ISSUE 5: MARCH 2015

FIRST ANNIVERSARY EDITION


IMG_4538 DESERTER
By John S. Lewis

In Guiana, a little known country north of the equator, there lived a family of five, in a recently established housing scheme for the low–income bracket. The head of the family, David Anderson, was pacing the living room; as usual, searching for a means to keep the family fed, when he heard someone calling at the gate. Before David could get to one of the front windows he heard his son, Kwame, speaking to the person. As he’d been meandering in that direction, his mind recorded that his wife, Holly, was close to a window; yet she did not look out and answer.

“Good morning to you, sir. How may I help you?” he heard Kwame say.

The visitor looked about, confused. He was a graying, official type carrying a briefcase and obviously thinking himself much more important than he was. The man eventually glanced up, and saw Kwame sitting on a branch of the mango tree growing next to the gate. He also saw, by the look of alarm on his face, three or four wasp nests in the tree.

“Good morning, my boy. Aren’t you afraid those wasps will sting you?”

“No, I learned to share the tree with them. They help keep the tree in fruit throughout the year, so we let them stay. My name is Kwame Anderson. What is your name, and why are you here?”

Again, a fleeting look of confusion. “Is your father in?”

“Yes, but he taught me that I should not call him unless the matter is beyond me.”

The man smiled to cover his impatience. “Son, you should be in school now. Why aren’t you attending school?”

“I’m attending school right now.” Kwame retrieved a few pages from his pocket. “Look! This is my assignment for today—I have to understand and memorize these three poems.”

“I’m speaking about a school where you can learn from trained Teachers; where you can write examinations to obtain certificates that you will need to get a job.”

“My father got certificates but he can’t find a job that pays enough money to take care of us.”

“Kwame, please, let me have a talk with your father.”

David emerged and looked up at his son, proudly. “Well done, Kwame.” To the man, he said, “Good morning, sir. I am David. You didn’t give a name.”

“Sorry, I was taken aback by the obvious brilliance of this youngster. My name is Edward; I’m from the Ministry of Education.” He flashed an ID. “We received a report that you are denying him his rights to an education.”

“Edward, let’s start at a point where you can comprehend my predicament: There are two major races in this country that are vying for supremacy. Look at my children! They’re all woolly-haired. Naturally, I did not give the current government consent to manage this country, because common sense dictates that our race shall be trampled. Our decision-making process is mainly influenced by a doctrine intended to keep us docile, as slaves. The general trend is being perpetuated by individuals who enrich themselves while they render our people, in general, incapable of standing up to an utterly ruthless and immoral competitor.

“You see this little shop here? I was forced to close it down because the price I am sold goods at is higher than what my neighbor pays for his goods. I was unable to compete. I have three children. The most important basic need is to find food for them. I work two jobs to make this possible. We’re paying the bank for this house; and there is electricity, water, schooling and transportation to pay for.

“Now, why would a government pack thousands of lower-class citizens in an area so far from means of employment, without enough land to keep a garden? So I have to expend lots of time and money dealing with transportation. It’s better in every sense to let my wife remain a housewife until the children grow up. The only area I could cut-back on is the education.”

“But it is against the laws of Guiana to keep the child away from school,” the Officer persisted.

“Edward, you weren’t listening!” David interrupted angrily. “The requirements of schooling in Guiana demand too much from parents—uniforms, textbooks, transportation, assignments … then after that investment, the child remains at home unemployed, or gets a job that could barely feed him.

“So I decided to teach my children at home, and use the money I would’ve spent on official education to start securing wealth and future means of employment for my children. Hopefully, they will be in a better financial state to send their children to your schools.”

“What will you do with this money saved on education?” Edward asked, seeming genuinely interested.

“I’m seeking land to lease, in the unsettled areas. I’ll develop it as much as I can and then pass it to my unemployed children,” David replied.

“Your wife agreed to move into the ‘unsettled areas’?” the Officer pried, with knitted brows.

“Of course. I discuss all my plans with my wife. She agreed with me.”

“Then why did she report you to the Ministry of Education?”

“She did what?”


Mottled
By Holly Bruns

Mottled, that’s what he was the evening he died, his body a dull forest floor of grays, browns, and muted blue, his lips a pale maroon and months away from the last cigarette they tasted. In death the heart weakens and is unable to pump blood to the surface of our skin.

I was living in British Columbia when he fell ill and sometimes I think it was my fault. “My worst nightmare would be to go home and care for my father while he dies.” Perhaps I set his death in motion by exhaling that sentence into a dimly lit party room somewhere in Victoria. Maybe his beating heart heard me somehow, and the blood coursing through his veins, our blood, pulled me back to him. I imagine that is something he wanted.

There was a series of events: a strange phone call with no clear answers; signs everywhere I turned were shouting at me to go home like some telepathic messenger. I said goodbyes. I emptied my life. I packed a suitcase. I got on a plane.

I found him alone the day I arrived, and unbalanced, literally. The cancer was affecting his hearing and his last days standing were spent clutching walls and furniture while the world around him angled on a different plane. Maybe he was used to that feeling of being at odds with the world. Years of living away from my mother had made him reclusive, untrusting.

A singular bachelor in old age, asking for help had not been in his vocabulary. It had to be divined, sought out in the empty spaces between words. But it was a language I understood; my language.

The days of leaving begin.

In the kitchen we are arguing about duck. He wants something dark, rich and covered in fatty gravy. I make something braised and French and fruity. We eat solemnly; the bird I have served up is unforgiving and tough. The weather outside matches our gray mood and I don’t realize it at the time, but this is the last meal he will sit to eat. This will not be my first mistake, but it is to be my lasting regret.

We are locked in a standoff, the two of us. He lies on the floor while I straddle his useless body. There is no denying the ability of his mind to comprehend what is happening. His icy blue eyes penetrate mine, and the anger, the frustration, is deafening. We do this dance over and over. He spends hours struggling, huffing and heaving his body inch by inch to the side of the bed while I ignore him. Then he flings himself into empty space. For five seconds he is flying. I know this because I can hear the thud of his frame hit the floor from the kitchen where I am cooking.

My mother and I were tucked into the pullout sofa on the couch next to his bed watching a movie: something about a boat run amok and two fit, young heroes. My father’s last breath coincided with the cruise ship ploughing into land, hotels, streets, office buildings. The sedate shoreline town gets torn apart while people scream and run. The heroes are in full action now. We, my mother and I, were many fingers into our second bottle of wine of the day and while my morphine-drugged father laboured over his last gasps of air, we stared, hollow-eyed at the blinking screen. My mother will later feel remorse for us not holding his hand, or petting his brow while his wan body transitioned away from us, finally. I felt relief. This running breathless through painstaking slow movements of the day ended, finally.

I stand over my father after that final exhalation and wonder if he could feel his heart slowing to a halt. I touch my own heart to see if I can feel its pulse, then I open a window.

The police came first. They wanted to be sure we didn’t euthanize him. They questioned the morphine syringes. The coroner came next with his black bag and clipboard. The funeral home was last and they asked us to leave the room. My mother and I retreated to the bathroom while ashen-faced men took the last of my father away. Only a warm indent in the bed where he laid was left. I placed my hand over the spot and imagined I could feel the uneven pulse of his breathing, still.

I am packing, sectioning his life into pieces, when I come across the straw basket, crooked and discoloured by time. Carefully wrapped in a handkerchief, it is tucked into the recesses of a dresser drawer. I run my hands over the rough-hewn surface of furrows and crests. I remember tearing the address off the back of a magazine and ordering the kit through the mail. I remember labouring over it in my bedroom weaving together the browns and blues, and then wrapping it for his fortieth birthday. Rustic and musty, it gives when I squeeze it between my palms then bounces back to its uneven shape. The rim is worn with errant pieces of straw breaking away from the patterned border. I gently replace the handkerchief around the faded and tattered basket, and bring it to my room where I safely lodge it in my suitcase, between my sweaters.


IMG_1641Midnight Spades
By David Seaman

Meds are not passed until after the night’s play. Everyone understands this, and everyone knows why. Twelve players usually show. Six teams of two, which means we start with three games to five hundred points until the last two teams. By that time the side bets are in full swing. People put up everything from potato chips to hydrocodone. Seems like it’s always the schizo-affectives against the bipolars. The major depressives don’t have the staying power and the PTSD sufferers don’t have the attention span to count tricks. I am the only borderline personality disorder, I’m staff, and I have the narc key.

I pair up with a schizophrenic named Faye. A tall dark skinned beauty closer to my age than the rest of the young crowd. She knows the game, built our strategy, and consistently seems to know how much trump I have in my hand.

