Maggie Nicholson

SOAP LAKE

My brother never put a finger against a creature. The yard of his home was rageful with sting bees, cucumber spiders, black haired vermin living in old shoes and car parts.

He lived alone. Memory of the depression was an umbrella in his mind, opened and spoked there.

Our parents sold insurance. White shirts tucked at the waist. Crawled in and sat still in a brick building with a window out front. Air conditioned. Green ivy coughed the walls, trailed up and spooned the top.

Our mother Susan had maroon glasses and hair tangled from lack of brush. She had skinny legs, low breasts, and shoulders that were creamy and rounded like white flowering hills.

Our father was a boarded house. Arms nailed at shoulders. Knees of brass doorknobs. When the war came, Susan became management at the insurance company. Vagina non grata. Men stomped the country, rifles at the necks. Black lights at the airport made teeth glow.

When my brother, Yann, turned sixteen, I was already out of the house. Working on my music. I was a violinist. The word was on everything. Business cards, letters. It was stronger than my name, and I knew it.

I took my brother vegetables, rabbit, lamb, and fruits, for cooking. Susan was running marathons. She ate and slept in brown suits, too tight on her. She liked the restriction. When she was a child, she was in special classes. Her aid held her in the chair to keep her still. It calmed her into adulthood to be held like that.

During the depression, metal was rare and expensive. Junk men on every corner hammered crooked nails back, and good wood scraps were piled there. Yann went weekly and bartered such goods.

Blackberries, too, were a commodity. They grew like a rash. Children ran barefoot in snake grass, fingers staining red as they stored them. Grandmothers canned for winter fruit stock.

My brother was modest. Still, it was hard not to notice him. He was always smirking and wearing bright colors. He studied the ecology of people. His dream was to study garbology. To climb trash heaps and swat at sea birds scavenging for meat.

He had a girlfriend named butter. She had fox eyebrows and dark hair. She was a beauty. They discussed psychology, gnats, and nicotine fingers. They smoked tomato marijuana on a patch of land that ran into a suburban lake.

Then our parents were dead and hadn't left us money. Butter said au devoir, left for school, and Yann drove to Yakima. He worked in a hotel along a downtown strip near the university. He delivered newspapers to pay for schooling and slept in a tiny room in a big hotel that rented out cheap to students.

I was still playing violin. Now for my baby. At night with the windows open. Softly not to disturb the neighbors. Sometimes we heard the next door dog killing baby raccoons. Outside was milky black, snarling of dog, tooth sounds, and the high-pitched squeals of dying.

Men didn't like Yann. He had a big mouth. In college, his face swarmed green with alcohol. His irises went blot-dark, filled with images of bouncing breasts and bar toilets. He returned to the town we grew up in and moved into a greenhouse behind an apartment building. He moved out ferns and orchids and tomatoes. He moved in a crappy mattress.

Yann let his bushes grow vicious. He got into people's faces with complaints. Acorns were in his yard. Rotting apples blinded him. Wasteful brown flowers made him want to puke. He tried to clean against nature.

In autumns, he burned the near plants. Ritually. Smoke rose so thick the town filled with it. Hands an inch away were covered in it.

Butter returned a woman with a kid and no husband. Like me. She was more beautiful with child fat. She moved into the apartment in front of where Yann was. Took a job at a member's only club with an iron fireplace.

In it were men of middle ages. Lonely. They took pride in being the nonprofit organization of the small town, which once was tourist ridden, when people came for the lake. The lake was filled with medicine water. That was years back. Now the town was abandoned and filled with wind. Wind in the doorways and waiting like an animal in the closets.

I was too young to remember when the town was full. Our parents told us stories of those who came for it. Swam in the lake surrounded by pea green rolling mountains. Brown and wide-humped like buffalo.

The huge lake was shallow to the ankles the way across, with black sulfur mud. Tourists dug it up, put it on their wrists and faces and let it harden in the sun. They gagged of the smell and held up pools of clear water between their palms to see the millions of tiny red brine swimming in it.

Women rubbed it on each other's backs. Cold water warm hands. The mud from behind was soft. Air clear.

Butter said she was happy. I knew she was seeing my brother. But she didn't say it. There was shame in her for returning. Yann was spinning too much to care for such a thing.

In him, it was enough to burn plants and sleep on a cushion. His throat was

filled with honey wine. His tongue lolled in heavens.

Butter's daughter was named Mary. She had rose cheeks and sulfur eyes that matched the mud at the bottom of the lake. Butter kept to herself and kept to seeing Yann, whose stomach rose up like a yellow balloon. Likely his spleen was withering. His hands were drenched in tobacco.

We saw each other on and off for years. Sometimes he really saw me. Sometimes he talked at the side of my face. Often he was incoherent. In the bars he told strangers about his brother taking a shotgun to his head. I mention the story of our brother killing himself because he told it so often and never got any of the details wrong, despite that we didn't have a brother.

He frequented the three bars of the town. The workers let him keep to himself. When he told his stories, strangers and tourists come for the medical lake, went to the bartender to ask if he was all right.

“I don't know,” the bartender would say.

I hated when Yann looked me in the eyes. There would be years between it. Of him looking around me. To the side of my face. When his eyes moved to meet mine, it felt like being shoved off a ledge into some dark water.

I had dreams about our imaginary brother killing himself. Yann would say, “the dog doesn't know.” In the story, he was always caring for our brother's dog.

In the story, it always happened that very morning. And Yann was just in town visiting.

 

Maggie Nicholson studied literature and anthropology at the University of Albany in New York, linguistics and cognitive psychology at the New York Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, media and creative writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and archaeology in Las Mercedes, Costa Rica. She has worked as a journalist for WTEN ABC News, the West Seattle Herald, and her fiction won the 2010 and 2011 Leah Lovenheim Award. 

 

 

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Calvin Jones

In the Garden of the Hesperides

Breakfast was over, dishes lay jumbled in the sink, and the remnant of stale coffee was growing bitter in the pot. But the crisp air that hit Dooley’s face through the open window boded promise. Even in these latitudes, the seasons eventually changed, and Dooley, percolating with something that might be called initiative, was eager to divine what that promise might be. He sensed that it lay within him to overcome his unremitting reluctance to go out and get whatever it was that life held for him, even if the last clean socks in the drawer were mismatched and noon was already long past. He had gradually come to realize that he didn’t really want his life to keep flaking away like the brittle paint on the window sills and the rusting radiators.

He closed the door of his apartment and descended the stairs to the sidewalk, where he paused to look in both directions, bobbing his awkward, lanky frame ever so slightly on the balls of his feet as he tried to make up his mind. The city appeared much as it always had since his childhood days. Each stage of his life had flowed into the next without any clear delineation, only the occasional realization that time had indeed elapsed. The longed-for freedom after high school had never materialized, nor had the vain hope for his brief marriage. The broad sidewalks and wide avenue provided an outsized, treeless expanse of concrete that he always tried to avoid in the summertime, when temperatures could burn the soles of feet through shoe leather and make the façades of the stores and apartment houses across the way ripple in the humid mid-South haze. Drab despite their hints of bygone architectural charm, these buildings appeared even in his youth to be of another generation and to paint their occupants with the aura of an earlier, unfulfilled time; it seemed to Dooley that the hairdressers, supermarket assistant managers, and assembly-plant workers who moved in and out of them continued to make little progress.

But today was different. Fall had arrived: the air was cooler and the sky blue. Dooley perceived the hint of something that he hoped would involve either a job or a dog, of which he had neither, and either of which, he was sure, would bring a significant improvement.

When he had lost his position at the convenience store a few weeks earlier (“Not as many customers,” the manager had said. “Too many people defaulting on their mortgages; fewer with money to spend”), he had cancelled his subscription to the Commercial Appeal before realizing that the classifieds were something he might need to find new employment. He had taken to buying the paper a couple of times a week or trying to scrounge one up as best he could, but so far to no avail. Since today was Saturday and the paper short on ads, he figured he could save two quarters by ignoring the battered metal dispenser on the corner. Moreover, the starter on his car had given out to the point where even banging it with a hammer didn’t help, and he needed to save every nickel he could for the repair. Since they had moved the public library several miles further east from where it had been in his childhood, he could no longer walk there, though it probably mattered little, for the unemployment rate seemed directly proportional to the number of people who hung out in the reading room competing for the want ads and computers. He had kept his dial-up internet connection for as long as he could, although he had used it increasingly to immerse himself in a virtual world of random trivia and questionable attempts at gratification than as a way out of his predicament. He could spend hours searching etymologies, little-known historical connections, or simply babes. Within his array of interests, one thing led to another, and then on to yet another.

 

The rattle of a faulty muffler brought him out of his reveries. The streets were not particularly busy, though the motorists, as usual, drove either too fast or too slow and thoughtlessly occupied the wrong lane, inhibiting even the hope of a smooth traffic flow. The affluent arrogantly considered it their right to drive any way they wanted to, and the disadvantaged, after years of low expectations for the future, could not even anticipate the immediate advantage to be obtained by adapting their driving to the current conditions. Before he could decide which direction to take, a large delivery van lumbered over toward the curb with a squealing hiss of brakes, and a man leaned out the window on the passenger side. “Hey there! How’d ya like to earn a few bucks?”

 

Dooley looked at him and hesitated. He’d set out to make his own discovery, not be roped into someone else’s plan. The slightly pudgy man looked friendly enough, but the flinty-featured driver, who leaned across his companion to yell out of the same window, gave him a harder, craftier look.

“Did you hear what he said? Good pay for two hours work, three at most.”

“Doing what?” asked Dooley.

“Unloading furniture. Thirty dollars.”

“Where?”

“Not far from here. Over on Poplar.”

Dooley didn’t have much cash for the weekend, just a few boxes of macaroni and cheese. He took a step toward the truck: the door opened, and he squeezed in. 

After they had passed a number of stop lights Dooley asked, “How far out Poplar is it?”

“We’re almost there,” said the driver, who had introduced himself as Travis.

Before long they pulled into one of the parking spaces in front of an abandoned storefront

in a row of low brick buildings. “COLOSSAL ANTIQUE SALE. ONE WEEK ONLY. SUNDAY THROUGH SATURDAY” proclaimed a large paper sign affixed to the inside of the plate glass window. Dooley waited while Travis unlocked the door and paused after entering, eyeing the space. Travis then walked to the rear and opened the door at the back. “There’s an alley. I’ll pull around and we can unload there. It’ll draw less attention.”

As Dooley and Buddy, the more lethargic assistant, stood waiting, a little yellow dog hesitantly entered the back door. After sizing them both up, it made a beeline for Dooley and, sitting back on its haunches, looked up at him with moist, appealing eyes, its visible ribs trembling ever so slightly. The only sign of life in the empty space, the dog received the entire focus of Dooley’s attention. As he leaned over to pet it, Travis suddenly reappeared with a “Get the hell out of here, you mangy bitch” and a kick in the dog’s direction. The dog, unstruck, let out a yowl nonetheless and skittered back out the door. “All we need, a dumb-ass dog underfoot while we’re trying to unload.”

Dooley, as shocked as the dog, put his hands defensively in his pockets.

The corrugated aluminum ramp sent a grating cringe up Dooley’s spine as Travis jerked it out from its bed beneath the truck. Dooley soon realized that Travis’s role was to get the tasks underway, rather than performing any of them himself. After he had opened the truck’s wide rear door and directed them to unstrap the dolly, Travis yelled, “O.K., you two! Grab these sideboards and line them up along that wall in there. And be careful! They’re antiques!”

Dooley looked to Buddy for guidance, but Buddy’s expression seemed to ask, “Who’s going to pick up the front and who’s going to grab the back?” Since neither had an answer, they just let fate take its course. As they rounded the corner into the store with the inlaid Sheraton piece, Travis let out a fierce “Whoa! Careful! That’s cutting it mighty damn close. We can’t afford to piss off Mr. Legrand.”

It was an eclectic collection that reminded Dooley of the hodgepodge that his mother had sold in her second-hand store until she died and his father liquidated the remainder for cash to fuel his bad habits. Dooley had loved hanging out among the old furniture, sprawled across a sofa as he daydreamed over his homework or familiarized himself with the styles of the finer pieces that occasionally passed through. The items he was now carrying in, most with identifying labels, brought it all back. There were early American step-back hutches with irregular glass panes in the upper doors; country pie safes with pierced tin panels; straight-backed chairs of darkened wood and some indeterminate Hispanic origin; long French Provincial dining tables; and tabourets of teak, carved in elaborate Chinese patterns. Dooley and Buddy followed Travis’s instructions to line these up along the walls and down the middle to provide aisles on either side. Then came the unpacking of the boxes and crates: large bowls of Chinese porcelain, their grey-green celadon glaze delicately cracked in an intricate hairline spider web; nineteenth-century Japanese prints in faux bamboo frames; tarnished silver in dusty velvet sacks; classical-looking marble statuettes; and various other knickknacks, bric-a-brac, and objets d’art.

