THE COLD AFTER THE SNOW
By T.M. Spooner
The gritty scrape of metal against pavement woke Ted from a way-too-short night of sleep. Due to heavy snow he and his wife, Priscilla, had arrived late last night and it was barely eight a.m. He went to the bedroom window of his wife’s childhood home to find Priss, as he affectionately called her, shoveling the front sidewalk. She wore a red cap and scarf, recently knitted by her mother, and her green eyes squinted against the winter glare and her entire face looked hurt. It’s the kind of look that made Ted’s heart cast out to her.
Ted slipped into a pair of jeans and pulled on a wool sweater and hurried downstairs. The morning air was as cold as Priss had promised it would be on the heels of such a big snowfall.
“Need some help?” he asked. Priss didn’t hear and kept on.
“Need help?” he called when he’d eased just behind her. She turned like she’d heard nothing more than a baby’s whimper.
“No, I’m about finished,” she said as they were both drawn to a red streak sailing by. A male cardinal settled on a bare branch nearby, a splash of misplaced exotic color against the fresh white snow.
“What’s the news on your father?” Ted asked.
“Mom’s gone to the hospital. He comes home tomorrow. Hard to believe only two days after a heart attack.”
“Yeah,” Ted agreed. “I suppose that means it really wasn’t that serious.”
After saying that he immediately regretted it. After all, he hadn’t at all meant to minimize her father’s condition, but rather wished to instill a favorable prognosis.
“This is just a reminder that not one of us is here forever,” Priss said. “At any moment we can be gone.”
“We all know it,” Ted said. “Fortunately we have the good sense to put it out of our minds.”
“What happened to my father pushes it into the forefront of mine. Mortality. Lights out. It makes me want to do that much more in life and treasure it more too,” Priss said with sentiment, or epiphany.
“It’s cold. Why don’t you go inside,” Priss said. “You’re not used to this. I’ll be right in.”
Ted returned to the house by way of the cleanly shoveled walk. Inside, her father’s chair, broad and shiny, beckoned to him from across the living room. The heart attack had come while he was reading in the chair.
Ted noticed a book lying on the floor, half submerged beneath the mountainous leather. It was Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, a book Ted hadn’t read since college. A bookmark rested on the floor beside it; the page was lost. Ted sat in the chair and seemed to sink in a great fall, like plush eternity. The book rested in his open palms and he let it open. Pages skipped past, rustled, and finally settled on page thirty-nine.
The door sprang open and Priss came in, her nose bright pink from the cold, sniffling. She stomped her feet to let off the snow and removed her fur topped boots.
“What are you reading?”
“It’s your father’s book.“
“What’s he been reading?”
Priss sniffled again as she walked into the room and hung up her coat.
“He’s been on this kick the past couple of years since retiring to read many of the acclaimed great books. Woolf…” she contemplated aloud. “She was English, right? Or maybe Scottish?”
Ted wasn’t sure.
“Well,” she said, “what’s one that isn’t the other?”
“Ireland has Joyce and Scotland has, well, I couldn’t say. England has all the others.”
“Dad finally finished Ulysses. He said he wished he had read it when he was younger. To think he almost ran out of time.”
Priss shook her head in relief and sighed, falling back gently on the sofa.
“Read some, will you? Wherever Dad was at.”
Ted fidgeted and cleared his throat. He began slowly, adopting a serious tone, a measured cadence. He wished to let the words come as Ms. Woolf had intended.
“The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.”
Priss didn’t need to kick a stone to be reminded of that. Ted sitting in her father’s chair was reminder enough. She thought of how cold her feet were and how happy she was that her father would be coming home tomorrow and what she could do for him, but she was only faintly aware of the next passage Ted read about how a little light will be merged into some bigger light. She snatched a tissue from the end table and blew her nose. The house phone rang and Priss read the caller id—Mercy General Hospital. With frightened eyes she looked to Ted.
“Will you please answer it?”
By Jamey T. Gallagher
David came home with leaves in his hair and dirt lodged under his fingernails, as if he had spent a lot of time digging in the woods. He smelled of sandalwood and rot, depending on where you sniffed or how the wind blew. His eyes were not empty but full of inaccessible emotions, the sclera thick and watery. “David, you’ve come back to us,” someone said, the obvious, unutterable thing: that he had been gone so long we had come to believe that he was never returning. He looked exactly the same as when he’d left, younger if anything. His neck was marked with slashes of dried mud, and his chin looked softer than it had before: was it even really David? Was this our boy? Or another boy who only looked like the David we loved more when he was gone than we had when he was here?
The cuffs of his jeans were dirt-crusted and he wore only one shoe, his bare foot dirty and curled like some pale, helpless animal we wanted to hold close and nurture. He was no longer touchable, and he walked between us into the house. Mother made up a bath, warm water browning the moment he sank his withered body inside it. We thought he might dissolve into the water, and when he sank below the wispy surface of the bathwater we figured we’d never see him again, but there he was, his pale face popping out of the water ferret-like, feral, his hands claws that someone took in her hands and clipped, water-softened fingernails falling like petals to the floor, marked now with the boot-prints of all of us. We couldn’t stop staring at our boy returned from some nether region. “What happened to you?” “Where have you been?” “What was it like?” David looked at each of us in turn, and we knew he would never forgive us, and that he would also never tell us where he had been. Who had taken him. How he had survived this long time without us. What inside him had been molded into a new shape that we would never be able to touch or recognize if we could.
That’s when we realized that David was dead, not in fact but in effect, that the boy we had known would not return, that we had been right to assume he was gone and to hold the service where the preacher preached as if he knew David and we buried the casket deep in the ground. It was almost as if he had emerged from the empty casket and clawed his way up through the twice-frozen ground to return to us. He washed his face, his arms and legs, each pale part of him coming back to our world, like a developing photograph, and then he stepped out and allowed Mother to wrap a soft brown blanket around him. We let him walk between us back to his old room, which we had changed in the interim, where he closed the door and, we assumed, fell onto the bed sideways curled like a caterpillar to sleep.
By Kirby Olson
It was hot in the Amazon ghost town. When I lay down in the barber’s chair, he materialized and said he had been a German who had escaped first the Nazis and then had walked across Russia, through the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and caught a boat for Alaska, and then walked down to the Amazon. How old was he, I asked? He was well over one hundred years, he said.
He said, “Go ahead and dream.”
I was vaguely aware that the barber was applying mousses. It may have been a hundred years I was in the chair. In the ceiling mirror I caught a glimpse of him. He resembled an Arcimboldo painting. Part strawberry, part eggplant, part cucumber, part squash, with ears of corn sticking up from his head. I should have run, but I believe in being polite.
Grow lights were on the floor.
“I was one of Hitler’s experiments to live off sunlight. He turned me into a vegetable. I continually replace my body parts with new vegetables. You can join us if you like. The Brazilian jungle is made of former Nazis who tried to escape the regime but couldn’t. We live on light. It’s bananas. We will live for a million years,” he said.
“You’re not entirely a vegetable,” I said. “You are partially a fruit.”
He said, “Semantics. Fruits and vegetables are indistinguishable. You tell me whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. The distinction of seed inside, or what have you? No definitions, on close inspection, ever hold.”
Finally, my haircut was over, and the barber asked me to look in the mirror to see how I liked the job. I could see I was already a composition made of various fruits, or do I mean vegetables? My hands were artichokes, my brains were bananas, and my head was a strawberry, while my hair resembled the green attachments.