Faye was staring at me with her best poker face. It’s Wednesday and we haven’t made it to the championship game in weeks. She usually has her Haldol by two and fast asleep by two thirty. But here we sat, inquiring eyes peeking over the top of our cards. All of my spades on the left side of the hand, per usual. And her eying me up, ascertaining the amount of trump I hold. By the twinkle in her eye she’s holding pretty heavy too.

“Thirteen,” Faye announces. A bold move since we bid first.

“By yourself?”

“Together.”

I shake my head negatively. The bipolars we were playing would need one trick to set us. I don’t care for that strategy.

“That’s enough table talk,” warns one of the women from the other team. A young woman, just a girl actually. Bright red dyed hair with a pierced bottom lip. “Just bid.”

Sometimes it takes up to four hours to get the tournament concluded. A few times until sun up. There are always a couple who wig out by that time from lack of PRNs. But that was the rule. We all abided by it. Better to play wonked out than to be under the influence. Everyone agrees to stay frosty, suck ecigs, and drink all of the Mountain Dew required to finish up the tournament. Sleep is for the daytime.

If the state lackeys ever walked in at two in the morning they would be very surprised. But what could they say about a group of card playing mental misfits not sleeping? There really is nothing wrong that we are doing. We aren’t up dropping ecstasy and hitting each other with hammers. It’s a card game, nothing more. It’s spades, and it’s everything.

“Five,” I say. I hold seven.

“Eight,” Faye adds. So she means to go through with this strategy of hers.

Faye takes the first trick with the ace of clubs. I take the next one with the king. A smirk curls up at the ends of her mouth. I begin to stop doubting.


Eponymous Ignominy
By Glenn A. Bruce

“I just can’t flush him down the toilet!”

Holding her deceased canary in a washcloth, Jenette said this with true anger to her father who had never understood her, never really liked her, she figured. He always liked her sister Margareet more, and even their used-car dealer brother Tedd more than he did Jenette. But she suspected their father didn’t really like any of them. He didn’t like anybody else; why should they be any different just because they were his own children?

“Floopie deserves a decent burial and a marker, Daddy. Everyone does. With his name on it. So we know and remember, and when we visit we have a connection that means something.”

Her father said no, he wouldn’t let her bury her bird in the yard; so Jenette had to go next door when the Millers weren’t home. Margareete stood watch for her while Tedd distracted their father with an inane (and unture) story about pigeons and Jesse Ventura.

He was transfixed.

Jenette, Margareete and Tedd’s mother had bequeathed the oddball spellings on them, providing ahead for a lifetime of torture at the hands of schoolmates, teachers, administrators, Social Security, the DMV, doctors’ offices—anywhere they had to fill out anything, any form requiring their names. Then came spellcheck on computerized forms and they became wholly new people with a dozen different names. Jenette couldn’t count the number of times people told her that her name was misspelled.

“Ma’am,” your name isn’t spelled correctly.”

Jenette would stare at them and ask, “How do you spell your name.” Half of the imbeciles would spell it for her. One guy actually said, “B-o-b.” Jenette blinked and said, “Oh, because I thought it was maybe “R-j-q.”

He didn’t get it.

A woman at the DMV in the Valley once told Margareete she was going to have to spell her name correctly or they wouldn’t issue her a driver’s license. Margareete asked her how she should spell it and the woman said, “M-a-r-g-a-r-e-t.” Margareete said, “That’s Margaret,” and the woman said, “That’s right.”

Margareete said, “But my name is …” and pronounced it correctly. The DMV woman said, “No it isn’t.”

Poor Tedd almost always saw his name spelled without the last d. He was the oldest, at 37; so he had suffered this eponymous ignominy longer and more often than his siblings.

The story went that their mother Ida had the idea for Tedd as a one-time whimsy; but the more she called him that, clearly envisioning the name in her head with the extra d, the concept grew to include the next two children. So too were they cursed.

The tradition spread to domesticated animals. All three siblings gave their pets odd names, mainly to drive their father crazy—to get back at him because he hadn’t intervened in his children’s naming.

“He just let Mom do it,” Margareete, Tedd and Jenette agreed.

So, Tedd had a setter named Settee, then a Schnauzer named Schnozz, and finally a Jack Russell named Jagg (short for Jaggoff, not Jaguar). His father hated them all, the dogs, just for their names alone. Jagg bit him twice.

Jagg knew.

Margareete had cats: Shizzywill, Flark and Cutimous. Their father hated cats, on principle, so he hated Shiz, Flark and Cute without ever seeing them.

Their father’s name was Ed.

Ed.

Ed.

Jenette, to be different, always to be different, had an array of birds (Floopie, Crying High, Slock, and Crumbling), snakes (Slather [“You mean Slither,” her father said every fucking time she mentioned the snake’s name], Spit, [“You mean Spot?” because the boa had large spots; Jenette had carefully calculated that one], and Fong [“You mean Fang!”; but no, Fong was born in 2001, the last Chinese Year of the Snake], and rats (Sphinctum, Plorgorgio and Thanatopical Solution, her favorite name for anything, ever). The last one died early, but not ironically.

It was curious that neither Jenette, Margareete or Tedd ever thought of their mother as being mean in her appellative choices—they were quite sure she was just being an imp, delighting in the fun—but they all missed her, dearly, and forever blamed their dull and hateful father for their lives of nominative humiliation, their ongoing titular grief.

Ida was a sweet lady, a great mom, otherwise. She helped them all with their homework while their father watched “professional” wrestling on satellite.

So, when their father died and they contacted the stone carver at Manny’s Memorials, the siblings gave him very specific directions on which they all agreed and which served them all quite well the rest of their lives. Every time they visited the flat cemetery on Blushing Avenue, they could read, to their great satisfaction the words they had so carefully chosen.
On the left side of the double-wide monument:

Here Lies Elizabeth Ida Harkins-Foley, good mother and loyal wife,
May 23rd, 1937 –September 4, 1989

And on the right:
Ed


IMG_4542If Only
By Sue Katz

If his hip had not brushed the corner of the grocery cart as he bent over to make space in the trunk, the loaded cart might not have rolled away from his car and into the back of the grandmother’s legs. She might not have buckled to the ground from the blow, letting go of the stroller just as that car pulled into the parking lane, and the infant might still be around.

If that baby were alive, Ruthie might not have left him and he might not have spent so much time and money on a custody battle for Freddy Junior that his lawyer, thousands of dollars later, had neglected to mention would be unlikely to go his way.

If it hadn’t been winter, he wouldn’t have been wearing that thick wool coat, which cushioned his contact with the cart, preventing him from realizing in time that, because he had knocked it, his cart was going rogue. If it hadn’t been Friday after an exhausting workweek, he might not have stopped off at the massage parlor for a hand-job from Emi before going shopping. And really, if things had gone faster with Emi, it might have been 5:30 instead of 6:00 when he left the store with all his bags, and that grandmother and the kid might not even have arrived at the supermarket.

If it had been the regular babysitter pushing the stroller, she might have heard the shopping cart rumbling towards her. But it was the grandmother’s day and because her hearing aid had been acting up for months, she never heard the noise of the metal. But even if she could have afforded a decent hearing aid, she had been facing the other way and chattering with the infant.

Freddy loved and treasured women, and could not understand why so many of them seemed to have a hand in making his life a misery: the grandmother, his ex-wife, the lawyer, and even the masseuse. Could he be blamed for feeling betrayed and bitter?

Every time he woke up in his hastily secured studio apartment with its yellowed barren walls and none of his items around him except for clothes, the same tape full of recriminations looped around his brain.

If Emi hadn’t delayed him that Friday by droning on about how hard it was to make it in America and how she had to do so many different part-time jobs in this bad economy that it was a miracle that she didn’t mix them up, he might have been able to concentrate on getting off more quickly, and might not have crossed paths with that half-deaf grandmother and the stroller.

If the cops hadn’t come to his home to interview him about the runaway basket just because he had left the scene before they got there, and if his wife hadn’t planted herself in the room while the police probed, she still wouldn’t know anything about the massages.

He resented, really resented having his privacy exposed. Why Ruthie took it personally, he had no idea. It wasn’t as if he had cheated on her. It was just part of his health regime. It was a shame he had not been born into a different time and place, into a culture where men were pampered, not interrogated and judged, where the whole incident would have passed without all this pain and disruption.

One day after work he was on his way to that hated studio apartment. He was in such a bad mood that he couldn’t even figure out where to stop for take-out. He decided he really ought to go back to the massage parlor for a treatment, to reduce his stress. Emi wouldn’t be there—she was only there on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays—but he was sure one of her colleagues would be happy to serve him. After all, he tipped well and was still attractive. He was convinced the women enjoyed their time with him, which made him feel it was his last refuge.

To his surprise, Emi was available. When he asked why, she said, “There is much sadness.” She had lost one of her jobs very suddenly, she explained, as he stripped off his clothes. It was taking care of the baby of a young couple from Monday through Thursday afternoon. A good job, a happy baby. But, because the grandmother stayed with the child on Fridays, Emi worked at the parlor instead.

