are probably five other blocks on El Cajon alone—and plenty more in San Diego—where he can find girls waiting to give him what he wants.  Why does he have to find what he wants here, on this piece of sidewalk?

I sigh.  “Come back in twenty minutes.  Ask for Kareen.”

“Where is she now?”

I stare at him.  “What do you think?”

His face falls.  “Right.  Okay, ma’am.  We’ll come back.  Thanks.”

Ma’am?  Thanks?  Fuck you.

Blonde says something to the driver.  I see the guy in the back shrug.  I hear the driver hoot.  “Twenty minutes!” he shouts, then he jabs the car back into traffic.  A minute later, when I reach my usual post, the intersection of El Cajon and Ohio, they are out of sight.

They may come back.  They may not.  Chances are, they’ll find their business elsewhere and forget I ever told them about Kareen.   Or they’ll remember four hours from now, after she’s stopped for the night, because by that time she’ll have more than made her quota.  Her quota is higher than any of ours.  “To whom much is given, much is required,” David likes to intone, a leering smile on his face.  But Kareen always makes her quota.  Always.  I told those guys to come back in twenty, but truth is Kareen might return in ten and then be gone two minutes later with someone new.  And that someone might keep her for an hour if that’s what he feels like paying for.  With Kareen, sometimes they do.  Kareen is never not busy.  I don’t know why David doesn’t rope in two or three just like her.  He’d probably double his money.  I guess he figures Ximena and I can substitute.

No, we can’t.

No one else in this family—not me, not Ximena, not the two blonde girls, not our newbie from South Korea—can substitute for Kareen.

Not with white men.

We can’t.

It’s not that Kareen is so nubile or so glamorous.  She’s not even young.  She says she’s thirty-one, which really means thirty-eight or nine. And she’s not blessed with especially attractive curves.  She’s more on the lean side, one of those angular, bony black women’s bodies.  More like a basketball player than a pinup.  Her face isn’t a lot better.  She has a lantern jaw, like she could crush a king crab in the vice of her mouth; and her ears belong to a gigante.  But she has that dark brown skin, very dark for an American, and that makes her David’s goldmine.  The only way David could make more money from any one of his girls would be to employ a fifteen-year-old boy.  But that’s a business he isn’t interested in.  I’ll credit him for that.  Then again, among white men, especially white American men, Kareen’s skin would trump even the delights of a pretty young boy.

If you work in the business for even a few months, you learn that the most common fantasy among white men—so common it’s like a disease—is to be with a black woman.  Let me say that for the longest time after I came to the USA I did not understand this.  For a long time, it angered me.  Why isn’t another color good enough to spark your fantasy? Why isn’t your own color good enough?  Plenty of pretty white women out there.  But it’s a fact.   The sad thing is that I’m sure these same white men—at least most of them—are too scared to approach a black woman in their real lives.  They’re cowards or just feel too fixed by what is still the norm to even consider stepping out and taking the risk.  But the fantasy is still there.  The fantasy remains.  The fantasy burns.  If it doesn’t, explain to me why Kareen remains so busy and that Impala just drove away.  Once in a while, an Asian guy or a Mexican or even a black man will pay for Kareen, but almost always—almost always—her customers are white.  So few of mine are.

I’ve thought about darkening my skin.   Not all the way.  That would make me look like a clown.  But dark enough that some of these desperate men would wonder for a second and come down to where I stand.  Dark enough so that if it’s a black woman they are after they can tell themselves they’ve got one.   I’m missing some of the other features, of course, but I can always say I’m mixed.  Where horny white men are concerned, mixed doesn’t really mean mixed but black.  Meanwhile, if some other customer is after a very tanned white girl, I can be that too. And if any of these boys wants a natural born Venezuelan—well, in truth, that’s exactly what he would have.  I can’t pretend to be Japanese, or an Eskimo.   I can’t pretend to be a blue-eyed Baptist.  But with a little effort maybe I could steal some of Kareen’s profit.

What I look like right now is atrocious, but I’m made out to catch attention not win awards.  I’ve got on a hip-hugging neon pink skirt and a sleeveless blouse that sparkles silver.  I’ve propped my red heeled foot on a fire hydrant to show the world the underside of my thigh, all the way up to my treasure.  After you turn thirty you have to work it a bit—unless you’re Kareen.

Another car stops.  The driver—a short-haired Asian guy with a compact jaw and tiny lips—studies my thigh like it’s a specimen in a jar.

“How much?” he asks.

“Depends on what you want for your money.”

“Nothing special,” he says.