I gave him a piece of my head, the strawberry “tip.”
Black Against the Blue
By Melissa Goode
Mum stood at the front room window. “Oh, for the love of God,” she said. “You should see his van.”
I got up from the sofa and stood beside her, peeking around the curtains. It was a courier van—“Powering eCommerce” printed on the passenger door.
“He wouldn’t know eCommerce if it bit him on the ass,” Mum said.
“He doesn’t need to know eCommerce. He only has to drive the van.”
We watched him walk up the front path. Mum’s Calvin Klein “Obsession” perfume almost choking me.
“I’m not getting in that van,” she said, but it was quiet. We both knew she was getting into the van.
“He’s not wearing his uniform,” I said.
He wore a checked, short sleeved, button-front shirt that reminded me of a tea towel, and jeans that were dark, pressed, new-looking. His hair was wet.
“He’s put in an effort,” I said.
Mum scowled. “Let this be a lesson to you, Meg, honey,” she said. “When you get to fifty that’s all you’ve got left. Men who make an effort.”
I patted her bare arm. She wore her black dress with red roses splashed across it. I thought of it as her Tango Dress. “Not very fucking likely,” she said, when I told her that, but she was smiling. She wore make-up and had put up her hair.
The doorbell rang.
“Dates. I fucking hate them,” Mum said, noticeably pulled in her stomach, and went to answer the door.
Jack must have seen the van leave, because he was at our front door within a minute.
“Jesus. Powering eCommerce,” Jack said. “He doesn’t have a clue.”
I was going say that he should have come around the back way, but I knew Jack didn’t care. When I raised it last time, he said, “We’re seventeen. Why are we sneaking around?”
“Because we’re seventeen? Mum would have a cardiac.”
Now, he handed me three Prince CD’s: Lovesexy, Around the World in a Day and Musicology.
“For your Mum,” he said.
“She doesn’t know you’re here.”
He nodded, like he understood Mum better than me. “I know she likes Prince. Sometimes when it’s late, she plays ‘Purple Rain’. Loud. She’s probably had a couple of wines.” He smiled. “Prince wrote other songs.”
“Maybe you should cut out the middle person and just go out with my Mum,” I said.
Jack pushed me against the hallway wall. “Really?” he said, smelling of Coke and his last cigarette and boy, man, boy, man.
His skinny chest was pressed against mine and I brought my breathing into time with his. We kissed there for a while beneath those three ceramic geese in perpetual flight from the kitchen for the front door.
“How long do you give your Mum’s date?” he said.
“An hour. Tops.”
He smiled. “Easy.”
I took his hand and we ran up the stairs, two at a time.
I had painted Mum’s toes before she went—her large flat feet with their bunions. The nail polish made them prettier, little rubies. Mum wiggled her toes and even though she despised her feet, usually keeping them covered in sneakers, she smiled.
“Happy?” I said.
“As good as they’ll get.”
Mum was into the second hour of her date. I checked my phone but there were still no Call me!!!! texts.
Jack dragged me back into my single bed.
“Honey bunny,” he murmured into my hair.
“Sugar plum pie.”
His hands went everywhere on me and he sighed, like it was all too much for him. He moved down my body. I gripped the sheet to me as he disappeared into the depths. He seemed years older than me when it came to this. I pushed my head back to look out the window above the bed. The sky was clear blue, the sun gone. In a minute, night would fall. The elm outside the window was a woodcut, black against the blue.
Mum was into the third hour of her date when she texted: Having a nice time.
I responded: See you in the morning.
She didn’t need my permission but I thought I should give it to her anyway.
Jack came down to the kitchen with me. My school books were piled on the table. I made us omelettes and toast. It felt like play-acting being adults. A beautiful play. The best play: Our own life.
He texted his Mum to let her know he’d be back in the morning.
“Won’t she be worried?” I said.
He stared at me. “No. I’m a boy.”
The first omelette I made for him, he inhaled. I stood at the stove watching his second omelette to ensure it didn’t burn.
“We could do this all the time,” he said.
I smiled over at him. “Me cooking for you?” I said.
He laughed. “Yeah. Wouldn’t that be perfect?”
“Yes,” I said, and I meant it.
Maybe they went dancing, Mum’s little red toes glittering like blood on a dance floor. Maybe they were sharing nachos—Mum’s favourite meal—a snack after dancing or after a movie. Maybe Prince played as she danced. Maybe Prince played in the van.
The blue light from my stereo shined on us. Jack had only spent brief daylight hours in my bed—after school, before Mum arrived home from work. Now, there was the shine of the whites of his eyes, his teeth, our luminous skin. His heart pounded hard against me and life seemed impossibly precarious, depending upon air and blood flow, an egg and a sperm.
“They might get married,” I said. “Mum and Mr Powering eCommerce.”
“She’s having a good night,” he said. “That’s all.”
“This never happens. Never ever.”
“We might get married,” he said, kissing my neck. He kissed my mouth. His dark hair fell in front of my eyes and I looked through it to his blue-lit face and my childhood room.
A Night to Remember
By Julija Juchneviciute
You greeted her with warmth, and the leaves outside, hanging to the branches of the trees with their last strength, trembled upon a loud and heavy closing of your eyelids as you blinked for a second.
It was indeed a satisfactory meeting—both of you were pleased with the perfect fulfilment of the rehearsed moment, which you wanted to be immaculate.
-Why, will you not say a word? I’m a little embarrassed at the silence. It’s so loud.
-Goodness, hello, hello, I thought I said it, I shouted it, look, even my eyes got watery. I hate shouting, but I thought you hadn’t heard me.
-I didn’t … I was too concentrated on saying my own “hello” line perfectly, I only heard the pulse in my ears. Your voice is nice, though. Hello.
-Sorry for the emptiness. I have consumed all the echoes in the time I was alone. Let’s sit on the couch and let my head talk to your shoulder.
You spent hours in her lap, trying to pull yourself and both of you together. You gave it some effort. It was a good pull, but it takes time.
By the time the Sun rose, some of the last night’s clingy leaves made their decision to free themselves, trying to set an example. Your encounter with Morning was neat and fair, and you no longer clung to the night. You unclasped the hook of the window, opened it, and let her out. You could only hear a gentle whiz as she flew out and stroked your back. You smiled and knew you’d see her again.
By Brittany Ackerman
I know that we are 238,900 miles from the moon, but sometimes it just feels so damn close. I can see its details outside the restaurant where I get pho every Sunday for the last five months since my ex broke up with me. I was peeling a hard-boiled egg in the kitchen when he told me to pack my things and be gone by the end of the day. He called on his way to work after he had left the house. He couldn’t do it in person. He cried into the phone and it made me mad. This isn’t hard for you, I thought. I’m the one who has to separate myself from all the things.
I’ve been having dreams about him. About his hands. He says he wants to get back together but I know it’s not forever so I refuse him every time. But I miss his hands and holding them so I indulge myself for a moment and hold them and then I let go and look away and he’s okay with that. He’s able to keep moving forward.
I remember the sandwiches I used to make him for work. He mostly forgot them at home or even worse in the car. I imagine bread and meat rotting underneath the passenger seat in a plastic Publix bag. Sometimes he ate them on the way home and they made him sick, all that mayonnaise soaked into the bread, the meat gone bad, the lettuce wilted and sad.