Freddy was naked with just a towel around him. He had one foot on the ground and one knee up on the massage table when he froze in dismay at Emi’s mention of a grandmother. The towel fell as he watched Emi turn away and shake her head. Tears rolled down her cheeks.


Commute
By Robert Walton

“The 4:10 is late today.”

“What’s new?”

“Claire, how can you be so patient?”

Claire shrugged. “I have a choice?”

Ann glanced to her left. “Uh-oh. Your Marge is getting up.”

Marge groaned and her knees creaked as she rose from the green bench. Her black sequined jeans stretched far beyond design limits. Tiny jewels of sweat gleamed along her hairline. She shaded her eyes with her right hand and peered down the tracks.

Ann sniffed. “Who would have thought that she’d end up looking like a hot-air balloon?”

Claire smiled darkly. “She used to be zaftig. Husbands like zaftig. Mine did.”

“Zaftig gets you hot-air balloon, if you’re into quarter-pounders with cheese, three at a sitting. What’s she doing?”

“Looking for the train. She wants to get home.”

Ann sighed. “So do I. I need to get someplace dark and cool and put my feet up.”
“Your feet hurt?”

“Well, no, but it’s psychological.”

Claire nodded. “Yeah. At least when we’re in our houses we’re not on call.”

Ann straightened. “Oh, Jesus!”

“What?”

“Hector has to take another leak. He must have a prostate the size of a grapefruit, for Christ’s sake! Why doesn’t he get it checked?”

“Your train’s first, but you’ve got time.”

“Damned stinky urinals! Why don’t they clean the damned things?”

“Budget cuts.”

“Doesn’t matter! Men don’t care what they hit when they pee.”

“That’s true enough.”

Ann straightened. “Got to hold my breath again!”

Claire raised an insubstantial eyebrow. “What breath? You’re dead.”

“Hey, if I pretend to hold my nose, it helps.”

“Anything you say.”

“Going into the bathroom with this guy twenty times a day is just disgusting.”

Claire shrugged. “I’m not disagreeing.”

“Disgusting and boring!”

“You’re the one who decided to stick around.”

Ann grimaced. “Yeah, for fifteen years and counting, but I wanted to make his life miserable for what he did to me. He’s making my death miserable instead. It’s not working out like I planned.”

“Drop a spider on him or something.”

“I got tired of doing that stuff after the first month. I tell you, I can’t take much more of this!”

“It might be better than hell.”

“You think so? You really think so?”

Claire said nothing.

“Besides,” Ann continued, “who says I deserve to go to hell?”

Claire smiled. “Who says you don’t?”

Ann looked down. “Well, I wasn’t perfect.”

“Nobody’s perfect, babe, nobody.”

“Not even you?”

Claire smiled again. “Not even me.”

“So how do we get out of this? How do we quit haunting?”

“Not wanting to do it anymore might be the first step.”

“What’s the second?”

Claire said nothing.

Ann looked over her shoulder. Come on, tell me before I have to go to the can with Mr. Swollen Prostate.”

“Maya Angelou once said, ‘If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Claire looked into Ann’s somewhat faded eyes. “Don’t complain anymore.’”

“I like complaining! Besides, that doesn’t answer my question!”

Claire shrugged. “Maybe it does.”

Ann shot to her feet. “Praise the Lord! Here comes our train! Hector’s going to have to suck it up. See you tomorrow!”

Claire nodded. “I hope not.”

Ann chased Hector onto the train. The train’s doors slotted shut and it hissed away into the dusk leaving only whirlpools of paper trash and leaves. Claire looked at Marge—at her mottled second chin, at her drooping split ends—and ghostly tears welled in her eyes. This sorrowful creature had inspired her eternal rage? Silver tears—tears of pity and sudden sympathy—trickled down Claire’s pale cheeks.

“Claire?”

Claire whirled and stared up into a familiar face.

“I think you’re done here.”

“George Clooney? You’re George Clooney?”

The familiar grin shone like a spotlight. “No, but you can call me George.”

“You look like George Clooney!”

George shook his head. “Nope. He looks like me. I happen to be an angel.”

“Isn’t he an angel?”

“Not just yet. May I offer you an arm? We’ve got an elevator to catch.”

“You mean?”

The grin shone even brighter, beyond full moons and major fireworks. “Like I said, you’re done here. Maya is waiting to meet you.”


IMG_4914What Joey Did
By Vanessa Christie

“I’ll have another of those,” my mom tells the waiter.

“Right away,” he says, doing a quick scan of her double-D’s.

“I’m taking you home right after this,” she tells me. “Then I’ll be meeting up with your auntie.” She asks the waiter, “What’s your most expensive bottle?”

I do a quick calculation. Two drinks + bottle + driving me home + going to a club with my “auntie” = likely disaster.

My mother Denise is twenty-four years older than me. Men who want to have sex with her call her my “big sister”, and most men want to have sex with her. Luke—my dad—did, right up until he caught her with Clive who works for him. Luke wanted me to keep living with him, in spite of all this. Said he was the only father I’ve ever known, and anyway that Denise is not responsible enough to take care of me on her own. People think Luke is my dad because he’s African American like my real dad, but I never met him.

*

I know when my mom makes it home from the club because it sounds as though a murder is taking place in her room, which is never what it sounded like when Luke was with her. And in the morning, I meet the man who spent the night having sex with my mom.

I did not think I would actually meet him, so I drop my textbook and he tells me to be quiet. His name is Joey. He says he was out having a drink last night (when he met my mom) because his employers are giving him a hard time. To show him I understand, I tell him how Mrs. Keen always gives me a hard time in math, especially when I say that the numbers are not actually numbers but symbols of numbers.

“You’re smart aren’t you?” Joey says to me. “You must be smart like your mom.”

Apparently he hasn’t figured out that my mom isn’t smart, or at least not intelligent. She never reads, and only watches reality shows that dumb girls in my class watch. But she is cunning like a fox that can trick its prey—though that kind can get caught and turned into coats.

*

Luke looks surprised to see me when I bike to his place. I had to Google how to get there from where I am staying.

“Hey kiddo—”

“Can I stay with you? I hate living with her. And I hate her boyfriend.”

“Your mother and I have not worked out visitation yet. When we do you can come over.”

“Can you show me how to use a gun?”

“I’m not ready to teach you yet.”

“He hits her.”

Luke’s fingers look like they are strangling his bottle of beer. “Are you certain of that?”

“Yes. So can you show me how to use a gun?”

“No. Do you want me to drive you to see one of your friends?”

“I don’t have friends.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I didn’t when I was your age either. I had an uncle who was gay. So the kids all said I was gay and had diseases. And I had to learn how to fight.”

“Can you show me?”

“Maybe when you’re older.”

“You just said you were my age when you learned.”

“Fine. I’ll show you a few things. But later. Go inside and watch TV. I’m going to have a talk with your mom’s new boyfriend.”

A few hours later he comes back sweaty and pours himself a drink from the Scotch bottle. Everyone I know seems to drink too much, at least sometimes, and I wonder if I will drink when I get older.

“You didn’t say his name was Joey.” He says something else quietly so he thinks I don’t hear the swear word.

“You didn’t ask me his name.”

“Sorry,” he says. “Spend all your time talking to cops and you forget everyone isn’t one. I wonder why his family let him back into the fold. After … ”

He finishes the rest of his drink.

If he will not tell me what Joey did, then I will ask Google. Google does not care how old you are, especially when your parents cannot figure out the child setting.

But Google does not tell me either. There are pictures of Joey with women, and two arrest photos. One is for a DUI and one is for a fight; but neither I think would make your family stop talking to you. Families are not schools with zero tolerance and no listening to excuses, which is how my one friend ended up in another school, because she got dared to bring alcohol in a water bottle. She did not drink, just wanted to prove she could, but the school would not listen, so I went from 1 friend to 0.

*

So I do not have to go back to living with Denise, though she does come over when she’s drunk. Luke tells her that she’d better not have been saying anything about him, and if she had been that there would be consequences. Denise says that Luke had better “watch his back” and he comes close to slapping her but does not.

He also shows me how to shoot a gun and use wrist locks, and tells me that “all this is for defensive purposes” as though I don’t know that. He acts like I was in more than one fight. Everyone knows it was because Janelle hit me in the face with her brush, but we both got in trouble and had to write apology letters. But in mine I wrote “You Bitch” with the capital letters and no one realized.

I’ve decided to become a police officer when I grow up, but not Chief of Police like Luke because he works too hard.


Sudoku
By Christie Wilson

Inside the grid are nine boxes, and inside those nine boxes are nine smaller boxes, and those are the perimeters, but they are not the only things to consider. In fact, they are just the smaller version of perimeters because there are other rules about vertical and horizontal, but the best and most important thing is that only one number can go in each box.