“Well,” I say, putting my foot down and sauntering up to his window, “you’re out of luck.  Because I am special.”  He just looks at me. “Want to find out?”

“How much?” he says.

Jesus.  “How much are you looking to spend?”

He shakes his head once.  “Tell me,” he says.  Turd.

“A fuck will cost you one-seventy-five.”

“Too much,” he says and drives off.  I’m not surprised.  Even on El Cajon, the Asian guys guard their money.  I wonder if I should have told him one-fifty, but I don’t want to sell myself short.  I’ll never make quota that way.  The real problem is he wouldn’t tell me what he wanted to pay. I hate to give a price without knowing.  It never works out.  Ten minutes later, another car stops.  Another Asian.  I tell him one-sixty, and he agrees.   Fortunately, he’s not staying far from here, so I’m back in twenty-five minutes.  A white guy with dusty pink skin and a hard foreign accent—German, I think—stops and asks me what I can do for him.  With that accent he sounds like he detests the sight of me; he sounds like a generaldressing down a soldado.  Something about him is scary.  It’s not just the accent or the eerie skin.  There’s something in his eye.

“I pretty much just fuck,” I say.

“’Pretty much’,” he says.  “What does that mean?”

“It means I’ll only fuck you.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what I do.”

His neck bulges, a spot of red enters his face.  “Not good enough,” he says.  He moves the gear shift.  “Bitch.”   Then he’s back in traffic.

I have to wonder what he really wants, but I’m glad I don’t have to find out.  If David knew I lied to that guy to get him to leave he would slug me.  He might even cut my take in half.  But I think he ought to be happy I’m keeping myself alive. A third Asian stops, this one more adventurous.  I blow him for three hundred.  Later on, a tired old black man practically cries when he fucks me.  I only ask him for a hundred.  Then I get a new kid who crossed in Tijuana not very long ago.  He’s looking for more experience, and I’m guessing I remind him of his mother.  He shows me what he’s got, close to ninety dollars.  Probably his whole day’s pay.   I tell him that’s what a fuck costs and I throw in a handjob for free.  He’s just a kid, after all.  Tenga una buena vida, muchacho dulce.

I haven’t had a single proposition tonight from an American causcasian.  Nothing unusual there. They all want Kareen.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying the need to sleep with a black woman is some newfangled obsession among white men.  All you have to do is look at the black people in America, and you know who’s been lusting after whom since way back.  Compare your average African-American to a real African.  What do you notice?  Precisely.  Of the two of them, only the African is actually black.   The African-American?  Well, some can be as dark as Kareen; some can look like coffee blurred with a couple splashes of milk; some can be a lighter, warmer shade of chocolate; and some aren’t really brown at all.  You think this lightening came about through solemn love and sanctified marriage?  It came about because horny slaveowners could not get their minds off the rich dark skin of their slave women, and couldn’t keep their peckers out of that poontang.  I’m surprised no one saw it coming.  These men had whole populations of enslaved concubines to choose from.  What’s the slave to do, say no?

So it’s not a question of what.  The what is the thunder of white male obsession.  It goes back hundreds of years in the USA; it goes back way further in other places.  It’s not a question of what.  It’s a question of why.  This is what I find myself thinking about as I stand night after night at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Ohio Street, my foot propped on a fire hydrant, watching white man after white man stop to offer large sums of money to Kareen.  Why?  It’s too easy to say their mujeres are no good: too pale and too tepid to do anything thrilling in bed.  It’s too easy to say the hombres are just bored.  From what I know, white women do a lot of crazy things in bed.  White women are the queens of bed crazy.   Not Venezuelans; not Mexicans; not South Koreans.  Not African-Americans. That’s not it.  I can actually believe these white men are satisfied with whatever they get from their wives and girlfriends.  I don’t think the why is boredom.  That’s too easy.  It’s something else.   Something in their nature.