We once tried to film a super moon. I had a bad cold but I forced myself to stand outside and watch the moon glow, glowing. We set our shitty camera up atop a tripod and he got frustrated because the moon looked like nothing on the screen. It looked like shit. He chain-smoked for a while then called it quits and went inside. I stayed and cried my eyes out watching the moon. I had to teach the next day. I had promised my kids I was going to watch that super moon. I was so sick but they were so important to me.
One of my former students recently broke up with her boyfriend. They started dating when I was teaching her almost a year ago. She told me private things about them, and I listened as I took attendance, graded papers by underlining sentences I liked, putting plus signs next to moments of energy. She would pull up a computer chair and spin around, tell me about how her parents grounded her for this or that, ask me for advice, show me pictures she had taken with her camera.
I took her to a park one day, long after I quit teaching, and long after my own break-up. We walked around the park slowly, the same park my ex took me to for Valentine’s Day one year, and I hadn’t been back since. I held back tears as she told me she thought I was doing the right thing, leaving. I told her it was important to stop and look at nature, to be outside, to remember what is real and what is not. She was upset about some friend; a girl who had started to turn on her. I told her it didn’t matter. People will disappoint you. I told her to take more photographs.
Recently, she says she’s having trouble letting go. Although I still consider the last five months I spent in Florida a complete waste of time, I do remember moments of happiness. I remember driving and singing down Federal Highway. I remember coconut mocha coffee on the Ave. I remember camping in the Keys and sleepovers in Miami. I remember staying up late and reading. I remember going to meetings and making people laugh. Those were all things that happened once I was able to let go. I wasn’t thinking of anyone but myself. I tell her I wish I hadn’t talked to him at all until I was really ready. I tell her that she’s doing great because she is.
Tonight the moon was so full and yellow, like the metaphorical hunk of cheese in a fairytale. I was walking out of my new pho place in Los Angeles and noticed how big and round it was up there in the sky. It was sitting low, just above the trees, and I stopped and said “wow” to myself in the parking lot. The thing about letting go is that it’s the hardest thing to do. There was a time I didn’t know any better and I thought the moon belonged to me. I had to tell myself it wasn’t mine, it wasn’t for me. And now I see it up there every night. It isn’t mine, but it feels so damn good to stare.
By Terry Dalrymple
I am twelve and eager to go horseback riding. My brother, Chris, is sixteen and says no. “You have to take me,” I remind him. “Mom and Dad said so.”
He slips his second boot on. “Well Mom and Dad aren’t here, are they, ass wipe?”
They’re in town, my mom grocery shopping, my dad buying lumber for a fence he will build around our backyard. “They said, though. I’ll tell if you don’t take me.”
He reaches into the closet from his seat on the floor, grabs my boots, tosses them at me. One misses, the other thuds against my ear. “Butthead,” I say and rub my ear. It stings.
“Shit head,” he says. “You’re riding bareback.”
“I’m not riding bareback,” I say. But I will. I am not adept at saddling, and Chris, a master, will refuse. I have watched him often, practiced with imaginary horse and saddle, but can never manage the real thing.
Bobby Van, Chris’s friend, lives on the largest piece of property in our area, two hundred acres or more. His family has the horses. Their house is only a quarter mile, but Chris drives us there instead of walking. He makes me ride in the pickup bed. I don’t mind. I like the air in my face. I like to peer through the back window and watch him work the clutch and stick. I’ll work them exactly like that, I think, when I can drive.
Chris has to help me up onto the horse, a paint named Kiowa. He interlaces his fingers, makes a stirrup with his hands. I slip a foot into the stirrup and he hoists me onto Kiowa’s back. Situated, I say thanks. He grunts. Maybe it means you’re welcome. Maybe it means drop dead.
Bobby Van nudges his horse forward until he is next to me. “Hey, pussy,” he says. “Can you handle barebacking?”
“I’ve done it plenty of times,” I boast. I look to Chris for confirmation. Left foot in his stirrup, he swings his right leg over his horse and settles into the saddle. He says nothing.
“What if old Kiowa bolts?” says Bobby Van. “Like this,” and he swats the paint’s butt with his cowboy hat. Kiowa bolts.
Surprised, I lose my grip on the reins. I grab for hands full of mane, but I’m already slipping. I fall under the horse, feel my arm crushed between hoof and hard dirt. I yell, begin to cry, gasping, breathless. Blearily through tears I see other horses’ legs, four, then eight. Bobby Van taunts me. But then he is on the ground, blood beneath his nose and splattered across his face. He sputters curses. Chris squats beside me, slips one arm under my legs, the other under my back. He carries me, running, to the truck and eases me into the cab. He revs the engine, spins the tires which I know spit gravel in an angry arch behind us.
“Asshole,” he says. His right hand is speckled with blood—Bobby Van’s, I’m sure. “Son-of-a-bitching asshole!” For once, he’s not talking about me.
I have no broken bone, no gaping wound. Just a nasty red mark the shape of a hoof across my upper arm. Chris props me on the couch and tends to me as best he can until our folks get home. By then, the mark is beginning to bruise. My mother wraps ice cubes in a washcloth while my dad lectures me about not riding bareback. I listen. I don’t tell him whose idea it was.
“Hey,” Chris says when the dust has settled. “I’ll play you some chess.”
“Not a chance.” But I do. His moves seem flawless. I watch them closely, memorize as many as I can.
He notices my limp washcloth, slips it from my hand. “You need more ice.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I don’t think I need it anymore.”
He takes the cloth to the bathroom, then returns. “Need anything?”
I shake my head, and, when he turns to go, say, “Hey, thanks.”
“Shut up,” he says and punches my bruising hoof print.
It hurts like hell, but I don’t even flinch. “Butt face,” I say.
“Shit head,” he says.
He saunters away. I clutch my bruise and admire how fast he struck.
By Eric Layer
Uncle Dave was driving me to the pool because no one else would.
“Remember, he’s only thirteen,” Dad told him.
Dave saluted and backed the pickup out of the driveway. When we turned the corner, he offered me the wheel.
“You’re sixteen, right?” he said with a wink.
While I steered, he reached below me and into a box of beer, pulled out a can, and popped it. Fizz sprayed my trunks.
“Isn’t that illegal?” I asked.
“It’s not like I’m drunk,” he said, wedging the can between his thighs.
Dave took back the wheel and licked foam from his mustache. I dug for my seatbelt but the cracked leather cushion had swallowed it.
As we swerved through the suburban streets, twin buxom-babe air fresheners swayed from the rear view mirror. Dave’s beer sloshed in his lap.
I asked for a sip and Dave side-eyed me.
“You want your Uncle Dave to get in trouble?” he asked.
“You’re not really my uncle.”
“I’m more your uncle than your uncle.”
“You’re right, my real uncle isn’t cool enough to let me try some.”
Dave groaned and handed me the can. “You won’t like it.”
I took a sip. It tasted like his burps. I spit half of it out the window.
Dave coughed a laugh and lit a cigarette. I rolled down the window so the smoke could escape.
White houses whizzed by, the trimmed lawns and expansive yards where the dads barbequed and the kids jumped through sprinklers and the moms kept watch, and it all made me sick. Or maybe it was the beer, or the motion of the truck, or the guitar wailing through blown speakers.
“Surrender!” Dave sang as we hit the interstate.
That’s when I knew we weren’t heading to the pool.
I asked Dave where we were going, but he said it was a surprise. The road climbed into the mountains, and eventually gave way to gravel. We rattled for miles until Dave pulled into a turnout.