If the wrong number is placed in a box, then the entire game is ruined. The most cunning thing about this is that one might go on for five, or even ten moves before realizing that something is very, very wrong. And then there is the choice, to erase or to abandon. And, I often abandon. I just let it go because it is just a game and doesn’t represent a damn thing about me. Nothing. Nothing at all.

Inside the grid are nine boxes, and inside those nine boxes are nine smaller boxes, and those are the perimeters, but they are not the only things to consider. When I put a five in the top grid, in the center box, to represent the number of times I have called my mother’s phone, and also because there was already a seven in the box and an eight as well, and a five in the left row of the middle box in the grid, it doesn’t mean anything that she hasn’t picked up. It doesn’t mean that I should take what my dad said any more seriously than I did on the day he told me about the empty pill bottles.

If the wrong number is placed in a box, then the entire game is ruined. Just like when he told me at the gas pump about finding her and the bottles, and he said he’d lost an entire week of work, but I didn’t feel pity for him. His miscalculation that led us down an entirely different path of numbers of days, numbers of times she has threatened, numbers of times he has pushed my soul down to the farthest it can possibly go before unabashedly asking me to feel sorry for him and his dwindling number of sick days.

Those are the perimeters, but the two I put in the bottom left corner, in the very last box also represent his eyes. His two eyes that looked so tired and looked every day as old as the sixty-four years that his body claims. But sixty-four isn’t a number that fits in the box. Only single digits. Lone numbers, just like lone days. And, I don’t know where to put the six and where to put the four, in this, the left-hand box on the bottom of the grid.

But those are not the only things to consider. There are also the vertical and the horizontal. The horizontal seems always the same. It works itself out. It is so used to the pattern, and my hand flies along the boxes, scribbling in the numbers, like plugging in the channel numbers of her days. Two-dimensional figures move on her television screen and my grid does a fine job of representing them because like the syndication schedule of past shows, this pattern is predetermined.

No, the horizontal is not my problem or my hope. It is the vertical wherein the issue lies. Can I trust you, vertical? Can I trust you when you claim to be both three and one? I have been hoarding the threes and the ones. I have scraped them from the barrel of my pen and tucked them under the cap for safekeeping.

And, if I can fill in these boxes, face the predetermined, fly in the face of Chekhov, who doesn’t get to make the rules anyway, if I can do these things, then she will stay safe. She will stay my mother on the couch with pills left in the bottle.


IMG_4243Silly Gods
By James Valvis

I believed I was poorly fated the very moment the gods came for me. In the normal course of events the only hope you have in life is for the gods never to notice you. If you can pull that off, if you can be nothing special, if you can remain invisible to Demeter, Apollo, Artemis, and all the rest, you have your chance at a brief happiness. Grant you, even that’s a long shot, but once the gods become interested in you there’s almost no hope at all. The best you can ask then, if you’re a hero of great skill and strength, which I am certainly not, is an eventual constellation in the heavens, where for all eternity you spin like a moronic bug on the dark discus of night, moonrise after horrible moonrise. At worst, you end up like Tantalus down in Hades and your name becomes synonymous with a new brand of torture.

I thought if there were to be any escape it might be achieved through the practice of humility. But despite my ceaseless attempts to lessen my fame, my reputation for cleverness and sound judgment grew as large as the sea, and thus I knew I was going to end up like Paris. Do you remember Paris? They asked him who was the more beautiful between Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, and he told them Aphrodite. He then accepted the beautiful and already married Helen as a gift for his answer. Bad move—both parts, answering the question and seizing the prize. He would have been better off clawing his eyes from their sockets rather than choosing between those bickering goddesses. Instead it ended up costing the world ten years of war, the city of Troy its walls, and Paris his life. The Judgment of Paris—what a joke! You can judge Paris as having very little judgment.

As they sat in council, the gods brought me before them. My hands were bound, as if one mortal could box the ears of a gaggle of towering gods. They also shackled my feet. I guess they didn’t want me outrunning wing-footed Mercury down the steep ridges of Mount Olympus. I cowered before them, but this was mainly for show, a gaudery of respect, a display of humility. In truth, as a stoic, I had already surmised and accepted my fate. The animal in me was afraid, but the man in me understood I could not escape my destiny.

Zeus spoke. His voice was so loud it was difficult to make out the words. “Epictetus, you are the wisest and cleverest man in the world, are you not?”

Shielding my eyes from the glare of his quivered lightning arrows, I said, “Maybe … probably. But that’s not all that much of an accomplishment. You should see some of the guys … ”

“Silence!”

I think I soiled myself a little.

“You have been summoned here to settle a dispute. It seems that one of my fellow gods—” he looked directly at his wife, Hera, “believes she is the most clever of all gods. We demand you, Epictetus, inform us who—myself or Hera—is the more clever god. Your verdict will be final.”

“And afterwards?”

He said nothing.

It was the worst possible disaster. Everyone who had gotten in the middle of that miserable marriage ended up wishing they had long ago been eaten by the Hydra.

If I picked Hera, it meant endless pain and misery.

If I picked her husband, it was worse.

“I will need time to think this over,” I said.

“How long?”

“Just one day,” I said. “But I must remain among you to study the issue firsthand.”

“Very well,” Zeus said. He looked at Hera. “Is this acceptable to you?”

“He shall have his one day,” Hera said. “This is all I will wait until my ascendancy to the high throne. In the meantime let him enjoy the hospitality of the gods.”

My shackles were removed and I was led away.

*

Well, to cut to the quick, as I suspected, it worked out well for me.

After my bonds were removed, I immediately received endless rations of ambrosia and nectar, not to mention all the nymphs a man might enjoy, cool running streams, lazy hours in the sun lying on the grass, and enough scrolls to be challenged and entertained through the ages.

Silly gods. One of their days is an eternity to a mortal.


The Green of The River Lee
By Jared Nadin

Walking with John down the banks of the River Lee discussing words, as was our wont in the early autumn evenings, I couldn’t help but notice the eerie green of the River Lee. It had an odd colour, difficult to describe. I fumbled with my poet’s mind. It wasn’t mossy green, for how could a river be like moss? Nor was it a forest green, for it flows through far too urban pastures. And so with John’s conversation turning to static in my head, I stared at the river’s surface trying to eke out the appropriate adjective to describe its particular shade of green. I stood there for quite some time, silently rifling through old boxes in my brain labelled “Dictionary”. But no words came. Just a memory. All I could see was the green tin moneybox that I had found, as a child, in our cottage. Old Beech Cottage.

It was a peculiar trinket, that moneybox. A tall cylindrical thing, with rust along the bottom, and a large coin slot in its paint-tin lid. It was far too thin to have ever actually held paint however, and it had this slender metal handle welded to the side. The kind of handle that brought to mind an antique beer stein I’d once seen, but with the amount of rust on the inside of its curved walls, I hoped it had never been used for drinking. I can’t imagine a pint of Guinness would require any more iron after all.

I’d found it in the coal shed, where Mr. O’Gorman had hidden his fortune years previous. The fortune was found long before we came to the place, but the neighbours talked about it often. About how Old George had hidden his life’s worth in tins and boxes, and buried them. Andy Conlon, the butcher, had found it all after George had passed. And when I spied that old green moneybox, knowing what it had been a part of, I snatched it up and brought it to my perch on the Old Beech that gave our cottage her name.

I sat in that great tree, in a crook where the trunk split in two about half way up. I sat there and admired the tin: its craftsmanship, its history. I got lost in its curves and crevices and looked back at the house, imagining it in Old George’s time. The fading bachelor picking his potatoes from the well-kept garden. His dog chasing butterflies through the field, peaceful. But the memory was cut short as another crept up from the shadows. The memory of the day my father felled the Old Beech. “To protect us from the storm,” he had said, in case the great tree fell and crushed our home. Instead, the great tree was felled and crushed my childhood.

The cottage too is gone now of course. All burned, burned to ashes. The walls are still there, charred and black, if you care to see them. And I remember sifting through the remains, the aftermath of the roaring hellfire that swallowed up our tiny home, and finding silly things that survived. School books, an old football jersey, a slightly melted PlayStation (still in working order if you could hack the smell). But there on the west side of the house, where my bedroom wall used to be, I saw it sticking out from a pile of tinders. A little rusty cylinder with a paint-tin lid. Its enduring green paint, undamaged by the flames and smoke, it wore like armour against the world.

The enduring green of the moneybox reflected up at me from the river’s surface and I continued to walk, content. I had found that lost adjective and put my poet’s mind to rest. And to this day I feel the familiar pang of nostalgia, when I stare deeply into the enduring green of the River Lee.