Dooley was aware of Travis hovering closely to make sure that none of the items were dropped or nicked: he eyed Dooley carefully as he unwrapped a fifteen-inch statue pulled from a cardboard drum. Made of painted plaster of Paris or terra cotta, it revealed a tired but powerful giant, his head bent and seemingly displaced by the weight of the orb that he bore upon his shoulders, held fitfully in place by too-short arms that extended awkwardly up behind him. “Atlas,” said Dooley with satisfaction as he placed the figure gently in a position of honor on a nearby Chippendale bow front chest.

Travis’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Dooley with a look somewhere between impatience and contempt. “That ain’t Atlas,” he spat out.

Taken aback, Dooley muttered hesitantly, “Sure it is. You know, the mythological figure who carried the world on his shoulders?”

“Of course I know,” replied Travis. “Every business between here and L.A., from chiropractors to fork-lift operators, has a picture of Atlas on their sign.”

Dooley noticed that Travis never overlooked an opportunity to show who was boss.

“You look again,” Travis continued. “That ain’t the world. See the stars?”

Sure enough, the cerulean globe was dotted not by islands and continents, but with lustrous celestial objects. “He’s standing on the world.”

Dooley dropped his gaze to the smaller, more mundane sphere that formed the base of the statue and for a moment didn’t know what to think. He racked his brain, trying to recall from his high school days the story of that grandson of Ouranos and Gaia who relinquished his burden when Herakles, to avoid the task himself, asked him to fetch the golden apples from the orchard of the beautiful Hesperian daughters. But Atlas was then tricked by Herakles into taking the load back after he had retrieved them. And it was the heavens after all, Dooley finally remembered, though he didn’t see any reason to point this out to Travis now. Some bygone cartographer in need of a symbol had probably performed a sly etymological switch. In school Dooley had plowed his way through Virgil as well, for what purpose, he wasn’t sure: “Long will be your exile, the desolate surface of the sea must you cut through, and you will come to the land of Hesperia...this is our true home.” His class report had impressed his teacher, however, who began to drop suggestions that he should consider applying to college. Dooley never pursued that goal either: with his mother gone, and his father constantly in debt, he set out as quickly as possible to make it on his own.

During the five-minute respite that Travis allowed them Dooley gazed around at the accumulation. A bronze pot with a sea-green patina and an intricate decorative band around its rim caught his eye: “Pompeii, 79 AD, $2500,” read the small tag tied to its handle. Dooley wondered about the plausibility of the information as he asked, “Where’d all these things come from?”

Buddy, who had plopped down on a Victorian love seat and was staring off into the distance with a vaguely pleasant smile and a seeming contentment with whatever came along, replied, “Oh, I don’t know, here and there. Estate sales and stuff like that. Mr. Legrand has his sources.”

Dooley wondered if his own face looked as pasty and phlegmatic as Buddy’s. He then tried to imagine any of this abundance in his own apartment and to figure out how it might fit in. At first he could no more conceive of giving order or meaning to this collection of objects than he could to the detritus of thoughts and memories that littered his mind. But as he concentrated he began to picture the statue of Atlas on his dresser as a sort of reminder to give him focus.

Travis, who had been taking a cigarette break in the alley, gave the smoking butt an underhanded backward flick and reentered with a clap of his hands. “O.K., let’s go. Not much left.” After removing the last items from the truck, Dooley and Buddy stuffed the scattered wrapping paper back into the cartons, which they stowed in the small office. They returned to the truck to fold up the blankets and stack them in neat piles. The little dog eyed them from its spot a safe distance away, giving a single, hesitant wag of its tail when Dooley looked in its direction.

When they had finished, Travis planted his feet firmly and broke into an unctuous smile as he pulled out a twenty-dollar bill for Dooley. “We finished in two hours. You done good.”

Dooley took it hesitantly, staring down at it a while before venturing up the courage to say,

“I thought you said thirty.”

“Thirty would have been the max, for three hours’ work, but you only did two.” Travis’s reply was quick.

“But you didn’t say anything about hours. You just said thirty.”

“Sure, I did.” Travis smiled and patted him paternally on the shoulder while slowing his tempo and increasing his articulation to drive his point home. “Remember? I said it would probably take two hours, maybe three at most. Thirty would have been the most, and we certainly would have given it to you, had that extra been required. It’s well above minimum wage as it is, not to mention tax-free.” He punctuated his last remark with a wink.

Dooley looked over at Buddy in a vain hope of support, but his co-worker replied with what could only be interpreted as a “there’s-nothing-to-be-done” shrug of his shoulders. Dooley folded the bill and put it in his pocket. “Can I have a ride back to my place?” he asked.

“Sorry,” Travis said. “We’ve got to stay here and check the inventory lists and then wait on Mr. Legrand. He sure would be pissed if he came back and we weren’t here.”

Dooley waved a halfhearted goodbye to Buddy and started down the alley. He turned onto Poplar and headed back along the gritty sidewalk. The afternoon had turned much warmer and more humid, and his labors and consternation were heating him from the inside out.

The sun was staring him in the face, weighing him down like a heavy burden. At one point he stopped and looked back: the little dog, who had evidently been following him from the store, stopped when he did and waited expectantly. With the light hitting it directly, the dog’s fur glowed like burnished gold. His new companion had made his decision: Dooley grasped that it was also time for him to make his. Nodding in the dog’s direction, he turned once again and continued his trek with a new resolve. The dog followed.

 

Calvin Jones lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Heather Adams

This Month’s Fall Look 

When Meg knows for sure, it’s a little before noon and she calls Robert, but she gets his voice mail and guesses he’s at lunch. She tells him everything on the message because he’ll want to know right away. After she hangs up the phone, she gets some old grocery bags from the hook in the pantry. She puts one bag inside another because one alone won’t be strong enough, and she stuffs in their flatware, cloth napkins, and straw placemats. Even with the two bags, some of the knives start to poke through, but the holes they make are tiny and inconsequential. In the garage, she gets an empty cardboard box. Whenever they have orders delivered to the house, they save the boxes. Usually they’re small and flat because Robert orders a lot of books. She finds one that is tall and wide. She takes it back into the kitchen and carefully packs up their glasses. There isn’t another box for the plates and bowls, but she pulls out their largest suitcase from the closet upstairs and packs the dishes in it, using paper towels for cushioning.

The young guy at the charity’s loading dock looks at the open trunk of her car.

“What about the suitcase?” he asks, scratching his ear.

“That too,” she says. “You can take all of it.”

 

At the mall the parking lot is crowded even though it’s the middle of the week – a school day and a work day. There will be lots of mothers with their children. The older children will be eating cheese-flavored crackers spread out on the trays of their strollers and there will be babies too. Some of them will be sleeping with their legs scrunched up. Others will be looking around with big eyes. Their legs will be stretched out long and sometimes they will flap their arms with excitement about something small like a bright color or the feeling of the wind on their face.

She knows and she gets out of the car anyway. When is a time they wouldn’t be there? In the evenings maybe. At dinner or after, when it’s time for baths and stories. She’ll have to remember that the next time she comes.

The first store she goes into is all wrong. The colors are too bright--yellows and oranges-- and everything is block-shaped with hard edges. It’s not the look that she wants. She walks toward the other end of the mall where the air smells like cinnamon and French fries from the food court upstairs. She finds the store that she has in mind and it’s packed full of the right sorts of things. Bleached grey tables the color of driftwood on the beach. Thick linen napkins and mercury glass hurricane lamps. She checks prices, even though the money isn’t the problem. They’ve always had plenty of it. There is a table near the center of the store covered with a white cotton tablecloth and on top of the tablecloth, a burlap runner and woven placemats the color of Granny Smith apples. She’s never thought of this much layering and now it seems essential. 

Waiting in line to check out, she sees a mother with a baby. She looks away, but she can’t help remembering how last week she felt slightly dizzy. She can’t explain it, not when she realizes it couldn’t have meant anything after all. She thought she had a heightened sense of smell too, although now she knows that it must have been her imagination. When the bleeding started, she began to panic and then she thought of what she had read: implantation bleeding can result after the fertilized egg burrows into the uterine lining. She pictured a child in bed pulling up a blanket and settling his head on the pillow. 

The baby in the store starts to cry and the mother takes him out of the carrier and holds him on her shoulder, patting his bottom, and Meg thinks of how the bleeding turned out to be nothing new. It was the same thing it had been all the months before.  She holds the fabric up close to her face and breathes in the new smell of it.

In the last store she picks out dishes, flatware, and glasses. She considers the slight differences in color, and how one thing looks next to another, and the weights of things in her hand. It’s not that she wants or expects everything to be perfect, but she wants it to be enough.

At home she unpacks all the bags. She takes her time, ironing out the wrinkles in the fabric with the steamer and plunging the glasses, dishes, and flatware into hot, sudsy water before rinsing them off. She dries every piece with a microfiber towel to avoid lint and water spots. Everything is ready in plenty of time and she starts preparing their dinner: pork loin with ginger and apricot; crunchy shoestring potatoes; and mixed greens with sesame vinaigrette.

 

Driving home from work Robert wonders what he’ll find. Last time, her face was scrubbed-looking and pink and her hair had streaks of blonde that weren’t there when he’d left for work that morning. Her nails were painted a glittery white color, like snow in sunlight, and she said that her eyebrows were a new shape. He didn’t notice any change in them, but she said there was more of an arch and he told her that it made a big difference. 

The time before that, he’d noticed the changes from the street even before he pulled into their driveway. The overgrown forsythia bush that for years had been to the right of the front porch was gone. He couldn’t imagine how long it had taken her to rip it out of the ground. In its place there was a Leland cypress that looked trim and compact, almost naked. There were fresh pine needles surrounding the base of the tree and new purple flowers lining the edges of the sidewalk. 

Tonight he parks in the garage and when he opens the back door, she’s in the kitchen with one hand in an oven mitt. He goes to hug her and her eyes are bright. He can’t tell if she’s been crying or how recently. 

“Something smells good,” he whispers in her ear. “And you look so nice.” She shakes her head. 

“Come see,” she says, tugging on his arm. 

They go into the dining room and he sees the new white tablecloth and napkins, the burlap runner and the pale green placemats, the tall glasses, and the white plates with a grey pattern around the edges like a fence. 

“Beautiful,” he tells her. “Wow.” He touches an over-sized spoon. “This looks so nice. It’s right out of a movie or something.”

 “The only thing I forgot is something for the middle of the table,” she says frowning.  “Everybody’s using those oblong bowls now. You know, the wooden ones? I think they’re called dough bowls. I guess bakers used to knead the dough in them.”

“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. There’s one on the cover of the magazine you’ve been reading.” 

She nods. “Exactly. That’s what I mean.”

“Hey, I forgot one thing in the car. I’ll be right back.” 

In the garage he gets a flash light from his work table and opens the door that leads to the back yard, shining the light on the ground. He fills his pockets with pine cones and thinks it might mean something that there are so many of them in the yard, waiting for him. He goes back into the garage, putting the flash light back on the table and pulling the string for the overhead light. He has in the trunk of his car several bags. A paisley silk wrap dress in a size four. A soft, white hand towel with braided trim. A thick coffee table book about stained glass windows. And a wooden dough bowl. Although he has guessed, this time he’s been lucky, at least in this small way. He leaves most of the bags in the trunk, but he takes out the bowl and places it carefully on the hood of the car. He can picture the magazine cover exactly and he starts with the biggest pine cones, saving the smaller ones to fill in the empty space around the edges.

###

 

Heather Bell Adams lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has published fiction in Folitate OakSouthern Gothic: New Tales of the SouthThe Dead Mule of Southern LiteratureFirst Stop FictionDeep South MagazineWhiskeyPaperAppalachian Story, and elsewhere. She is a member of the North Carolina Writers' Network. You can find her at  http://www.heatherbelladams.com/ or on Twitter @Heatherbelladam.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Jim Meirose

Wood Ticks

A knock comes on the door.