I keep coming back to that old story we are told in fifth grade.  At least I was told it in fifth grade.  Do they tell the story in America to fifth graders?  That every single human being alive—or who has ever lived—came from Africa.  That the human being species was born in Africa.  So whatever kind of hair or eyes or butt you have, it doesn’t matter. Everybody, at one time—maybe hundreds of thousands of years ago; maybe longer—was together, and looked the same, in Africa.  How the Chinese got to China, how the Venezuelans got to Venezuela, I don’t know.  Why whites would leave warm Africa for cold Europe, I don’t know.  Maybe they got chased out.  But I have to wonder if the white man’s need—not just his desire, but his need—for black women isn’t nostalgia hunger.  A longing to go back to where he started from, so long ago, beneath the fog of history.  Before there was a history.  After all, the white man in Europe wandered pretty damn far from his roots.  And I don’t mean geography; I don’t mean distance.  I mean his thin, lucent skin. I mean his white-beingness.  And I think he can still feel it today, everyday, living inside white American culture.  Walking around inside white flesh, eating tasteless white food, buying white brand names, going to stiff white churches, watching dumb white tv, listening to his angry and scared and joyless music.  So little alegría in white music.  You don’t think they can’t feel their alienation from who they once were?  And maybe when Mr. Blonde has his white pecker snugly inside a black woman’s pussy, the hurt goes away—just for a second.  The distance cuts down.  The separation is eased.  Is it possible that in that moment of comfort what the white man feels isn’t just sex but a return to home?

I think that’s it.  That’s what I’ve decided, out here on El Cajon. Call me crazy, but I’ve had a lot more time and reason to think about it than any of you.  And that’s what I think.  I don’t see any other explanation for their singlemindedness, their urgency.  Their need.  All the way back to the time when they first saw black women in this country.  But I also can’t help but think—whenever I watch yet another dopey white dude ask for Kareen—that it’s hopeless for them.   It’s hopeless.  Save your money, I want to tell them.  You’ve come too far.  You left home so long ago and went so far away; so far they don’t recognize you anymore, and they don’t want you.   They don’t want you back, I’d like to tell them.  It’s all theirs now.  And you’re not allowed.

John Vanderslice lives and works in Conway, Arkansas, where he serves as Associate Editor of Toad Suck Review. His fiction has been published in several journals, including Seattle Review, Laurel Review, Sou’wester, The Pinch, and South Carolina Review.

Posted on December 17, 2013 .

Bomb - Kevin Singer

Bomb by Kevin Singer:

I tell a puppy-dog kid to move his suitcase from the door. I flinch at the sight of it, despite myself. Threat levels raised; any one of these bags could be hiding a bomb, but we’ve got to keep it hush-hush, as always. The kid’s startled. He mumbles an apology and lurches the suitcase away. I move into the next car, trying my damnedest not to think about bombs.

Up ahead my nephew Nick slouches in an aisle seat. He’s on his new shiny-as-Christmas iPhone and whatever he’s looking at gives him a shit-eating grin. On his lap is the briefcase he got just for his job, Italian leather, his full name embroidered on the flap.

“Is he too dumb to remember his own name?” My sister Clare said. “Maybe he should put his cell number there too.”

Kid’s fresh out of college and already he lands a job at Goldman Sachs. When he was little he’d cheat at Monopoly and then lie about it to your face. Yeah, he’ll go far in this world. I think of Lucas in that hospital bed. It burns me up.

It’s the 6:05, Northeast Corridor line from New York to Trenton, all stops. They’re all crammed in – even the middle seats are taken. You’ve got the Indians and the Chinese. Probably IT, cause they aren’t dressed the best and they’ve got their laptops out. You’ve got the college kids commuting back home, headphones blaring so loud I can hear every word of their crap music. Then you’ve got the rich ones—mostly white—with their suits and cufflinks, skirts and blouses and heels. All pressed and clean, always, like they never feel the heat, like nothing could ever break them.

I shuffle over to my nephew. He pulls a staged double-take and nods, “Hey, Uncle Ray.” His pass isn’t even out. I beckon and he fishes it from his name tag bag. That smirk. Just like my brother Kenny’s. I force a smile. He’s still just a kid, after all.

“How’s Lucas?” Nick asks.

“Holding his own.”

“Tell him I’m gonna come by this weekend. I got the new Call of Duty. It’s killer.”

“Sure thing.” The smirk is gone, and now I see how much his blue eyes are like his father’s, and mine, and my sister Clare’s. “I gotta keep moving.”

Tanya meets me halfway down. She’s only three years on the job. Chunky and chatty, but sweet. “You talked to your friend Brad lately?”

I shrug. They met up at a barbecue I had last summer. Brad got what he wanted. She wanted more. I don’t wanna get involved.

“Not in a while,” I lie. I don’t tell her that me and Brad grabbed a couple of beers two weeks ago after I left the hospital. “You don’t seriously want to waste the next twenty years of your life working for NJ Transit,” he said while eyeing a Dominican chick three stools over. “Doesn’t it kill you being there, knowing that life’s passing you by?”

I didn’t tell Brad about the box on the front seat of my beat-up Mustang. I wouldn’t tell him how I waited till Lucas was asleep before doing it. I had no right. Forgive me. No, I had every right.