A Flash of Colour
By Andy Jones

When I answered his summons to the pharmacy, Gavin was up to his elbows in a big cauldron of stuff they made called “Carrageena”. Apparently the pot was a relic of an Irish famine workhouse, used to make enough stirabout of Indian Maize for over a hundred people. The combination of the seaweed and God knows what other gunge they put in it produced a dreadful smell that clung to everything. It was supposedly a cure-all good for coughs, arthritis, slow greyhounds and whatever you’re having yourself.

“Here,” he ordered, giving me an envelope. “Take this to the girl in the dress shop in Mary Street. You know the one I mean.”

Inside the shop, she studied the note and began to laugh.

“Do you know what that fella you work for is asking?” she giggled. I had not given the matter any thought, so I shook my head. “No, Miss. He just gave me the envelope and told me to hand it to you.”

Her mood changed as she replaced the note in the envelope and resealed it with a piece of sticky tape. “Tell him that if he wants a reply he should be man enough to come in person,” she said, leaning forward and placing her hands with their purple painted nails on my shoulders. Her perfume swirled round me like the aroma in a Bisto Kids advertisement. “Tell him not to send a boy on a man’s job.”

I told her Gavin was the boss’ son, his pride and joy. He could be charming, but he could blow his top as well. She nodded when I said that.

I gallantly blurted that she was enough to make any man jealous, and she blushed. “You are a bit of a Casanova for a young fella,” she said, “but you know, you might be on the right track.” She was silent for a moment. “Do you want to make a pound?” she asked.

A pound?

“Yes, Miss,” I stammered, falling under her spell.

“Right. Here’s what I want you to do. When you go back to the pharmacy, tell Gavin that I had a man in the shop with me when you arrived. Tell him that I asked you to come back in ten minutes, and when you did, you caught us kissing. Have you got that?”

I nodded and she continued. “Tell him I gave you a half-crown to keep your mouth shut about what you saw. If he asks what the fella kissing me was like, tell him he was tall, dark and handsome, like … like, Robert Taylor.”

An impatient Gavin was waiting for me, and his big red face was on fire. “What kept you?” he asked.

“I had to wait,” was my first essay into duplicity.

“Wait for what?” Gavin barked.

I took a deep breath. “Until her fella left the shop.” His face got redder and his eyes registered shock as I went on. “When I went in, they were kissin’ the faces off each other. She told me to go away and come back in ten minutes and gave me half a crown to say nothing to you about it.” I jingled the change in my pocket as supporting evidence. He staggered back as if struck over the head, grabbing at the mahogany counter for support.

My Da got the paper early on a Saturday. As I came into the kitchen, ready to grab a bite before heading in to work, he was reading a report to my Ma. “Terrible thing,” he read aloud. “Young woman missing from the shop she worked in.” I looked over his shoulder and let my toast burn. There on the front page was a photograph of Chez Maura, the shop I had been in only yesterday. Her picture did not do her justice.

Gavin was in a sombre mood on Monday morning. “I suppose you’ve heard about Maura,” he said to me.

I nodded. “Yeah. Terrible. Where could she have gone?” He was quiet for a minute, then said, “That fella you saw her with. The police will be looking for him, and you’re a witness.”

A week or two later, there was still no news about the missing woman. It was now time to finish the process with the “Carrageena” that had been simmering away in the back shed. I had helped before with this awful job. It was a back-breaking task. As each container was filled we untied the twine that held the muslin filter taut, gathered in the edges and squeezed the suspended ball of ingredients to extract the last drops of precious infusion. The dregs were flung into a bin along with the soiled cloths. Gavin worked like a man possessed, driving me as hard as himself.

I still had a couple of the smaller pots to strain when he was called to the front of the shop. It was the police. They shook Gavin’s hand with sympathetic expressions on their faces, and he took them into the little “Snug” where private conversations were carried on. At the very least I could see Artane* or Letterfrack* in my future. The boy who lied, the boy who misled his boss, wasted police time! My mind was in a whirl, so much so that I almost missed the flash of colour in the piece of muslin cloth I was about to throw in the bin. I looked again closely, and the hair on my neck began to stiffen. With a piece of stick I moved various bits and pieces of the “Carrageena” dregs to one side. There, nestling in among the bits of seaweed was a human fingernail.

It was the purple colour that made me run screaming into the arms of the detectives.

*Industrial schools, or Borstals.


IMG_5082I Gave My Baby Away
By Rebecca Kemp

I gave my baby away at two months. She was born in Sheffield Hospital out of wedlock and she was tiny. Weighed next to nothing. Her father had gone long before, so I called her Margaret, after my mother, and anyway I liked the name. I wanted her to grow up and be someone good, marry a rich husband and have healthy children. I wanted her to travel the world and see more than I had working as a housemaid, wiping noses and swatting flies.

Fly Margaret, fly from here and take on life. It’s 1902, I told her; we just reached a new century and you’re beginning it. How thrilling! When you’re eighteen, Margaret, it’ll be 1920 and who knows where you’ll be. Maybe on a ship or riding a horse. Maybe those things won’t exist any more.

I gave you up in a bundle, your pink face squashed and your eyes closed, a bonnet I had knitted covered your head, and you were wrapped in a shawl given to me by the hospital.

He gave me five pounds, Mr. Bonner, put it in my hand and took you in his arms like he was carrying a sick animal, and told me I should be going. I walked out of the door into the fog of the gas lamps with my arms at my sides instead of around you. I didn’t look back, but fixed my gaze straight on the moon, and the man I told you lived in it.


Flip Side
By Neil Brosnan

Let me assure you that I know why I’m here and I completely understand your position. There is no doubting the evidence; it’s irrefutable. I killed him; yes, just as surely as if I’d put arsenic in his eleven-o’clock mug of tea, or shot him with the rifle he keeps hidden between the hay bales in the barn. But what I am not guilty of is premeditation, nor of any act of aggression. I would never set out to cause him harm. It was not my fault; I’m as much a victim as he in all of this.

I’ve known him for as long as I can remember; I’ve known him as well, if not better, than any of his neighbours—even his own family—and I’ve liked him from the very beginning. I’ve always felt a degree of empathy between us, an odd camaraderie; it’s almost as if we’d been cut from the same cloth.

We’ve walked the same earth, wrestled with the same daily worries; we’ve eaten the same food, drank the same milk and water, smelt the same smells, felt the same cold—the same heat, slept under the same roof, awakened to the crowing of the same rooster; our shadows have merged in sun and moonlight alike. It’s almost as if we have each been the flip side of the other’s coin.

Like me, he has always put his family first: initially there were just his parents, and then his lovely wife, and now their beautiful children. As a son, husband and a father, I don’t need to tell you how devastated I feel for them all. I know how tirelessly he toiled on their behalf: day and night, summer and winter. Whatever the weather, I could see him tilling the land, tidying the yard, tending his stock. One couldn’t but admire his work ethic, his dedication, his selflessness; he truly was an inspiration.

I’d be the first to admit that I could not have wished for a better neighbour, and I certainly can’t deny that my family has greatly benefited from his industry, both directly and from my subsequent efforts to emulate him. Without doubt, the world will be much the poorer for his passing, and all of you who’ve known him will rightly mourn his loss. But I, too, am personally bereft. I, too, have lost a benefactor, a colleague; my world has become an alien and hostile void without him.

Believe me, if it were only within my power, I’d be the first to turn back the clock; there is nobody more appalled than I at the consequences of my action. If by some miracle I were given the option of restoring either my own mother or him to life, my decision would not be an easy one.

No, please indulge me for just a few moments longer; I promise to be brief. I should be truly grateful if you would allow me to finish by asking you to ponder this: what if our situations had been reversed; what if I had been the one to die? Would he now be crouching here in a cage before you? Would he find himself trying to defend the indefensible? What if it had been me, instead of my young daughter, whom he had impaled on his pitchfork? What if it had been he who had bitten my ankle in an attempt to save his little boy from certain death?

No, you don’t have to answer; I’ll do it for you. I guarantee you here and now that he would be rightly hailed and regaled as a hero—an example to us all. Because you will always have the power of life and death over your fellow creatures, and I will forever be just another dead farmyard rat.


Greetings
By Neil McGowan

“Hello?” Muted strains of classical music reach David’s ears as the door opens. She has a smile that melts away like ice as she recognises him. “Oh, Officer Banks, I wasn’t expecting you. You’d better come in.”

“Thank you.” His rank is Detective Inspector, but he doesn’t correct her. She moves aside, ushering him in. He gets the feeling that she doesn’t want him on the doorstep for too long; the neighbours might see. He feels a pang of empathy for Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is how they must feel, their presence at the door akin to bird shit on the paintwork to be washed away before anyone sees.

He waits as she closes the door. They don’t speak as she leads him through to the living room. It is even more dismal and depressing than he remembers. She gestures with one hand at the stained sofa and he takes a seat.