Answer the door — there are two little blonde girls carrying a large orange cat.

What —

Mister — can you help — can you help our cat?

The cat has a number of blood-swollen wood ticks the size of small grapes in its face.

God — yes — yes I’ll help — but where is your Father or Mother?

At the store — please help our cat —

Yes please help.

Okay — okay — wait here — I need tweezers.

Rush to the kitchen, search for tweezers in the junk drawer. The five year old girl cares for the three year old and they are left alone in the house to fend for themselves; day after day after day after day.  The parents have problems; the parents have issues. Don’t know that at the time though—don’t know that at the time. Run upstairs, search for tweezers in the bathroom, on the vanity — no — no — no tweezers. Go in the garage. Get small needle nosed pliers. Go back outside.

Here — here hold the cat good and tight.

Pinch the first wood tick’s head with the tip of the pliers.

Pull — it comes loose. Throw the tick into the grass. It disappears unseen.

Good; that went good. The pliers will work.

Ultimately, a concerned neighbor who knows the whole story calls the authorities. The children will go to a foster home. They will lose the house. The story is long.

But today is today; need to help the cat.

Pull out five more ticks.

They disappear unseen into the grass.

There — kitty is all better —

Thanks mister —

Yeah thanks.

Say You know you should keep kitty inside though — no wood ticks there — no dangers.

We will Mister.

We will —

They go back across the street. Call out goodbye.

In time, when the house stands empty, windows dark, no shades, no blinds, faded for sale sign out front standing askew, the cat is let go to fend for itself; it ranges the yards fields and woods, gets plenty more wood ticks that attach, fill with blood, and fall off by themselves once they are gorged, time after time after time, this time nature’s way.

 

Jim Meirose's work has appeared in numerous journals, including The FiddleheadWitnessAlaska Quarterly Review,  Xavier Review, and has been nominated for several awards. Two collections of his short work have been published and three of his novels, ClaireMonkey, and Freddie Mason's Wake are available from Amazon.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Isabel DeBre

Night Driving

I look at Helen in the front seat and remember the way we spoke about our loves, our complexes. Sitting on her porch in South Illinois, we used to drink Canada Dry and pretend to live in Canada. I think of the colors we didn’t know hid in the sky—all that red. The way she laughed with her hair thrown back, the brown strands sticking to her lips. I remember the smoking, the standing up in the backs of pick-up trucks shrieking, the parties with someone else’s friends. I miss mostly the things that used to be forbidden, how as teenagers, we would hide our Knob Creek and cigarettes under my aunt’s porch. The cigarettes would sag from the dew, and we would sneak back to our separate homes with shoes soaked, smelling recklessly of cheap tobacco. Not much has changed in twenty years except for our lives and our bodies. 

Now we’re driving in her Lexus, big enough to fit the kids she doesn’t have. Her GPS tells her to turn right. All of a sudden she’s forty and likes to know where she’s going. 

 “You knew me better than anyone,” I say.

Her lips purse at the past tense. As we speed down Mulholland Drive, I can’t help but feel how it’s inevitable—her auto insurance, her husband the Hollywood producer, the pair of yellow lines separating her path from the opposite. 

“How’s Tom?”                                                                                                     

I watch her mouth laugh.  “How’s Tom,” she repeats. “You should ask him. You’re pretty.” 

She looks fragile, crawling gingerly into the turns. On the Illinois roads she used to sweep through night and day as if they were the same. 

“Look,” she says, pointing off the cliff’s edge. “Bet you don’t have that in Vermont.” City lights blur across the dark valley. “Remember your parakeet that could sing the first nine notes of ‘Goodnight Sweetheart?’” 

“Aw, Lenny.” The bird, always bored and overheated, died after a week. 

She rolls down her window. Tom hovers, unanswered. But when traffic light changes she says, “He was a cold man. Too many veins in his neck.” She closes her eyes, a momentary shutting out. “Remember when my wedding boat was caught in a whirlpool?” The party boat swirled in the water. The bridesmaids screamed and the spray soaked her dress. “I knew it was a sign,” she says, the lines in her chin quivering like they did at graduation. I notice her wedding ring on her index finger. “I just knew it.”   

The light falls, fading to gray and then lavender. It’s quiet and I want to talk but she doesn’t ask if my Vermont cabin gets lonely, or about the sales of my pastoral poetry. The cabernet and bread from our Italian dinner sit heavily in the pit of my stomach, as though I’d swallowed something that was making itself permanent.  

“They warned me the current was unreliable,” she say."

“They said treacherous.”

She slows the car as we descend. “Remember frolicking in the summer at Oberlin? And Rodger’s Dance Hall where we dressed up as Marie Antoinette to be funny? Remember getting drunk with my cousin where the old iron furnaces were?” Her face is flushed. She seems to be receiving these fragments out of some deep vacuum of nervous exhaustion, transmitting them in a voice soft and oddly confidential. 

“Where were the furnaces?” I forget these things but she doesn’t answer. I want to ask if she remembers Emily Dickinson’s epitaph—Called Back. Called back to the grind, Helen said at school. Called back the spirits, she said at our séances. Called back, call back, back again, she promised in my yearbook. 

We pull into her driveway, curling around a plot of dead trees. 

 “You’re welcome inside,” she says, “I know you have your book tour and you’re not here to see me, but—” A light turns on in the kitchen. Inside, a shadow stirs. “Tom,” she whispers. She puts her hand on my arm so I know not to speak. 

“He’s raiding the damn place,” she says. “That’s stealing. Right? That’s stealing.” Her mouth is moving but her body is very still. “My coffee grinder.”

“Helen, we should go.” 

“Go? This is my home.” Now her hands are shaking, a self-contained California earthquake. The night smells like fire—prickling, dense.

I squeeze her fingers, but they aren’t warm anymore. “Let me drive. I want to see your neighborhood, show me your neighborhood.” 

We climb over each other in the smoky darkness, she smells of river mist, our limbs tangling, the buckle of my sandal catching the cloth of her dress. It’s like the way things used to be, all those years ago, when we slept in the same bed during the dim, dragging winter.  

 “Watch out—new driver on the road!” I say, tapping the pedals, “Which one’s the brake again?”

 Helen shrieks, smiling for the first time tonight. I press hard on the gas, and we lurch into the dark. 

“Screw you!” Helen yells out the window, and we burst into laughter. 

Joni Mitchell comes on the radio singing “Case of You.” I turn the dials to keep her voice from fading. 

The wind pushes through the car with watery-eyed, thrashing gusts. “I drew a map of Canada…Oh Canadaaa!” 

There is no moon tonight, and I see two falling stars in the course of the drive, trailing overhead like loose sparks, trackless as they flutter and go out. I call Helen’s attention to them, pointing up to show her where to look.

“Remember when we drove without headlights at night in your dad’s Dodge?” she says. 

“I remember—” driving in the dark more than losing my virginity. The Smiths whispered about suicide. The night surged until I surrendered. As a teenager it seemed so necessary, when any mutiny, no matter how fragile, was a heroic act. 

“We’re such bitter hags,” Helen says. 

I laugh, then catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror. It looks old, with too much makeup. I feel stuck, waiting for the future like it’s a dance partner at prom. When I glance over at Helen, she smiles. I know that smile. It was her smile when she bought a popcorn popper for her dorm room and then stared numbly at all the things, so many things. I know what I have to do. In Mulholland Park, a man kicks up dust and stares out at the city’s red noise. 

“Let’s do it,” I say suddenly, switch off the headlights. 

 “Wait, Edith—” her voice urgent like a touch. 

As we fly down the hill, the road in front of us blackens. It is not an ordinary darkness. It is like the darkness in dreams, richer and deeper, more pure and complete than anything we can see. We are speeding but I feel us floating. The air erases us line by line until we are each just separate shrieks—Helen and I—the faint blue outlines of bodies. “Faster, faster!” she yells. Wind pulls at the trees and my dress. The engine rumbles like music, like the Illinois wake sloshing toward the shore. We fall, fall, and I don’t want to stop, forgetful as if into sleep. My eyes ache from folding back the heavy blackness. My chest thunders, lungs stiffen, bones press together like hardened lips. I think I might solidify—a dark, permanent mass, all the spaces filling in. A hymn lands on my lips: “Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin.”

Suddenly, a bump. A thud. Like a creature caught beneath the chassis. Helen screams. I swerve.

I reach for her hand but miss it in the darkness.

“The lights.” Her voice quivers.

I breathe, pray for abandoned furniture or a paper box or equipment fallen from a gardener’s pick-up, and switch on the headlights. There’s just asphalt, with painted lines and puddles from the morning rain. I get out of the car, my heart pulsing as I look under. 

Only shrunken leaves stick like fists to the tire treads. I wait for hurt animal noises—clucking, desperate trilling, dragging.

Nothing. 

Helen slides out of her seat.

“Let’s leave,” she says, looking around. “Nothing here.” In her voice there is something I don’t quite want to recognize: a forced gaiety, sprightliness.

“Did you feel it?” I ask.

“Yes but —”

“We ran over something live.”

“No, stop, we don’t know that. It was probably a bump in the road—”

“Are there animals around here?”

“Mostly raccoons—” She sounds haggard. “Never mind.”

She gets in the driver’s seat and turns on the headlights. The engine hums. In the dark, I move toward the car, my steps heavy like last heartbeats.

 

That night in my Santa Monica hotel I can’t sleep. My scalp itches. The room is the color of Helen’s old ranch house near the Illinois riverbank. Outside a homeless man rattles his shopping cart. Waves crash. I wake again and again with that feeling, a slow, greasy feeling at the back of the neck. The same feeling I had when my mother died all those years ago and I was alone, wandering around the nurses’ station, wondering where she had gone.

In the morning Helen doesn’t call. I tell myself it’s because she has to deal with divorce papers. I dress and drive to my book signing. In the audience are ten empty chairs, Jeanie, my Oberlin friend who owns the shop and got me the gig, as well as a hairy college student sitting with her legs crossed and an appreciative old woman with pink lipstick on her teeth. When I read I hear my voice shaking. The old woman looks like Helen for a second when she turns her head. That thump, that thing. It curls into the spaces between my words. It sticks in my throat as sludge and mire, brown, humid air. I try to swallow but it chokes me. I stop after muttering two poems, even though I told Jeanie I’d read seven. I wonder: how do I keep surviving? Jeanie claps softly, and the others look perplexed. She makes an announcement about summer releases, and summons me to sign books at a card table. I walk out the back door. Slumping against the stucco, I take out a cigarette. It feels natural—the drawing, pulling, mouth and lungs—at once reckless and careful. Last night’s thump throbs inside my stomach. Jeanie comes out the door and sits next to me, folding her freckled legs on the pavement.  “Why did you come all the way to L.A.?” she asks, moving closer, “Because if it was for that performance—”

“What was wrong with that performance?”

“Oh, nothing. I’m just surprised—rather, flattered—that a few unintelligible words at my bookstore would be worth an $800 plane ticket and weeklong hotel stay.” 

“Helen paid.” I wipe the sweat under my eyes, smearing mascara. “I came to see you and Helen. I’m at this place in my life—”

“Edith, sweetheart.”

I curl into her lap. She purrs like an animal. I think of Helen before everything changed. At night she would leap into the town river, squealing. She would tell me ghost stories on the levee, whispering into the windless dark. I last saw her at her wedding where I threw rice and ate coleslaw, said I’d call back, back again. I remember our ride last night, how it’s a congregation of memory and people keep leaving.

Five days pass. I try to mark the time by the color of the air in my hotel room, the way the wallpaper turns grainy and unfocused before the morning has quite taken shape. I wonder what is happening, this jittery pang, this hole. I sit on a park bench next to a panhandler with a dog. His sign says: Anything Helps.

The night before my plane leaves for Burlington, I’m packing when my hotel room phone rings.

“Jesusmaryandjoseph.” I know the voice like it’s my own. “I got it wrong. Your bird sang ‘All Through the Night’ not ‘Goodnight Sweetheart.’”

“I know. Lenny liked Lauper.”

“And I made up the part about the iron furnaces.” Her words run together like dripping paint. “And I’m sorry I dropped out of Oberlin to marry Tom and never called back.” It’s quiet for a few moments but the kind of quiet I don’t want to shake. “How are you?” she says. She’s slurring her speech and for the first time I miss her. A stereo blares in the background. Don McLean or Jimmy Webb.