“We’re here,” he said, though it looked like nowhere.
I followed him to a trail that wound through a thick grove of trees and ended at a cluster of boulders.
“Where are your boots?” Dave asked, like it was my fault. I followed as best as I could, scrambling up the boulders. Every time I slipped, Dave was there with a hand.
We wound up a thin path that ended at a waterfall, streams of water cascading from the top of the ridge and splattering in a greenish pool below.
Dave tore off his clothes. I looked away. A moment later, I heard a splash and a whoop.
“Come on!” Dave called. “It’s perfect.”
The drop was further than I’d ever fallen. Though the water was clear, I imagined all kinds of dangers lurking down there: sharp rocks, biting fish, shards of glass, even snakes.
“Don’t be a pussy!” Dave shouted.
I hesitated on the edge, unsure of what scared me most: the long drop, the mysterious depths, or Uncle Dave.
I can’t say if I enjoyed falling, or hitting the icy water, or sinking below its surface into another atmosphere. All I know is when I came up for air, I wanted to do it all again.
By Amanda Gaines
I hate the bus. Mama said she’s got errands to run before work though so she said Now listen here, I know you hate the bus but you gotta get on it today, ’cause I have errands to run before work. I said I can’t. Not today. She says, You can too get on it, you just lift your legs and plant your feet up each of those stairs. I think of Mama planting zucchini squash in our garden round back in the spring times. The ground is soft and the grass tickles the base of your soles. Mama and I will take our hands and make them into cups and push them in between the red cakey mud that Mama says our plants like so much and when you’re done pushing all those burned looking clumps of dirt around, your hand creases are filled deep with the earth. It gets under your nails too. Even though I dig at my nails while Mama hums with packets of tomato seeds in her mouth, I don’t really mind them. I don’t think Mama does either.
Mama has her small hand on my back and keeps telling me to just try and put one foot in front of the other, that I’ll be at the stop before I know it. I tell her my backpack is too heavy to carry on my own, so when I walk down our gravel speckled driveway, staring at the spiky patches of grass popping up and the little violet flowers that sit right in the middle of everything, Mama is right beside me, with my pink and white backpack bouncing against her side. She rolls her eyes at me and smiles. I know she knows I could actually carry the backpack. I’m pretty strong for eight.
I ask her to wait with me just until it gets here, please oh please, Mama. The muscles in her throat tighten and she hums real low-like before she looks down at me. She tucks a piece of my hair behind my ear and says Sure now, I can wait with you, but that I gotta start preparing to wait on my own sometimes, ’cause I’m a big girl and big girls wait on buses without their Mamas. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about in my opinion.
I hear a deep distant rumbling that sounds a lot like when clouds crash into each other like bumper cars in the spring times, when Mama and I plant. I squint a little towards the grumbling groans and see dust rising from the dirt road, the yellow school bus following behind it. I rub my thumbs really fast against my forefingers as it quickly approaches ’cause that’s what I do when I get nervous-like. Mama said most people act a little funky when they get scared and do all sorts of crazy stuff. So when I hear myself letting loose a low, long groan from the pits of my knotted stomach and feel my thumb rubbing really hard against my forefinger I know it’s okay, it’s just me ‘shaking out the cobwebs’ as Mama says. She holds my shoulder gently and I almost forget she’s there. When she bends down to give me a goodbye kiss, her knees pop like oil-coated cracking kernels. She tells me, It’ll be all right now, I can take you tomorrow. Just get on and you’ll be at school in no time. Packed you your favorite—Welch’s gummies. And they really are my favorite.
I cough a little as the dry dirt hits my face and slowly move up the metal steps. I don’t look at the bus lady. I don’t like to look too close at people I don’t know or like too well. That’s why I don’t look at the kids on the bus either, but instead, sit in the first seat available. It smells sour and cheesy and the kids around me are pretty quiet, but I can hear the sounds of older kid’s voices bouncing off one another and the thuds of tossed things that I wouldn’t dare look back to see. I try really hard not to moan, cause Mama says sometimes that can make people real nervous, but my fingers are moving like crazy. I look up and see my reflection in the school bus lady’s mirror. My almond nut eyes sit wide on my freckly face, which I got from sitting in the garden all summer with Mama. My small nose is red from the cold and my light brown hair is tucked behind my ears with two pink barrettes. Mama always tells me how pretty I am. I wish she was taking me to school today. I look to my left and see patches of green turn to blurred streaks in between a background of brown with little flecks of purple in between and think of mine and Mama’s garden in the spring times. I see the wide, dark green leaves poking out between rows of juicy tomatoes—yellow flowers budding at their centers. I smell the warm smell of open earth, the fresh smell of the budding zucchini. I imagine caressing the prickly leaves of mine and Mama’s veggies and like magic, my fingers go still.
By Hamish Filmer
The lamb was dead. Uncle Steve found it dead that morning. When my dad heard the news, he nodded his head, and he said something about it being a very bad thing. And we all nodded our heads and stared at the green floor of the veranda.
A piercing whistle summoned us to the kitchen and the stove top. Aunt Melanie was getting the coffee ready for us. It was strong, rich coffee. And we all enjoyed it. I had never had coffee like that before. And then Aunt Melanie dolloped a mountain of scrambled egg onto each of our plates, and she gave each of us five fat streaks of bacon, and she let some of the grease from the pan butter the half-burnt slices of toast.
“I wish Sue could cook like this, Mel,” my dad smiled warmly at her. I never saw him smile warmly at my mom. At home he’d eat breakfast as quickly as he could.
“Thanks, Ben. You know, there’s always more to be had in the country.”
“More of everything,” Uncle Steve raised his palms upwards repeatedly and laughed hard, and I also laughed, and when the three grown-ups saw me laughing, they laughed even more, and I blushed.
Uncle Steve patted me on the back after about a minute, and then he looked at my dad seriously: “That bloody lamb, Ben. I can’t stop thinking about that bloody lamb.”
My dad nodded carefully as he listened to what Uncle Steve had to say, slurped his coffee loudly, like he always did, and gave his verdict: “Bloody jackal, Steve.”
“Bloody right,” said Uncle Steve.
“Fucken bastards,” Barry spat out those two words with an anger that I knew I would never match.
“You know what we have to do, boy?” asked Uncle Steve.
“Night run,” said Barry.
“That’s my boy,” smiled Uncle Steve. “About eleven, I reckon.”
“The devil comes out to play at dark,” said my dad.
“We’ll get the son of a bitch, Uncle Ben!” enthused Barry.
My dad chuckled, “Some kid you got here, Steve.”
And Barry repeated for good measure, “We’ll show him, pa!”
“That’s my boytjie!” Uncle Steve swatted him hard on the back, so hard that Barry choked a little on his own saliva.
Me and Barry spent the rest of the day just cruising around the farm. Barry had chores to get through and I followed him around and helped a bit. He had to collect eggs from under the hens, pick out weeds from outside the barn door, water his mother’s hydrangea garden, and drive an old television to one of the shacks where a worker called Donald lived. Uncle Steve had recently come into a little money; his father had moved on. And so The Family Garvin had gotten themselves a new television set, some new kitchen silver, and a brand new bakkie.
We were supposed to wait for eleven, but nobody could wait that last hour. We were all too excited. Me and Barry weren’t much good at hiding our excitement; and Uncle Steve even klapped Barry a couple of times to get him to calm down—not that it did very much good. Dad and Uncle Steve kept loading and unloading the pellets from the shotguns, and they were poring over a relief map of the farm and discussing where they should go first and where he would most likely be.