He hates this part of the job more than any other. There is an uncomfortable silence as he tries to think of the best way to start. He rubs his chin, finding a patch of stubble that he has missed when shaving. The music continues in the background. Mozart, he thinks, the Requiem Mass.

She speaks first. “So,” she says. “I’m guessing you have some news for me.” She looks hopeful.

He nods, swallows. “I do.”

She jumps to her feet, full of nervous energy all of a sudden. “I’m sorry,” she says, the words tumbling over each other in an effort to be free. “Where are my manners? Let me get you something to drink.”

He raises his hand to decline but she ignores it and continues. “Tea? Coffee? Something stronger perhaps.” She winks at him. “I know you probably shouldn’t, being on duty and all, but I won’t tell if you won’t.”

He can sense an undercurrent of fear in her words, in the way her movements are jerky and disjointed. He knows that, on some level, she is aware of what he has to tell her. Basic human trait, he thinks, deny something long enough and hope it goes away.

But he knows that it won’t, that his words will slice her apart like a knife, creating a wound that will never heal.

“Mrs. Wells,” he says.

“Angela,” she says. He detects a faint tremor in her voice.

“Angela,” he says. “Please, I think you should sit down.”

She nods once. He sees her throat work as she swallows.

“It’s about Alison?” The question isn’t really a question. He nods and takes a deep breath.

“I’m very sorry to tell you this,” he begins, hating the way the words sound trite and inadequate, “but we discovered a body this morning.” He pauses. Her eyes are bright and glassy.

“And?” Her voice is brittle.

The carefully prepared speech is gone, torn from his memory by that one word. He starts to speak, forcing the words out. One after the other, hoping they will come easier. They don’t. His tongue is mired in molasses.

“We think it’s Alison. I can’t confirm that yet, not without a positive identification, but I wanted to let you know.” He feels hot. It’s becoming harder to breathe. He takes small sips of cloying air. “We should have DNA confirmation very soon.”

He sees her eyes light up as he gives her this one false hope; he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the body is that of Alison Wells; but the machinations of bureaucracy move slowly and he would be remiss if he didn’t allow for a possible misidentification.

Mozart gives way to Bach, one of the Fugues. He can almost see her processing the information he has given her and using it to shore up her defences, a brittle façade that he knows will soon be demolished like a house of cards in a strong wind.

“I’m really very sorry,” he begins.

“It’s okay,” she says, cutting him off. “There’s hope yet, eh?”

He can only nod in mute silence, knowing that there is no hope. He thinks that she knows it too, deep down. A solitary tear escapes one eye and trickles unchecked down her cheek. He knows it will be the first of many.

They sit in silence for perhaps a minute. He wants to leave, wants to go home and wash away this unclean feeling.

“I should be going,” he says. His head is starting to ache.

She nods. “Thank you, David,” she says. “Would you be okay to find your own way out?”

He nods, not trusting his voice.

“You’ll be in touch?” she asks as he pulls himself to his feet.

“Yes,” he says. “We’ll be in touch very soon.” He waits for a response. None is forthcoming. “Goodbye, Angela.” He thinks she nods; it is hard to tell.

He walks to the front door. He closes it behind him and takes a moment to rest his head against the cool plastic. As he is walking away he hears her voice, a high-pitched wail of anguish and despair. He shivers, knowing that she is saying goodbye to a child.


IMG_4344Priest
By Kenneth Nolan

A barren landscape, every square inch infertile and dead to the future. Still, this ground had men toiling on it. Followers, battered men, meek men, beaten dockets scattering in the wind. A howling, bitter wind, which nobody could sense or feel for they were all trapped in the red heat.

I’ve had many dreams about this place, a place I have never been. A place I don’t know the name of; nor am I familiar with any soul who dwells there. This place first appeared to me as a flash of burning red. Even to imagine it now causes my temperature to rise and my brow to perspire.

I took many visits to this place. I often tried to speak to the workmen. They would not answer any of my questions, though on my most recent visit I spoke to one man. A young priest.

The priest was very much in charge, though he behaved like he was just passing through, like the honorary guest at an important banquet. He ate all different kinds of foods at breakneck speed, at every moment that he was in front of my eyes. He was not overweight, but it seemed like he should be. He commanded the people around him to do things at every opportunity, as if to avoid seeing them stand still. He spoke to them with the diction and politeness of an educated gentleman, but I could see the contempt drip from his eyes. These serfs could not help but obey him. I found it curious to watch as they shuffled and weaned to his carolled commands.

He spoke directly to me and I was immediately stung by his tone. He said, “I am a busy man, my friend, so I will require you to state your business and be on your way.”

“What is this place? What is it called? Where are we? Who are all these people?”

“You do not know?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I was brought here. I mean, I’m dreaming aren’t I?”

He paused, a smile rolled down from his eyes to his mouth, the tip of his tongue on view for a moment. I could see that he was revelling in my confused, disorientated state. After an eternity, he replied, “Are you dreaming?”

At this point I was 100% sure that I was asleep and dreaming; but felt it was akin to signing my own death warrant to admit as much. I was having the most vivid dream that I could ever recall experiencing. However, my curiosity had gone, and I wanted to wake up immediately. I was trapped in my own head, in my own bed.

I felt very annoyed with the fact that I couldn’t wake myself up, and furious with the man who I felt was now keeping me prisoner. ‘Why couldn’t I just, wake up!’

“Sir. If you want to leave, just leave. My time is precious.” He said this in a goading way. Surfing on his power, seeking the most appropriate kill moment. He then looked at the floor near my feet and began to chuckle.

At this moment a young woman started to flap at my legs with a cloth. ‘Please please,’ she said. “I clean, no problem.”

I looked down. I was naked; naked in every sense of the word. I was drenched from my waist to my feet. The liquid was circling around me, forming a puddle-like trap that was rising up at a ferocious speed toward my face.

I looked at him. He was laughing. I was overcome with dread. I dropped all pretence of stoicism and male machismo and began to plead, cry, choke for my freedom.

“Let me go,” I begged him.

“Not yet,” he replied. “You must pay one month’s rent in advance as well as the equivalent amount up front, by way of deposit.”


Artificial Light
By LB Thomas

Writing under florescent lights feels like work. Fluorescent lights are for offices, hospitals, busywork, paperwork. And now I can’t find a single bulb that’s not florescent, and damn anyone who says there’s no difference. So now I write only during the day, at my grandfather’s desk, the one he had in his captain’s chambers when he was at sea, and while I write, the light that doesn’t land on me heats the floor where my Great Dane, Rufus, stretches himself out, yawns, and nips at dream chipmunks.

I write with a black felt-tip pen that bleeds onto the page when I touch it lightly and helps me pretend I know calligraphy. I’ve written love letters this way, and complaint letters, and letters to the editor. It’s only recently that I’ve decided to start my first novel; the initial draft will be handwritten and the second will be typed on the Underwood Touchmaster Five I stored in the attic thirty years ago.

The idea for the book came to me when I was nineteen. The girl I was dating at the time, April, and I were in Franklin Park, lying on the grass, her head on my chest, sunlight streaming down through the oak trees, reflecting off a galaxy of floating pollen. I studied April’s copper freckles and rested my hand on her soft belly as she asked me questions about my university classes to which I cooed calming, meaningless responses.

“How is your new professor?”

“Brilliant.”

“Do you think you’ll be ready for exams?”

“Of course.”

I knew April and I weren’t getting married. When I would eventually uproot myself from my childhood home, she would stay firm in the soil, her tendrils wrapped tightly around everything she loved here in Eastbridge: family, church, Marco’s Shop where she bought her summer dresses, parties where Felix Brittle played guitar and we drank barley wine and danced like children. I knew I couldn’t take her with me, but I had a thought: What if I wrote her into my life after I’d finished living it? When I would be fishing in the deep sea, I could write that she stayed in the northern port city where I set sail and silently watched the sea each night for my return. When I built a cabin in the forest, I could say she came along and helped me set traps for badgers.

The actual adventures I had in life were far less exciting than I had expected and it turned out the engineering degree my father forced me to earn provided my only reliable income. I did move away from Eastbridge upon graduation and, as expected, April stayed behind. Sometime between then and now, I forgot about my book idea. I only remembered it last Wednesday when I was walking back to my house with a wine bottle from JJ’s Corner Market and I saw a little red-headed girl throw an apple at a neighbor boy—hit him square in the forehead. He dropped to his knees in pain, then forward to the ground, forearms out as if in prayer. I feel bad about it now, but I laughed at the poor boy, and the girl laughed, and we shared a look. I remembered the mischief in April’s eyes the time she stole a packet of lemon drops from the grocery, the one time I felt that maybe she was capable of doing something crazy like running off with me. And I remembered the book.