“Where are you?”                                                                                

"A bar…the corner of Broadway…”

 

When I pull up to the street, there she is, leaning against a lamppost, her brown hair plastered in strings across her face, all that red rushing to her eyes. She mouths to the music. I get out of the car and it’s colder than I thought. I smell whiskey as I move toward her.

“You’re barefoot,” I say.

 “Actually, I’m Helen.”

 “Edith.” I shake her hand. My fingers curl into hers. “Would you like me to take you home, Helen?”

“What a gallant offer,” she says like an old British man. We laugh and lean into each other. “I guess it’s been a long time since anybody walked me anywhere, Edith.”

We move from streetlamp to streetlamp, passing dumpsters where restaurants leave fruit peels and bread for stray starving things.

As we walk, I catch our reflections in a shop window—bodies bound together between belts and purses. I watch us stumbling out of a bar, as though that’s something we do on a Saturday night. In the dark, I let myself forget. I reach for Helen’s elbow when she almost falls. 

 

Isabel DeBre is a 2014 Young Arts Winner in fiction, one of 170 artists selected for recognition from over 10,000 applicants. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in PholyphonyBRICKrhetoric, and the Young Writers Anthology: Racing Toward Dawn. She has received a Gold Key from Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for her fiction, and first place in the Renee Duke Poets for Human Rights Award. She is currently a high-school senior at Malborough School and will be attending Brown University in the fall of 2014. 

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

C.M. Barnes

In This Country 

If you lost a leg in a war—or in a freak accident—would your stump have a psychic bond with the mine you stepped on, with the child you pushed out of the way of the rampaging machine? If you were a country priest, but secretly an atheist, would you write a private manifesto of disbelief? These are the things she thinks about now. These, and the nature of reality. As if reality were natural.

 

Don’t question me, was what her old lover said the night she questioned him. She had it in mind that he did not believe in her pain. Pain, she has found, is entirely a question of belief. One cannot prove pain—no matter how loud or often one groans. Pain, to an external perceiver, requires faith. Faith in the internal perceiver’s honesty. Faith in the external perceiver’s witness. Until her pain started, she was a person of little faith. Now her faith knows no bounds. Now she can—and frequently does—believe anything. 

 

There is a woman who cleans her silly room. (She thinks of her room as silly because there is a framed picture of a heartthrob singer on the wall. Never mind which one, just know he silently croons over her every night.) This woman is a marvel in the way she cooks, she cleans, raises her children. In fact she does it all smiling. This is not meant to reduce her. Sometimes they speak in the communal kitchen. It’s hard to know how much gets through. She explains her fear of living in a dream. The woman assures her that she, the woman, is not a figment in a dream. She tells the woman that’s what any good dream figment would say. The woman asks how she then knows she is not hers, the woman’s, dream figment—or, more troubling, that they are not both the dream figments of the fruit bowl? She has no answer for this. The woman laughs and sweeps jacote rinds into the garden below her silly room. 

 

It’s always warm in this country—which she appreciates. Her warm showers, drawn from a rain barrel on the roof, calm her spasms. If the shower is not enough, she swims, slowly, in the bay. The bay is also always warm. If the swimming is not enough, she hobbles up and down the beach, lurching from one ossifying leg onto another. This hobbling is a half-hearted dare to immobility. Then she plunges back into the surf. Plunge is not the right word.  

 

Sometimes it feels as if her teeth no longer fit inside her mouth, as if her spine no longer fits insider her back, as if her fingers—those rebellious, little antennae—no longer fit inside her palms. In these moments it is hard not to resort to cliché. 

 

When she is seized with one of her fears, she tells herself she is only a figment. A figment has nothing to fear. Not from the loud boys playing on the landing. Not from the silent old men sitting around the table in rocking chairs. The boys are always moving, shouting, laughing, crying. The old men never move. The boys flit around the old men’s immobile feet. The old men ignore them. The old men are supposedly playing dominoes—at least there are dominoes on the table—but the dominoes also never move. They remain as frozen as the old men’s voices, as their bones, as the rocking chairs that never rock, as her body soon will be. The domino chain looks like vertebrae. Being a figment—possibly of the fruit bowl, possibly of the dominoes—she can pass through all of this unhindered, unmolested. 

 

If you could flout time, would you risk it? If you could die twice, would you try it? If you could cast all heaven into hell and all hell into heaven, would anyone notice? If you had to die slowly, painfully, and knowingly inside your own body—but of course you do…

 

People here think she is up to no good. A lone, foreign woman, hunching around, pausing in ancient doorways, presumably to charge the power of her evil. People hide their children from her. She sees them ushering their broods away behind her back—beyond the reach of her witch’s eye. She has never cared about children until now. Now she wants to bless every child she sees with her quivering hands. If she could tell just one child something unforgettable—it wouldn’t have to be a good thing—she would be satisfied. This is another of her new faiths, this belief in children. 

 

When her pain started, she asked the doctors if she should worry. Wait for the smoking gun, they said. Wait for the quivering tongue, the numb feet, the fingers that can no longer button buttons. Wait until it’s hard to swallow, hard to walk, hard to breath. Wait for the rebellious lassitude of your arms, of your legs, of your heart. In fact wait for your arms and legs to fall off, for your heart to stop. Then worry. 

 

Sometimes she dares herself to be romantic. She challenges herself to swim out to sea or take on a hulking, backbreaking lover. But nothing seems right, and she is also afraid. She is not, however, without human chains. She has some family, an old, normal-sized lover—all of them far away now. She might owe it to them to return. Not out of love—her loves are unconditional—but to give an accounting. They have given her so much, this family, this old lover. They deserve to attend—or not attend—her fate as they choose. At least, sometimes, it seems this way. 

 

She has been trying to hold more conversations. She doesn’t want to live only inside her head. To live only in one’s head is to be absent—at least to the external perceiver. (To the internal perceiver, who knows?) But it’s hard to find people here with whom to converse. People here are—perhaps rightly—frightened of her. 

 

She woke to a railroad track of pain running down her back. She could not turn her body to either side. She had to rise from the sheets perfectly face forward, like one of those children the messiahs call back to life to make a point. She came up staring at the singer on the wall. He might only be handsome from the pictured angle. Her end also will not matter in any real sense. Her end will be just another perception. This helped her control her breath. Her heart, however, continued to labor. She can feel her heart all the time now. She counts out the pulses in her head as she waits in line at the pulperia. When it is her turn to buy rice and beans, she thinks 78, 82, 91. She can also see her pulse in the reflection of her neck. It is superimposed on the glass over the framed singer. A moth’s wing trapped under silk.   

 

If a friendly looking boy left a pitcher of water on your doorstep, would you assume he is up to no good? If there is work to do in heaven, is that why you fear it? Do you believe in a unified theory of everything? 

 

She saw an empty chair at the domino table and thought about taking it. It hurts very little to sit still. But what if she can’t yet sit perfectly still? What if her creaking bones move, even once? Then her chair would rock, maybe even squeak. She’d be no better than the boys flitting around underfoot; her embarrassed groan the groan of a foreigner, a noisome figment. The old men would be so ashamed! Better not to risk it. Soon, very soon, she won’t have to move at all. It won’t be much longer she has to keep doing this—moving. Strange, that movement should turn from a desire into something she must bare. She will bide her time. It is not for her to rush stillness. 

 

Her old lover searched for ways around her pain. Not only new positions, but also new points of view, frames of mind, plains of consciousness. He was never entirely successful. But there were times, when he moved around her, wearing blinders, speaking in tongues, generally enmeshing himself, when something got through. 

 

She thought there would be monkeys here. She thought there would be snakes, crocodiles, jaguars. People here only seem to have the vaguest memory of these things. But, if not here, then where could these creatures exist? Can they properly be said to exist at all? She has no interest in metaphysical gardens. 

 

She thinks about tragedy whenever she creeps by a certain house near the bay. It is a silly house—silly not just for the Doric columns, but also for the styrofoam beam work used to symmetrize the eves. Killer bees have chewed out a mighty kingdom under the roof. She can hear them sizzling across the yard. She reminds herself not to swat whenever one alights on her frozen claw. The whole legion might descend. 

 

When she is seized with another of her fears, she tells herself she is a crusader. A crusader has nothing to fear. Not from the killer bees sizzling under the eves. Not from the people casting dark looks in the street. A crusader is on a higher quest. A crusader is not of this world. Her pain is the hair shirt she wears under her armor to remind her who she serves. But whom does she serve? And where is her armor? It can be troubling to think of oneself as a crusader in this country.

 

One morning her face tightened. Gossamer wires constricted between her lips and her nose, her nose and her eyes, her eyes and her scalp. They pulled the flesh taut. Soon, she knew, the flesh would no longer hold. Her face would tear, and the gaps would only widen. Soon her face would be exposed—perhaps rightly—as the hollow carapace it was. People would stare at the nude wiring that was her face. Beyond the wiring, there would be nothing. Maybe some light passing through. A hazy netherworld behind her eyes twisting back through its many, snarled endpoints. She doesn’t mean to be dramatic. One morning her face tightened. 

 

If we all pulled back our skin—say, at the wrist—and found only air connecting our hands to our elbows, could we stand it? Remember, anything is possible.

 

Is she really serious about leaving this country? Whenever she thinks she is, she catches herself investing in sensory perceptions. The children’s teeth stained with juice. The men’s arms knotty with pulp. The women’s backs upholding their dresses, the very texture of life. She watched a girl dart off the side of a moving truck, seize the camera from another foreigner’s hands, and leap back onto the running board. The truck never slowed. The foreigner never moved. She envied the foreigner for his stillness. She envied the girl for not allowing herself to be frozen eternally inside a frame. How can she leave such things behind? 

 

There was someone in her room last night. Someone other than the singer and herself. She doesn’t think he had a shape. But she could sense him, dancing elaborate trajectories over her body in the dark, moving to the silent melody of the singer’s frozen voice. She doesn’t know what this means—or she’s pretending not to, at least for now.   

 

The temptation is to take inventory. But what has she accomplished? So little in some ways. So much in others. What a boring thought! When she was a girl—or when there was a girl who was her—she used to wish for the most terrible things to happen, just to see them, to view terror and know its contours. Of course she had a girl’s conception of what was terrible. Now she thinks nothing is all that terrible—which also means that nothing is all that good. It means things are just things. She cannot look backward or to either side. She can only look, can only move, forward—slowly, painfully. This is not a good perspective for taking inventory.

 

Still there must always be temptation. Temptation is the only bulwark against the pain. The old men ignore her as she passes their table. They fake a blindness to her cares. But she is coming to know them. She is also coming to know the people who flee.

 

The doctors were good people. They would have kept trying had she not fled to this country. But there was something in their faces, some tension in the wires strung under their flesh, which repulsed her. She doesn’t blame them for this. They could not afford to become possessed. Had it been possible, her spirit would have climbed their arms and taken hold of their bodies. Her spirit would have walked them right off a cliff. Just like one of those messiahs making a point. 

 

Apparently it is the dry season here. The warmth she feels in her room at night is the usual warmth—only more so. The garden below persists despite hardship. One of the bushes is harboring Buntings, a flock of little yellow bellies. Apparently they are endangered. She peeks on them as often as she can. They appear to be thriving. At least they need no longer fear any snakes, crocodiles, jaguars. 

 

She cannot lie still enough to dance with him. At least not yet. 

 

Floating in the bay, she was seized by the usual fear. That nothing, excluding herself, was real. That she was generating everything around her and within her—including the dancer—and therefore was utterly alone. When she was gone there would be nothing left. Not even his little steps tip-toeing though the dark. In fact there was already nothing left. She got lots of water in her mouth. 

 

To romanticize the end as a dancing lover is a useful cliché. To romanticize the end at all is a terrible sin. In this country—like most countries—there is a saying that reconciles this conundrum, but she cannot remember it. The stone saints peering down from the roofs overhead are not talking. They were put there, long ago, by crusaders.

 

One of the boys on the landing has lost an arm. This does not seem like a tragedy. Rather it seems inevitable—that a boy should misplace his arm. Boys are careless. Boys are hard on their possessions. Surely he’ll go find it when he needs it again, when he tires of having to choose between throwing his ball and tapping on her shuttered window. That this is not the case seems closer to tragedy. Still not all the way there. All the way there is when he runs by the old men at the table.

 

There was supposed to be a moment of sense. Not peace. But, at least, sense.  