Aunt Melanie was making a big show of being uninterested. She was in the kitchen and watching reruns on the old black and white of her favourite soapy, Egoli; she had missed it earlier in the evening, because she had been preparing two suppers, one which we had already eaten, and one which we were going to take with us. Aunt Melanie handed Barry a thermal bag and ordered us out of the house, because we were all “driving her crazy”.
Uncle Steve’s red and white Isuzu drove beautifully. We were going up and over big potholes in the gravel, but the suspension made us feel like we were on tar. Uncle Steve was in the cab, I was holding on to the metal bar with both hands, and on either side of me stood my dad and Barry. I was the only one without a gun. Uncle Steve had said he only had three decent shotguns. I knew he was lying. I knew he had about ten of the things.
When the floodlights of the bakkie found the jackal, I was surprised by how small the thing was. It wasn’t any bigger than our pet border collie, Dane. Its back was covered in a sleek black coat, and the rest of it was golden yellow. It had two great ears, and it looked at us, panting like any other dog.
“Reckon that’s the one, Ben?” asked Uncle Steve.
“Who gives a shit?”
My dad raised the barrel and brought down the dog. A red hole opened up on its left flank.
“Sorry, Barry. Next one’s yours. Promise.”
“Beautiful shot, Uncle Ben! You’re a natural.”
“Hand me a swig of that brown coffee flask, Ian. The one with the whiskey inside.”
“We showed him, hey, dad?”
EVOLUTION OF PERCEPTION
By Perry McDaid
Past the split interim landing on the turn of the stairs, which some might erroneously call a mezzanine and whose chill wall boasted a much dated print portrait of Pope Pius XII, was a short flight to a timber door cobbled together with planks as thin as a child’s wrist and just as fragile. A colony of paint-blisters on its surface screamed to be popped … but we were not even allowed to lean on it.
The justified lack of confidence of our would-be carpenter father lending ferocity to his deterrent commands: we were to touch only the door knob; not to swing on the door; and the bubbles were not toys, but a special type of painting which would poison us if burst.
The door handle, as I say, was a knob—old-fashioned hexagonal as venerable as the house, if not more ancient, worth a pretty penny these days—and totally unmanageable to ill-fed tots. We simply had neither the torque nor the strength to push and twist at the same time. It was an unintentionally early version of child-proof.
It led to a dusty old attic floored with the most modern of lino-flooring. Cousin Larry had lived there shortly before, entertaining a new female each month. As my theatre of play was the staircase, I would meet a lot of them as they would ruffle my hair—cropped to avoid nits—on the way upstairs, and Larry would tell me their names in introduction: something which would prove an embarrassment to him on occasion as I mixed them up.
“And who is Sheila?”
These questions had come in different voices, different times, different steps, but always the same tone, and always placated by the same murmured rationalization.
But that was then. Now the attic was a bedroom for our family, where we huddled under heavy blankets and old slates, lullabied by argumentative pigeons and denied the sight of stars by the grime on the outside of the small skylights.
Though the room itself was cramped, it was the door that was most oppressive with its ingrained interdict and with the air of disapproval carried in the wake of its every opening. When we were not making too much noise, we were suspected for our silence. We could never quite get things right once we graduated from cots.
When I finally mastered opening the door by leaning on it—a no-no—and twisting the knob with both hands with all my might, it was at the prompting of my sister who was concerned with the raised voices downstairs: the unending series of rows.
We would have to skedaddle back into the attic promptly, closing the door ever so carefully behind, when mother’s voice would detach: indicating her infrequent checks to see if we were disturbed by the loud bickering.
That door … a hated portal to unhappiness and frustration.
Though I would be glad to leave it behind when we moved in the late sixties, mere months before my hometown sparked off into a chaos of rioting and brutal oppression, I would—with the benefit of retrospection—feel oddly guilty at judging an inanimate bit of wood when I discovered that we’d brought the misery with us in the form of an alcoholic, delusional and abusive father.
By Gwenda Major
They’d never been really welcome and this year was no different. The Travellers were watched as they set up camp, watched as they built their fires, watched as they tethered their scrawny ponies to graze.
“Just let them put one foot wrong. Just one foot and we’ll have them,” Ben’s dad scowled.
No one could remember a summer like it; day after day of baking heat till the stream dwindled to a trickle and the woods and moors were tinder dry.
“It’s not natural,” complained Ben’s father. “Not round here.”
“It’ll rain in God’s good time,” pronounced Grandma as she pegged out washing that hung limp and exhausted in the searing air. Ben’s father raised his eyebrows in exasperation and stomped away to feed the cows.
Ben started to hang around the Travellers’ caravans in the afternoons. In the evenings the men came back to add more rusty farm implements to the stack. The women came and went, babies close by. There was an older boy who spent his time brushing the ponies, collecting firewood, keeping the other kids in order. Ben stood in the shade of a huge sycamore tree watching, bored, half envious. They never spoke, each aware of the other, wary.
One day in late August Ben’s aunt came from town. Childless, she had no real interest in children but felt it a duty to bring Ben a small present each time.
“I see the Travellers are back again,” she began, the signal for Ben to leave quietly, clutching the small parcel his aunt had given him. Dominoes the last time, so he had no great hopes this time.
Tearing open the paper he pulled out a small metal object and held it up. A little miniature cannon made of silvery metal. His fingers snagged on a small lever and Ben discovered that when you pulled it back and released it, a hidden spring jumped forward with a sharp click. Ben looked around and found a shard of wood—too big. Another—a sliver from a seed tray. Perfect. Carefully he drew the lever back and released it—the splinter flew out of the barrel and landed a couple of feet away. Wow. And something thinner would probably work even better.
A few minutes later Ben came out of the house again. He turned up the path that led towards the moor top and ten minutes later emerged from the wood, breathing hard from the climb. Swathes of heather and bracken in all directions. Ben squatted down and took out the little cannon, running his fingers over its smooth barrel and tiny wheels. He opened the box of matches he had taken from the kitchen and tried one in the barrel. Just right. With a click, the match shot right out over the heather. Ben shot the matches out over and over, each time farther as he got the hang of it.
A movement at the edge of the woods caught Ben’s eye. He twisted round, heart pounding. The Traveller boy stood watching him, a knife in one hand, a bunch of heather in the other. Their eyes met but neither spoke. I’ll show him, Ben thought. He chose another match but this time scraped the tip along the edge of the box. A tiny flame sprang into life. Cupping the flame carefully with his hand Ben inserted the match into the little cannon and lifted it up. The match flew into the still air, then dived in a perfect arc into the heather. Encouraged, he tried again. The rhythm of the game was intoxicating. Strike, push, pull, click. Strike, push, pull, click. Matches flew like tiny shooting stars.
Ben paused. A slender curl of smoke rose out of the heather in front of him. Then a dry crackle. A moment later a little lick of yellow flame flickered before it died. Another appeared further off. The tiny licks of flame slithered quickly over the dry heather until they were yellow tongues. They danced and sang as they advanced. A light breeze sprang up, guiding the flames towards the woodland where the Traveller boy stood transfixed.
“I’ll go for help,” he yelled and ran off down the hill.