But now, looking back over my life, I’m having trouble finding a place for April in the story. When I lived in New York City, my first apartment was a hovel. The only natural light arrived for a few hours in the morning, then vanished almost instantaneously. Even nature couldn’t stand to be in there. How should I write April into that chapter of my life? Did she stay home and stomp on cockroaches while I was away at work? That would have been helpful, but I’m not sure any amount of stomping would have been enough. And where was she when I gambled away my inheritance at the horse track? Hopefully out earning extra cash. That way I wouldn’t have had to declare bankruptcy.

My pen hovers over a blank page. Rufus stands, shakes his ears, and does his corkscrew maneuver back to the floor. Maybe I should try to reconnect with April now to see how her life went? If she’s still alive. No, the April from my story isn’t the real woman, it’s the girl from under the oak tree where we lay under the same harp-strings of sunlight that are now all around me in my writing room, with my piles of papers and empty wine bottles. I can bring that girl here; I just have to pluck the right notes with my pen.


IMG_4315There is Honor in Being a Dog
By Bruce Costello

Doctor Rosenberg paused before dunking a gingernut in his coffee and looked up at his colleague.

“Interesting chap I saw this morning. Fifty-two years old, in perfect health as far as I could tell, drives around town okay but won’t go on the motorway. Scared he’ll steer into an oncoming truck and kill himself.”

 

“Marital problems?” Dr. Singh screwed up his face.

“Mmmm. Nothing significant as far as he’s told me. He’s a college principal with two highly successful children. Says he enjoys his work and has no argument with his salary.”

“Not your usual head case then.”

“I tried to send him off to a psychiatrist, but he told me he wasn’t interested in what he called ‘simplistic pharmaceutical’ solutions. He said something about deep-seated problems requiring drastic action, but wouldn’t elaborate.” Dr. Rosenberg scooped another gingernut from the packet, frowning. “Maybe it’s what’s not happening in the marital bed. Anyway, I persuaded him to make an appointment to come back to see me in a fortnight.”

*

“Did you have fun?” his wife Betty asked, sarcastically, when Principal Derek Davey arrived home that evening after a Parent-Teacher Meeting.

“It went okay.”

“Cup of coffee before bed?” she asked.

“Please.”

“Make me one, too, will you?” she said, turning back to her novel.

Derek smiled as the picture flashed into his mind of his hands around her throat.

‘I’d never do it,’ he reassured himself, ‘it’s just a harmless fantasy. Besides, once I started, there’d be no stopping.’

He imagined himself in front of the school assembly, pulling out an AK-47 concealed by the curtain over the rostrum, splattering the teachers sitting behind him first and then turning it on the students.

He sat quietly while Betty sipped her coffee and continued reading, the corners of her mouth set in a downward curve.

“Would you like a roll?” he asked, after a while.

She looked up with a shocked expression.

“I see there are some on the bench,” he said.

“No, thank you,” Betty replied frostily, turning back to her book.

‘I have no reality for you as a person,’ Derek thought, smiling strangely. ‘I exist for you in the role of husband, though in title only. At work I am not a man, merely an actor playing the role of Principal, with all its hundreds of sub-roles that the teachers, the parents and the students thrust upon me. I am not a person that people relate to and connect with. I am a resource to be exploited! Bloody hell!’

*

It was end of year prize-giving. A humid night, and the atmosphere inside the packed assembly hall was stifling.

Principal Derek Davey’s breathing was shallow and rapid, his throat dry. His head ached and his legs trembled.

Viewed from the stage, the audience appeared to shimmer as if he were looking through steam, or at a mirage in a very hot desert. Every face looked the same, male and female, students’ and parents’. Each prize-winner seemed to climb in slow motion up the steps to shake his hand and look at him with disdain.

*

‘That was bloody awful. I’ve had enough,’ Derek thought later, peering through streaming eyes at the lights of oncoming traffic, as he drove home afterwards on the country road a detour had forced him onto.

There were no trucks at that hour.

He arrived home, dripping with sweat.

Betty was already in bed asleep, as he took his jersey and wandered into the garden, where he sat for a long time in the darkness on the low bough of the apple tree under which he’d buried Aristotle, his Golden Labrador, a month earlier.

*

“I saw that College Principal again this morning,” said Dr. Rosenberg to his colleague, a fortnight later.

Dr. Singh put down his coffee. “Oh, yes,” he said, “the depressed chap with suicidal ideation. You were quite concerned about him, as I recall.”

“Yes, the one who didn’t want to have chemical solutions shoved down his throat.”

“How is he?”

“Great. Says he’s never been happier. Different man, bursting with life and vitality. He told me he’d confided in his best friend, someone he called Aristotle, who advised him to resign from his job, leave his wife and buy a Boarding Kennel business.”

“And?” Dr. Singh prompted.

Dr. Rosenberg chuckled as he sat down.

“He did! So what do we know about psychiatry, huh?”


Mistakes
By Anthony Keers

He walked into her bedroom with his reason strewn apart by the hangover of last night’s lustful mistake. Pulling down the handle of her bedroom door, he opened it and walked in. She sat up on her bed as he walked a few steps closer. The tension affected more than their minds—the wooden floor creaked under it, and the light shining through her blinds shuddered and tiptoed out. She kept her eyes to the floor, knowing the words he was about to say like the Shakespeare play she painfully learnt in high school.

James carried with him a long list of mistakes. He never knew why he would get himself into these situations. It seemed that he was on a continual spiral of descent that was started by his helping hand. His apology began to slip out of his mouth with his final step before standing in front of her. She kept her head down, looking at the tips of his shoes as if she were daydreaming a nightmare.

He gave her apology after apology, with hints of future promises. She could smell the whiskey on his breath with every word he said and saw the stains on his black jeans like white diamonds against the rock of a coal mine. It sickened her. His hands tried to touch hers—as his reasons and apologies turned into a compelling argument on his ability to change—but she pulled back. She slapped his face hard with the pain and heartache she kept inside each time she fell down on the barbed wire for him.

He stumbled back in shock and steadied himself against the wardrobe, left with nothing but his hangover and a pitiful attempt to control reality. The tension in the room grew enraged as she hurled her justified armoury at him. He stumbled back, whimpering and stuttering, trying to carry on his own idea of a sincere apology. But words couldn’t penetrate the thick wall around her, and she chucked him out with her screams alone. He ran downstairs and out the front door, climbing into his car.

Falling back on her bed, she felt her heart race with anger, pumping blood around her body with unprecedented force—her illusions of love burnt away by the daylight of reality. The tears that had by now soaked inches deep into her pillow began to dry as she felt free of his tyranny; while James drove home alone, adding another chain to his shackle.


IMG_5081Carrie’s Secret
By Jennifer Brazeau

I started collecting secrets when I was just six years old. That’s when I saw my grandmother put margarine in the butter dish. She winked at me.

“Grandpa loves his butter,” she said.

A few months later she showed me a stash of money in her freezer. She put her index finger on her mouth and told me it was a secret. Did Grandpa know she kept money there? I felt special and wondered if she told me because I kept the margarine secret.

“Now there are good secrets,” Grandmother said. “And there are bad secrets. You need to figure out which ones are the good ones.”

“How do you know, Grandma?”

“You just know. It’s a feeling.”

At home, my Mom had bought desserts to serve guests on more than one occasion. When praised for it, she simply took the credit. I also knew where my dad hid his bottle of vodka. He had a secret and he probably wasn’t even aware that I knew. I deduced that this was not a bad secret. I was young but knowing Dad hid vodka never gave me that feeling. It wasn’t like Carrie’s secret. We were both eight.

“I have to tell you something,” Carrie told me.

We were sitting on the metal swingset at school on a bitterly cold January day. With each word I saw her breath go up in a cloud and disappear. It was the kind of day your mouth froze if you didn’t move it.

“My neighbour hates me, I think.”

I looked at Carrie a bit confused. She looked like she was about to cry. I found myself staring at her eyes to see if they would freeze. My own started burning though.

“What do you mean?” I finally asked her.

“He’s mean and I don’t like him,” she said.

“What does he do?” I asked her.

“He makes fun of me.”

“How?” I was doubtful.

“He just says weird things and tells me not to tell. He makes me feel bad.”

She seemed so sad that I didn’t ask any more questions but I had that feeling. I had been to Carrie’s house dozens of times and had talked to the neighbour once. Philip was nine. I couldn’t understand why she would let a boy bother her so much. I probably would have told him to drop dead.

When Carrie started acting out and crying for no reason, the feeling came back. I just didn’t know what to do. Grandma said that I’d know if it was a bad secret but she never told me what to do. When you’re ten, you think your little problems are huge and yet you know enough not to bother adults with them.

“Mom,” I said. “Carrie’s been feeling sad because Philip, her neighbour, is mean to her.”