 

If you lost your body on accident—or on purpose—would you find your way back to the husk, back to the carapace scratching at the bark of the tree? If you sought water in a desert—or in the ocean—would you eventually drink the sand or the salt and be grateful? These are the things she thinks about now.

 

Last night the dancing presence in her room drew very close. She could feel him hovering just over her lips, his non-body pirouetting in the dark on the tip of her nose. If she had exhaled, he might have flitted away. But she held her breath for what seemed like forever. Call it practice. She wants him to become comfortable. 

 

Even this late, there are denials. Fleeting moments of rejection and disbelief. It is only natural to chew her gallo pinto slowly, contemplatively, feeling the pain in her teeth, and think, this flavor will go on forever. Rice and beans are timeless. Rice and beans are infinite. There is no end to rice in beans in this country. There is, however, an end to pain. 

 

The woman who cleans her silly room has gone quiet. Her quietness is unspoken but palpable. It lives in the tender way she manipulates her broom, like a weak old uncle being helped around the kitchen. She has become so gentle with him! The jacote rinds move slowly, if at all, towards the garden. There is no more discussion of the fruit bowl’s dreams. There is no discussion at all. To live only in one’s head is to be absent.

 

There is, of course, very little real tragedy in the world.

 

To think of sending a postcard from this country! Can this country be described on the back of a postcard? What a postcard it would be! On the front: a cheery sail on a green sea. On the back: the spiny black wires that underline the sea, the sail, everything. The wires would be un-enveloped. They would be exposed for any passing handler to snag himself upon. Just like the ones under her face. 

 

The old men know about the dancer, of course. She can see it in their faces. That sly, fanciful immobility. They know he moves in her room. Perhaps he returns to the table at daybreak to inform on her. Perhaps he sends them messages through the dominoes by kicking them into place. The movement might be so small as to be invisible. But not meaningless. Just the contrary, that nothing, really, ever stops. Tonight, she believes, he will dance even closer still. 

 

C.M. Barnes holds an MFA from the University of Montana and lives and writes in Missoula. His work has appeared in PhoebeLiterary Laundry, and Cargoes and is forthcoming in Booth, Arcadia, and Digital Americana. He is currently at work on a collection of fictions.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Benjamin Mitten

A Visit

When the father would leave to tend the fields the boy would be left alone in the house. Upon leaving, the father would give the boy a set of chores to occupy him until he returned in the late evening. The boy loathed these chores but never said a word against them, performing them with a solemn abode of dedication. 

As the father gave him much to do it would take the boy most of the day to complete the tasks set to him. He would start early in the morning, beginning with the stables in order to feed the animals their morning meal. To do this he would have to haul open the large shed door where the various hay and feed were stored. Then he would wash the corral with a bucket of water and a sponge. He scrubbed and did so until there was not one aberration among the steel supports in the corral. 

Once he had finished outside the boy moved his bucket of water and sponge into the house. He cleaned the floors and dusted the cupboards among other tasks. He would clean every part of the house but his father’s room. There was a time when he had made no distinction, but too often he had walked into the room and paused and stared at the photograph of his mother on the bedside table. The photograph showed her upright and rigid, her head deputed upon the sturdy foundation of her neck, her eyes the main impetus of attention. Her eyes possessed a luminosity unknown and dangerous to the boy, as if holding a promise of enticement. One day his father caught him in the room staring at the photograph. Thereupon he told the boy he could no longer go in the room. That was the end of that and now the room languished in inestimable layers of dust and neglect. 

Between the steady flow of work, lunch provided the boy with a sense of contentment. He had a habit of making himself a sandwich accompanied with a glass of water that had been filled from the outside tap. He would sit down at the kitchen table with his legs dangling above the floor and hum a little tune he had heard from his father. His favorite pastime was to look out the kitchen window and watch the chickens wander in their ineffectual circles, their wings forever raised in seeming revolt against the swift summer breeze. At times like this he would smile and count himself happy. 

One day when he sat down for lunch someone knocked on the door. The boy ran over and opened it. It was not his father but some other man. This man was dirty; grease and stubble ran across his face, his grotesque lips protruded towards the boy in an intruding fashion. His hair, matted down with the grease that had accumulated from long exposure to the sun, was a thin wisp of black substance. He had a limp and he hobbled forward. 

“Where’s your pa, boy?”

“In the fields.” He pointed towards the vast expanse of land behind the man.

“You wouldn’t mind giving a hungry man some food would you?” At this he rubbed his stomach with a slow movement of solemnity. 

He didn’t want to but the boy turned back anyways to get some food for the man. He got a loaf of bread out accompanied with a slab of meat and was reaching for a knife when, surprised, he saw that the man had seated himself at the kitchen table. 

“I ain’t said you could come in.”

“Where’s a man to eat?”

The boy eyed him meanly, but then turned back to the sandwich. He put much less meat on it than he normally did. He placed it on a plate and set it before the man at the table. The man nodded his head and smiled. He ate contrary to his appearance; sitting with a form of propriety, he would take small, delicate bites and chew thoughtfully, his feet planted firmly on the ground and his eyes resolutely fixed on some venial object before him. The boy took his seat in front of him.

“Mustard?” the man asked.

“We don’t got none.”

“A house with no mustard?”

“Funny coming from a man wandering on his feet.”

The man’s eyebrows rose.

“You think me a wandering vagabond?”

“I don’t see you at any job do I?”

The man threw up his head and laughed. He raised the collar of his shirt and wiped his mouth with a delicate finesse. 

“That’s no way to talk to an artist.”

“An artist?”

“Yes.”

“Like painting?

The man smiled again. “I prefer the mode of drawings.”

“I’ve done some drawings but I don’t reckon I’m any good at it.”

“I started drawing at about your age. I’ve amassed quite a collection over the years. Would you like to see some of them?”

The boy hesitated, then nodded. The man seemed much encouraged by this and brought out a small notebook from his coat pocket. He flipped through the pages and when he stopped, smiled for a bit, then brought the notebook before the boy. 

“Look here.”

The boy looked. The pictures did not make sense to him for he had not seen such things before. When he expressed confusion the man pointed out each feature of the drawings and explained them in detail. All the while he was smiling but the longer the boy looked at the drawings the more uncomfortable he began to feel. He turned back.

“They don’t sit well with me.”

The man frowned.

“Why don’t you look at a few more here.”

 “I don’t want to.” The man tried once more. The boy got up from his chair. “I’ll tell my daddy if you do again. One yell and he’ll come running in and get you.”

The man was more curious than afraid. He asked if the father was still in the fields and did he go there often. The boy told him his father grew lots of corn in his fields out there. He described how he walked about the fields for hours, sickle in hand, and how the corn fell down at his feet in a grand pile that the boy bet the man could never even think of. He explained that his father greatly enjoyed the harvest, and that he even kept a collection of sickles on his mantelpiece, his prized possessions, and often showed them to the boy at night. The man asked when the father usually got back, and at first the boy didn’t want to say, but eventually said evening. The man nodded. He had gotten up from his chair at this point and walked into the living room. He stood before the mantelpiece. There were three sickles hung upon it and the man took the silver one into his hands and inspected it. 

“The man works hard I’ll say that.” 

The man turned towards the boy.

“I trust these don’t go over too well with your ma as she’s a genial lady?”

“She was.”

“You loved her?”

“Me and pa love her very much.”

“I see.”

It became silent. The man squeezed his thumb against the side of his nostril and blew a volley of snot to the floor. The boy jumped with a shout.

“I’d just cleaned that!”

The man wiped his nose and cleared his throat.

“Your pa sets you to clean the floors?”

“Yes and I do a bunch of other work too. I clean the stalls and feed the animals and go around the house and make sure everything’s good for my pa when he gets back.”

“That’s a lot of work for a young boy. It isn’t right for a grown man to set a child to work like that.”

“But it’s my job.”

“Tell me this. Do you enjoy the work?”

The boy was silent. 

“It don’t matter it’s my job.”

At this the man leaned forward.

“But it matters very much if you don’t enjoy it. Have you thought of what consequence is your disobedience?” 

The boy was confused and asked the man what did any of that matter.

“It matters very much as your dependence upon him precedes your bondage.”

“You mean how he makes me supper?”

“No.” The man looked frustrated. He hobbled around in a circular manner, then turned back to the boy.

“You stand in the shadow of your pa, imagining that if you abandoned such shelter the very sky would fall upon you. But outside of your pa instead of the demolishment of all that was you would find a sky that you had not dreamed of. A sky clear and free and one in which even the clouds express notions of expansion. And it is a sky that soon becomes your own, but also becomes the shadow of those who follow. Because your pa was once the boy who did the work his pa told him to do. There was a time where he squatted at the silver railings and washed them with his sponge, and it was only from his revolt against such trappings that he thus validated himself and put himself in a position to establish his prerogative above yours. The very basis of his authority contains the seed of his own downfall. Every boy wishes to become the father but none wishes to remain the son. And so it is always.”

The boy stood there. There were some words and phrases he did not understand, but he somehow comprehended the whole in a manner befitting to him. 

“If I didn’t do a thing my pa wouldn’t be able to keep a hold on the farm just you watch.”

“How long has this farm been in your family?”

“Generations.”

“Then this farm has been built off of the changing of hands. In the end your pa is of no matter, the farm will go on without him.”

Now the boy felt afraid and wished the man would leave.

“Who are you to say this? Wretch like you aren’t born under the care of a pa.”

The man did not look at the boy and instead eyed the sickle in his hands, rotating it in turnstile fashion.

“It is said that the sons are punished for the sins of the fathers. Which is true. But I say it’s also true that the father is ultimately under the charge of the son. Do not think of me as preaching upon matters of which I have no intimacy. I too was once a boy and I had a pa just like yourself. He would put me to this or that and his will was strong, but the adamantine steel of the sickle always proves stronger.” 

“Just now leave won’t you?”

“Now don’t cry.”

“I mean it!”

“But I don’t want to leave, boy.”

The boy screwed up his face.

“You heard me before my pa’ll come in and get you!”

“Who’s your pa to you?” The man no longer stood by the mantelpiece and had begun approaching the boy. His feet dragged across the floor and brought with them the dead scraps of rotten wood.

The boy was choking on his tears. “I told you I don’t want you here now get out my pa’ll be here soon and he’ll take that sickle and kill you with it!” 

The man stopped, warily. He stood there for a moment more. Then he limped toward the boy, grabbed his hands, and put the sickle into them with a small pat, as if entrusting him with a possession that carries with it an intimacy between two comrades. He went towards the door and turned one last time to look at the boy. 

“Now don’t forget this, boy. You’re a smart lad, aren’t you?”

He closed the door behind him. Outside the sun was nearing its evening settlement. He weaved among the incandescent rays of the sun as they slowly became drenched in the redness of evening. All the while the sun followed its continual arc about the circumference of the earth. At times it seemed to stop arbitrarily in its path, but behind such perceptions lie the tricks of the earth and eventually it arrived to its evening placement, enclosing the farm and its fields with its final influence of blood-soaked emissions.

At this time the father returned to the homestead. When he came in he saw the boy crying in the middle of the kitchen with his silver sickle.

“Goddamn,” he said.

The boy ran to him and wrapped his arms around the father. He was crying, “pa pa pa” and pleaded him to never die. The father wrapped him in his arms and assured him that it was not possible, and though the father asked what put this thought in his head, the boy made no mention of the man and was silent. And they sat there for a while, entwined together in their unifying embrace. At times the boy would find comfort, but all the while out of the corner of the boy’s eye the silver glint of the sickle he had dropped to the floor gleamed back at him with its eternal temptations.

 

###

 

Benjamin Mitten is a writer from the state of Arizona. He enjoys all varieties of the written word, whether that be prose, poetry, or even philosophy. Besides writing in his spare time, Benjamin is currently a freshman attending Northern Arizona University.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Rachel Hochhauser

ROMEO

 

     I’m a fifty-seven-year-old man.  Divorced.  Two Kids.  For a month now I’ve been living in a retirement community, though I’m not retired.  I imagine that’s what defines me at the moment.

     Playa Monte is a nice place.  Palm fronds.  Mediterranean tiles.  Stucco walls.  There’s a choral group and a theater company, and four levels of care: independent living, assisted, skilled nursing, and memory support. 