Ben stayed only a moment longer before he too ran stumbling down the path through the woods. His chest ached with the effort and the smoke. Brambles clawed at his legs. Twigs clutched at his face. As he emerged from the woods he saw men running with brooms and beaters. Dad. Uncle Billy. Mr Crawford from the next farm.
Later, safe in bed, he heard voices in the hallway.
“He could have been killed.” Grandma’s voice.
“Do you think I don’t know that? It took us two hours to beat it out—just in time.”
“Are they gone?”
“They will be. We gave them twenty-four hours to leave. That lad was there. He didn’t deny it. Travellers. They’re all the same. Scum.”
The next morning Ben crept down the lane to the caravans. The men were hitching up the ponies, packed up, ready to leave. A group of local men stood nearby, making sure they went. The Traveller boy was leading one of the ponies but stopped when he saw Ben and looked at him without expression. Ben dropped his eyes. Then he walked slowly over to stand with the group of local men.
PAPERS FOR SUPPER
By Ifediba Zube
Five hungry children tug at her falling wrapper. They scratch big bellies bloated with gas, and dream of rice and stew thick with meat. They carry these dreams preciously, and at night they grasp them in tight fists to protect them from the creature that snatches dreams away.
She paces constantly. The moment she pauses they quickly pool at her feet. Their tugs are like flies, incessant but tolerable. But when the littlest one tugs so hard her wrapper drops to spill her breasts, she slaps his hand away.
He is too weak to cry, but manages to give a faint cry, like a cat mewing. He finishes crying quickly and continues tugging her wrapper.
These children want to kill me, she thinks.
“Mommy I’m hungry,” the eldest starts.
“Mommy I’m hungry,” the others chorus.
“Mommy I’m hungry, Mommy I’m hungry.”
She stares at the blankness on their faces, the redness in their eyes.
She panics. For a moment she briefly considers bolting through the door and never returning.
Instead she goes into the kitchen and comes out with a bundle of newspapers. She places them in the center of the children and shreds them to pieces. She picks up a piece and announces, “Eat this. It will quench hunger.”
She almost believes this. The eldest child cocks his large head to the left. So she chews the piece and closes her eyes, mimicking satisfaction.
The children follow suit, and soon they chew hurriedly, grinding newspapers to pulp, sucking them dry and spitting them out.
Dignified or not, tomorrow they will take to the streets.
Panhandling Like an Actor
By L.B. Davis
I must have really needed a shower and a trim. I knew my beard had gotten too long and was scraggly, dirty and tangled. The same could be said for my hair. It was summer, and I’d been wearing the same clothes without a shower for the past few days, but I must have looked worse than I thought, because about an hour into my day, a guy stopped at the light, looked over at me and started chuckling. He rolled down his window and waved me over. I assumed he was going to give me some money, so I hustled over.
“I’ll give you a hundred dollars right now if you yell out ‘WILSON! Wilson, I’m sorry!’ Like Tom Hanks in Castaway.” He thought I looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway. He thought I looked like a castaway. It was kind of funny to me so I did it.
“WILSON! WILSOOOON, I’M SORRY! I’M SORRY, WILSON!” I Really went all the way in. He thought it was hilarious. He was wiping tears and everything. Then he said, “All right, hop in.”
I said “What?”
“Come on, man. I gotta get you this money. Hurry up, before the light changes.”
I ran around and got in. It was weird, of course, but he said we were going to get some money, so there I sat. The light changed and we pulled off. He was playing 90’s Hip-Hop. Sunz of Man, I believe. That was the first thing I noticed. There was also a faint odor of weed. I felt like I could trust this guy.
He was cool as hell too; asking me regular questions and shit. “What’s your name? You from here? How long have you lived here?” Treating me like a regular dude. He didn’t even roll down the windows, and I know I was pungent.
I complimented his taste in music. He said, “Oh you like that old shit too? That’s all I can stand to listen to nowadays. I can’t fuck with these new-booty motherfuckers.” That’s what he called them, new-booty motherfuckers. I liked it and kept it for myself.
He told me he was on his way to work, but he was early, and his job was around the corner, so he had time for a detour. He pulled into a gas station and parked. “Wait here for a minute. Let me hit this little ATM right quick,” he said and jumped out.
I watched him go to the ATM. He got some cash out and started to walk back; then he stopped, looked like he just remembered something and went back to the ATM. He got more cash out and came back to the car. He went to hand me the entire wad of cash. I hesitated for a second, searching his eyes for ulterior motives. He just said, “Here, man. Take it.”
I took it. I started to explain to him I’m not about the funny business. He just waved me off. “It’s not like that at all, my man. No worries there.”
He pulled out of the gas station. He started to drive me back to my spot by the highway, but then he said, “It’s a hot day to be standing out there, and I just gave you some weeks’-worth of panhandling money. You want a hotel room instead?” Before I could protest, he said, “It would be just for you. I’ll pay for it and be out of your life forever. I’ll get you a couple of nights. You’ll have it all to yourself. AC, toilet, shower, a nice bed; it’ll be like a little getaway. What do you think?”
He had already pulled into the parking lot of the Hilton. He was just sitting there, waiting for my response. I told him OK, but I asked why. I felt rude asking why—don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth and all that—but I needed to know. He was obviously not a wealthy man. He was driving a marijuana-scented, 2000 something Camry. He was on his way to work, and he didn’t strike me as a supervisor. It seemed like this act of kindness might set him back a bit.
He told me “Look, man, honestly I just wanted to follow through. I offered you a hundred dollars to yell that shit, but I didn’t expect you to do it. When you did, as funny as it was, I kind of felt like a bastard. It was a mean thing to do, asking you to do that—offering you money like some big-shot asshole. That’s not who I am. So I wanted to follow through. Consider all the extra shit ‘asshole tax’.”
That was it. He got me a king suite for two nights like he said he would. It was a nice (very nice) little getaway, like he said it would be. The wad of cash amounted to five-hundred dollars, and he was out of my life forever, just like he promised.
There’s no deeper moral here. That’s the time Tom Hanks made me five-hundred dollars. People seem to like the story. I tell it often.
Good Morning, Mr. Schmertz
By Adam Kluger
“Good Morning, Mr. Schmertz. This is Dawn with Orlando Marketing and Tourism to let you know you’ve won an all expenses paid discount opportunity to visit one of our luxury resorts in the Greater Orlando Area. Let me axe you … Would you be interested in speaking with one of our senior sales agents?”
“What time is it?”
“It’s 6:15 a.m. Eastern on this beautiful Tuesday morning. How are you doing today sir?”
“Go fuck yourself and never call here again.”
Todd Schmertz was a native New Yorker. He hated telemarketers but forgot to sign up for the “Do Not Call” list, and for this mistake he was paying a heavy price.
The coffee smashed down in his mug in black-hot torrents of love. Dark and bitter. Just the way he saw life. He flipped on the TV but that annoying commercial about the Hair Club for Men always seemed to find him. How could they possibly know about his growing concerns? He clicked off his small black-and-white TV, glanced at the mirror, and scowled. As he walked by the dining room table he snuck a look at the mountain of bills that was growing larger and larger.
What the fuck! Who was pinging him on his work-issued Blackberry this early? Hopefully no one from the office. What is this? The subject line of the e-mail read: NEED YOUR URGENT HELP: Dear Kind Sir, I am from Nigeria and need you to pick up Five Million Dollars from a bank account for me …
Schmertz hit delete before he could finish reading the pathetic missive.