“Oh Carrie, she’ll be fine. It’s part of growing up.”

So I thought it wasn’t important. The feeling went away. Carrie started missing school. Spring came and we weren’t spending that much time together anymore. Carrie seemed older and sadder. She stopped playing double-dutch and she wouldn’t talk during lunch. She seemed far away in class and slept most of the way home on the bus.

Summer came and went and when school started up again that September, Carrie was nowhere to be found. Alice told me she moved away. I saw Philip in the library. He was reading quietly. He seemed old and sad. I wondered if he missed Carrie.

Neighbours come in all shapes and sizes it would seem. Philip had started collecting bad secrets when he was just six years old in his father’s den. Carrie had started collecting secrets at ten in that same den. It was the kind of secret you just didn’t tell.


Life is a Bugger
By Ray Clift

(Author’s note: I wrote this sometime back, after a cricket match between Australia and India, when Adam Gilchrist was having a bad patch. I heard a spectator yell out, ‘Put a flea in his ear, Ponting.’)

It is not easy being a Flea. However, we cope because the alternative is not appealing. I am on my own since the death of my family two hours ago and I struggle to hold in my grief here at the rubbish tip, which is the last resting place of my family’s remains.

We had a good life living inside Adam Gilchrist’s ears. The wax sustained us for many years until we were crushed by his giant fingers being thrust inside the openings.

Of all the free trips around the world, India was my favourite place. We laughed a lot with the Indian fleas as we danced Bollywood-style, swam through plates of curry and drank lots of Dilmah tea.

However, some of our herd came down with malaria after they bathed in the Ganges. The flying pallbearers arrived at the graveyard, diving down, dropping body parts: a leg, a head, an arm. The choir sang I Still Call Australia Home. We are very patriotic. The pastor with his flea collar mumbled about how ancient we were. My family did not grow to be ancient; I reflected on this. Then it was all over. No wake. We were in a recession.

Friends approached, sitting on a junkyard dog, with an offer of accommodation. I was not in a position to refuse and hopped up with them. Some were already asleep in his ears and snoring. I remarked on this but was told they were on night shift.

It appears my life is entering another phase and I must adapt.

Life is a bugger.


The Best Gift in the World
By Richard Hansen

I gotta piece o’papah ‘n drew Gweedo’s hammer, a machinist’s 22oz ball peen. Now, I ain’t no good at drawreen buh’dye tink duh likeness would have been sufficient. Then’nye dru a stick fig’yur tuh’represent me with my name on it, in block printing (which Gweedo can recognize), a little hand-held oiler can with long thin spout, a fine wire brush, ‘n arrows point’tin’ tuh’all the things in propuh order so’z just in thuh very unfortunate case Gweedo wake’zup t’find his hammah missin’ he’d immediately know:

I had it in the shop.

So’z I lift his hammah from thuh bedside table’n leave the note in’nitz place. This was thuh day t’do it too because Gweedo was bush’d from setlin’ two dispute’zin the garment district involving lots of stair climin’. He even had’tuh hide behind a door for two hours!

I getz’zit to thuh shop ‘n stawt wire brushing the steal head. At foist, due to’duh excess foreign mateerial I had’tuh usez’ah slightly more coarserly bristl’d brush then’anticipated takin’ care not’tuh blemish duh rustic patina with ‘n unsightly scratch it.

Then, ya know, thru a measured application of force with the finer brushes
it cleanz’zup suh’weetly, and,
without incident … even enuf tuh … tuh’see “Made in USA”.

awww it’s …
… itz a beautiful steal head! I kin seez whyz’ Gweedo is so enamored withit.
Anywayz then, using a nylon brush ‘n a solution of hawt wodder ‘n Dawn Dish Washing liquid I stawtz cleanin’ thuh wood handle ‘n noticed in thuh smudgy grease coating Gweedo’s finger marks,
ya know,
where he grip’sit hard when working.

So’z I get a rat tail file ‘n hollowz’zout perfectly finger-fittin’ grooves tuh enhance Gweedo’s already iron grip. This is risky but … I have the utmost faith in our friendship.

I dryz everything with a clean white cotton towel,
check on Gweedo ‘n he’s still sleepin’ like a baby given Benedril so’z I put thuh hammah in a vat of filthy
motor oil
from duh Fiats
an let it soak for an hour.
I’m sweatin’ every minute let me tell ya.
Then, all-gentle-like I retreevz thuh hammah, towel it dry with two cotton towels, gingerly place it on top of the note I left on Gweedo’s bedside table.
I go tooz’duh kitchen turnz’zon all the lights,
removez my jacket and shirt
leavin’ me in
trousers and t-shirt only,
I hand-cuff my hands in front of me and wait fr’Gweedo to wake up.

Gweedo wakes up.
I hear a gasp from his room.
Things start breakin.
Gweedo’zin dat rage of his.
He demolishes thuh door exitin’ his room.
He’s got thuh hammah in one hand and thuh note in thuh’uther.
He enters the kitchen,
the lights make everything bright, which
for Gweedo
is a set of circumstances he’z not accustomed to,
I stanz dere lookin’nup at’im as hiz vision adjusts.

I have:
no weapons;
I’m not runnin or screamin’;
my hands are obviously cuffed;
I’m totally at hiz mercy and Gweedo …

Gweedo freezes in confusion.
I sez: “Gweedo feel thuh grip.”
After a few seconds he looks at his hammah an does that whacking motion off to the side.

“Gweedo, look at thuh piece of papuh.”
Gweedo looks at d’illustrations … he puts everything together, tranformz back into thuh gigantic puppy …
unlocks my cuffs
we getz big man hugs
I tellz zah!
Risking yur life iz jus part of the price of giving
your best buddy
the best gift in the world!!


IMG_4329I’m Sorry My Meta Analysis of the Proliferating Rasputin Beard
Became a Trope Sandwich of the Internet
By Paul Handley

Hoary Raging Rasputinism (HRR) entered the lexicon with the ferocity of a 1917 revolution. A super troper, as it were. HRR has meta-stasized at the rate of, well, cancer cells preying on a low white blood cell count. I apologize my invention has expanded beyond the Rasputin level of beard, and has threatened to overrun all those with nicely manicured soul patches, Van Dykes or even muttonchops. The Rasputin this and Rasputin that is enough to make me go Bolshevik or develop Tsarist tendencies while undermining the current regime.

My creation was nothing special, just observational powers at work. If I have to take credit for encapsulating it in a term that went hog wild and is flirting with the land of cliché, then I accept responsibility. It’s so hard to believe one phrase could so enter the culture that I could see organizing a religion around it, a cult or at the very least a place of worship.

Perhaps I did sum up the zeitgeist of a particular time and place of the last couple of months in my medium-sized city. Maybe I conflated a couple of instances with my own desire to enter the land of tropetonomy so as to trope the light fantastic. In the end all that counts is that HRR is the penultimate in ubiquitousness.

I included the term on my Facebook page in two separate instances and several multi-address emails. HRR gained traction a couple of days later when I noticed it prominently highlighted on my buddy’s blog which is still gaining hits in the double digits, but could explode any day now. It could happen even at night since the Internet never sleeps.

I, who designed the term, never conceived of the hysteria that would inhabit our waking thoughts and invade dreams. HRR was just so sticky, like it was nail-gunned to the culture. HRR are not regular beards, but mangy looking, like you see hanging from a bison at Yellowstone National Park that you want to pick at, but can’t because of the overprotective warnings about maintaining distance. Perhaps the rangers know something about the rage that lurks beneath the mange.

I had seen Rasputins around, but it all really started to add up at a vegan breakfast nook. I spied the intense eyes, mystically studying the menu. I surmised he was deciding whether to add tempeh bacon or a side of hash infused with fake bacon bits to the scramble. Which to me isn’t even a choice, go with red-40 dye carb balls every time. One never knows when a Russian winter will kick in and be grateful for that extra layer of packed-on calories. I recall looking past my girlfriend’s head pretending to listen to her, while I watched him pick leftovers from his scraggly beard.

I started wondering how could this happen? This is at least the third Rasputin I have seen this week. Rasputin survived several assassination attempts. Not only had he survived but multiplied, enough to think the Romanovs are considering a power grab. It’s as if live tissue was saved from Rasputin and used for cloning. Perhaps they didn’t have the refrigeration capabilities back then, but they could’ve just shoved it in the frozen tundra.

Now I see them everywhere, staring like a portrait, doing occult things like picking lottery numbers or placing odds on next year’s Super Bowl champs. Just last night I spotted a power trio of mystical prerevolutionary Russian peasants having beers at a sidewalk café. I sidled up close to them to try and hear what mysticism was escaping their lips. Maybe I would be able to capture the next Internet tropisode.

But first, I beseech you to please help me apply the brakes to this runaway tropester or we could end up in Troperdam.

 

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