     I have a routine of sorts.  Read the paper over two eggs, and leave the pan in the sink.  When I come home at night, the leftover egg has flaked away from the edges.  Once or twice, I’ve reached in to grab a piece and eat it.  These are the sorts of things you do when you live alone.  The newspaper’s unorganized, and when you change your clothes, you let your underwear fall into a little pile on the floor.  You leave them there for days, so that the piles dot your bedroom, then your apartment.  On Saturdays, I have lunch with the Romeos.  Retired Old Men Eating Out Sometimes.  The “sometimes” is every Saturday at noon, and they take turns picking the restaurant.  Out of the four of us — me and Tony and Tap and Lev — I’m the youngest.  They pity me.  They, with their limps and their teeth and their withered skin.   

     I’m a retirement housing consultant.  What that means is applications for licensure.  Market feasibility studies.  Operations audits.  And when your marriage goes kaput, access to the independent living suites a facility can’t find occupants for.  The irony is I helped to design them — living environments that promote family visits — and I’m alone.  

 

     This Saturday, I get to choose the lunch spot for the first time, and I pick Chyn King because I like the noodles.  At the restaurant, the four of us take a booth, and partition ourselves from one another with the prodigious menus.  

     “I don’t eat pork,” Lev says.

     “We know you don’t eat pork,” Tony tells him.

     “I’m just saying.”  Lev flips his fingers as if to say, off with you.  The first time I met him, having weak coffee in the communal courtyard, he asked: “What the fuck are you doing here?”  He has a crease at the corner of his mouth, and it’s often wet with spit.  Every once in a while, he reaches up and wipes it away. 

     “We’ve been eating lunch with you for how long now?” Tony says.

     “It’s just a reminder.  At the Italian place —” Lev wipes his mouth.

     “Enough about the Italian place.”

     “How about duck,” I say.  “Duck chow fun.” 

     “If everyone else wants the pork, order the pork, I just won’t eat any.” 

     Tony flicks his menu with a fingernail.  “Scallion pancakes.”

     “Egg drop soup,” I say, and think of those creamy curls, the sodium.  My ex wife, Anne, never used to let me have Chinese food because of my cholesterol.

     “Soup,” Tap agrees, and that settles it.  He unrolls his napkin and places his silverware just so, before spreading the cloth across his lap.  He still polishes his shoes.  Tap’s memory is going before his habits do.  Tap is tall and tan with white hair like memory itself, but his mind’s no good.   He lives in a unit with his wife, and looks old without the age: smooth skin, smooth lines, no wrinkles or creases, skin or shirt. 

     “I used to sneak Chinese food, junk food, whatever.  My wife wouldn’t let me.  She thought I didn’t take care of myself.” I’m conscious of saying “my wife” because each time I voice the word out loud it feels like I’m subtracting points, or losing something.  I only have so many times left where I’m allowed to say it.

     Tap picks up his menu again and stares at it.  He reads them— menus — like they’re short stories.  Stimuli for things that have happened in the past.  Rice pudding, he’ll say and trail off, and I know what he means because rice pudding is the time Anne and I stopped at a greasy Sicilian spot on the way back from camping in Mammoth.  It’s two young children, cinnamon, a dark night, and the plump raisins one son picks out and puts in a pile the other eats from.  It’s a camper shell tied to the roof of a car and a back that hurts from sleeping on the ground and a grumpy comfortable togetherness with cliché Sinatra in the background — the sort a place outside of King City would play.  The World We Knew.  Softly As I Leave You.

     Rice pudding.

     Tony points to something. “Ten ingredients fried rice.  There’s vegetables in that.”

     Lev shrugs.  “As long as one of them isn’t pork.”

 

     Anne and I met when we were pretty young — early twenties.  She was trim and smart and blue eyed, and ate oranges all the time, so that her fingertips smelled like the pith, and her hands had a vague kind of stickiness.  Her eyes were so blue that I couldn’t stop thinking about her genealogy, the line of recessive traits that trailed behind her, the matching of all the various alleles that lead to that blue. 

     We moved in together and I stopped seeing those things pretty quickly — the shape of her earlobes, the color of her eyes — because when you get to know someone, really know them, you stop seeing what they physically look like and you start to see something bigger.  I remember looking at Anne and trying to figure out how she fit inside her body.

     There are sets of images — moments — that define a person.  Anne, leaning back against her chair, an arm resting on the edge of the table, releasing cigarette smoke, before she quit.  Shaving her leg in the shower, her foot turned against the edge of the tub so the tendons of her calf stood out.  Her wet hair.  Those were the first years.  Later, her sunglasses, always on.  Typing something on a phone, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, hands moving at a frantic pace, mouth only a line.  Carving a pumpkin with my sons, a crease of concentration, a stabbing motion into the orange flesh. 

     The last time I saw her, she looked hardboiled and unyielding, like I’d never known her at all.   Like jury duty.  She’d done her hair and put on makeup to sit across a conference table.  Blue nail polish, nails clicking  against the table.  Expensive drapes.  In all the years I’ve known Anne, her nails have never once been blue.

     When you get married, you say for better or for worse.  I can’t erase the images.

 

     Monday, I go in to see Tamar, the property manager.

     “I’d like to get a dog,” I tell her.

     “Jerry,” she says.  There’s lipstick on the rim of her cup, and one of her big earrings is missing a stone.

     “Tamar,” I say back.

     “You know the rules.”

     “I know the rules,” I agree.  “But I’d like to get a dog.  Something small.  A companion.  It won’t bother anyone.”

     “Do you know anything about dogs?”

     I give her a long, hard look to say of course I know things about dogs.  “I’m a short term resident.  We wouldn’t even be here that long.”

     “You know our policy,” she tells me.

     “So change the policy.”

     “We can’t change the policy.”

     “I make the policies.  I advise you to change the policy.”  I look at her, the lines in her face, and do the math in my head: early thirties.  She’s got curly dark hair and no wedding ring, and some sort of breakfast flatbread— a wrap? A roll? — half eaten in its wax paper beside her.  Her chair has back support and her mouse pad has one of those gel rolls on it, for wrist comfort.  The sort of office supply I would advise against in an audit.  Studies have shown they don’t make a difference.  They’re wasteful. 

      She’s playing, looping the telephone cord, up and around her fingers.  I’m watching and suddenly start thinking about doing things to her that I don’t even want to do.  Just the possibility.  Taking a fistful of her dark hair.  I think about what we could do with that cord. 

       “I like your mouse pad,” I say and walk out.

 

         I’ve got two sons and no girls and I wonder sometimes if there had been a Karen or a Darla or an Ashley in addition to Anne and James and Logan and myself, things would have gone differently. 

         James and Logan will come to forgive me with time — they’re halfway there already.  All it takes is more exposure to life itself and their own desires. 

         Anne, I’m not so sure. 

 

         A few days later, there’s a knock on the door, and Lev’s outside, in the hallway. 

         “Chinese food,” he says, “is no good for you.”

         “What do you mean?”  I stand aside so he can come in, and he does.

         “You ought to be eating sushi.  Rice.  Fish. The Japanese diet.” He uses a handkerchief to wipe the corner of his mouth.

         “These kids of yours,” he says.  “How old are they?”

         “Seventeen and twenty.”

         “Good kids?”

         “Good kids,” I nod.

         “I was married fifty-four years.”

         “That’s a long time,” I say, and decide not to say more. The marriage started before I was born and ended with death before I ever met Lev.

          He shrugs.  “People have these romantic ideas of the way things should be.  None of us would still be married if people divorced then the way they do now.”

          The Romeos had a friend named Louis who passed a couple of months before I showed up.  They say, “It’s sad” without showing a trace of emotion.

           “Most people,” Lev says.  “Don’t know their hands from their feet.”

           After he leaves, I dial Logan’s cell phone.  I used to call to hear his voice, but then the mail message changed to a computer reading off the numbers.  I feel sure, in some small way, that this was done to punish me, to keep me from hearing the octaves and inflections in my son’s speech.          

           No answer.  Never a response.  Great anger.  I understand these things, and though I cannot decipher the complexities, I understand that they are there, and am comfortable waiting as long as it takes for him to forgive me.

           We picked the name Logan because it was plain and understandable.  Solid.  Apple pie.  The color blue.  Logan.  When I leave messages for him, I ask him to do normal things: basketball games, tangibilities.  If he were a few years older, I would say: let’s grab a beer.  You go through life attempting to shield the things you love most from hurt, and then you become its instrument.  

 

           After work one day, Tamar comes to my unit.  She’s wearing a skirt and a blouse — the office sort — and the kind of jewelry people buy on vacation.  I picture her keeping all of those big, bright ornaments organized in a drawer somewhere, hung on one of those little wire racks.   Microwaving dinner for one.

            “Hi Jerry,” she says, her whole presence a suggestion.  “Do you have a minute?”

            “For you,” I pull open the door.  “Two.”

            “Two?”

            “Minutes,” I explain.

            “Jerry,” she begins.  “We found someone to fill your unit.  A long term resident.”

            I take a step back and the door begins to swing shut on its hinge, so I grab the handle again.  “You and I both know no one here is a long term resident.”

            “Jerry,” she repeats.

            “That’s great news.”

            “It will need to be empty by the first.”

            “Great for Playa Monte,” I say.

            “We had an agreement that our arrangement was not permanent.”

            “I think we should talk about this,” I tell her.  “Not make any quick decisions.”

            “Jerry,” she says again, harder.  “Can I come in?” 

            I step aside, and she comes past, all business.  Head high. She’s so detached from the subtleties that even I can’t read into anything.

            In my unit, the floors are carpeted, and there are handrails everywhere.  It’s just me and my stuff — the books, the newspapers.  Piles of underpants, and now this woman.  She looks around and then goes straight over to the shelf, to a photo of my kids.

           The picture is black and white, and Logan is still so young that his face hasn’t lost the look of an old man, it’s wrinkled by his expression, morphed into something fluid and creased and moving — a reaction to whatever is going on outside of the frame.  Anne behind the camera, maybe.  Something else.  I don’t remember when the photograph was taken.  I can’t be certain which year.  Logan is in his green polar fleece jacket that colors his entire childhood — the playgrounds and school days and hikes.  I can recall the aquamarine despite the lack of pigment in the photo.  You could spot that electric green.  A honing device.  You could find him in an instant.

           I wish he still wore that jacket. 

           Tamar points at the photo.  “You have children,” she says.

           I nod, though she can’t see me.  From behind, I can watch.  The physical parts: the swell of a breast, the shape of an earlobe.  The things that matter at first. 

           “Logan and James,” I say.  “Left and right.”   Son and son.  Heat and heart.  Somewhere, outside of that photograph, two dissonant parents.  You can love what you destroy. 

           “Well.” She turns back to me, and there’s something different in her face, the look that women get when a man stops being a man and can be a person.  “At least you’ll be able to get that dog.”

           She says this light and playful.  A half smile.  It makes me feel the window of opportunity.  It makes me want to pull her apart, to take each of her limbs in one of my hands and move them in opposite directions.  I think about her ankles, her wrists.

           “Look,” I say, and she does.  “Would you like to have a drink with me?”

           “Now?”

           “Now,” I shrug.  “Whenever.”  I gesture out the window, as if time is a thing you can watch.

           “Right,” she says, and we look at the palm trees and the courtyard.  At the fake Mediterranean.  At our date occurring out there in the future.

           “So?”

           “So.  That’s nice,” she says.  “ But I’ve got a boyfriend.”

           “A boyfriend,” I say.  The word sounds young.  “Who’s this boyfriend?”

           Tamar looks at me, then at the photo, then back at me again.  “Jerry,” she says, exasperated.

           “I would like to do things to you,” I say.  Ankles and earlobes.  Breasts and wrists.  I take a step toward her.

           “You — ” She looks at the closed door, the sealed windows.   

           “It’s okay,” I say, calm, the way you talk to an animal.  She’s nervous, and I like it, because I’m pressing on something I shouldn’t, thin and razor sharp and dangerous.  I take another step. “I would like —“

           “Jerry.”  She’s backing toward the door and I keep going, keep moving toward her, but she makes it there first.

           “By the first,” she says, and the door swings shut after her, clicking softly.  We designed them so they wouldn’t disturb other residents.

 

           Sex can be cleaving.  Or a shared pulse.  You come to understand perfection differently.  You stop viewing the world with an artist’s eye — proportion or symmetry of smooth curves.  You get what Ruben was getting at, with those beautiful big-assed women.  It’s the you-ness of it, the intimacy of this person, and you feel yourself liking them, not excusing flaws, but appreciating the fact that you’re privy to them.  Close enough to see the clogged pores.  Just another form of being alive.  But when you have sex with someone who’s not your wife, it tends to be cleaving.