He straightened his tie and locked his apartment door. He looked down the hallway, hoping not to run into the landlord or a snoopy neighbor, and made a dash for the elevator.
Of course, Ms. Judy “Buttinsky” was in the elevator. Why wouldn’t she be?
“Hey Schmertz, I saw that eviction notice posted on your door a month ago but I guess you’re still here, huh?”
“Good morning to you too, Judith.”
“What’s good about it? I can still hear your damn TV after 9 o’clock at night. Don’t you even work, Schmertz?”
“Yes, Judy. I work.”
“What do you do again?”
“I circumcise elephants for the circus, Judy. It doesn’t pay much but the tips are enormous.”
“That’s disgusting Schmertz. Oh yeah, that’s right. You work in a mailroom somewhere. I guess that explains a lot.”
“‘I’m not sure what you mean, Judy, but it’s always a pleasure sharing the slowest moving elevator in the world with you. Later, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, just watch yourself, Schmertz.”
On the street an ambulance siren shrieked. Schmertz snaked his way down the street past panhandlers and planned-parenthood spokespeople. He squeezed on the 6 Train and was on his way to work.
A homeless man stood right next to him the whole ride down yelling his tale of woe to the entire subway car. Schmertz did not feel sympathetic, he felt annoyed. Pissed off. He got off near Wall Street. Up the staircase. On the street, he weaved his way through businesspeople talking loudly on their iPhones, walking right in front of him, ignoring him. For all intents and purposes, Todd Schmertz was the Invisible Man.
As he got to the office, two minutes late, Florence the secretary and resident office gossip was waiting for him. It was no secret that Florence knew everybody’s business at the office and that she took particular delight in her unspoken job of spreading the word when somebody was about to get fired.
When Schmertz walked through the door, Florence gave him a weird little smile.
“Hey, Flo. Waddya know?”
“Hey, Schmertzie. Boss wants to see you right away. Don’t bother clocking in, and—by the way—it was nice knowing ya.”
“Oh yeah? Well, it’s been that kind of morning. And you know what Flo? I never fucking liked you anyway.”
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Baldy.”
“Hey Flo, how’d Makluskey’s dick taste?”
“Fuck you, Schmertz!”
“You wish, Flo.”
He knocked on the boss’s door knowing what was coming.
“Good morning, Mr. Schmertz. Why don’t you take a seat?”
Not Enough Time to Stop
By Shalom Brilliant
The boy ran out into the street so suddenly, there wasn’t time to stop. Or maybe there was; but I didn’t think so. There certainly wasn’t time to think, I’m sure of that. One sudden, impulsive action, and a life cut short.
I don’t think anyone saw me at the funeral. I didn’t sit among the mourners and guests or mingle with them. I was, however, one of the reasons everyone else was there—I and the boy, who shouldn’t have run into the street the way he did, and maybe his mother, who should have been holding his hand.
Was I going too fast for that kind of street? I don’t think so, but I wasn’t looking at the speedometer at the moment. I was looking at the road ahead of me, like I was supposed to. I did glance to the side for a moment, looking for a parking space. But I don’t think that had anything to do with it. I’m pretty sure I saw the boy as soon as he darted out between the parked cars on my right. I don’t think I could have seen him any sooner.
It’s ironic, when you think about it. I was on my way to meet a client who couldn’t travel because of a broken leg and other injuries she suffered in a recent car accident. Doctors may not make house calls any more, but personal injury lawyers lose money if they don’t go to clients who actually have serious injuries. I was looking for a parking space a block away from the client’s apartment when my accident occurred.
I still don’t understand why the kid ran into the street. Kids do that when a ball rolls into the street, but I didn’t see any ball. If I had seen anything like that, I would have stopped even before the boy left the sidewalk. But I didn’t, and I didn’t find the parking space I was looking for, and I didn’t meet with the client with the broken leg.
I’m no longer her lawyer. She’ll be represented well enough by one of my partners, unless she takes her case to another firm. Too bad I won’t be involved. It was a good case. A medical student, sideswiped while getting out of her car. The broken leg will heal well enough, but the hand might not. That could ruin her bright career in surgery. It would have been better for the case if she were actually a surgeon, or at least a surgery resident. Still, the potential loss of future earnings is substantial. So are the potential attorney fees. But I won’t be getting those fees.
If I had hit the brakes instead of doing what I did, the result would have been entirely different, but not necessarily better. There’s no way to know. That’s an odd thought coming from me, a man who made a living telling juries what other people should have done, what would have happened if they had done that, and what was going to happen instead.
I still don’t know why I did what I did. It wasn’t a decision, it was a reflexive reaction. The moment I saw the boy, I didn’t feel like I could stop in time. So I jerked the steering wheel hard to the left, to avoid hitting him. That felt safe, because there was no traffic in the lane to the left, nor any people, just a row of orange cones closing the lane off. I hadn’t noticed why the lane was closed off. I hadn’t noticed a trench in the pavement, several feet deep. When I swerved to the left, the front of my car dove into the trench. Then the car spun around and flipped over.
The last things I remember were the boy running back toward the sidewalk with a startled, confused, and frightened look on his face while I swerved left, then my face slamming into the steering wheel, the car turning over, and an explosion. I know of certain things that happened after that, because they must have happened—like my being at my funeral. But I have no memory of these things, or of anything at all after the explosion. For me, nothing happened since then. Time passed, I guess, though I have no idea how much. Enough time to think; not enough time to stop.
A Golden Hair
By KJ Hannah Greenberg
Debbie shot Charles at point-blank range. He deserved it.
She had found the long, golden hair on the shoulder of one of the dress shirts he customarily wore to work. Her own locks were auburn.
The wife had suspected the affair for some time. Her man had been working late more often than not and traveling more frequently than, in her opinion, was necessary. What’s more, the few nights that he came to bed, he claimed he was too tired to be frisky. The couple had last been frisky five months ago.
After killing him, she turned the gun on herself. There were no kids. She could not have cared less about her parents and siblings; Charles was supposed to have been her soulmate. He had certainly been the centerpiece of her life.
Of course, the incident provided the brunching ladies with a topic for chatter. Phyllis, a brunette, remarked how delicious Debbie’s corn and mushroom quiche had been when they had last nibbled it in her living room. Suzanne, a silvery sort, nodded, exclaiming how wonderful the vinaigrette that Debbie had used on her green salad had tasted.
Delores just kept stuffing her mouth with bites of the double baked potatoes that Phyllis had prepared. Like the rest of the ladies, that blond had consistently enjoyed Debbie’s hospitality. Debbie had never once complained that menopausal Delores had been shedding.
Scissors Paper Rock Bottom
By Glen Donaldson
Only a madman would draw paper three times in a row, thought Miles Munro, four times World Rock Paper Scissors champion to himself as he again tried to predict what his four-fingered opponent Birch Prendergast would do next.
A prodigiously-gifted ‘blitz’ player who’d established his psychological bona fides by studying game theory and reading William Poundstone’s seminal The Art of Outsmarting Almost Anyone many times over, Miles sensed his mild-mannered adversary didn’t really like being around people at all, excepting this once a year opportunity to showcase his prodigious brand of finger-dazzle.
Miles, or as he was known in tournament circles “Masterchief Munro” was, so to speak, a practised hand in the black arts of competitive mindgames: double-thinking and psyching-out challengers while all the time clawing for advantage using pattern recognition, body language analysis, passive-aggressive cloaking moves (his favourite being the kamikaze-styled and devicefully named three scissors in-a-row Toolbox) and the finer points of the old mentalist trick ‘Sicilian Reasoning’. Heck, when it came right down to it, Miles wasn’t even above trash-talking his foes to throw them off balance.