“I thought you and him were best friends.” Tanya says.

I half nod. Brad finished college and got into real estate. Now he rehabs old houses. I didn’t make it past sophomore year once Suzanne got pregnant with Lucas. Everyone said I’d need a job with benefits, so I got a job with benefits.

I keep punching tickets, trying to get away from her.

“He’s a sweetheart,” she says. She never had a chance, not with Brad. He never sticks it out for the long haul. His idea of long-term is three months. Sometimes I think guys like Brad have it right.

We leave the tunnel. The car shimmies on the track as it picks up speed. The red sunset bleeds into the windows. Jersey now. Past the meadowlands: mucky nature in a tangle of highways and rail lines. A heron’s next to a clump of reeds, white feathers a stain on the brown swamp. There’s some brown fuzzy hair growing on Lucas’s upper lip. Gotta remember to bring a razor and some shaving cream.

I cross into the next car. Same faces. Same but different. Some nod off. Peaceful. I hate them for that. Suzanne could always fall asleep anywhere, drop of a hat. I was the insomniac. “You worry about crap that’s never gonna happen,” she told me, just before she split for Miami, leaving me with two kids to raise. When Lucas was diagnosed she jetted back. Damned if I’d let her stay at the house. She’s at her sister’s. Two peas in a rotten pod.

“Hi Ray, how’s things?”

“Swell, Coop.” Mr. Cooper’s an antique. He smells of nicotine and coffee but he always smiles, like he’s proud of his ultra-white dentures. “Call me Coop, everyone does,” he told me the hundredth time I checked his pass.

“And the kids?”

I don’t tell him how Suzanne took Alicia to the mall yesterday. My sister Clare always takes her clothes shopping but Suzanne insisted it was her job, not Clare’s, like she suddenly remembered she was someone’s mother. So I come home and my little girl’s wearing shorts a stripper would wear. “She’s twelve,” Suzanne said. “She needs to feel good about her body.” I tossed them in the trash. Alicia still wouldn’t speak to me this morning.

“Growing like weeds. You know how it is.” I pat Coop’s shoulder. Gotta keep on moving.

The train rocks and I smell vanilla. A blonde ponytail girl licks tiny spoonfuls staring out the window. I should bring Lucas some ice cream. Häagen-Dazs. None of that hospital crap. His appetite is picking up. Doc says that’s good. Labs are good. Everything is good. But the words coming from her mouth don’t match the look in her eyes. No donor, no hope. What if I get on the intercom and ask all these people? Lottery odds, but who knows? Maybe ice cream ponytail girl.

I cross into the next car and then I see it: a blue duffel bag, gash on the side stitched with red thread, alone on a two-seater.

An old man sits across the aisle. “Sir, is this your bag?” He looks up from his crossword like I’m talking Italian. “Your bag, sir?” He shakes his head. All I can think of is that dummy bomb they found on the tracks in Kenilworth last month, right after Osama got that pork-coated bullet between the eyes. I thought things would quiet down after that. They didn’t.

I keep it in my hand and back out of the car. Tanya bumps into me. “Unattended,” I whisper.

A wrinkled woman, Chinese maybe, runs up to me. “That’s mine.”

I don’t like her tone. “Ma’am, you can’t leave your bag unattended.”

“I just went to bathroom. Not unattended.”

Tanya’s hand is on my shoulder. She pushes forward. “It’s alright. Just a misunderstanding.”

I’m burning up. I know she’s thinking about last month when I found that envelope on the ground, and the white powder on the seat near it. Anthrax. Well, it could’ve been. Ever since all this craziness started, I feel like death’s waiting around the next bend in the tracks. Even Alicia’s noticing it in me, and she’s just a kid.

I’ve got an audience of faces staring at me. I need a breather, so I head to the end of the car. I slide the window open a hand’s length. The air doesn’t stink as bad as I thought it would. I touch the white envelope jammed into my back pocket, the one I wish I never opened. Damn Clare and her big mouth. “It’s funny, we all got the same blue eyes, me and my kids, Kenny and his boys. You, Alicia. But not Lucas.” She had too many glasses of Chablis at Kenny’s barbecue a couple months ago. That’s what she’s good at – guzzling wine and running her mouth. “Suzanne’s father has brown eyes,” I told her. Then she got this embarrassed look on her face and said, “Oh, but he definitely has your scrawny build.” That’s when I began to wonder, and I couldn’t stop wondering.

The train lurches to a stop at Newark. I key my door open and step onto the platform. Bodies get off, bodies get on. All those years ago when I started I’d play a game where I’d try and remember as many faces as I could. That game got old. Now 15 years gone by. How many of those faces got fired? Won the lottery and moved to Hawaii? Ran off with their secretaries? Died? If I had to do it all over again…

Do what?

I finger the envelope. GenView. I found them on the Internet. They mailed me a brown box with two cotton-swab sticks in plastic tubes. One sample from each subject and $199. Plus tax.

Stu’s outside the front car. He flashes his light – all clear. I flash mine back and step into the car, key the door shut, and we rattle on down the Northeast Corridor.

A new batch of bodies. I walk down the aisle. Two men. Dark. Hairy. Sweaty. Skinny and tight, eyes ahead, bags on laps.

I glare at them. “Tickets.” They flash their monthly passes. Their eyes are blank. The dead stare of a true believer dreaming of his 72 virgins, or the dead stare of a used-up office drone? I hold their stare. One of them shifts in his seat and looks down. No bombs. These guys are legit. I just know.

I hope to God I’m right.

I laugh out loud. God. Sitting on his big ass throne, playing with his toys. My second cousin Martha was the last one tested. One hundred and forty seven blood relations and not one damn match. What did Lucas ever do to you, Oh Mighty Lord? That’s when I stopped the Sunday visits with him and his flock.

I walk on through the car, checking tickets of the new bodies. I pass my nephew Nick again. His eyes are closed, slightest of smiles, lost in his music. Sure, he can be a cocky sonofabitch, but he’s a good kid at heart. I look at him and feel the pull of blood. Sweet dreams, kid. Enjoy your peace while it lasts.

At the end of the car three suits talk with the volume turned to 11. Tomato faces, most likely fresh from some whiskey-sick happy hour, each holding a bag-wrapped tall boy. I know the type: second generation Irish—sons of cops or firefighters—who muscled their way onto Wall Street.

“Tickets.”

One is hippo huge. He’s holding court – loud, slurring, beer breath. He spits while he talks. When Lucas was born I held him in the hospital and he sneezed in my face, spattering me with his baby spit. His first sneeze. It scared him and he howled. “He’s the picture of you,” Suzanne told me. I was so cocksure I would protect him from any threat. Turns out I’m powerless. And a fool.

“Tickets,” I say again.

“Yeah I heard you the first time buddy.” Not even looking at me. “So I says to her…”

“Sir, I need to see your ticket.”

“What’s your problem?”

What’s my problem, this prick wants to know. My son’s body is failing him, and today I found out that I’m not really his father, that’s my problem. “Just doing my job, sir.” I spit out sir as if I’d said asshole.

He turns to his buddies. “I swear, these government workers. No good hacks in it for the fat pension.”

My heart’s clawing out of my chest. How the hell am I gonna tell Lucas? “Sir, keep your voice down or I’m gonna have to–”

“Don’t you tell me what to do.” He jabs a sausage finger in my face, closer, closer. Then he touches my forehead. Contact. That’s it. I grab his finger hard. He yelps. He’s twice my size but I don’t care. Then he shoves me, his white-shirted belly slamming against my rib cage. I stumble back and fall, his body sloppy on top of me. I knee him. He yells. Then he pulls a box cutter from his pocket. A box cutter? What the fuck? I clamp on his wrist and push it back but he’s bull strong. He grunts and lunges. The hand inches lower and he swipes the blade on my face. Pain sears my cheek. I buck. I kick. Then an arm gets him in a headlock, pulls him off me. It’s my nephew Nick. The man drops the blade, gasping for air in Nick’s hold.

“You okay?”

I nod.

Tanya runs up. She calls for help on the intercom. Stu comes. So do Leroy and Charlie. They slap cuffs on the fat bastard—he’s heaving now and looking tragic—and Stu radios to Linden for the cops. They’ll be waiting when we pull in the station. Dickhead’s gonna need a good lawyer.

Tanya pulls tissues from her pocket and presses them against my cheek. It burns. “You’re gonna live, hon,” she says.

Yeah, I’m gonna live. Drops of my blood are on the floor. Just a few. I stare at them. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the white envelope.

“What’s that?” Tanya asks.

“Junk mail.”

Lucas – my poor, brave boy. It doesn’t matter one bit whether he has my eyes or not. All I know for sure are these two things. One – he’s mine, no matter what some piece of cold dead paper says. And two, when he’s gone from me it’s gonna be a bomb exploding in my life.

Jesus. How do I get ready for that?

Posted on December 17, 2013 .