          Add this one to the set of images: Logan’s piano teacher, on her side, curled into me.  She had a comforter with seashells printed onto it, a singles apartment near the ocean.  I ran into her at the gym, because Anne insisted that I go.  Then her apartment became the gym.  It meant nothing.   Anne knows as well as I that it’s not about the fucking, or the betrayal.  She knows that it ended a long time ago, and my fucking, my fuck up, is only the license she needed to get out cleanly.  I gave her the hot, white kind of anger that leaves nothing behind, so that we — her and I — are razed out of existence.   She, the wronged.  Me, the damned.

           I still wake up in the middle of the night and think my wife’s so close I could feel the heat of her skin, could reach out to roll her hem between my fingers.  Our little boys just down the hall.  Logan won’t touch the piano anymore. 

 

           We do one last Romeo lunch.  Tony picks brunch — traditional breakfast — at a diner.  I tell them I’ll come back.  I can even drive us.

           “Eh,” Lev shrugs.  “You’re not even retired.”

           Were sitting there, old men, and me, a nearly-old man, in the corner booth.  There are a few families, little kids.  I imagine my own — Anne and James and Logan — going through the routines of a Saturday morning.  Long-limbed boys groaning for coffee.  Anne flipping flaxseed pancakes.  The carton of juice, just shaken.  The three of them at the table, passing the syrup.  The familial intimacy of pajamas. 

           In reality, James is at college.  Logan is still sleeping.  Anne, off somewhere, in her house, or outside her house, but no longer our house.  Blue nails, tap tap tapping. The new pecking order.

           I think back to how when I met her she said she had a boyfriend, too, but I kept calling, kept asking, kept going, kept persisting, until she didn’t have one anymore.

           When the waitress comes I look her up and down.  The shapes of her earlobes.  The swell of her breasts. 

           I order the egg whites.

 

Rachel Hochhauser is a writer living in Los Angeles. A graduate of New York University, she also has a Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, where she taught undergraduate writing and served as the Fiction Editor for the Southern California Review. She has a forthcoming short story in Per Contra, her nonfiction has appeared in various publications, and she recently finished her first novel.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Harmony Button

[When the rain breaks]

 

    When the rain breaks, finally

slipping from the thunder

        that has rumbled and blown itself

    dry heat and dust

around and down

        the valley here for --

    (it has been weeks since any water

        broke from this wide sky, this wide mouth

    of desert sigh like a desire

and the wind keeps thrusting her, as if she likes it

            deep and thunder dry

    but weeks and weeks and yet -- why, why)

 

    When the rain breaks, 

                and the wind dies,

the peach tree ceases its wide circles, branches slowly flailing

        like a drowning man,

                     and that fat eye

    of sun, the one that wants her like a fuck he's having

                        but still can't quite have

goes soft -- 

 

    a blink, a gesture of completion

    an exhale

        exultation

    

    so soft,

    so soft,

 

        the water runs in rivulets across the roofs and roads,

            along the gutter in a gurgle that suggests that 

        it was always so, somewhere this rain was certain tea,

            and now, even when we longed for it long time

        its coming was a softness, and the grass unclenched her fists

 

 

    and the peach twists open cleanly in my hands

    and salt burns on my lips.

 

 

The Origins of Music

 

    were mysterious to her: at what point

did someone draw a line between 

        the sounds made by her mother's arms and

    the sounds made in her mouth?  

Sugar was called sugar and

    tongue was called bad language --

            never say that, they said, never

    which made everything delicious:

forbidden words rattled, seed-like in the husk

        of some new instrument, something shimmery

    and shakeable. 

 

 

Things Which Restore Faith In My Ability To Handle It 

 

Anything that yubbers 

    like a holler, woodwind or that deep seesaw

of the lower organ.

 

The newest nub of aloe 

    nudging from the female

center of two loaves meeting. 

 

Stamps of approval:

    red ones, blue ones, 

official and initialized. 

 

Seed beads, flax seeds, 

    kindly postmen and crushed ice,

something in a garden that is cobalt blue.

 

Thick paper that yellows, aging 

    to patina in a basement. Anything 

I've carved into an opal, or a spoon.

 

 

Mr. Cicada's Escort Service

 

The client desires some time alone

to think. The client wishes to be 

somewhere darkened and enclosed,

preferably where the roots are moist

and nutrient rich, and the earth above

can press softly on his larval body

like a plushy thunder blanket.  As

those contracted to attend his pleasure,

we must respect his wishes.  If the client

says he can't commit to when 

the right time to emerge might be, 

we must trust his instincts.  How

will we know when he's come

back to the surface? Why, because

the sucker promises to don a top hat,

sing a siren to the heart of Dixie,

and then dance us all out of our

sorry skins.  See them, stiff and 

glistening, gems of past-selves

and shed worries, clinging fierce

and delicately to the bark of trees. 

 

Can I Eat That

 

    So long to days of 

trust your nose. So long, popsicle. 

So long, chard. Today the lettuce root

is thick as my wrist, twisted red and 

the kind of white that only comes 

from underground. So long, summer.

So long now.

 

    The dog is licking the sweat off

my neck.  The dog is licking his own

paws. The dog is licking something

dirty that he brought inside. The wind

makes the world wave all its hands.

Hello, hello. 

    

    When the wind kicks up,

it blows the middle number off my house.

The needles flick down off the trees,

pinpricks of time passing on the skin. 

The biggest may be dying. Its branches

shed and gather, sound like rain.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Jan Selving

Destroyer

 

Because she believed

            there was something

 

she could have done

            but didn’t

 

when a man pinned her

            to a metal pole inside

 

a train careening

            underground, touched her

 

beyond any flicker of doubt

            then disappeared

 

in a throng of rain coats,

            she walked home

 

past flower boxes filled

            with dying petals

 

folding in on themselves

            in stages of silent fury,

 

turned her key in the lock,

            and paused,

 

a black shape caught inside

            a doorway, unsure 

 

what to touch—it all

            looked as if it belonged

 

to someone else—

            then saw the photographs:

 

rising tides, rivers, forests,

            faces, graffitied stone—

 

each darkening into its borders,

            shades of gray

 

and black rising in the developer’s

            slow-pacing waves—

 

all come into their own because of her

 

she released them   

            from their frames

 

and tore them up. 

 

Abandoned Church at Cuchillo

 

The gleaming

                        is the whale—

 

a white stain on gray planking,

            a knot in the floorboard for an eye. The rest

 

                                    buckled

 

plaster, coarse stains like torn hair trending

            from rusted nails.

 

On the cross, a faint outline

                                    of collapse

                                                down its shaft.

 

This church with its tin roof and

            vaulted crisscrossing beams

                                    is an overturned boat,

 

a storm gate trapping the selvage

                        of a swollen river,

                                                 

uprooted trees, squid-like, massing

 

                                    with the rain’s

                                    battering din.

 

 

She returns

 

for the things    she left behind.

 

The lost    heat in her dresses

                                    hanging lank and

 

mean from their wire    hangers, those brittle

                                    silk flowers.

                                   

Sometimes she comes    straight at us—

                                    jagged sutures

 

sealing her mouth.    This place

                                    among the living

 

she’s stalled in, triage    before she travels

                                    on.

 

In the lamplight the air crackles.    Is it

                                                                  spite? …

                                   

this sound we’d grown used to     like fat

                                    thrown onto a fire.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

George Drew

DEATH PAID A VISIT TO THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR

 

Death paid a visit to the house next door,

an unexpected guest who entered unseen

through the front, blew the windows out

and climbed swiftly to the second floor,

 

piles of smoking rubble in his wake.

Greedy, he abducted the owner's son

and carried him away, never to return.

Four days later on a road not too distant

 

he took the owner, a crippled old man,

yanking him from his mangled truck

and with a rare display of real pity

giving him CPR and dropping him off

 

at the emergency room, miles away.

All that night Death kept silent vigil

in the waiting room, until near dawn

the old man took his final breath
 

and Death rose from his leather seat,

noted the time and day, made his way

to the old man's room, and like a shadow

that can't be seen leaned over the bed,


took the old man by an arm, and politely

helping him up, led him from the room,

in their wake the image of a vacant house,

its chimney scarring its east side like a row

 

of broken sutures, its empty windows four

black eyes staring blankly at its neighbor,

and stapled to the blistered skin of its brick

Death’s calling card, that acrid odor, stench.

 

 

SITTING ON MY SON’S PORCH IN LITTLETON, COLORADO

 

With the aspen leaves rustling pleasantly

next to me, and the gray smudge of morning

giving way to blue bolts of sky and white

patches of cloud, and nearby someone’s chimes

tinkling, you’d think I’d be thinking thoughts

lighter than early sunlight on a welcome mat;

but no, I’m reading Richard’s Hugo’s poems

and meditating on his Montana, its decay

of oddly named and mostly forgotten towns

and abandoned ranches, its landscape

flat and forlorn, its surface like lunar dust.

Montana—how its syllables slip the tongue,

at odds with the heavy weight of Hugo’s decay.

How odd that such decay appeals to me.

 

LAST DAY ON THE DELTA

 

 Like the first day it's warm not hot.

Clumsy clouds lurch across a hazy sky.

Boughs heavy with pecans swipe the lawn.

Dragonflies dart, strafing the air.

 

Deep in the Greenbough Nursing Home

Dottie talks about her cancer. She's thin

and getting thinner, bones more than flesh.

She doesn't like link sausage. We agree.

 

She likes her peppers hot not warm.

We talk about the snakes we've seen

in our gardens. She says that's how it is

with gardens. Wishes she had ice cream.

 

We change the subject to the sycamores,

how they have turned more orange

than red. She says she likes them green.

We promise her milk shakes next time.

 

George Drew was born in Mississippi and raised there and in New York State, where he currently lives. He is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently The View from Jackass Hill, the 2010 winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, 2011. Drew’s sixth collection, Fancy’s Orphan, will appear in 2015 from Tiger Bark Press, and his chapbook, Down and Dirty, in late 2014 from Texas Review Press.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Theodora Ziolkowski

Burial

 

On the farm of her childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan,

my mother and I dug a hole in the lane to fill with

 

our treasures: two electric-blue bracelets we would

wish upon, cover with dirt, then move on. I laid down

 

my bangle as carefully as if the ceremony were my own,

eternal burial, and it was as if another child

 

not my mothers, but minefelt us there. As if

just through breathing and the act of burying,

 

the thought of this child reared up like a paper doll,

deeming herself ready for the making.

 

 

A Place Made Red

 

I remember watching my daughter in the pool, how she climbed

            from the water

and how I imagined her tasting the chlorine

            on her skin.

Walking side by side in the storm, she held the rain

            in her palms. So clean,

she had always been clean

            and Slavic-looking, her eyes green

in the sun but darkening in the stillness of morning

            when she was afraid to be loved.

                        

                        *

 

My daughter Sofi is told to count to herself.

At ten she will be calm.

At ten she can come back to me.

 

Every Christmas we crunch

            through our neighborhood

and pause before the nativity set of electric

            Jesus Mary and Joseph glowing bright

            as cartoons in the snow.

                        

                        *

 

Sofi, in your photographs

you are looking at us serene

in a roomful of dolls. Rapt,

you are looking to be seen.

 

Now I claw for you. In dreams

I see islands and bodies fade

while they glide and they sink

with you, your face a shade.

 

                        *

Early December, I think of Persephone

falling into hell,

 

a place made red

by her youth, her silence.

 

This body is no longer hers,

but holy as a crown.

 

                        *

The birds did not flock to these walls

            but had been captured,

stuffed, speared to foam board. Behold two

            sparrows entwined

that, while dead, are to be loved,

            tacked to the wall

like a shred of a girls dress.

 

 

 

Gretel Grows Up

 

Terrible thing when you discovered your car jacked up,

its front tires missing   I remember how you stood

in the dim, wearing only one sock as you surveyed

the mess    On the pavement all the neighborhood children

were drawing flowers and dogs with chalk    For a while

there was a painting in your room: two children crossing

a bridge    I thought of them as sisters until recently

I noticed the younger child is a boy, the older one facing

away from us the girl, her tidy apron and blue ribbons

what memory had dressed both with   Sometime

before dark you appear on the porch, press your head

to my knees    What is life if not in pursuit of something,

anything    I wanted to make for you a gingerbread cottage,

warn you to lock the doors and forget what shakes beyond

the candied panes, as I told you to go home and to take

your losses with you    Give them up to the witch

 

Theodora Ziolkowski's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie SchoonerShort FICTION (England), and Gargoyle Magazine, among other journals and anthologies. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with her fiancé and their tortoiseshell cat, Circe.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Erin Rodoni

And when you ask I will say there were birds

 

Swallows coalesced like inkblot tests

against the seep of night and redwinged black

            

birds pearled each telephone line. 