Recently he’d taken to wearing dark sunglasses to make it harder for his opponents to read his expression. This lasted for a brief time up until the decision by the Executive Board of the RPS International Governing Body to outlaw such practices.
Yet amidst this great hall of mirrors, engineered by an unmistakably severe intelligence, near psychic ability for prediction and a psychopathic lust for winning, Miles himself somehow made the transparently rookie error of tucking the tip of his thumb into the crook of his index finger, thus telegraphing an obvious rock. In an instant Birch Prendergast, surprised as anyone, was able to read it like an oversized newspaper headline and at the speed of thought produce the final stunning play in his counter-intuitive signature move The Bureaucrat (paper-paper-paper).
It was all over. Along with the look of baby surprise frozen across his face, Miles made a noise with his lips, noticeably lowered his usually hunched shoulders then immediately relaxed, like a lobster rubbed on its stomach. It was a crushing defeat for the child prodigy on a scale that dwarfed everything in his life that had gone before. Worse was to follow as it signalled the beginning of an evolutionary cul-de-sac for the once all-conquering, all conspiring, all configuring former champion who inexplicably commenced losing to a string of much lesser rated opponents and in a short time found himself competing amongst the ranks of lowly amateurs in the myriad of 2nd tier competitions spread across the country.
Early retirement saw Miles retreat to the open-air solitude of bass fishing in his aluminum-hulled skeeter dingy on nearby Lake Prime where he was regularly spotted challenging invisible opponents to games of rock paper scissors. Rumoured plans of a comeback against the headline-making University of Tokyo’s RPS playing robot were shelved sometime back. This came about as a result of it being made known that by using high-speed cameras and recognising within half a millisecond which shape the human hand was making and then producing the corresponding winning shape the android-machine was able to achieve a 100% winning rate.
Away from the glare of superstardom, the once mighty competition warrior formerly known as The Masterchief set about applying his algorithmic mind to the almost infinite combination of weights, shapes, colours (some painted with his daughter’s nail polish) and materials for lures and jigheads along with their matched propensity for catching both freshwater and marine species of fish.
Happiness, something that had never really been an arrow in Mile’s quiver but instead resembled more an intermittent radio signal he could never quite get a lengthy fix on, now seemed much more attainable. He wasn’t winning anymore but ironically he felt much more like a winner. Life was good again and he let the happiness soak right into his bones. He’d covered his last rock, smashed his last pair of scissors, cut his last bit of paper and executed his last meta-strategy. Miles Munro was finally going random. It was time to develop a whole new set of moves.
By Ian Randall Wilson
Welcome back to Whitman Stadium where we’re in Day Three of the poetry competition at the 284th Games of the Literary Olympics. I’m Joyce Carol Oates bringing you all the action from West Hills, New York, a mere hour away from New York City. It’s been a games with many surprises. For the United States, a disappointing finish for the women’s team with none of the women medaling. But for the men, the story has to be Ian Randall Wilson.
This young man is really on a mission. He came up short in the villanelle.
Only a silver.
But his performance was breathtaking.
And it’s even more amazing because just four years ago he was working at a stationery store. He’d all but given up poetry. And here he is, not even considered to make the team and now a stand-out. The possibility of five medals within his grasp, and four could be gold.
As we enter the Dada round, Wilson is in 5th place. He’s set an amazing goal for himself, the possibility of five gold medals.
Unheard of. Strand couldn’t do it in ’84 although some suggested he was past his prime by then. Not Pinsky in ’88, and Levine who had such promise in ’92, never competed because of a wrist injury that prevented him from writing in the games.
Levine was the real heartbreak because the rule change in ’96 would have allowed computer typing and even with one hand, Levine would have been good for at least a gold medal in the Neo-Narrative category.
I wakened at a filling station / outside of Wasco to see the light / breaking over the Sierras—that’s poetry.
Truly a heartbreak.
Joyce Carol, I’m here now with the winner of the silver, Ian Randall Wilson. You’re on a quest for five gold medals but just a little short on this.
I got myself into trouble in the third stanza. The moth/cough rhyme didn’t appeal to the judges.
Still, four years ago you were working in a stationery store stacking notebooks and now silver in the villanelle. How does it feel?
I just can’t put it into words. I mean I didn’t even think I’d be here. It’s just so amazing. I mean, I can’t believe it.
Now in his last rotation, Wilson will attempt a pantoum in the Persian style. The difficulty factor is 10, perhaps the most difficult form of these games. He’s got to enter the piece straight and keep his rhymes stable. That’s what the judges will be looking for.
He’s just attacking those images. It’s a risky strategy. Too aggressive and he may drop a symbol. If he lays back, he’ll have time penalties.
He can afford to drop two metaphors, 10 penalty points to give. The gold is his to lose.
Oh no, a missed synecdoche. He’ll have trouble medaling now.
An incredible upset. Wilson seems to have forgotten the penultimate line.
It’s an automatic .5 point deduction.
You can’t win medals with a dropped line.
No one wins the gold after this kind of mistake.
What a disappointment. We’ll be back.
They’ve been training partners for four years and she’s never beaten him. We always finish 1-2, Stevens says.
I’d like to beat him one of these days, but he always comes up with the amazing simile, especially in the later rounds.
With Wilson announcing that his poetry career ends here, do you think this will be your chance?
It may have to be.
Good luck to both of you in the free verse competition.
I won’t be competing again. This is my first and last games. I can’t do the heavy line breaks. I want to move aside for the younger poets.
When he was growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, he didn’t even read poetry. He came to it much later and it’s been a struggle. He doesn’t have many childhood experiences to draw on. He’s publicly admitted that he can’t remember anything that happened before he was ten. But he’s one of the hardest working poets in these modern games. He works out with rhyming dictionaries six days a week and he’s put tremendous effort in this year to master even the most obscure forms. Will he be ready, though? Coming up, the neo-formalist quarter-finals.
Wilson with that shaved head may be one of the most recognizable competitors here today. He casts a real aura.
Ian Wilson is really stepping it up tonight.
Wilson slams those end rhymes home.
Ian Wilson, he is fantastic.
Another stunning upset by Wilson.
He won seven medals at the world games before coming into these Olympics.
Tonight the eyes of America will be on Wilson. To step forward and feel the shivers. Tonight, Ian Wilson’s name will be called. Can he respond? We’ll be right back.
Wilson, he looks like Mr. Clean but watch him skim along those sestinas like Bishop.
He’s looking very strong, Joyce Carol, very strong indeed.
I agree. They’re on the last stanza. Wilson, ahead of the pack.
Wait, wait, down there in lane 6 at the bottom of your screen, it’s the German, Freulunder.
Freulunder, a young 15-year-old who wasn’t even expected to get into the final rounds in this event.
Yes, he’s had difficulty with verbs during his training. In the warm-up rounds he missed three easy verb forms.
Freulunder is putting on a commanding performance here and Wilson seems to be fading.
They’re neck and neck on the final line breaks. The spondees are flying.
Oh, what an amazing anapest, but it’s Freulunder surging, Freulunder, Wilson, Freulunder, and—it’s over.
Freulunder came on very strong in the last stanza and steals the gold from the American, Wilson.