Day-traders drifted from scavenged tenements, 

 

rousing the barn owls mantric hunger. 

And Child, when you wonder 

 

I will promise: Dreams of flight

only panic my pulse toward 

 

waking. In the hour before egrets 

studded mudflats or pelicans trawled 

 

the bay, vultures posed on fence-posts 

like treetop angels, bathing skyscraped plumes 

 

in tule fog, while newspapers still lay 

like dogs in driveways. 

 

The plum of summers 

you will not taste. Mornings 

 

sparked from branches. Afternoons, a hammock 

of hay bales and stucco

 

of razed nests. Child, in this aviary of fire 

escapes, when your hand slips my grip

 

I will promise: Cities dont exist 

until we are lost in them.

 

 

You and I used to take night drives

 

Windows open to the dark,

some species of sweet

wine tucked between our seats. 

 

You taught me how to pray

parked on back-road beaches.

Green numbers on the dash

 

flashed like the sound of crickets. 

Seashells portioned the canned 

applause of creation. You loved it 

 

when I praised a neck, scythed 

like the milkblade moon, 

when I gleaned from wind-

 

stunted scrub the molting 

antlers of a buck, a hint 

of half-clean bone. Sometimes

 

a burst of souls and guns

would inflate your lungs 

like respirator. Your chest 

 

would strain the seatbelt, 

the pickup rearing toward

 that wonder, veering across 

 

the yellow lineGod,

you seem smaller now, 

behind your rifle sight.

 

You brag me through a wallet

thick with children. Im a little afraid 

of you. Do you still like to catch the deer 

 

before your headlights do? Catch them 

moving through the dark the way a girl 

moves through a bar when she still believes 

 

she is immune. Choose your weapon, 

I know your routes. Ill be waiting 

in your high-beams. Antlers leveled.

 

 

 

 Cry it Out

 

Pressed to the side of the crib closest

to the door, arms straining hard, as far

as body goes. I sit on my own until 

 

they go cold. Each contortion of her dark-

distorted face on the tiny night-green screen 

warps her into Paige, the summer 

 

that we turned sixteen. That ridiculous 

Ford Galaxy, a spacecraft of a car, salvaged 

from an era of bench-seats broad as beds

 

as if invented for make-out sessions 

at drive-in movies. Paige folded the side-mirror 

so that beast could press to the fence 

 

like a cheek when we went to see her no-good 

boyfriend in Juvi. She stood on the roof, slipping

him cigarettes and Snickers, her lips

 

through breathwet barbs. I know that 

if I give in now my daughter won

stop reaching. Shell claw my hair, tendons 

 

in my neck, my breasts, reckless, the way 

teenagers kiss, mouths too wide, teeth 

knocking teeth, tongues knotted like sheets 

 

out second-story windows. 

Paige met the boys I wouldnt

admit I wanted. Already cool enough to keep 

 

my crushes quiet, I sat on the hood, 

hugging myself in the dark, watched her lean 

beneath the morgue-faced moon, still fearless 

 

in her need. When love refused to lift us, we settled 

for speed. On the reservoir straightaway, 

radio tuned to whatever wasnt static 

 

or scream, we gunned that engine, 

primed for games of chicken 

on unlit highways

 

Erin Rodoni is a massage therapist, recovering nomad and new mom.  She is the recipient of a 2013 Intro Journals Award in Poetry from the Association of Writing Programs. Her poems have appeared in Colorado ReviewVerse DailyWord RiotMidwestern GothicAntiphon (UK), and others. She holds an MFA from San Diego State University. 

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Simon Perchik

*

Pulling this bowl to your lips

as if traction was needed

though it must know by now

 

why you dig with the same whisper

that once beat back the wind

and the sky changing direction 

 

you lift with what became 

the moon, still crawling in its cage

one end to the other, that no longer

 

struts in the open, is terrified by air 

wants to cool and in your throat

crumbles from exhaustion and splashing 

 

you make a spray so this spoon

will empty in your arms overflowing 

as grass and so many fingers.

 

 

                                              

*

The door knows why it opens

and still youre not used to it

could be a sound from the 40s

 

gutting this radio

the way all skies darken

fill with distances 

 

you listen for the slow turn

the Earth never forgot

though a hidden crack

 

keeps the room from exploding

and costs you nothing

has already started its climb

 

spreads out with both arms

you begin to crawl

and not yet an old love song.

 

 

 

*

You begin to sweat, for hours

the way these stars poke through

and everything has come true 

 

its a knack you learn

quickly, pulling up small stones 

thats it! afterwards

 

you bring back those same days

as evenings that no longer

say anything, the darkness

 

is enough, lets your fingertips

pin down the Earth, hold it

drain it afterwards 

 

you put back its night

as once and never again

though your shadow too

 

falls  from a sky swept away

for rain and your hand

wider than usual, gone.

                                  

 

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan ReviewThe NationPoetryThe New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013).  For more information, including free e-books and his essay titled Magic, Illusion and Other Realities please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Noorulain Noor

Dreamscape

I dream of prodigal glee 
that comes with doing something forbidden
under the pretense of a household chore.
A plastic bucket filled with water, 
toppled with a fierce kick - 
and the kick - so vivid now after twenty years,
the impact of my small foot,
the thrust of the knee, the instinctive step
backwards,
a palpable thud, spillage 
on the concrete floor of the garage,
that satisfying rush.

I dream of hours spent watching 
small tributaries branch away from me,
iridescent in the light of the sun
until the shadow of the peepul tree
starts to congeal the puddles 
into asphalt-grey sleet,
viscous, denser,
the water morphs,
creates tiny fissures in the
topography of the garage floor
and swallows come back to roost
fidget in their nest beside the skylight,
the thin twigs and moss of their home
grinding against the glass. 

In my dream, that sound 
is like a stray russet leaf 
dragging across the window pane,
or a throaty whisper moist against my ear,
or a fingernail scratching against fabric,
gentle, deliberate.
I hear this murmur,
an almost involuntary hiss escaping
thick lips pursed together, secretive
and salacious at once, redolent 
of the beginnings of a summer windstorm -
its only the stupid swallows, I tell myself,
only the stupid swallows.

 

 

The Cartographer

 

The river I wanted to touch 

and the fisherman on its bank

distant, 

foggy as a December night

when your breath thickens and forms

white puffs from a tightened throat. 

A fort not far from its shores,

on the stone floors of which

I read Yeats and dreamed

of cohesive endings, of kinship,

of struggle and triumph. 

Narrow alleys with food vendors and gutters

and four-walled tombs 

of anonymous saints,

where worshippers tied pieces of yarn

to poles erected in unobtrusive corners

such power in unfulfilled prayers. 

A house in the mediocre part of town,

with terracotta pots in the front yard

and jasmine plants in bloom

the house that holds 

my childhood, old loves, incomplete tragedies. 

 

Sitting in a car that smells new

and always a little foreign, 

I draw these maps

on the back on my hand,

on paper napkins,

on receipts of this year's Christmas shopping. 

The house, the plants, the fort, the tombs, the river, 

and I scramble the order each time

a perverse pleasure inherent

in the entropy of this act, 

even on gossamer sheets of paper

and the robust skin of my hand, 

bearing a semblance to the evolution 

of the cartographer

scattered, disarrayed,

a labyrinth of chaos, 

and loss in the ink of a ballpoint pen.

 

 

Noorulain Noor is a clinical researcher at Stanford University and the poetry editor of Papercuts, a literary magazine brought out by Desi Writers Lounge. Her work has appeared in ARDOR literary magazine, The Bangalore Review, and other publications. Raised in Lahore, Pakistan, Noorulain now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she leads poetry workshops, blogs, and writes on the broad themes of identity, multiculturalism, and the immigrant experience.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Ron Lavalette

Getting It In Writing

Danny B. initials the dust

of the librarys basement window

makes his mark inside a heart with

his favorite girlfriends initials, pierces

 

his full and dusty heart with an arrow,

with angled feathers and a very serious

point; and despite all the books and

periodicals the institution offers, nothing

 

means more than these four letters

because Danny knows that tonight

after the slow dance, walking her home

in the dark under the feeble streetlight

 

he can stop and point to the window,

point to his dusty handiwork and hope

she overlooks the crack in the glass

and the fact that several other windows

 

all bear similar artifacts: his name

in dust in identically shafted hearts,

 

and his former girlfriends initials.

 

The girls not blind, she sees it all

 

but doesnt care; she doesnt care

the windows cracked, doesnt care

that half a quivers love is spent

on half a dozen other dusty panes.

 

She lets him make a pass, lets him

kiss her under the blazing streetlight,

and when the dust has settled she

goes back home, cracks a notebook, 

 

fills a dozen empty pages with

Mrs Dan, Mrs Daniel, Mrs Danny B.

 

 

Grace

Thank you, father, for all that hash when I was

just a high schoolboy;  and for all those girls,

their cute little pink feet and silver toe rings 

up on the dashboard, Stones on the radio,

calico dresses in the wind, tanned legs, hot 

nights, warm flesh, and all those summer 

sunstruck mornings waking up with no idea 

whose house I was in, whose bed,

and not a seconds thought about how it

only Tuesday, smoky and unknowable.

Thanks for the moon reflected in windshield 

raindrops, and for midnight mushrooms,

Day-Glo under blacklight, mescaline boogie,

acid rock,  and acid.  But mostly thank you 

for 68: Danny Riley and his floral necktie 

finishing up his student teaching, 

smiling and handing me books, saying 

Oh man, you should read some Ginsberg, or  

Brautigan, maybe.  No; here, I got it.

For you, Ferlinghetti.

 

 

Wrong Hands

 

He doesnt know how he let his hands

do the things his hands had done:

casually thrown away a wedding ring,

made a fist and used it, ransacked a 

complete strangers home, plunged 

a needle, pulled a trigger. 

                                    Its like they 

were someone elses hands; like they

never opened a book, never taken an

oath, never tucked a little girl into bed,

or stroked her hair.

                            Now, everything

had slipped away from him, left him

predictably alone, completely

empty-handed.

 

Ron. Lavalette is primarily a poet living in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, land of the fur-bearing lake trout and the bilingual stop sign. He has been widely published, both online and in print.  A reasonable sample of his published work can be found at EGGS OVER TOKYO.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .

Joan Colby

THE PAST WAS BLACK AND WHITE

 

It was all black and white then

So he would tint a photograph

Meticulously, by hand, bending over

The drafting table, brilliantly illuminated,

Rimless glasses reflecting deliberation

As he colored in what he remembered

Or maybe just selected.

 

Later on in Kodachrome, he forgot that passion

To restore the hues that the viewfinder

Recorded, that were ditched in the darkroom

Where acid trays delivered black and white

Versions of history. The colored ones

Looked fake despite the care he took.

 

The black and white studies were the ones

Salons admired. Stark or subtle

In that excision poets learn

To invoke leaving stern skull and bones

Or flitting shadows.

 

The blown-up prints suggest

The darkroom artifice

Presaging his intent to add

Blush to a cheek, blue to the air.

 

And it is these that we prefer,

That film noir of sorrow

Limned with menace. How

Every funeral should be shot

In black and white, 8 millimeter.

 

 

Joan Colby has published widely in journals such as PoetryAtlanta ReviewSouth Dakota ReviewThe Spoon River Poetry ReviewNew York Quarterly, the new renaissanceGrand StreetEpoch, and Prairie Schooner. Awards include two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards, Rhino Poetry Award, the new renaissance Award for Poetry, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. She was a finalist in the GSU Poetry Contest (2007),  Nimrod International Pablo Neruda Prize (2009, 2012), and received honorable mentions in the North American Review's James Hearst Poetry Contest (2008, 2010). She is the editor of Illinois Racing News, and lives on a small horse farm in Northern Illinois. She has published 11 books, including The Lonely Hearts Killers, The Atrocity Book and her newest books from Future Cycle Press —“Dead Horses. and Selected PoemsSelected Poems received the 2013 FutureCycle Prize. A chapbook — Bittersweet” — is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Press in 2014.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .