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Issue 1: March 2014


coffee

WEIGHT
By Dawn Lowe

I saw a Good Samaritan beside the road and stopped the car.
He held a sign: SPACE SUIT FOR SALE
He was old, thin and wasted. The space suit lay in the dust at his feet, white and shiny, a US flag on its chest.
“How much?” I asked.
“$1,500,” he said. “Cash.”
I put the space suit in the back seat of my car and the old man got in beside it.

The suit, seated like a passenger, was three inches taller than the Samaritan.
“Where’d you get it?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I was an astronaut.”
“What’s your name?”
“Does it matter? Once you’re grounded, they all forget.”
I drove to my bank and gave him $2,000.
“Brother,” he said, “You’re one crazy bastard, but thanks.”
Yes, I’d gone crazy.
Money was useless against the weight of her pain, waiting in the waiting rooms.
She loved Star Trek, Star Wars, all the sci-fi rubbish, and I knew she’d love the suit.
She was thin and wasted and would swim in it – but what did it matter?
She couldn’t talk, but her eyes said Thanks.
I helped her put it on, and laid her on the grass so she could stare at the stars. I connected a hose to the suit’s air intake valve and started the car, waiting for her to become weightless.
Now I wait by the road with a sign: SPACE SUIT FOR SALE


Sunday Service
By Alan Balkema

We called ourselves the commandos. Mark had been my best friend since we’d met in the first grade, and now, at the age of twelve, we were pretty sure we had everything figured out. Mark’s brother Paul was a year older but goofy enough to find us mature; I liked him a lot.

We were sitting in our normal spot, the back pew on the side of the church furthest from the pulpit. Our row of pews was separated from the main seating section of the church by a carpeted aisle. Half of the pews were empty that day.

While Reverend Peacock blathered away we were engaged in a spirited game of pass-it-on. Making liberal use of the words snot, poop, piss and fart, one of us would construct a sentence and whisper it into a neighbour’s ear. The hearer would add a twist to the sentence and pass it on. Since there were only three of us and I was in a middle, I had more opportunities to contribute. This was my favourite church game, and I was having a great time, though, of course, in the middle of the Sunday service we had to maintain appearances. I made the mistake of pretending to slap my knee in hilarity.

“You boys back there!” Peacock thundered.

We instantly straightened in our pew with sombre expressions, imagining haloes over our heads, but Peacock had his right arm extended and his index finger pointed straight at us.

“You are disrupting a holy service on the Lord’s day. You’re disgracing Jesus Christ! You’re disrespecting me and the members of this congregation.” He drew himself taller
behind the pulpit. “If your parents don’t care enough to keep you in check, I do, and I will.”

The accusatory finger hung in the air for what seemed like an hour. The congregation turned in their pews to see who the sacrilegious culprits were except for the occupants of the pew directly in front of us. There sat my mother and sisters.

Eventually the finger dropped, and Peacock resumed the service. We knew what was coming. If our houses had mantles, “Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child” would be carved in fancy script on them.

After a final hymn Peacock left the pulpit to take his usual spot at the door. The congregation moved to deliver the obligatory handshake. We knew that our parents were about to reassure the disrespected minister that punishment would follow.

While the congregation lined up like sheep, we bolted for the church’s back door and exchanged our goodbyes in the parking lot. Normally high-spirited after release from the drudgery of another sermon, we parted as condemned combatants about to face the firing squad. Mark and Paul had extra cause for alarm. Their father was a school principal and was practiced in the art of punishment. I counted myself lucky in that my father had missed the day’s service. He would’ve taken the minister’s challenge very personally.

After an icily silent drive home, Mark’s parents retreated behind closed doors. Then they called the boys into the living room.

“You know the standard punishment is three whacks,” the principal intoned. “But you face punishment not only for mischief. You have committed a sacrilege. I put it to you. What would be a suitable punishment?”

Paul and Mark stood, heads bowed, jaws clenched. Mark guessed that Paul would speak first and land them in more trouble.

“I don’t know why the reverend was so mad,” Paul said. “We were listening to the sermon.”

“The minister was mistaken, then?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Could you relate the message in today’s sermon?”

“We’re all sinners and going to hell.”

“Could you be more specific?”

Paul hesitated.

“The seven deadly sins,” said Mark.

“Can you name them?”

“Yes, sir. Lust, pride, envy, uh, greed…”

“Gluttony,” Paul chipped in. “War. Scorn?” He held up seven fingers to confirm the tally.

“I think you should add another whack for lying,” Paul’s mom said.

“I’m inclined to agree,” said the father. “How many are we up to, Paul?”

“Seven, sir. One for each of the deadly sins.”

Mark was flabbergasted at the steep inflation.

“Fitting. And you will name a sin with each whack. Who shall go first?”

Paul, the oldest, led off and persisted with war and scorn. For this he received nine, an extra blow for each error. Mark faltered after number five but received a celestial message.

“Wrath,” he croaked a moment after the sixth. “Sloth.”

His father had begun the windup for an additional blow but lowered the paddle. He didn’t seem winded at all from the exertion.

“Now,” Mark’s mother said. “You will sit in the pew with us from now on. We will tolerate no foolishness. Do I make myself clear?”

The boys acknowledged the new restriction and were sent to wash up for dinner.

Mark, still limping, related all this to me on Monday at school. He wanted to know what punishment I had endured. I was reluctant to tell him.

Our house was nearby, so my family walked to church. I always ran home, went upstairs, changed out of the hated suit and tie, and continued my weekend routine until called down to eat. After I ran home this Sunday, I sat in a chair facing the door to await my fate. My sisters returned home singly. My older sister was humiliated and assured me I deserved what was coming. My younger sister was crying in sympathy and wished me the best before joining her sister upstairs.

Mom walked in the door and slowly sized me up.

“You weren’t any worse than usual,” she said and retreated to her bedroom to change clothes.

That was the first time I ever thought my mother was cool.


Gambler
By Barbara Clinton

Close to midnight, and through the giant lettering on the window, Jason sees his first customer in half an hour before he pushes through the door. Without hesitation, the man orders just spring rolls and stuffs a take-away menu in the pocket of his raincoat.

Cold air has followed the customer in, and Jason rolls down his shirtsleeves and rubs his arms. He shouts the order through the hatch door over his shoulder, rings up the three euro handed over in change, and waits.

The man steps back and begins the usual investigation of the upright poker machine. He’s intrigued by the rows of flat-faced buttons that offer to open up the world of Las Vegas here in chilly Dublin. He hits a button, the machine chirrups and the screen flashes ‘Please Insert Money To Play’.

He inserts no money. Jason’s still hoping the machine might catch on – to relieve takeaway boredom while making him extra cash.

A phone ringing announces the arrival of his next customer. She searches blind within the cavern of her bag as she comes through the door, drawing the phone out too late, to address nobody with ‘Hi, this is Amanda.’

Amanda scans the menu on top of the counter and orders:

‘Can I get one beef satay, one Peking duck, one order of spring rolls and a prawn toast, please?’

‘Boiled or fried rice?’

‘Fried.’

And then: ‘Oh, and wontons and prawn crackers, please.’

The poker machine Gambler registers she’s ordered enough food for two, and late.

‘If you spend €15 you get prawn crackers free,’ Jason tells Amanda. ‘You’ve already spent
€13.50 – so …’ Amanda declines the offer with a headshake that seems ambiguous to the Gambler.

‘Are you from around here?’ Jason asks her. This takes the Gambler by surprise but he stares resolutely at the flashing buttons and waits. If it threw Amanda she doesn’t show it.

The Gambler thinks this could go either way – and finding a coin his pocket, resists the urge to use it. He passes it between his fingers, still inside his pocket, and listens.

‘Yes, just up the road.’ The Gambler is surprised she’s given actual information. In his experience, women don’t like being chatted up in takeaways after closing time.

‘But your accent? It’s not from here?’ Jason asks, and the Gambler wonders if he does this with every good-looking woman who comes in? What if other women are in? The Gambler doesn’t think they’d like it much. Waiting for something in black bean sauce, listening to your man chat up the other woman?

But he’s surprised to hear: ‘I’m originally from England – the west of England.’ He’s never heard that before – the West counties, yes; the north, yes; the south, the midlands – yes.

She has a good figure and nice hair, a kind of dirty blonde. He wonders if it’s her own colour; a lot of women colour their hair. But he never knew unless they told him and he hadn’t been that far along with anyone for a while.

‘So you work around here?’

The Gambler is thinking for a man with so much interest in a woman, Jason really isn’t paying attention.

‘No, live. I live just up the road.’ Remember? Jason betrays the slightest blush, though it’s interest rather than embarrassment, the Gambler thinks.

And then, unprovoked, she offers: ‘I work on Merrion Square.’

‘In the casino?’ Jason presses. But Amanda says: ‘No, I have a real job,’ but she’s smiling.

‘Do you know it, the Merrion Casino?’ Jason’s smiling too. Smooth. ‘I used to work there.’ He needs to stay on the one piece of common ground he’s found.

‘No,’ she says. ‘I walk along the same side of the square every day. It must be on the other side or maybe in a basement.” Is she apologising, judging or explaining?

‘There are a lot of colleges there.’ Jason refuses to give up on Merrion Square. ‘Do you know the American University?’

‘Do you like to go to the movies?’ he asks at last.

This boy has cruised long enough, the Gambler’s thinking.

‘Yes.’ Amanda is equally impressed.

‘What do you think of Miss America?’

‘I haven’t seen it but I think it might be a bit cheesy,’ Amanda ventures.

‘Yes, it might be cheesy,’ he agrees. ‘I’m off tomorrow; we could go and see it?’

A move so long in the making, finally made, still manages the element of surprise.

But the Gambler thinks the guy may be missing something. And sure enough she says: ‘The food, it’s also for my boyfriend,’ who the Gambler now pictures at home, just up the road, becoming distracted from his footie by his hunger and beginning to wonder where his woman is.

‘That’s okay,’ Jason says.

What does that mean? the Gambler wonders. Is he still hoping for the date, is he saying he’s undeterred by the boyfriend? Or that he’s stepping back?

‘Oh, have you paid?’ The Gambler looks. He wants to catch the expression of a guy who shifts ground so seamlessly. Amanda brings out her wallet, can only find €50, says, ‘Sorry, that’s all I’ve got’ and hands it over.

Jason takes the money and while they are united in the exchange, says: ‘I talked a lot so that maybe we could have an understanding.’

What a line, what a finish, thinks the Gambler. She’s impressed. Shit, I’m impressed. She’s going home to a hungry boyfriend but I bet she’s not going to tell him about this.

A bell buzzes, the hatch door opens and an order of spring rolls is handed through. The Gambler says thank you and steps back into the cold.


DREAMING
By Gerry Moloney

At night he dreams about her.

It’s been fifty-seven years since he last saw her, last embraced her, last kissed her. It was that night in August. The next day he had left there forever. She was wearing a blue polka-dot dress. Her golden hair loose. Rarely a night has gone by since then without him dreaming of her.

Fifty-seven years. He reflects on the speed of time. A morse code. A dot, a dash? More like a flash. All a bit hazy now. Fifty-seven years of ritual. Rising, eating, working, resting. And dreaming of her.

Now he knows his end is near. He wonders if they will meet again? Will she be there, or has she yet to get there? And what will Peter’s judgment be at the Gates?

In his slumber he hears low mumbled tones at the foot of his bed. His brothers are praying
for him.

Through the stillness he hears the door creak and opens his eyes slightly to see the doctor. “How are we now?” the doctor enquires, feeling the pulse and exchanging a glance with Father John who stands in the shadows. “Fading fast,” he murmurs.

Father John leans over the pillow. “Sorry Pat, we will all miss you. But we know you are a truly wise man who has lived a good life.” He smiles reassuringly.

The dying man smiles back. Father John administers the last rites. He places a few drops of consecrated wine on the man’s lips. “Do this in memory of me.” Will her lips taste as sweet as they did fifty-seven years ago? Will she be there in her blue polka-dot dress to welcome him? Will her hair be golden still?

He becomes acutely aware of his senses. He sees a bright cloud appear on an azure sky. He hears music swelling softly. Strings playing slowly and rising to a crescendo. A weight lifting from his body. He becomes all yielding. His face lights faintly with an ethereal smile.

Father John steps forward and closes Pat’s eyelids. He blesses himself and murmurs a prayer. Then he turns to the brothers at the end of the bed and addresses the older one. “Ring out the Monastery Bell so that our Community may know that Brother Pat has gone to his eternal reward.”


HOCUS POCUS
By Caroline Hurley

“Master Scot, Sir, a delivery for you.”

The footman bows slightly, within his comfort zone; just enough to display deference.

“Yes, Joshua, my good man, what is it?”

Joshua takes a thick roughly-bound book from under his arm and hands it to his employer.

“You won’t like this, m’lord.”

“Why’s that now?”

Reginald Scot tugs the ribbon running from the spine of the leather-covered manuscript, peers closely at it and sighs before probing with his fingers inside the top pocket of his well-worn tweed jacket to retrieve a monocle attached by a chain. He fits this into his eye socket and tries again.

The Anatomy of Legerdemain,” he reads. “By Hocus Pocus. Harumph! Who sent this, Joshua?”

“One of your old Oxford friends dropped it by this morning, Sir. He said you’d not be pleased the writer made chunks of your book re-appear in his own.”

Leafing through the pages, Scot shook his head.

“Damned scoundrel! He doesn’t know what he’s doing. This mustn’t be printed, not after what happened with mine.”

Scot looks desolately out through the arched window across his verdant groves of hop trees. It isn’t his illustrated pioneering manual on hop culture that ran into a few editions after its first print in 1574 he has in mind though. It’s the work published a decade later that he regards as much more important; that he sweated and groaned over, and risked his parliamentary career for. Called The Discovery of Witchcraft, it was itself cursed.

Scot harboured a fondness and admiration for those entertainers who hung onto the coat-tails of travelling circuses. The jokers and conjurers, revered and applauded by humankind over millennia for their abilities to fox the rules of nature. The fakers ̶ or fakirs, amongst which counted Moses, for making water gush from a rock, and turning a rope into a snake. Sickened by the murderous mass vendetta relentlessly waged against these heirs of the ancient shamans and sorcerers, Scot took it upon himself to appeal to the king, Jacques 1 of Scotland, on behalf of magicians who were still being accused of diabolic sorcery and burned at the stake all over Europe.

Scot was weighed down with regret that, rather than helping to end their persecution, he had accidentally betrayed his entrancing friends by unsuccessfully trying to distinguish between calculated charlatanism and harmless sleight-of-hand. He wished he’d simply argued, as the Frenchman Prevost did around the same time, that performing tricks for fun should be classified as merely ‘scientific amusements’: a reformulation which nudged many practitioners to don a protective mantle by designating themselves ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’. As well as divulging secrets of their trade, however, copies of Scot’s book were burned along with more condemned clowns.

Heavy-hearted, Scot resolves to prevent Hocus Pocus, whoever he is, from meeting the same fate. With a new century about to dawn, in a world where power gagged the artists of illusion with their innocent mirrors of truth, Scot has become disenchanted to death.


Chicken
By Serena Molloy

I was hanging the wash on the clothesline, full sure it would not be there when I went back to get it. I had only moved into the house a week ago, and in that time the Atlantic wind had never stopped blowing. It howled day and night. I would lie in bed alone trying to decide which of my three children I would save first, should the great oak outside come crashing into the rented house. In my head, it wasn’t a matter of if but when. I struggled to peg my daughter’s tiny jeans down. They kept flapping into my face saying, See, I told you so. You won’t make it on your own.

It was then that I first saw him, angry and brown. His bulging eyes fixed on me. I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. Fury has no room for fear. There was only a simple barbed wire fence separating us. Not enough to stop him. He started to scrape the ground with his hoof and snorted wildly at me. I stared back. I continued pegging up the clothes, overjoyed that he was becoming more enraged. He shook his head from side to side, spit and snot now dripping from his nostrils. I hung the last little sock up and stood a while, looking at him. Then I stuck my tongue out and turned and walked slowly into the house.

This became our routine.

Whenever I was in the back garden, he would lumber up, his huge old body shadowing me. He would snort and stamp and even run at the wire, but I never flinched. Not once.

And as the seasons changed in that God-forsaken place, he was always there. A constant. Frost covered the grass and I was out in the garden less often. I would watch him from the conservatory. I would howl and shout at him, willing him to come after me. Wishing he would break through the fence and come crashing into the glass.

Spring arrived.

I was planting begonias in the flower bed close to the fence, surprised he hadn’t come. I heard the sound of a tractor in the distance, its hum getting closer like an approaching bee. I stood up to see. The tractor and trailer stopped at the bottom of the field. And then I saw him, lying on his back, his legs pointing to the sky, stiff. They got the tarpaulin under him and using the winch on the trailer, they hoisted him up.

Then they were gone.

He was gone.

I lived in that house only a short while after that. It was never the same again for me.


Whiskey Sunset
By Dawn Lowe

“I made tiramisu.” Friska shovels a loaf-sized portion on my plate. “It’s not so good.”
I nod.
She hovers as I taste the tiramisu. “It’s good,” I say, and she frowns.
She disappears into the kitchen, returning with a jug of brown liquid. “To drink.”
She fills my glass.
I gulp it and choke.
“Whiskey,” she says. “People from Ireland must have whiskey.” She’s not Irish, but she pours herself a glass.
Wooshing away in her silk dress, she brings another jug of brown liquid from the kitchen.
“Tea,” she says. “For my husband when he wakes up and joins us … If he does.”
Sitting at an outdoor table, she and I listen to a cuckoo and watch the sunset. It’s the first time I’ve had whiskey and tiramisu together, and it’s not a good marriage.
We hear shuffling footsteps and Friska sighs.
“My husband is coming. He is old … 90. There are 32 years between us.”
He wobbles outdoors, rail thin and silver-haired. He says a few words in Slovenian and she performs introductions in English. The old man looks lost.
She pours him a cup of tea. They exchange a few words and she translates:
“He wants cheese.”
When she leaves to get the cheese, the old man switches glasses with me. He takes a swallow of whiskey and cackles.
Friska returns with cheese and sniffs her husband’s drink. She slaps the top of his head, says something in Slovenian and he goes back inside the house with his drink.
I am feeling the whiskey. “You’re only 58. You could send him to a nursing home.”
She shakes her head. “The old man grows into the child I never had.”
I watch the cuckoo flap away to roost for the night.


The End
By Alan Balkema

The Grim Reaper helped Faith off the floor.
“Am I dead?”
“No, but soon.” His voice was soft and gentle.
Faith examined his cowled head, his thin skin stretched over the cranium, his eyes glazed and vacant, the look of her husband when he died in her arms forty years ago.
“You look just like the artists depict you.”
“Yes, I am well known among animals,” he replied.
He led her into the bedroom, her ankles and knees free of the arthritic pain she’d long grown
accustomed to and her legs moving with an assurance that she could vaguely remember.
He pulled the covers aside. She settled into her side of the bed, which still held a warmth from her body.
“My head hurts back here.” She touched the throbbing spot. “Ouch!”
“When you fell you hit your head on the tub.”
“Why didn’t you catch me?”
“Your fall summoned me, Faith. When you hit your head you were knocked back into consciousness.”
She lowered her arm, worked it under the covers, and placed one hand on top of the other over her breast. It seemed like the logical place to put them.
“Would you like me to help you call someone to be with you?”
“Do you have to go?”
“I am at your disposal.”
“Then, no. I find your company good.”
“You’re not afraid to die?”
“No. My children and grandchildren are grown. I’ve finished quilts for all of them. I can’t see well enough to quilt or to read anymore. It seems time to go. Perhaps I’ve overstayed a bit.”
Her telephone rang.
“That’s my daughter. How long do I have?”
He slightly tilted his head.
“If my time is short I will not answer. I don’t want to hear her plans for the day. They are all the same, and she goes into too much detail. If my time is long I will answer, because if I don’t she will be here in thirty minutes, and then I’ll be in the hospital again. So, can you tell me?”
“Don’t answer the phone.”
Faith settled back into the worn spot in her mattress. All these years of sleeping alone were about to end. She smiled.
“I’m glad you’re here.”


Hat-Trick
By Caroline Hurley

The magician can only pull so many rabbits out of the hat before it dries up.

This line was etched inside the card that was delivered to me last week. It sticks in my head, morphing into an omen, a warning that the good times may be over.

The ‘what’ that is drying up? It’s hardly the hat. No, it must be the magic; the essence that can’t go on forever.

When you’re in the flow of it, with the sun shining, flowers blooming, children tumbling, love in the air all around—the full works of the fairy-tale—the supply seems endless. How could it ever stop? You couldn’t make it go away if you tried, not that you’d want to. When it’s gone, so is the secret joy, just as genius died with the wunderkind Houdini.

No one had signed the card, unless with an invisible hallmark.

The message only was printed inside, while the front was emblazoned with a cartoon image of a magic show. I’d received unsigned cards before, but I’d thought nothing of them.

The first card showed a grinning harlequin in vivid multi-colour, dancing under falling stars. Inside was the short perennial text: happy birthday. That was all. I was ten years old. As far as I was concerned it could have been dropped in by a scatty aunt or friend of my parents. No shortage of suspects. No big deal.

I had to wait till I was sixteen for the next one. Not that I really did wait. Far from it, indeed, but still, however casually, that was the first card I particularly noticed—its mysterious presence smuggled through with declared goods. There was also the class of it. A young prince was standing outside his parents’ castle surveying the horizon beyond their kingdom, and the same birthday wish inside. Those that reached me afterwards paralleled my growing up, somehow, as I made my way out into the adult world.

Scenes of romance, children, travel and various accomplishments followed every few years.

At the far side, when the dust settled, the world had moved on and even my wife began to forget my birthday—that is when the faithful arrival of the anonymous greeting, finding me out no matter how often or where I’d relocated, took on a newfound significance.

Once I retired, these little miracles of serendipity appeared yearly, as impossibly immanent as the magician’s bonnet bunnies.

I’d like to thank that magician, the one who’s been sending me the cards, and who admits to drying up, like myself.

I start radiotherapy tomorrow, too far gone, I’m told, to operate on. If only that was an illusion! How could the card-sender know before I did? In the end, knowing doesn’t matter. The true magic springs from the well of living, and I drank my mortal fill of love, luck and satisfaction.

Looking back, whatever vanishing act I must endure now, I was blessed with the whole hat-trick.


 Issue 2: June 2014


IMG_7032You
By Madhumita Roy

My monologue is directed at You.

Because You sit on the other side of the desk with a smirk on your face, which makes You resemble my cat, Ludo, when she smiles. New research claims that animals can smile and, therefore, I believe both You and Ludo are capable of smiling.

On rare occasions your smirk evolves into a wide grin.

These occasions are as follows: when rain-forests burn; or tsunamis wreak havoc in Asian countries; or when two hundred girls are abducted and threatened with rape.

Your face is extremely annoying.

Although there is a halo around your enormously big head, I think it is an illusion you have masterfully created to cut an impressive figure for a credulous crowd. You are not God, Godhead, Godfather, Godly, God-like, or any goddess.

You survive because of cheap sentimentalism, untrue feelings, lazy thoughts, crazy dreams and soft nation-states.

You are what childless couples crave; what toothless grandmothers remember; what old men imagine as sex; and what belies all stereotypes of desire and memory.

You seek sustenance in the uncertainty of settled lives and the boredom of nomads. You are just One, yet You give the impression of multiplicity. You are fixed, yet You seem nebulous and spread-out.

You act like a beggar; like a mad sorceress lusting after the good and honest travellers; like the rogue bus-conductor demanding money from the hapless commuter not carrying change.

You are not fiction, at least not my fiction. I am bad at making up stories. If I had made You, You would not be grand, illusive, mysterious—and also phony, confused, chimeral and sad. I want to dethrone You. I assure You, You would benefit from my rebellion—You would sleep in peace.

However, You see me spilling over, non-specialized, unprofessional and ambitious. You also see me lettered; progressing meekly from the past to the present and future over thousands of pages. You see me in the side-role, which keeps me dissatisfied. You see me accidentally stepping into the role of protagonist with great hesitance and fear.

You exist. You are the author. You are the Muse. You are the dreamer. When I look into the mirror, or read a novel, or allow folks to read me, or citizens to claim me, or dogs to devour me and scare my cat, I see You.


Three Months Free with Gravity
By Renoir Gaither

Substitute teaching an eighth grade English class is like speed dating a pail of nails: One charges through the minefield of discussing the number of likes on an ex’s Facebook page while the other compresses conspiracy theories about Beyoncé and the Illuminati into nine syllables. Today, the class and I bemoan the ubiquity of passive voice—or rather, I alone suffer the slings and arrows of outrage.

“Passive voice was raised on buttered grits,” I haw, hoping a simple, self-deprecating anthropomorphism gains traction.

Amber, a blond boredom magnet in the back row takes the bait: “Real funny, Mr. Substitute. Ever thought about a career as a late night talk show host?”

Ignoring her, I fumigate one question with another: “Ever call a baseball game in passive voice?”

A freckle-faced seraph named Gabe chimes, “Curveball is dealt to home plate! Pitch is swung on by Derek Jeter! A pall is cast over the entire field at Fenway Park!”

“Wonderful,” I add. “I bet the announcer was a Red Sox fan.”

Amber, the Meryl Streep of sarcasm, lets go a thundering “Aww, who gives a hoot!” then resumes flogging her lemon chew.

“Who?” I interject with pantomimed vim, “Why, no less than folk heroes and neo-Dadaists. People like Lady Gaga, the Kardashian sisters, Godzilla. OK, nix the reptile. Imagine them tweeting away their lives in passive voice.” I feel as young as Keats when he wrote his letters and mischievous as Ignatz hurling a brick at Krazy Kat.

“Advertisers are the star players in this game,” I continue. “Ad folks hate passive voice. Using it kills any and all sense of urgency. Remember, they want to sell you things. And sell you things as soon as possible.” I loosen my collar, pad over to a corner of the room in my best hawker imitation, and pronounce: “Better to boast, ‘This Maserati Granturismo speaks wonders in terms of style and comfort!’ than to dully mumble, ‘This car was engineered for style and comfort.’ Speaking like advertising executives brings you that much closer to tooling around in a Maserati.”

“Yeah—and maybe a sign on the moon reads GET THREE MONTHS FREE WITH GRAVITY,” Amber enunciates like Chris Paul dribbles a basketball: with awesomely sick handles.

I look down at my shoes where half a heel used to be, and then crane up. “Hmm, about that gravity . . . do they take checks?”


Seedling
By Tyrean Martinson

When it was his turn to speak, Dunnie hesitated. He knew what he should say. It was a simple question of whether or not he wanted to try and fit in this year at school. It was seventh grade. He had six years plus kindergarten behind him so he knew what the acceptable answers were, even to something as simple as giving his favorite color and activity so the teacher could remember his name out of the 125 students she had to deal with every day. But, something made Dunnie want to be honest this year.

“My name is Dunnie Cunningham. I like the color orange because it reminds me of sunrise, and sun on my back, and my grandma’s oatmeal cookies.”

A few boys he’d known since kindergarten snickered.

“This isn’t Dateline,” hissed Randy from across the aisle.

“Excuse me, Randy,” said the teacher in a tired voice.

Dunnie held back a small smile, though it tugged at the corner of his lips as Randy slouched in his chair.

“Your favorite activity, Dunnie?” the teacher prompted.

“Gardening,” he said. “I like to make things grow.”

This time his answer was met by an uncomfortable silence. He’d just reminded everyone of that incident in kindergarten.

But the teacher was new in town. She didn’t know about the incident, so she said, “Thank you, Dunnie. I’ll remember that when we study our unit on plant life.”

Dunnie nodded. As the teacher asked Teddy Fowler about his favorite color and activity, Dunnie thought back to kindergarten when he first discovered his gift. He still couldn’t explain it, but he’d learned to use it more carefully. He’d never covered a building with plants again, nor surrounded a classmate with brambles. He looked sideways at Randy and caught him looking back.

Randy bent over his notebook. He liked to draw comical caricatures of his classmates.

Dunnie looked at the scars on Randy’s wrists. Randy always wore long sleeves, even at football practice, but when they rode up a bit you could see the scars. Dunnie felt bad about that.

As the teacher walked over to another part of the room to talk to Wendy Grover, Randy shoved his notebook across the aisle at Dunnie.

A picture of a boy covered in thorns with the words “Do you remember this?” under it glared off the page.

When class ended, Dunnie walked into the hallway where an apple core sailed out of the air and hit the ground beside him.

Dunnie picked it up, felt its residual life and worked his gift. The core sprouted roots from the seeds inside. He held it up and looked across the hall at Teddy Fowler and Randy.

Teddy Fowler’s mouth hung open. Randy’s face went white, but he crossed the hall to Dunnie. “So, it was real what I remembered.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dunnie. He held the apple core with roots out to Randy. “Plant it in your yard.”

Randy eyed the apple core. “It’s not going to grow all over me?”

“No. I learned how to control it.”

“Cool,” Randy said. “You know I draw comics, right?”

“Yeah,” Dunnie said.

“So, I need to show you the comic I drew in kindergarten. It’s called ‘Plant-boy’.” He hesitated, then took the apple core. “He was a villain at first, and then I saw him helping his grandma in her garden, so I made him a hero.”

“Plant-boy is a terrible name.”

“I was five.”

“You could rename him.”

“We’ll talk about it. I figure you can give me some ideas.” He held up his notebook. “I’ll see you after football practice. Hold this for me until then.” He dropped the apple core with roots back into Dunnie’s hands.

Dunnie looked down at the tiny apple tree in his hands. He would have to make sure it had plenty of loving care to grow.


Telephone Voice
By Margaret Wachtler

In the early seventies I worked at the University of Chicago Library where I was the reading room receptionist.

I had a good telephone voice.

One day, a gravelly male voice on the line said, “ Hello. This is Saul Bellow. I’d like to speak to someone about my papers.”

God, Saul Bellow, Seize the Day. That was all I could think. I’d never read any of his books but he was a famous AUTHOR.

“I think you’d like to speak to Mr. Rosenthal,” I said.

“And who is Mr. Rosenthal, might I ask?”

“Um, he’s my boss, I mean, he’s Head of Special Collections.”

“And what makes you think I should talk to him? Can’t I talk to you?”

“Well, I guess so.” I wondered where this was going. “But why me?”

“Well, I like the sound of your voice.”

“Oh.”

“And you sound like someone who could help me.”

“Gosh.” (Yes, I did use words like that way back then.)

“So, what can you do for me?” he insisted.

“I don’t really know except maybe put you through to Mr. Rosenthal. He’s in his office right now.”

“But what if I don’t want to talk to him?”

“I think, Mr. Bellow, he’s the one. I’m just the receptionist.”

“Nothing wrong with that. In fact, some of the finest women I know are receptionists.”

“That’s nice.”

“No, it’s a way of complimenting you.”

I drew a breath. Was this man really talking like this to me? He didn’t know me but he was drawing me in. And I liked it.

“Why, thank you,” I said. But then I didn’t know how to continue.

“And I only compliment those who are worthy.”

“Well, you’re very kind.”

“I guess I need to get back to the business at hand. I think I’m just going to come in. Then I can talk with your Mr. Rosenthal. When’s he free?”

I didn’t even bother to look at the appointment book. “He’s here all afternoon.”

“I’ll be there in a couple of hours. Anxious to meet you, Miss … ?”

“Oh, Miss Lloyd. Margaret Lloyd. Me, too. I mean it will be nice to meet you, too.”

Saul Bellow entered the reading room with great strides. He had a satchel under his arm and a long overcoat. His presence took up a huge space. There was an anticipatory smile on his craggy face.

“Is Miss Lloyd here? I’ve come to see Mr. Rosenthal.”

“I’m Miss Lloyd.”

“Oh.” Saul Bellows’ face fell. He shook his head. “Really?”

“Really.” I nodded in agreement. I knew I’d disappoint him. My voice didn’t match me.

“May I see Mr. Rosenthal?

“Yes, of course.”


Human Error
By Maurice Cashell

From his waiting room I watched Robert move between a dozen monitors, barking out instructions to designers in Provo and programmers in Bengaluru.

Around the walls digital clocks, in luminous green, hurtled down to zero. His entire team was focused on the crisis at Secular, the U.S. chain whose 2,000 outlets serve 15 million customers a week. The stores sell a selection of arts, crafts, and seasonal merchandise for hobbyists and DIY home decorators.

In 2012, when Secular’s debit card terminals in five states had been compromised Robert’s IT company won a multi-million dollar contract to upgrade the system. He had completed the project on time, had tested it a dozen times, a hundred times.

Starting from the front-end cash register its suite of applications managed every aspect of Secular’s business with complete security. Founder Jim Ryan liked to boast that Robert’s new system was as good as the Pentagon’s. And then, just before it went online, a mere three hours before the first stores on the East Coast opened, the system crashed.

The Secular board was assembled in the War Room, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Jim Ryan gave Robert two hours to sort out the mess; if not, the stores would not open, the stock would tank and so would Robert’s heavily mortgaged company.

Before the opening of the NYSE a broker tweeted about a “Secular problem” and wondered if his short-term ‘Buy’ rating would survive the day. The temperature rose in the War Room but Jim Ryan’s response was characteristic: ‘We gave the kid two hours. He can do it.’

And Robert did. It wasn’t a virus; it wasn’t a hacker. It was a simple human error. Something that can be identified and fixed if one is calm, well ordered and patient.

He looked across the room at me, winked, thumbs up, and made signs of forking food into his mouth.

We went to a Basque restaurant on San Sebastian’s Paseo Muelle. Right on the water’s edge, where the trawlers tie up. The far end, away from the tourists. He placed his iPhone on the table and observed the family rule: no business talk while eating.

We spoke to Mikel, the chef who plays with Robert on the veterans’ football team, took his advice on which fish to choose and ordered carefully. He suggested a wine from one of the oldest of the Navarra bodegas. Oaky, rich and smoky, the exuberant child of a warm climate, when chilled it set the scene for a perfect meal to mark a victory over human error.

Robert decided to record the occasion on his iPhone camera. To take in the restaurant’s green canopy (“this is the only green that I’m pleased to see today”) he took a step back. He didn’t see the hawser lying on the quayside, tripped, then tried to steady himself and to grab the falling phone. I saw his face as he tumbled backwards over the edge. He looked calm, had his ‘I can sort this out’ expression as he looked straight into my eyes.

With a sickening crunch his head banged off the gunwale of the boat ten feet below and I knew that his life and mine were changed forever.


Sweet Justice
By Doreen Duffy

As I stared through the windscreen at the black shining road getting sucked beneath the fast moving car, the hedgerows rushing alongside in their applause, I wasn’t sure if I was right to have taken this lift.

The driver was animated, chatting incessantly.

I allowed my mind to switch off, saying “mmm” and “oh really”. I stared out the window where rain used the glass as a runway to speed down and rest a moment in the rubber seal at the bottom.

I’d been hitching for over two hours. Nobody wanted to give lifts these days. My hands were freezing from holding the cardboard sign and water was pouring off my rain jacket and rucksack. It was great to be in the warmth of the car.

Rain was coming in sheets and the wipers were unable to cope. I thought he should take it slower and said as much.

He laughed. “You can put yourself back on the road with your sign.”

I reached for my rucksack and pulled out my knife. Throwing my entire body weight behind it, I lunged in and out of his side. When he was still, I grabbed my knife and climbed out of the car. I went under the trees and cleaned my face and hands as best I could.

A driver stopped and offered me a lift. She was a nice woman all motherly, tutting about what a bad evening it was to be hitching a lift. I snuggled down in the passenger seat, weary.

She offered me one of her sweets.

The sort of sweets I hate.


Snared
By Susan Condon

Johnny’s eyes skim the room, finally settling in the corner. It appears darker there; black as ink. Yet he is unable to decipher a shape as his hands feel for the tangled sheet, pulling it over their naked bodies. It is cold and his chest feels as if icy fingers are squeezing his heart. He shudders.

Jennifer? Jemima? Shit! He can’t even remember her name.

Evidence of their passion is strewn around the bedroom; his designer shirt and faded jeans, one leg inside out; her flimsy dress and black lace thong. The alcohol, along with his medication, has heightened some of his senses while dulling others. Unable to keep their hands from caressing, their tongues from dancing, they’d spent hours exploring each other.

As he wakes up, their bodies are still entwined.

It’s the voice.

That raspy, scratchy voice; the way it says his name.

“Johnnnnny.”

At first he convinces himself that he imagined it, holding his breath, unable to open his eyes. Then he hears the soft rustle of cloth and that voice again; closer this time.

“Johnnnnny. I found you . . .”

He breathes out slowly, as if he is swimming underwater, expelling air bubbles. But his next breath makes him gag; now he’s drowning.

The black eyes of the ventriloquist dummy are boring into him.

“It’s time, Johnnnnny.”

Snared; like a rabbit in a trap.

He nods, lifts the pillow and places it over her head, pressing firmly.

Murder for Dummies.


Unburied Child
By Phyl Herbert

My favourite way of going in is through the keyhole of the big hall-door. It’s like waiting in the wings before making a stage entrance. The only difference is that when I enter the stage of the house nobody sees me, not a soul. I do know I’m being a little dramatic about the keyhole entrance but the truth is I can enter whatever way I like, even through the thickest gable wall.

Day and night are all the same to me since you might say I’ve never really seen the light of day. It had been in the depths of darkness that I made my entry to this place, these lands where peacocks strut the grounds and white cats creep behind you and dogs whelp for attention. That cocky peacock seems to be forever patrolling that little patch of ground outside the hall-door. Today my mission will be fulfilled. Mr. Peacock had better play his part.

Let’s talk about playing—I never got a chance to play. Time as I said means nothing to me. I’ve watched the children of the house play in the fields with their kites and balls and sticks. I’ve heard them laugh and cry and all of a sudden they’ve stopped playing and become grown men and women. Then the whole cycle starts over again, more children, more playing, more and more. Where do I fit into this cycle of life, you may ask? Nowhere, that’s where. My place is rooted in the realm of death. But to die means that you have lived at some stage, at some minute of time. A life has to have registered some tick on the clock of life. My life was hardly more than a tick.

There was a storm that night and I knew that the place where I had slumbered was being disturbed. My warm cosy liquidy place had burst wide open and I’d catapulted onto a cold bed of bloodied rags. Her screams had drowned out my cries. Of course I couldn’t see her. Newborn babies can’t see but I had felt her, I’d felt her hands around my neck and my first breath of life had been extinguished, so that is why, when I say I’ve never really seen the light of day as a body made flesh I really mean it. I’d been flesh for an instant and then bones that had been hidden in the cracks of the outhouses far away from the eyes of the big house. My disappearance had caused a stir among the local fraternity and then farther afield to the big cities. Newspaper people and television people all looking for a juicy story had haunted the place. I didn’t even have a name but the young girl who gave birth to me did, the young girl who had given life and then taken it from me had a name but I can’t say it. I can’t tell you now but what I can do is —well, let’s see how it goes.

Mr. Peacock is on door duty again. I can’t make up my mind whether to pinch his tail or thump his head so I decide to do both. I want him to sing on his highest note and dance up a storm. I take my time before putting my plan into action. This time I want the front door to open and I want to take my lawful place inside the house. I pinch the peacock’s tail and thump his head and he twitches and prances and I do it again and again and the cry gets higher and the feathers flutter and the door opens.

In the kitchen a group of men are sitting around the table, no one is talking, the clock is ticking. There is a loud scream. The sighs of a woman in pain. I’m now in her bedroom. The baby is letting out a cry and I know that cry. It is mine and I’m made flesh again.


The Relief of Collon*
By Andy Jones

Two Bedford army trucks were parked at the side of the country road, their dipped headlights throwing shadows in the growing darkness. The men dismounted awkwardly, exhibiting the effects of their earlier exertions. The more experienced took their time, professionally scrutinising the chosen location with bloodshot eyes. Pain was evident on all their faces, an ache that would not ease until they completed the task that faced them. They had taken so much and were past caring.

Hurriedly taking position, they nudged each other into line. All was silent apart from the muttered entreaties of those whose turn would come. Their manhood had been severely tested over the past hours and would be again before this was over. The young officer in command paled. It was the first time she had witnessed anything like this. She tried to speak, but no words issued from her parched mouth. She was suffering too, having willingly joined in the earlier activities, but her humanity meant she could not take part in the unspeakable act her men were about to commit. She looked along the line and bit her lip, averting her eyes.

Suddenly, without a word of command, tracer-like amber streams erupted from the ranks, twinkling in the dull glow of the lorry lights.

Visiting the brewery in Dundalk was undoubtedly the high point of annual training. The lavish consumption of export grade Harp Lager always ended with the same predictable result on the way home. They hadn’t taught her this in Cadet College.

*Collon is a village north of Slane in County Meath, Ireland, halfway back to the barracks.


My Cat
By John Givens

I thought I might be happier if I had a cat. My cat would sit on my lap while I was reading and soothe me with its purring. Or not on my lap since I’d have a book there so beside me, rather, but leaning against me with its little head on my thigh and perhaps one paw placed there affectionately and purring. I would give my cat a name and when I said it, my cat would look up at me inquiringly so that if anyone happened to be visiting, they would be impressed by how clever my cat was although if anyone was there in my happy home, then the cat would in a sense become redundant since its primary purpose was to eliminate or at least minimize the loneliness that sometimes impeded my decision-making skills and made it hard to get out of bed. My plan for obtaining a cat was straightforward. I would go to the animal shelter with its many cats waiting eagerly in their cages and choose one. The cat’s age would be a prime consideration. Kittens are cute but tend to get underfoot and when stepped on leave a mess. Older cats are often set in their ways and express dissatisfaction by shitting in the middle of your bed. Gender is a factor, too, although surgical neutering can eliminate the most undesirable traits evidenced by the so-called “whole” cat. Disposition and an attractive appearance are also considerations. One should avoid sullen cats, for example. Disfigured cats, cats missing limbs, or cats with skin diseases should also be avoided. No sooner had I established these principles for selecting my cat than it occurred to me there was another variable. “Rescue” cats have a shelf-life, so to speak, and once a certain amount of time has elapsed – a “grace period,” if you will – what began as a “rescue” becomes inoperable, and the cat is terminated, if that’s the term for it, which in all likelihood it isn’t since children are often involved in the cat-selection process and the shelter staff would want to employ a gentler euphemism. I resolved therefore to expand my criteria of age, gender, personality and relative comeliness by adding a fifth: imminence of death. To this end, I decided I would instruct the shelter to restrict the selection of cats they offered me to those which were least likely to be adopted before the “grace period” had been exhausted, thereby ensuring that by making my choice within the parameters of this constraint, at least one “at risk” cat would be preserved. I was pleased with this solution and about to leave for the animal shelter when the possibility of unintended consequences occurred to me—always a curse for the thoughtful. What if I selected a cat that while facing near-term termination had slightly more “wiggle room” than another, equally deserving cat that I had overlooked through no fault of its own so that by failing to pause at this cat’s cage, I was thereby condemning what would have been an otherwise satisfactory animal companion to an undeserved death. I decided I would have to refine my cat-selection method further by asking the staff at the shelter to rank the “at risk” cats in order of inverse proposed longevity so that I might choose the cat most in need of my happy home, by which I meant the cat closest to its date of termination (or whatever the term is for lifting a cat out of its cage, carrying it down to the basement, and sticking it head-first into the death-chamber) although it also occurred to me that while my plan might very well preserve the cat most “at risk,” it would ipso-facto condemn the second-most vulnerable cat to its horrible fate. This stopped me. It seemed to ensure that my ostensibly good deed would lead to the termination of an otherwise perfectly viable cat due to my “well-meant” organizing principle. Shouldn’t I therefore reach down more deeply into the category of “at risk” cats on offer and perhaps open my happy home to the second-most vulnerable cat too? Except taking both the most vulnerable cat and second-most vulnerable cat would instantly promote to the top of the “kill list” a cat that while “at risk” might still have liked its chances, at least until I came swaggering through the door with all my preferences and prejudices. What to do? Take him too? And the fourth-most vulnerable cat, and the fifth? Take the entire supply of pre-terminable cats? But wouldn’t that introduce the new problem of selecting which of my many cats ended up leaning against my thigh and purring? And what about the logistical “nightmare” of organizing my inventory of cats? All of them wandering around and getting into things, stealing food and scratching the furniture, fighting and fucking and shitting all over the place. The smell of it alone would keep putative visitors out of my happy home. And what if I dropped dead of a heart attack from the strain of trying to manage all those cats? And thereby became a meal for them? Did I really want to leave as the legacy of my search for happiness the kind of comically grotesque story enjoyed by tabloid-readers? It was with a heavy heart that I set off for the animal shelter, dreading what I would find there.


PUT THE KETTLE ON
By Phyl Herbert

He phoned me that Tuesday. It was always to ask me for the loan of my car. I knew there was something up when he said, ‘Put the kettle on. I’m coming up for a cup of coffee.’ I had this feeling. It wasn’t a good feeling. When I answered the door he was carrying a sack of firewood. The snow was thick on the steps to my apartment. Now when I look back at that moment I have to laugh because I knew he wouldn’t need firewood where he was going. Of course, then I didn’t know.

I knew exactly how he liked his coffee, two sugars, just a drop of milk. After living with someone for twenty years you get to know things like that. Another thing I knew about him was that he didn’t like chatting. In the years of our life together if ever I had started to tell him something, he’d look at his watch and say, ‘Is this going to take long?’ We never chatted. I learned to say nothing. Can’t even remember when we parted company.

‘Remember that form you got for me to have my pension paid into the bank?’

‘Yes,’ I said. He had only just become a recipient of the pension.

‘Well, I lost it.’

‘No problem.’ I said. ‘I’ll ring them up and get another one.’

‘There’s nothing keeping me in this country.’

I looked at him and knew something else was coming. ‘I suppose not,’ I said.

‘Do you think if I emigrated from here they’d pay my pension in another country?’

I knew he had recently made a few trips to Thailand with a friend for dental treatment.

‘Where are you thinking of going?’

‘Back to Thailand.’

The penny dropped, I’m a bit slow like that.

‘Have you got a woman there?’ I held my breath.

‘Yes,’ he said. I felt a lump jump into my throat and swallowed it.

‘I’m happy for you.’

‘I met her when I was over getting my teeth done. She works in a bar.’

He didn’t even look at me. He kept stirring his coffee. I felt like telling him to stop.

‘She’s a bit old for that type of work,’ he said matter of factly.

‘What age is she?’ I had to ask.

‘Thirty-eight,’ he said. ‘She has a daughter of eighteen.’

He looked at me then as if I were his mother. ‘She’s been ringing me since I’ve got back.’

‘Can she speak English?’

‘She’s enough to make herself understood. The roof of her house fell in and I had to send her money to fix it.’

Then he floored me altogether.

‘Will you come over for our wedding in September? I want you to give me away.’


SECRET
By Rebecca Bartlett

Words: broken, crooked, transparent, hang between them, as if suspended in some virtual, weightless world. Letters fall away in a confusion of sounds yet to be articulated, in anticipation of things needing to be said but yet unspoken.

Tea is poured. The Mother’s blue-veined hands enfold the precious familiar china, ornamental willow figures escaping between her fingers to a hiding place somewhere in the palm of her hand. The brown warmth presses against her daydream, the reality of too much time passing and things needing to be said but yet unspoken.

Her only daughter, the second of four children, was always last in the pecking order, because it was the natural order of things in Mother’s life that, quite simply, sons came first. Now, her privacy invaded by medical practice and invasive procedures; by promises of a recovery which in her slackening blood flow and her damaged heart she suspects will not work; it is her daughter she wants.

Daughter will not compromise, will not urge her to sentimentalities she does not want to give; will protect her dignity and her right to speak for what she wants.

And yet, and yet: things needing to be said are still unspoken.

Across the room Mother and Daughter make the same silent pilgrimage back to the rugged purpled valley of the Maam River, to that car journey when, because Mother was despairing, a story was told and, Daughter has always known, immediately regretted. She remembers Mother’s anguish, her profile taut with pain.

Mother remembers the uncharacteristic reaching. Daughter’s hand holding hers: mute resolve and undertaking in that touch.

Years of prayer have strengthened her own fortitude but what of the after-time, when she is gone, will the burden of secrecy be too much?

And Sons must not know.

Sunlight slides into the room. Daughter sees the question worrying Mother’s face, the words hanging between them. This unspoken, crystallized by time, lies deep in the strata of both their lives.

She moves to take Mother’s empty cup and as Mother’s thoughts are lifted back into the room and her eyes to Daughter’s face, Daughter very gently touches her own closed lips with the tip of her forefinger: a nanosecond of wordless communication. Mother’s eyes close briefly and from her own lips a sigh in acknowledgement of this digital testimony to keep the past hidden.

Tenacity, courage, loyalty: the genetic code of these women’s shared DNA.

Sons visit, wary now of something different in the house; a female blood tie, like a tribal bond, fierce, protective, yielding nothing of that which is still unspoken but which Mother and Daughter knowingly share. Sons converse, engage Mother, yet it is Daughter who is drawn closer in through the rituals of an ending both women intuit. Like a menstrual cycle between fecund females the pulse of one quickens or slows to the pulse of the other and those other words, superfluous now, dissolve, disperse.

The month is warm, a daily abundance of sweet pea spills from a crystal bowl and punctuates the customary colours of a room long lived in. Family gather, nervous of the ending they also now see coming.

The gentle adagio of Mother’s death is played out in days.

When it is over and the ritual of funeral past, Sons and Daughter sit around Mother’s kitchen table. Words: charged, cumbersome, pendulous hang between them.

‘You were with her so much in these last weeks.’

‘Yes.’

‘It was you she wanted.’

‘Yes.’

‘So … when you talked … did she … did she tell you anything we should know?’


The Estate
By Stephen Rea

Christopher Burroughs had been looking forward to the reunion that he had attended every five years without fail since he left school. This winter’s event was to be the fourth get-together. Despite being very busy he had etched it firmly in his head and replied confirming his attendance. At midnight he was acknowledged as being first on the list.

Eleven months passed. When Christopher arrived, it was in full swing and as he circulated amongst all those who were there, he listened intently as Face-bookers relayed that the economic crash had not been kind to some renowned tiger climbers from their year. Several were now working in Canada.

In an alcove round the corner from the bar, an out of sight group were mentioning him. Elmore was upbeat and positive. ‘Yeah, he sold it for close to twenty million. Anyone know what he did with it?”

Vince held out his phone. “That’s where he put it.”

“The full twenty million?”

“And another hundred million from the banks.”

Christopher needed to collect his thoughts and went outside into the cold air punctuated by the smoke of cigarettes, returning just as the organiser was saying his few words about the night that was in it. Two of the group that had been discussing him were looking at another picture on a Smartphone. It showed half-built houses with no roofs, windows, doors or people.

The organizer raised his glass. “To a sad summer and a fallen friend … to Christopher.”

The group joined in as one: “To Christopher.”

Outside again there was lingering doorway smoke for Christopher to pass through as he made his way back into the nearby housing estate that had swallowed him up. It still had half-built houses with no roofs, windows, doors or people.


SOULLESS
By Christine Rains

“Display your navel.”

There was no please or thank you as I lifted the bottom of my shirt. A gentle warmth exuded from the scanner as the guard pressed it to my abdomen. I tried not to think about how many other bellies it had touched, but my stomach roiled nonetheless. I was one of the Soulfull. I could not disgrace myself by cringing or throwing up in public.

Three seconds later, the device beeped and flashed green. The guard waved me on, and I stepped forward a few feet to wait for my friend behind me. Jetta wore a blue half-top and sported a swirly tattoo celebrating her navel. Winking at me as the scanner beeped, she had a skip in her step as the guard granted her entry into the Church.

“Easy peasy.” Jetta’s smirk melted into an expression of awe as we entered the immense nave. Weaving arches linked in sacred knots and golden angels spread their wings above us. Not one threw a bolt of lightning nor swept down to drag us away.

“I understand why you love to come here now.” She whispered near my ear. Not too close. Touching was forbidden.

A priest walked by. He smiled and nodded. He knew me. We had seen each other hundreds of times. He’d never seen Jetta, but he had the same smile for her. It was as if he couldn’t tell the difference.

I trembled and my insides clenched. I wanted to scream out the truth, but I didn’t dare. I’d wanted to know as much as Jetta.

“Why would they keep us from here? I feel closer to God just being in here.” Jetta sat in a pew on the left side. One of her hands went to her abdomen, fingering her navel. “We were made to be just like you. To do, to think, just like you. Look at this place. There’d be peace if they let us in.”

The Soulless were forbidden to enter holy places. Born neither of mother nor father, we were taught they were empty vessels. Jetta had always denied it, complaining she had more life than me. There were times I agreed with her. I wanted to weep.

Rebel Soulless fought against the Church and government, demanding equal rights. They’d come so far already. The Church still refused them though, and pleaded with the corporations to stop creating the Soulless. But they weren’t going to quit making products that made them so much money. Soon the Soulless would outnumber the Soulfull and what then?

“It’s so beautiful.” Jetta ran her fingers along the smooth wood of the bench in front of us. She stood and approached the altar. I held my breath, but nothing happened. She went down to her knees and rested her hands on her belly. Laughing, she tossed her head back and wiped at her eyes.

A few people glanced her way, but no one said anything. The ways of God were mysterious, and she only appeared to be worshiping. Not appeared. No matter that she was created in a vial, she still believed in God. My God.

Should I be angry? Or happy? I couldn’t feel anything either way. My knuckles were white with how I clasped my hands together. The incense burned as I inhaled, and my heart pounded in my chest.

I forced myself up and joined Jetta. My legs shook and gave way. No one paid attention as I flopped onto the floor. The painful jolt blurred my vision for a few seconds, but I tilted my head back to focus upon one of the great angels. So wise and lovely and still.

“One small scar and we’re equal in the eyes of God.” She beamed at me. Then she turned her eyes up and they glazed over with wonder.

Whomever gave Jetta her navel had done an excellent job. It healed perfectly and looked like a naturally cute belly button. She’d convinced me to touch it to make sure it felt real. Even though it did, I was certain it couldn’t fool the Church. God saw everything.

Yet she was right. One little scar had fooled them all, and we were on our knees together in the most sacred of places. Was she really Soulless after all?

Tears streamed down my cheeks. Not for the hope that Jetta had a soul, but for the fear that she did.

And what of me? I was hollow. Everything I ever believed was wrong.


Tightrope Muffins
By Dawn Lowe

When I want to hide, I visit the grubby muffin shop on the top floor of the mall.

The crone behind the counter is a hundred years old. She wears a chef’s hat, frilly apron, support hose and black slippers, scuttling behind her baked goods like a spider checking its web.

Muffins should be soft, but hers are hard and crusty. I buy one anyway—the price of sanctuary—toffee apple, with the paper cup baked into its flesh.

I sit overlooking the food court two floors down, where he is seated at a round table with his knights. I recognize the top of his head. A hard muffin, hurled from this height, could do some damage there.

A spider is walking a tightrope between my table and the next. The counter crone creeps round the corner to wipe empty tables with a rag.

I look down and see the top of a blonde head next to his. The knights shift their chairs so she can sit beside him. I wish for for a crossbow or boiling oil: If wishes were weapons, perfidy would die.

The paper exoskeleton of a muffin lies stripped before me; my nails are caked with goo.

“Are you done?” the crone asks. She’s standing between my table and the next, hands on hips, rag slapped down like a gauntlet.

The spider, her lifeline broken, has grown to epic proportions and devours the muffin lady’s head.


 Issue 3: September 2014


IMG_5071Rumbling over Steel
By Ute Carson

I love trains, the slow local and the 200-mile-an-hour express. I have traveled on all sorts of trains over the years. As a child I fled westward from the advancing Soviet army with my family atop an ammunition transport.

There was the old steam engine chugging from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo on a narrow-gauge rail line with village women carrying chickens and lugging baskets of farm produce.

My face was soot-smeared with coal dust blowing in through the open windows.

I have shivered in air-conditioned compartments and perspired next to antiquated radiators. I have savored sumptuous meals in elegant dining cars and munched on snacks on wooden commuter benches. Decades ago, on a trip from Stuttgart to Istanbul I bedded down in a luggage rack strung like a hammock above the compartment seats. And once in a sleeper from London to Glasgow, I was awakened with morning tea.

A whistle, a hooting, and the wheels begin to sing on tracks that look like ladders stretched end to end along the ground. In Ukraine a station master in a red cap motioned with his hand signal as we passed through his little town, a herd of sheep on the left, an onion-shaped church steeple on the right. An elegant lady wrapped in fur stepped down from a first-class car in Turku, Finland. And in Italy students jumped onto the caboose of our departing train in the nick of time.

A train ride is a journey not a trip. I hear foreign languages and meet strangers. We trade stories. I can retreat and read or watch the world outside roll by as in a movie. The rocking, clanking and rumbling over steel lulls me and stirs my imagination.

One fated day more than fifty years ago on a long-distance train from Hamburg to Bavaria there she was across from me, nestled in the slightly worn, faded red upholstered seat, her brown hair harnessed in a ponytail, one elbow protecting a backpack next to her. Her legs were tucked under, her bare feet sticking out from frayed jeans. She pretended to be reading. I eyed her over my wire-rimmed glasses. My hunch was that she was a student like myself.

She yawned and announced to no one in particular, “I need to stretch.” I joined her in the narrow corridor along the outside of the compartments. We talked as we peered through the smudged window at the countryside whisking by. The journey lasted five hours, long enough for us to share a little about our lives. Unlike me, she disliked trains and felt cooped up on long stretches. She preferred flying.

But by the time we reached Munich we were on a first-name basis and had exchanged addresses. She allowed me to hold her hand for an extra moment as I helped her off the high iron steps of our rumbling-over-steel matchmaker. We agreed to continue our conversation at the university library a few days later. The rest is history.


Beautifully Made for Each Other
By Gene Hines

I am beautifully made. I am without imperfection. On the inside, I am like a cloud, soft and smooth. And, in this, I have something in common with you. You too are beautifully made, even though you do have imperfections and you are not made of bronze and mahogany.

And we both do the same thing, too, don’t we? We are waiting for each other. I know you have grand ideas about your future. But I already know what the future holds. We are waiting for each other. Nothing more. I am waiting for you. And you are waiting for me, even if you try to deny it with your big ideas. I am patient, while you run around being educated, getting married, having children, trying to get ahead at some job, making it—because I know you will come to me in the end.

I wait in warehouses. I wait in carpeted rooms with others like myself. I am taken around in trucks. I am run in and out of rooms on a wheeled dolly made just for me. I don’t mind, because I know the future.

You might live long enough to attain the wisdom, finally, of knowing that you and I are meant for each other. If not, it doesn’t matter; we will be together soon enough. But I am saddened, too. How can anything as beautifully made as we are be hidden out of sight? Shouldn’t our beauty be seen? But, at least we will be together. I will give you rest in a mahogany bed, upon a satin pillow, and it will be my joy. After all, we are beautifully made for one another.


Sayulita Life
By Mark Pearse

Great rippling bands of heat distortion shimmer above the cobbles as our dear electric friend the sun shines razorblades through the sweat shine on my skin and it was only 9:45 am!! “que wow, another day in paradise”, the rhythmic panting from Daisy dog alongside me confirmed her agreement with my unspoken “farkin ‘ell it’s ‘ot.”

And another day unfolds, get everything done before 11:00 am, hide from the heat, move again near sunset. Key word ‘rhythm’, 3 grey rainy days, 3 hot sunny steamy days repeat for a while … Each day a blend of survival and sweet contacts—reiki sessions and meditations and secret chanting groups and exercise groups all small groups of 3 here 4 there, all broke and trading skills and smiles, dotted around in bundles of cliques, keeping the faith raising vibrations hither and thither and global as well, it must be, i reckon.

So life here’s wonderfully rich in experience—my natural abhorrence of work means i pinball between highs and lows, ricochet existence providing contrasts a-go-go to a backdrop of hot dusty humid chicken dog parrot bug noise the rhythmic unending of Sayulita life.


IMG_5609CHESTER
By Jim Freeze

I couldn’t tell if it was my memory or psychological trickery. Did Chester handpick me to be his friend? Or was it accomplice, I’m still not quite sure. The one thing I am sure of is I had no say in the matter. It was a surprisingly simple negotiation: “You and me are going to hang around together quite a bit beginning today,” Chester stated as someone difficult to say no to.

It was 1957 and we were in the seventh grade at Sumter Junior High School. Chester is what you would describe as a school bully but even back then I recognized something more than just a bully. He seemed, even to a thirteen-year-old like myself to be hard and easily available to evil. It was obvious he was driven by negative desires and bad habits.

Our first evening walking home together after a rainy football practice we took the advantage of the covered walkway in front of our old elementary school. The building was arranged with seven classrooms side-by-side and windows beginning at two and half feet off the ground. Chester began with the very first classroom—breaking two or three windows—punching them with his bare fist. He continued duplicating this action, laughing with each and every jab, until all seven classrooms were damaged.

Chester was adamant that I join him in this mayhem but I was successful to beg off, explaining that I would cut my hand because I didn’t know how to throw a proper punch. The explanation was sufficient that time but I would find myself spending a lot of thinking power in the future devising reasons why I could not join Chester in his adventures (crimes). Some winters are longer than others and this would prove to be the longest to date.

Chester’s anger was typically self-driven and prone to explosions of temper and violent deeds. He was very seldom satisfied, always wanting more and enjoyed the situation immensely when he felt he had gained total domination. He had an ease for lying, knowing the end product would be his calculated gain. You could feel the rage radiate from Chester as he displayed how well he understood the elements of conflict.

Some people will go to endless extremes to hide or escape the realities of life and Chester fit this group like the perfectly found piece in a jigsaw puzzle. His character was filled with denials, stinginess, a lack of self-control and the habit of ignoring warnings, even about warnings. Chester usually knew when trouble was just around the bend but he was very good at ignoring those warnings. Whether it was evil or just the scoundrel in him, he believed himself to be the proverbial exception to the rule.

Always looking for a quick fix emanating from a short attention span, Chester showed no resolution of will or any fixed principles. It wasn’t even apparent if he really knew what was going on around him. But he felt he had a name to live up to even though feeling he was not alive inside.

In April 1958 Chester was arrested for breaking and entering more than fifteen homes and assault with a deadly weapon (a knife and a pair of brass knuckles). He was found guilty and sentenced to a juvenile reform facility. Chester would spend the next forty years in and out of various prisons while also having elevated his level of criminal endeavors to three murders.

It has been close to fifty years since I last thought about Chester until today when those memories of our time together flooded my psyche. Chester was being interviewed on a nationally syndicated news show, asking the state to put him to death.

I was stunned by the comfort he showed while talking about the storms of his life. He came across as intelligent—studied—prepared—and ready. The only major physical difference I noticed was a disturbing guttural sound deep from within his throat when he spoke. But he still possessed a grin that somehow could find a way to sneak up on you. I was also intrigued by the way he was able to show immeasurable joy of peace and understanding.

The newscaster remarked to Chester, “You seem to have excellent control of your mental awareness along with an obvious life change to the good while in prison, so why at this point would you ask the state to execute you?”

Chester responded, “Perhaps there are changes in the air right now, in the midst of my decision. I have spent much of my life letting the important be the victim of the trivial. There may be seeds of insight lying in the dark vessels of my body waiting for the right season, but that season hasn’t appeared. It is now my belief that it is too late to put my life, that particular ship you could say, back in the bottle.”

The interview lasted another forty minutes and I saw something in Chester that I would have thought impossible those many years ago. I was struck by the magnitude and irony of the moment watching Chester’s absolute and relative truths struggling to tell their story. I realized I was looking at someone who I believed (at one time in my life) needed to show me forgiveness; but now it was I who needed to forgive myself.

This became one of those eye-opening days while watching someone I knew to be a lost soul pull himself from the depths of misfortune. It proved to me that everything and everyone can change and that only change itself is eternal. So go the brush strokes of life!


Becky’s Song
By Ann-Marie Lindstrom

When I was a little girl, Mama always called me light-headed. I never did know what that meant. Look at my hair. It’s always been the color of mud. Never was light.

Now light-fingered I knowed. Cousin Billy Frank was light-fingered. Couldn’t take him into Mr. Hobbs’ store without his taking something weren’t his. Billy Frank had a sweet tooth. And them light fingers.

And light-hearted I know. Granny was light-hearted. She could sing songs that would make you feel like things was going to be better. They might not be good right then, but you knew they was going to be better.

“Raise a joyful voice unto the Lord,” she’d say. Then she’d sing until I felt like I could fly away.

And she told the most wondrous stories. All about when she was a girl in Arkansas, growing up in green mountains.

You know how the air smells after it rains? All fresh and new. She said it smelled like that all the time in Arkansas. I think Arkansas must be the most beautiful place in the world. I’m going there someday.

I’m going to sit in the grass and smell that air. And I’m going to sing a song for Granny. I know she’ll hear me. When I raise my joyful voice unto the Lord, she’ll hear me. ‘Cause she’s right there with Him.

And Becky will hear me. I sing a lullaby to Becky each night. I don’t think I know if you sleep in heaven. I don’t remember the preacher talking about that. But I sing each night, just in case.

I didn’t get to hold her and sing to her after she was born. They took her away too fast. I sit here sometimes and I imagine I’m holding her. I cross my arms like this and I rock them. If I look real hard, I can see her. And I can feel her. She’s not very heavy, cause she was just a little baby.

They could have let me hold her. Just once. But they took her away so fast. Nobody even asked me what her name was. I don’t know what it says on her stone. They never told me where her stone is.

I named her Becky after she was gone. My best friend at church was Becky. She was pretty and smart. Woo, that girl was smart. She could learn things so fast. She learned all the disciples’ names in one morning. I never did learn them. I get a little lost after Mark and Luke. Granny tried to help me, but she’d lose her patience. Seemed to me the Lord wouldn’t want me shut in a room reading from a book when his world was right outside the window.

When I was supposed to be studying the Bible, I used to sneak outdoors and plant things. Whoosh, I was a planting fool. You’d laugh if you’d seen me. I’d plant seeds Mama gave me. Beans and tomatoes. Mr. Hobbs gave me flower seeds once. Shoot, when I ran out of seeds, I used to plant rocks. What a picture. Scrawny little girl digging in the hard dirt to plant rocks. Don’t know what I thought would grow.

Mama caught me once. Watering a rock. Got a licking for that. Wasting water on a fool rock. Think that was the first time she called me light-headed.

Maybe I thought I could grow a mountain. Like in Arkansas. I can’t remember now what I thought.

Kind of funny that I can’t, ’cause I remember more of what I thought than what I did when I was little. I must of gone to school. And done chores. But when I try to go back in my mind, I remember what I was thinking more than what I did. Know what I mean?

I remember dreaming about mountains and cool, fresh air. Or wishing I was smart like Becky. And pretty like my Mama had been. I saw some pictures of her ‘fore she married Daddy. I don’t recall seeing Mama smile ‘cept in those pictures.

Granny said it was Mama’s smile that captured my Daddy’s heart. I don’t remember my Daddy. Not ’cause my memory’s bad, though. He died in the war ‘fore I was born. Mama said there was nothing left to smile about after that. I don’t think she loved me like I love Becky. Maybe everybody’s only given one love in this life. My Daddy was Mama’s and Becky was mine.

I didn’t love Becky’s daddy. I think that’s a sin. But it’s not like we was married or anything. Tommy was a boy I knew from school. He was going into the Army. There was this big party. He drank lots of beer. I don’t think he loved me.

When I told his mama I was going to have a baby, his baby, she slammed the screen door in my face.

I think Granny is the only happy person I ever knew. Really happy, not beer happy. That’s ’cause she was from the mountains. I’m going to the mountains some day.

They tell me if I stop singing to Becky, they’ll let me go. To Arkansas.

I try. All day long, I stay busy. I keep my mind so full of what is going on there is no room for Becky. But then it gets on to dark. I remember what it was like to be little and have that dark all around you. That dark, so full of nothing. Then I can’t stop myself from singing.

When the night comes I have to sing. I try to be quiet so they won’t hear me. But this joyful voice comes out of my mouth.

I want to tell you a secret. Sometimes I wonder if I’m really singing to Becky. She’s with the Lord and Granny and my Daddy. She doesn’t have to be afraid.

Sometimes I just wonder if I’m singing for myself.


IMG_0772Madison, Winter 1985
By Christopher Lowe

She was a homeless person, but we didn’t call them “homeless” back then. She was a “bag lady” living on the sidewalks of Capital Square. All day she’d walk the Square, flipping open the lids of trash cans and bending and peering into them, sometimes reaching in and tweezing and inspecting garbage between her fingers. A tattered wool hat and scarf swaddled her head. She wore a fur coat, also tattered, and grimy with street crud, but you could tell it had once been an expensive purchase.

I was in my last year of law school working part time at a firm on Capital Square. On my way into work in the afternoon I’d occasionally walk past her on the sidewalk. Her eyes would be downcast and intense, yet focused on an imaginary distant point. Approaching her I’d see her lips moving, a dark scowl on her face. As we passed I’d try to make eye contact, but her expression and stare would remain locked in place. Through her undulating lips flowed a steady stream of curse words delivered in a rasping tone.

People said—people who would know—that her husband had been a corporate lawyer at one of the large corporate law firms on the Square. He’d killed himself years earlier and sometime thereafter, but not right away, she’d begun her life as a bag lady.

It was a Friday evening in December and I was in an upscale bar on the Square for TGIF happy hour. The outside wall of the bar was floor-to-ceiling windows. The first snowfall of the year was taking place on the other side of the windows.

On our side of the windows it was warm and loud with conversation and laughter. Seated at a table with others I sensed movement through the window, movement that emerged from behind the curtain of snow on the distant sidewalk and became more pronounced in increments, more defined, until the movement revealed itself in the shape of the woman.

She had four bags with her, cloth-handled, wax-coated paper bags, the bags of a type used in upscale department stores, each bag stuffed to the brim. She transported two bags at a time, hands gripping the cloth handles, her head down and shoulders hunched the entire way. Slowly she’d progress to a spot and set the two bags down, turn around and trudge back to the two bags left standing in the sidewalk snow, pick the bags up by their handles, turn again and retrace her steps over the snow and then another fifteen paces beyond, where she’d set the bags down, turn around and walk back to the two waiting bags, and repeat the process again and again.

The sidewalk lights illuminated halos that glowed through the falling snow like hovering angels.

My mind turned away from the alcohol-fueled atmosphere of happy hour to this woman’s struggle, the life force compelling her onward to an unknown destination, her mental controls out of whack due to illness and sadness and anger. She had so much dignity in her despair. I watched her until she faded from sight.


Teddy’s Wisdom
By Sharon Thompson

“What do you mean I cannot ask Granny for any more money?” Teddy is ten and ½. Skinny hands are on narrow hips. He’s about to dress cool.

“Because I said so Teddy.” Mum Mona is struggling to get all the washing into the basket. “Granny gives you too much money.”

“Dad says she’s loaded AND you can never have, too much money,” Teddy heaves on a pair of denims.

“My mother, your precious Granny, is not loaded. She’s a writer Teddy. I think everything is ready for her surprise party. Once this washing goes into the machine.” Mona is on the stairs.

“Can I wear my Superman t-shirt or wha Mum?”

“Yes ok, if you promise … ”

“Alright. I’ll not ask Granny for any more money!”

Teddy starts talking to the bathroom mirror as he gels his hair, “I mean if she has it—And she wants to give me some, sure what’s up with that? How fab am I? My hair looks just like Johnny’s.”

Teddy practices his ‘Johnny’ walk, as guests arrive downstairs. The hair is coifed again, when he reaches his reflection in the hall mirror. “Cool.”

Tony, his dad hollers, “Answer the door Teddy, more guests are here!”

It’s Johnny, his Dad’s best pal. He has spotted Teddy’s superman t-shirt, “That’s a mad t-shirt you have there Ted.”

Teddy likes being called Ted. Dad’s cool friend likes his t-shirt—Life’s good. Teddy flicks his unmoving hair. “How can it be a surprise party when you are a Granny and seventy? I mean she is bound to know she’s old?” Johnny seems to be preoccupied. He’s ogling Mona’s boobs, as she sets out the food platters.

“Better not tell women they are old, Ted mate—it’s like a crime or something!” Johnny flicks the hair above his forehead. He slugs on his beer bottle. “There are too many old ones here Ted. I hope the surprise doesn’t give them all heart attacks.” Johnny snuggles up to Mum Mona and makes her giggle like a girl.

“Yuck, he’s flirting with my Mum, euhh,” Teddy tells the mirror in the hall near the kitchen.

Dad Tony asks, “Where did you put the fecking ice Teddy? You were in charge of the ice. Where is it? And who let you wear that awful t-shirt?”

“Johnny likes it!”

“Well that says it all. Johnny has no taste. Your Granny’s friends all need lots of ice. If they actually had alcohol in it, that would be somethin’! But they are as boring as be Jazzus. Teddy where the feck is the ice?”

“In the fridge.”

“It’ll melt in the fridge. You idjit.”

“How can ice melt, in a cold place?”

“Less of the cheek Teddy. It better not be melted. This day cannot get anymore sssshhhh … ”

“Shit?” offers Teddy. One of Granny’s friends walks by and tut-tuts loudly.

“Shit!” says Tony slamming the fridge door. He tries to rescue the remaining ice from the pool in the bottom of a large bowl.

Teddy wanders off, “I hate getting jobs.” Mum Mona is sipping her drink through a fancy straw and giggling at Johnny. She glances now and again at her phone.

Suddenly she grabs Teddy and howls, “Granny is on her way, crap! Everyone hide. We need to jump out and surprise her.” Fun—life is good again.

“Hide and Seek with old ones!” Johnny points to an old dear trying to hide behind a large potted plant. Her large party dress can be seen. Johnny, Ted and Mona are behind the couch. Everyone’s waiting on the ‘Surprise’.

“SURPRISE!” roars Mona and everyone in almost unison. Coming from the kitchen Tony yelps and spills the remaining ice. Granny lets herself in the front door a fraction too late and promptly slips on the iced tiles. Such a mess!

Teddy is tired of being in A&E. “Granny, Dad says your friends, are as boring as be Jazzus!”

“Disappear to the toilet Teddy, before I commit murder!”

Teddy is flicking his hair in the mirror of the smelly bathroom, “If people listened to me, they wouldn’t mind asking Grannies for money AND people would leave all the ice in the fridge!”


Perfect
By Grayson Chong

Perfectly arched feet don pink satin pointe shoes. Perfect hair, not a strand out of place, is secured into perfect buns. Perfect girls dressed in leotards of black and royal blue prance around the mirrored room. Some bend in half, backs arched like lions stretching their paws on a lazy afternoon. Others leap across the polished floor, their movements akin to the graceful galloping of gazelles. Jumping. Turning. Floating. Flying. Perfect.

“Everyone in first position.” The teacher’s entrance pulls me out of my reverie; her perfect posture demanding attention, from the regal tilt of her chin to the sharp points of her shoes. Perfect girls rush to find the perfect place at the barre.

The old vinyl record hums a soft, ethereal melody, a symphony that could only be composed by fairies in a faraway land. Perfect girls rest their perfect hands on the barre one by one. I follow suit. Perfect. Only what I feel isn’t wood. Instead, my hand rests upon the metal of my imperfect wheelchair.


What Our Dreams Do To Love
By Mohsin Abbasi

Delia always dreamed bigger than South Carolina. She wanted to go to New York and become an actress, make it on Broadway. But she was a romantic, and desired more than anything for her boyfriend Tyler to come with her.

“Sweetie,” she said, “it’ll be so good for us. You can be a writer. You’re good at it, always writing those stories and poems. You can work at one of the big city newspapers.”

But Tyler was adamant about staying on the farm in Carolina. Shaking things up was a bad idea when he had a good thing going. He said, “Either you stay with me or go to New York, but you can’t have both.”

She loved him, but she loved her dreams more.

***

I was sitting at my favorite bar on MacDougal when she walked in, pretty as could be in a little country dress with a flower in her hair.

She told me about her dream of becoming an actress. I told her about medical school and how long I’d wanted to be a doctor. We talked late into the night, but I couldn’t see the

spark that was there.

It took me three weeks to sleep with her, and another three to end things. I grew tired of listening to her stories about Carolina—going with the girls to Charleston, Hanahan, a million little towns on the weekends.

She cried when I told her it was over.

“I hate it here,” she said. “I hate that awful office I work at and I hate the cold New York people who don’t say hi. I hate you for being this heartless. I wish I’d stayed with Tyler.”

“You should have.” I said.

Her head jerked upwards, disbelief on her tear-streaked face.

The truth hurts.

***

I’m in a fancy Soho restaurant idly playing with my Fettuccine Alfredo. Across from me is my date for the night: a blond sorority girl in her senior year at Baruch.

“What do you do for fun?” I ask.

“I love concerts.” She stretches out the word ‘love’. “Do you know Avicii? He’s like, the coolest DJ ever. I’ve seen him live, like, four times.”

I asked her out because she looks a bit like Kate.

Kate, who stayed up with me every night back home, studying for the MCAT. Kate, who kissed me and made me whole again when my little sister died. Kate, who left when I told her I had to go to Columbia for medical school because it was my dream.

I find myself looking around the restaurant. At the table next to us there’s an elderly couple. They’re quiet, simply enjoying each other’s presence. It doesn’t matter what they say; words matter less than companionship.

I think of Delia. She would’ve sat here quietly with me. She didn’t want me for sex, or for my apartment. She just wanted to come home from work, tell me about her day and hear about mine.

***

Two weeks later, the apartment bell buzzes and I’m face-to-face with her. She still loves me. We say things that will make it hurt more when we can’t be together. I tell her this.

“I love you Delia, but this city isn’t good for you. Go back to Carolina where you’ll be happy.”

I haven’t cried in years.

She moves closer and kisses me, looking into my eyes. “I have a better idea,” she says. ”How about I stay here and we build our dreams. Together.”

We came to this city with broken hearts and dreams. I thought that dreams were greater than love, but she’s taught me that love makes our dreams come true.


Weddingquake
By Bruce Costello

The hall falls silent. Christchurch panel beater Doug Smith rises unsteadily to his feet, wine glass in hand. His face is red. His bald head gleams under the chandelier.

“Thank you for coming to celebrate with us the wedding of our daughter, Stella, to Kevin, this fine young man.”

He looks around the hall, beaming, and points at Kevin.

“Doesn’t he scrub up well!”

Young Kevin holds a glass aloft with one hand, and lifts up his white tie with the other, grinning from ear to ear.

“Good on ya, Kev! Go for it, Doug,” somebody shouts.

Doug continues. “I’ve had lots of advice about what to say in my speech, all of which I’m going to ignore. I don’t often hold the floor, so I’ve decided, this is MY speech, and I’ll say whatever I bloody well like.”

Mary, his wife, next to him, looks up, eyebrows raised. Somebody giggles. Mary pushes herself back from the table, holds up her arms and cries out: “The opinions expressed by the pisshead of the family are not necessarily those of the management!”

Women clap and cheer.

“Get in behind!” shouts a man’s voice, and other male voices take up the chorus.

Doug continues. “Quiet, please. We’re not here to enjoy ourselves. This is a wedding.”

Everybody laughs.

“First a few words about the seating arrangements. We’ve organized the tables so the people who gave expensive gifts are at the front, and everybody else is at the back.”

Clapping from the front tables. Hisses from the rear. A paper napkin folded into a dart flies across the room, hitting Mary in the neck.

Doug continues. “Stella has asked me to express her gratitude to good old Uncle Fred, there at the back, who gave her the oven glove. She hopes he’ll give her the other one for her 25th anniversary.”

More laughter.

Doug purses his lips and looks serious.

“I’d like to tell you about some embarrassing episodes from Stella’s childhood.”

“Yeh!” calls out Julie, Stella’s older sister.

“But I can’t.” Doug stops talking, and looks around, then says in a deadpan voice: “I can’t because Stella was an angelic child, even as a teenager, always well behaved, never put a foot wrong.”

The room erupts with hooting and hollering.

Doug looks across to Julie. “What do you think, Julie?” She mouths something and puts her head in her hands.

Doug turns to his wife. “Do you want to comment at this point, my love?”

Mary rolls her eyes.

“Now some fatherly words for the groom,” Doug grins. “If you need advice about the physical side of women, it’s no good asking me. My memory is stuffed. Ask your uncle Bob. As a dairy farmer, Bob is well acquainted with female anatomy, not to mention the strange meanderings of female psychology.”

Raucous laughter and loud guffaws from the men.

“Seriously, folks,” Doug calls out, holding up his hand for silence. “Kevin, don’t ever let me catch you using four letter words on Stella…like ‘cook,’ ‘dust,’ ‘wash’ or ‘iron.’ And bear in mind that no husband has ever been shot by his wife while he’s doing the dishes!”

More laughter.

“Stella! If you need advice on male anatomy and male sexual behaviour, I suggest you talk to your uncle Martin, who’s been a pig farmer all his life.”

Hysterical cries and shouts of “here, here!” and ‘pigs, pigs!’ from the women. A fat lady stands, jigs up and down with wobbling chins, clapping her hands above her head.

“Enough of this unseemly merriment!” says Doug. He raps a bottle on the table, then himself doubles up, snorting uncontrollably. Shouting and table banging explode at the rear of the hall.

“Silence! The man wants to speak,” shouts a loud male voice. The noise subsides. Doug resumes.

“Now, just to prove I went to school, I’d like to quote from Socrates: ‘By all means, marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.’”

He rubs the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.

“I’m sure Kevin will never become a philosopher—but he is a deep thinker. The other day he said this to me: If a man went deep into a forest, and expressed an opinion when there was no woman there to hear him, would he still be wrong?”

He takes a deep breath.

“Now some serious words for you both. Be careful of the words you say, be sure they’re nice and sweet. You never know from day to day, which ones you’ll have to eat.”

Raising his glass, he cries out: “A toast to the happy couple! As they slide down the bannisters of life, may the splinters never be pointing the wrong way!”

The guests raise their glasses. Doug’s face twitches with emotion. The guests look at each other as tears roll down his cheeks. Silence fills the hall.

Doug speaks, softly: “They’re a great couple. I love them both to bits. May they be as happy together as I have been with the mother of the … ”

His words are interrupted by the February 22nd earthquake like a freight train hitting the building.

The chandelier crashes down, pinning Doug to the table.

His lips are still moving and one finger beckons towards Kevin, who lowers his ear to hear the man’s closing words.

“And, finally, no farting in bed or in the kitchen.”


IMG_4843The Girl with Blue Eyes
By Ron Woods

The first time I saw him, he was driving a small yellow car far too fast down a pitch dark country road. He was gripping the steering wheel tight, his body hunched forward so his face almost touched the windscreen. The radio crackled when I sat in beside him and he looked towards where I was sitting; for an instant I thought he could see me and for an instant he thought so too.

 

I was startled by the voice of a young girl from the back seat.

‘Where are we daddy?’ she asked; her sleepy voice sounded worried.

I turned to look into a pale tired face framed by long wispy blond hair that needed to be brushed. I remember she had very large, very blue eyes. A smaller boy was lying across the seat beside her, asleep, his head resting on her lap.

‘Ssssh,’ her daddy whispered, turning briefly to glance at her. ‘We’re almost there.’

When I looked back to the road I could see he was driving more slowly, even carefully. I thought perhaps I needn’t have come, so I left.

***

When I saw him again the sun was rising on a cold harbour wall, casting sharp shadows across heaps of stinking fishing nets. The little girl was standing at the edge of the pier holding her brother by the hand. The breeze from the sea lifted strands of her hair and the golden light of the sun played in them before they fell, but the early morning air was cold and they were shivering. When he’d dreamed up this particular plan he hadn’t meant to leave them there, but none of his plans or dreams had ever worked out.

‘Where’s daddy?’ asked the boy.

The little girl didn’t speak, her blue eyes brimming with tears as she pointed into the churning bubbling water of the harbour. I stood beside them and looked down into the deep swirling blackness. As the water gradually settled and cleared, and there was just a single spiral of bubbles trailing upwards we could see the roof of the small yellow car far below. I didn’t go to him. He would have been caught up in his last bitter struggle with life and I’ve seen too much of that.

We watched together as one last bubble spiralled up from the deep, then floated towards us across the oil-slicked water. When it burst and disappeared the little girl sobbed.

I knew then it was time to go to him so I left the little girl with the big blue eyes holding her brother by the hand and stepped off the pier. When I gathered him in my arms he looked up at me with those same blue eyes.

‘Where are we?’ he asked.

I held him a little tighter.

‘Ssssh,’ I whispered. ‘We’re almost there.’


The Recidivist
By Paula Fusco

VAFROUS—yellow-chalked on her front door.

Twenty-second word in as many weeks.

Unintelligible words, unnerving, at first.

ABDOMINOUS

BREEDBATE

CACAEMIC

A woman sits alone at her parlour window, night after coffee-black night, keen to catch the graffitist red-handed.

Procuring a lexicon she takes to prediction, exhilarated when her word matches his: T for TABEFACTION.

Four more words and then the alphabet is done.

She hopes for WANION or XERIC, YOUSTER or ZEK.

And prepares to mourn the coming loss of yellow-chalked vocabulary on her front door.


Niki-Nicole
By Chella Courington

Her parents polled their 142 Facebook friends. “Please choose a name for our baby-to-be from the following: Nicola, Nicole, Niki, and Nikita.” The vote was close. So they had a party and put the names on forty slips of paper, divided equally, and dropped them in a jelly jar near the front door for the guests entering to draw. Rules: The first name drawn eight times would be her name. Odds being what they were, Nikita, Niki, Nicole, and Nicola were drawn seven times. The parents being who they were, set fire to the remaining twelve pieces and threw the jelly jar in the fireplace.

A week passed, and they were no closer to a name, only closer to her birth. They sat on the back deck, hands on the growing belly, waiting. In bed that night, they agreed to throw away caution and ask their gray Siamese, sitting on a pillow between them. They wrote Nicola, Nicole, Niki, and Nikita on four slips of paper, folded them into squares, shook them in a small glass from the night table, and tossed them on the bed. The Siamese stepped through them, her paws gently moving each name but never touching one.


IMG_5126The Thespian and the Prelate
By Andy Jones

The woman woke suddenly and panicked. There was no light in the room other than a faint green glow from a ceiling-mounted smoke detector. Controlling her fear, she tried to remember last evening’s events. Slowly, it came back to her. The after show party! Oh God, what had she done? Drank too much for a start. Her head throbbed, fit to burst. Lying back on the silk sheets, a wave of embarrassment swept over her.

Being an understudy for so long had been soul-destroying. That was, until the role of Caesar’s wife had fallen into her lap. That bitch Samantha had upset the producer enough to be given her walking papers, resulting in the understudy’s promotion from Vestal Virgin to Dictator’s Consort. Ten years of ignominy touring the sticks, then overnight stardom beckoned.

The play’s run had gone well; apart from you-know-who making it plain that he would expect “some appreciation” for going out on a limb for her. To escape his overtures at the party she had turned in desperation to an elegant dark-suited man who stood close by. It was only after talking to him for a while through a haze of champagne bubbles that it became obvious he was wearing a Roman collar. He laughed quietly as she slurred an apology for not recognising his calling.

“Please,” he said. “Even Bishops have a little time off. I won’t condemn you to Hell, at least until you do something to merit such a fate.”

She had no idea how they ended up in bed together. All that could be said was that he was a wonderful lover, tender and experienced to a surprising degree for one supposed to be celibate.

Eyes now accustomed to the darkness, she tentatively stretched out an arm towards her sleeping partner. When searching fingers encountered nothing, the panic returned. Jumping from the bed, she fumbled for a light switch, eventually finding one after tripping around the room, falling over things.

Her discarded clothes lay scattered across the carpet, and her empty handbag stood upended, contents spilled. The open wallet, stripped of credit cards and cash, rested on a copy of the previous day’s red-top tabloid, its black headline reading “BOGUS BISHOP BEDS BUSTY BEAUTIES”. A photo of the ersatz prelate underneath left no doubt. Her mouth opened in a silent scream.

A sharp knock on the door made her jump. “Hotel security here. Open the door, please.”


Alchemy
By Lesley Mace

Little dragons loved lollipops.

So, medium-sized dragons began to make fabulous lollipops. Ancient recipes were lovingly followed, and their marvelously crafted sweets earned a living for the medium-sized dragons, and made the little dragons flutter their wings with joy.

Big dragons, slyly spying on those beneath them, lit blackly smoking fires and experimented. Cheap ingredients made inferior lollipops. But the big dragons discovered the dark magic of addiction and processed their rubbish sweets into irresistibility.

Too fat to fly, the little dragons soon lost their joyfulness and sickened. But the big dragons invented plausible deniability and flourished in their mountain hideaways, polishing their hordes of gold and silver.


Cast
By Jane Swan

“Cast not a clout ‘til May is out,” says my grandmother. How many times have I heard this?

Judy, my Kiwi friend, looks astonished. “What does she mean?” she whispers.

“Don’t discard layers of winter clothing until the Spring is really here. You know, May, Spring … Northern Hemisphere.”

“Just the sort of things Nannas say.”

Days with Gran. Sliding back into the old speech. Umpteenth, bairn, fleein’, skerrick—Scottish and Northern English words filtered through a strainer of narrowing holes—Sussex, Essex, Grammar School, finally New Zealand until only the most robust are left.

When I’m with Gran my vocabulary seems thin, watery, like Oliver Twist’s gruel.

*

A cousin emigrates from Britain. “I can hardly understand New Zealanders, Pet,” he says in a strong Geordie accent. “The farmer next door, in the paddock, told me that the wether was cast. The sky looked fine enough to me. And then he said to remind my wife to bring a plate to the W.I. Are they short of crockery?”

“She’s supposed to take food to share at the Women’s Institute meeting. Lamingtons. Neenish Tarts, that sort of thing. You take your plate home.”

“And the weather?”

“Sorry, na. A castrated male sheep had fallen over and had to be helped up before he carked it—er, died.”

“I know how he feels.”


Sentry
By Jan FitzGerald

It wasn’t the first time a stray dog had wandered through the snow to piss on him, but he remained motionless in the dark. Steam rose briefly from his jackboots up to the pockets of his black coat.

The wind had gone to ground and soon more snowflakes fell like cold dandruff on his collar and epaulets. Birds sucked in their song and became branches. The stark rookeries swallowed their quarrels.

Behind him, in the attic of a wooden villa, a little girl lay dreaming under a feather eiderdown, oblivious to the rifle cracks of overladen branches as night bled out in the forest.

His body rigid, face expressionless, he kept guard as the moon passed over the white trees.

In the morning the little girl, dressed warmly in a red cape, skipped through the snowdrifts to the forest’s edge.

The man was frozen solid in a circle of yellow, his hat at an odd angle.

She stared at the hole in his face and screamed.

Her mother struggled through snow on the garden path, lifting her skirt as if wading into the sea.

‘What is it?’ she panted.

‘A reindeer’s come out of the forest and eaten the snowman’s nose!” the little girl cried.


The Age of Reason
By Phyl Herbert

The nuns had told us that we were about to reach the Age of Reason and that they were preparing us to receive the body of Christ. Our sinful pasts would be wiped clean after our first confession. We were seven-year-old girls in the First Communion class. Our little heads had been full of our white dresses and veils and how much money we might make on the big day. The Age of Reason was when you looked at the deeper meaning of life. I had so many questions. Where did words come from? Why did my mother marry my father? Was I a princess waiting to be discovered, to be claimed by a rich family?

Words are like a river flowing through your life, they can nourish or cripple.

The nuns had been concerned with the state of our souls. The State of Grace and the Occasion of Sin. If you died in the state of grace you would go straight to Heaven. If you committed a sin—especially a mortal sin—you would go straight to the fires of Hell. Eternity was the time you would spend there. Eternity, a new word to us, meant forever and ever. In Hell there was a clock that ticked loudly and hissed, “You’re here forever, you’ll never get out.” The night before my First Communion the thought of Eternity in the afterworld had kept me awake worrying about the unspeakable boredom of being in either place forever and ever without end. That’s when I had made my mind up. My time on earth would be my Heaven. Down here on earth was my stage.

I had not always been happy with my costumes or the parts I had got to play or with the other members of the cast. Two young girls lived on my road; we were all the same age and were referred to as the “three little ones.” We had discussed such weighty matters as, which of us was the tallest, the prettiest. When we hadn’t been able to agree with each other we had stopped strangers and asked them. The answer didn’t always please me. The words used by adults hurt.

My parents had played cards on Sunday evenings. Our entertainment was viewing from the corners of the room. The different accents, the flat Dublin loudest of all laced through with the Wexford lilt of my mother and her friends. The Dublin voice held the trump card—always. I wished that my mother would speak out more, so that I could hear what she said and be proud of her. Her voice had always been drowned out by the others. Later on as the years went by I learned that she had this recurring dream that her gums were stuck together and that she had struggled to get her words out. Her tongue would stick to the roof of her mouth. She gave birth to eleven children, seven boys and four girls. Not a minute to herself. Her words grew fewer, dried up for a long time.

Words are like a river. They touch the root and branch of the estuaries of our lives. The river of words rises in the mountains of thought. Words are like a river, they flow on forever and ever into Eternity. Words that map the whole rest of our lives.


A Winter’s Tale
By Alan Balkema

On a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan on a January day, a figure in a mink coat sat on a park bench. Joe presumed it was a woman because what man would be wearing a mink coat? Did they make mink coats in men’s sizes?

His next chore was to visit his father, a fraction of his former self, shrunken into his wheelchair. Every other visit he would be lost to Alzheimer’s, and Joe would give up on rousing him and sit quietly until he felt he’d fulfilled his daily obligation. When his father was functioning the words would be disjointed, but at least he still recognized his son, if he couldn’t come up with a name.

The car’s side window was half-frosted over, but Joe could see that the hair on the head matched the color of the coat. He decided to call it sable brown. He didn’t think there was such a color as mink brown.

Joe couldn’t say what had drawn him to Juneau Park, but he sat in his parked car, engine running, heater on, for a good fifteen minutes, watching the woman. What brought her to the park on such a dismal day? Sure, the coat would be warm, but there wasn’t much to see. An impenetrable white cloud concealed the lake. The leafless trees didn’t hide the sight of traffic on Lake Shore Drive, the dirty snow piled high alongside, empty chip bags and candy wrappers visible in the piles.

He grew more concerned about the mink-clad woman. Perhaps she’d wandered away from the elder-care facility. Would she gaze vacantly upon him, trying to decide whether he was somehow related?

Joe cut the engine and, spurning the cleared sidewalk, walked straight towards the bench, each step breaking the crust on the snow. He thought the woman would surely react to the noise, turn, a look of concern spreading across her face, stand and quickly hurry off in one direction or another, and he’d take the spot she’d warmed.

The woman on the bench didn’t react, even when Joe sat on the bench. She was hunched into the coat, to protect her ears, Joe presumed, and perhaps her eyes, too. Joe looked off into the distance as she did and wondered what images she saw. They would have to be bleak.

“At least the holidays are over,” Joe said. He hated the holidays and the expectation of being in good cheer, especially at the elder-care facility.

He didn’t expect the woman to reply, assuming that she was barely containing her alarm. A gull passed in front of them slowly and circled back, as if checking out a potential meal. A big meal.

“The days are getting longer,” he said. “It’ll be noticeable in another month.”

He didn’t look but sensed that she’d extended her neck from the carapace of her coat. Two gulls were now circling.

“A little sunshine would be nice,” the woman said.

It was a young voice, definitely not feeble. He said, “Tomorrow, if the forecasts are right.”

“They never are.”

He heard this directed his way, so he turned and looked into her eyes. They were deep brown, obscuring the pupil, with circles under them, as if she’d cried recently. Still her face was pretty, if blotchy from the cold. Her age indeterminate, although certainly not trophy-wife young. Perhaps she had been. Mid-forties?

“They get lucky sometimes,” he said.

She half-smiled and faced forward. Dipped her neck back into her carapace.

“When the sun shines it gets colder,” he said.

Joe settled back and extended his left arm, his gloved hand a few inches from her shoulder, and looked off into the murk. He was surprised that he didn’t feel cold. Although he’d grown up in Milwaukee, he barely tolerated the winters, and this was a bad one. The ground had been covered with snow since mid-November.

Joe sighed heavily. The woman shifted towards him. He lifted his hand, and she slid next to him. He wrapped his arm around her.

“That doesn’t look like much of a coat,” she said as she pulled her head back into the carapace.

“Goose down,” he said.

“Nothing under your butt.”

“True.”

A moment passed when he thought of nothing, only sensed the life that sparked through the mink. Since she wasn’t a resident of the elder-care facility, she must live in the luxury lakefront condos behind them. She would have a rich name, Louisa, and a rich husband, Lloyd. Their friends would call them the charmed couple.

Was she waiting for him to try something? Stroke her back, squeeze her closer? She’d expressed concern about the quality of his coat. Was she trying to warm him? She probably thought he was some nutcase but took comfort that he was being respectful. He imagined that, other than the concierge in her building, this was the only conversation she’d had today. The first person she’d touched in two days.

Lloyd, older by twenty years, maybe thirty, grew more distant every day. Since they’d moved out of the family home, with all of its memories, and into the lakefront condo there’d been fewer friends to see, fewer activities to amuse. Her children, twin boys, had made a point of traveling to different colleges far away. She took it as a hopeful sign of independence then but missed them very much now. Missed the anticipation of their return from school. The endless practices and games that she’d ferried them to. She so wished she had that connection now.

She’d lost track of how much time she’d spent on the bench. She wasn’t even sure if she was cold. She loved this coat, even though she wondered if Lloyd had given it to her at Christmas to atone for an indiscretion, a silent admission, an invitation to an argument that they’d never had.


IMG_5696Two Crazies
By Eric R. Widen

“I’ve got it!”

“Oh, no. Not again.”

“No, this one will work! I know it will!”

“Grovel; your plans never work, because what you suggest is never possible.”

“No, for real this time. I promise! I promise!”

Howard slammed his book closed, and then he set it down on the white end table, which was directly next to his white chair, which was in the corner of their white room. The restricting feeling of the confined cell seemed to do battle with the limitless grandeur of the open sky that surrounded the highest tower of the Mordem Asylum.

The tallest tower was reserved for the most … unique patients.

“Is it better than your previous plan, when you wanted us to dream that we had escaped, and then simply try to never wake up?”

“Much better than that! Much, much better than that!” Grovel hastily repeated as he hunched forward and continuously wrung his hands.

“Is it better than your idea of painting a hole in the ceiling and then climbing out of it?”

“Oh, yes. This one is genius!”

“I’m sure that it is,” Howard mumbled as he rolled his eyes, picked up his book, and then resumed his reading. “I’ll give you one last chance to think it over, Grovel. Don’t bother wasting my time unless it’s at least something that is possible, will you?

“This is the one, Howard!”

Howard sighed as he flipped a page. “Let’s hear it, then.”

Grovel triumphantly threw his fists into the air. “Okay!” Without shifting his gaze from his cell-mate, he shot his arm out to the side and pointed toward the solitary two-foot by two-foot window which was on the wall opposite the steel door. Iron bars crisscrossed the small opening to the outside world, and Grovel would often squeeze his arm through and try to snatch the passing clouds or glistening stars that so proudly flaunted their freedom. “The window!”

“What about it?” Howard muttered from behind his book.

“I’ll cut you up into tiny pieces and then slide you through the bars of the window; then, you put yourself back together, come back, and unlock the door from the outside!”

Howard closed his book and then rubbed in between his eyes. “I said not to waste my time unless it was actually possible,” he grunted. “How did I get lumped in here with the likes of you?” He put his hand onto his hip and mocked his cell-mate. “Cut me up and toss me out the window? I may be crazy, but I’m not insane!” He pointed toward the barred window. “Do you have any idea how high up we are? The fall would kill me for sure!”

“So, which one am I speaking to today?” the psychiatrist interrupted as she adjusted the straps on his strait jacket. “Howard or Grovel?”


 Issue 4: January 2015


IMG_5190Gale
By Jemel Wilson

Her name was Gale, short for Nightingale. A badass black Caddy sitting on white walled tires. The grill looked like the car had on a fresh set of chrome braces. My grandfather purchased her with money he received from working on the old GM assembly lines. In those days it was hard to own much of anything, so when the neighborhood saw a black man in his twenties riding through the streets in a brand new black Cadillac, they knew you were doing damn well for yourself. It was a luxury that most didn’t get to experience. Other parts of the country were riding on public transportation unable to sit in the front due to the color of their skin.

My grandfather was the role model of the family and everyone listened when he spoke. Every sunny Saturday morning he’d wake my father to help him wash and wax the car. My grandfather would turn on the car radio and turn it up so that the neighbors could hear it on all sides. My father would unravel the hose, drag it out to the driveway and get the bucket of soapy water ready.

“Bring the bucket and hose over here, son.”

My father would waddle over with the bucket, splashing suds on his thin ashy legs.

“Pass me the hose and take the sponge,” Grandpa said. “Gale’s a little hot—gotta cool her off.” He’d spray her down and randomly shoot the hose in my father’s direction. Then he’d grab the sponge and massage the suds into the side paneling in soft, sensual, circular motions.

“Son, when you get something this nice you have to take real good care of her,” said Grandpa. “That goes for every special lady in your life. You have to work hard because nothing comes free or easy. When you get older you can work at the same factory as your old pop and buy yourself a Caddy too.”

As years passed, work slowed up at the factory. Every other month there were strings of layoffs going on around the city. One by one Grandpa’s good friends on the line would get axed, but despite the plague of hardship hovering around Granddad he stayed optimistic. Every Saturday the car wash ritual would continue. He’d crank that radio but there were fewer neighbors around to listen. Most moved once the layoffs started.

“Like I always tell you son, hard work pays off. Just look at your old man,” he said. “You keep your grades up and maybe I’ll teach you how to drive Ms. Gale.”

They both kept their end of the bargain, but the GM factory didn’t. Grandpa was fired the day before Thanksgiving. They sent him home with two turkeys as a parting gift for his years of loyal service. Grandpa pulled into the garage and Dad, home on break from college, walked in to greet him.

“Hey old man,” said my father.

“Hey son. Didn’t expect you to come home,” replied Grandpa. “ I figured you were busy with tests and what not.”

“I thought I’d surprise you.”

“Well you succeeded there, son.”

“How’s the GM plant?” asked Dad. “Still giving out turkeys to their favorite workers, I see.”

“You know GM, same ole same,” said Granddad. “But never mind me. I want to tell you that I love you and you made me very proud.”

“Thanks, Dad. You were a great guy to follow behind.”

“Son, I was thinking on my way home. You’re a college man now and don’t have a set of your own wheels. How would you like to take sweet ole Gale?”

“Really? Are you serious?” said Dad. “Hell yeah I’ll take her … but are you sure this is what you want? You love that car.”

“Absolutely, son. You’ve earned it and like I told you hard work pays off in the end if you keep at it,” said Grandpa. “She’s a good woman, so you’d better take care of her like I did.”

“Of course.”

“It’s a deal. Just give me a moment with my ole lady before I pass her on to you.”

“You got it, Pops.”

They shook hands and he handed my father the two turkeys to prep for dinner. My dad waited for over two hours before deciding to see what was taking Grandpa so long to come inside. When he opened the garage door, a thick fog of exhaust fumes crept into his nostrils. The hose was taped and led from the tailpipe into the car through an inch sized window crack. Dad fanned through the smoke-filled garage to see his father passed out facedown on the steering wheel. Dad dragged him out the front seat and tried giving him mouth to mouth but it was too late. He propped himself against the car door and held Grandpa in his arms on the cold concrete floor. The medics came and carried Granddad off in a large unfamiliar red and white van with flashing lights.

My father packed everything he owned into the big trunk of that black Caddy and rode Gale off to start a new life and to continue keeping up his end of the bargain.


Beer-Bottle Cathedrals
By Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

“Fuck it. I need another.”

She throws a Pabst. It doesn’t break, just lands on the pile, a beer-bottle cathedral.

She’s been trying to write since the divorce, since her life opened to possibility. Yet she’s stuck, her characters indistinguishable. Like her, a shadowed afterthought.

“Mother?”

David leans against the wall in navy pajamas, brow furrowed.

“I’m all right, sweetheart.”

She envies his coolness at twenty-two, his way of looking after her, through the made-up lives in which they were great writers and actors—not inconsequential drifters.

She takes his hand, watching the drifting moonlight.

“Get Mother a beer, sweetheart.


Happy Idiots
By Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

The engine growls stubbornly. The music teacher turns the key, cursing. The iron monster marches down the tracks, blasting a discordant scream. It reminds him of his marching band, a maelstrom of tubas. Trumpets. He thinks of how he wanted only to prove his own existence when he started teaching.

The monster closes in. He sees his wife. The way they laughed, with absurdity and frustration between them, through all the benders. Teaching jobs and rent problems. They held onto dreams and recognition, two happy idiots.

The monster blinds him in its butter-colored, howling light. He clutches the door handle and surrenders, a happy idiot. Alone.


IMG_0745Wooden Bells
By Anne Macdonald

Angie’s oldest brother, Michael, was killed in Iraq while Angie was a senior at Sisters of Loreto High School. The memory of the funeral drove a wedge into her head, forever to show up at the oddest of times—leaving her alone, within the confines of her massive brain to question the ways of the universe and of God. God was the other wedge pounded into Angie’s head. Through grade school, high school, childhood, puberty, and pre-adult, God, as he was meant to, rang wooden bells as loud and rough as the heavy thumps during the Good Friday consecration.

There were only bits and pieces of Michael buried on that windy April day in southern California, the few parts of Michael the government was able to locate. Or, so they said. Who knew what was really inside the gold plate and mahogany box.

Angie’s mother, Nora, wept loudly during Michael’s funeral. Nora Ryan resembled in every way and every manner and every look a stoic, straight, duty-bound, adjusted woman. The day of Michael’s full military funeral, as they folded the flag, and the guns saluted, seven by seven, and the soldiers clicked their heels, turned, saluted, and handed her the folded flag, Angie’s quiet, statuesque mother screamed like an Irish banshee. All the cultivated façade of the good, highbrow, lace-curtained Irish-Catholic wife dissolved into that twenty-one-gun salute. Angie and her remaining brothers and sisters gaped as their beautiful mother shrank into an old Irish scrubwoman. At once, God was less threatening, less majestic, less meaningful in the terrestrial and spiritual life of Angelina Ryan. Nora’s God had not been in the right place at the right time. He certainly wasn’t there to comfort poor Nora Ryan.

Michael had thrown himself on an IED, saving his men from annihilation. That is what her father told everyone. Angie never believed it. But everyone—the neighbors, the parish, the schools, the entire beach town—appeared to take it seriously. The fantasy about how Michael was always the hero-type, and saving his men from annihilation didn’t surprise any of them, became the reality. But, of course, Michael was not the hero-type. He was afraid of moths in his bedroom. He was afraid of the dark, afraid of strangers, afraid of loud sounds and spiders, terrified of death. But the lie satisfied their father. Their father continued to embellish his private world by adding to the Michael-as-hero scenario. As time went by, he actually believed that his son serving his time in Iraq was best for the name of Ryan, for Irish-Catholics everywhere, and for the country as a whole.

Three years after Michael’s burial, when Angie was a junior at UCLA, Nora died of breast cancer.

“She died of a broken heart,” their father pretended.

“No,” Angie said. “No, she died of breast cancer. She wouldn’t let them take away her breasts. Her sadness at the injustice of Michael being blown to bits in a war that never should have been is separate from her breast cancer.”

But the lie persisted and was simply added to the Michael-as-hero story and everyone could continue their lives, alive.


Armageddon’s Come
By Miryam Sivan

For years when travelling abroad, I’d invite people to watch the apocalypse from my porch in southwest Asia.

“Front row seats,” I said. “I live in the valley near Megiddo. What you call Armageddon.”

All those years no one came, until the war did.

*

The green valley is grey and shiny now. So many people worked at killing its green. They’re gone. It’s quieter now. No traffic jams. No crowds. No one anywhere. At least that’s how it’s been since the painful hum that knocked me off my feet in the cellar. When I opened my eyes, the ground was grey and shiny. Now the air’s tinted and the sky’s so close, like a snow globe.

I am walking to the desert southeast of Jerusalem. The caves there have been a refuge for millennia. Strange how I’m not afraid to be alone and how everyplace feels like home. The grey earth itself like soft flannel sheets.

No landmarks remain. The world’s a blank canvas. The sun still works, fainter because of the tinted dome, but visible enough to be a compass. I hope that once I reach the hill upon which Jerusalem was once set I’ll see people. And if not, beyond that, the Dead Sea has surely become a source of life.

I never expected a nourishing silence in a post-boom world. I never imagined feeling good in it either. Happy. Light. Curious. But it’s like everything’s been licked clean with heat. What remains is simple and calm. Imagine putting your hand deep inside a pile of silky cold ash. That’s earth now. Still if I’m the only one left to enjoy it, I won’t last long. I have near minus survival skills. How I’m managing so far without food is a mystery to me. And why my water bottle seems to never reach bottom is as well.

Maybe I’m dead and walking is a part of the journey to the underworld. I groove on that and then feel thirst or stumble over a stone. No, I still have a body. I’m still here.

For months now the armies to the north have been at war with Israel. We all knew it was bad and getting worse, but I never thought the weapons would tip the scales so far to one side that we’d capsize like a ship. That’s it, I think. I’m under the sea. The sky dome’s the water line. But that scenario doesn’t last long, unless the blast gave me gills. I fill my nostrils and lungs with tinted air. No. Still here.

When I meet someone the first thing I’m going to do is kiss him or her on the lips. A ritual greeting, like an ancient declaration of allegiance. In the middle of all this grey I think red and invite a man about my age into the landscape. We’ll hold hands and walk. He’ll whistle. I’ll sing.

But meantime I hum. Not ready to belt it out and fill the air with me. On the horizon there’s only grey though I yearn to see the golden throne of the messiah. Isn’t he part of this after-the-blast script? I walk and hum and remember.

A week ago my cell phone fell into a pool of water in the kitchen sink. Reason enough for a bad mood that entire day. Now there’s no cell phone, no landline, no wall plug, no wall, no floor, no ceiling, nothing built remains, nothing green either. Just flat grey and tinted sky. I have absolutely nothing to hold onto but myself, torn pants, tee-shirt, flip flops, and a water bottle. Who am I without all the other markers?

The terrain rises. I feel it in the shifting air. Mountains vanished but the imprint of earth’s shape remains. Thoughts settle on my youngest child’s face. I drink in the nectar of this memory. The way she walked towards the horse stable and then backtracked to hug me.

“Have a great day, Rose,” she said. She’s always called me by the English translation of my name.

I kissed her lightly on the nose. She is ten, I am forty-five. She is the love of my life.

*

The earth rises some more, the hum is louder, and suddenly there are people. It’s a shock to see them.

“God is talking,” a tall woman pushes me down and points to a satellite dish. “Show respect.”

“Is this where the temple and mosque … ”

“Pray,” she orders.

The hum is not pleasant … like snow on television screens … the sound of disconnect. I scan the landscape and plot escape.

“God appeared in a lightening flash,” a man in leather pants and boots thunders. He is bald and has corkscrew earlocks perpendicular to his beard. A priest and imam stand with him. “Faith is more important than life itself. Words, not bread, rule the world. In the beginning was the word. It defined faith. It determines who is in and who out.”

Folks on the ground moan. Their bodies contort with spirit. I crawl away, then raise myself casually and walk away. The desert spreads out before me. The Dead Sea is sapphire blue. Morning has come and it is good.

I walk into the desert. Silence again.

Suddenly an American flag flutters in the breeze rising from the grey blanket of earth. I realize a) someone here is alive, and b) there is a breeze.

“Welcome.” A man slides down a rock. “I’ve been waiting for you.” He leads me into a cave. “Here.” He gives me bread and olives.

“Where were you when … ”

“Shrine of the Book. I broke the glass case, removed the scrolls, and hit the deck. The scrolls are back where they belong. Apocalypse’s come.”

“We’re in Qumran?”

“Yes.”

“You have food?”

He shows me another cave filled with dozens of clay jars. “Come, let’s celebrate the world to come,” and takes me in his arms.


IMG_1953The Present
By Adam J. Wolstenholme

The last time we stayed at Harbour Cottage, we woke to find that our holiday had become unrecognisable. I think I was six and you’ll have been nearly eight. I remember I still took My Little Pony to bed with me, and you were getting too old for your Transformers. The previous night, Mum and Dad had been drinking and laughing with Uncle Pete and Aunt Clara. We could hear them downstairs as we lay talking in bed. But in the morning it was strangely quiet. We crept downstairs to find bottles, glasses and abandoned meals scattered around the kitchen. There was broken glass on the floor. Then we heard voices upstairs. Mum shouting and crying, Dad’s voice softer, pleading. There was no sound from Pete and Clara’s room.

Eventually Dad appeared. His eyes were swollen, red-tinged smudges in his pale face.

“Where are Uncle Pete and Aunt Clara?” you asked. “What’s wrong with Mummy?”

Dad looked out of the window at the space where their car had been. “I suppose they had to go. Come on, kids. Let’s clear up before Mummy comes down.”

When Mum came down she looked even worse than Dad. She was shaking furiously as she bundled us, breakfastless, into our coats and shoes.

“Where are we going?” said Dad.

We’re going out,” Mum said. To Dad, she said: “You do what you want. Go find Clara. I’m sure Pete will understand.”

Dad just watched as Mum dragged us out of the house and to the car.

She parked at that nearby rocky beach. It was a bright, cold day, still early, and the beach was empty. I took a bucket from the car, but couldn’t find a spade and didn’t dare to ask for one. In silence we walked down to the old jetty. Suddenly Mum sank down onto the stones and lit a cigarette, shielding it from the wind with a shaking hand.

Mum looked out to sea where a solitary gull was taking dives at something hiding in the shark-grey water.

“Where have Uncle Pete and Aunt Clara gone?” I said.

Mum just looked at me as if she was in pain. I wanted to comfort her, but was afraid I’d done something wrong.

She looked so angry.

So I just stood there, cold and wretched on the stony beach, clutching my useless bucket.

“Tom, why don’t you take your sister for a paddle or something? I’ll be along in a minute.”

We walked up the beach.

“Let’s hide and maybe she’ll come looking for us,” you said.

So we climbed over the jetty, out of sight. Eventually we gave up hope of her following and sat, helpless on the stones.

“Tom, why’s Mummy so upset?”

“I don’t know.”

But I felt you knew more than I did, that you and the adult world were keeping from me some vital information.

“Did Mummy fall out with Aunt Clara?” I asked.

You shrugged, gazed off towards the jetty. I thought I saw a thin cloud from Mum’s cigarette rise from behind the jetty only to be snatched away in the wind.

I felt we had to do something and began picking up stones and putting them in the bucket. “Let’s make Mummy a present.”

I was worried that you’d laugh, dismiss the idea as childish or girlish. But you didn’t. You held the bucket while I chose the stones. Sometimes I had to delve down to where they were wet and sandy to find the best ones. I remember feeling reassured with each clink of stone against stone, as if the fullness of the bucket was a defense against our suddenly unpredictable world.

Then you had another idea. You took out the prettiest four stones, packed the bucket almost to the brim with smaller ones, and then placed the four chosen ones on top.

“There we are,” you said. “A family of four. Just like ours.”

There was nothing else to be done. We clutched the present between us as we made the fearful journey across the stony beach, towards our mother, towards whatever was going to happen next.


Flight
By Jonathan Ojanpera

It all happened so suddenly. One minute I was gliding around town, snickering at the people caught in traffic snags, those on foot and even the people sitting still. It seemed that as soon as my confidence reached a haughty crescendo, there it was; the ground. I must have rolled over twelve times when I hit.

I had crashed before, but never like this. This wreck marked a measure of finality. My last trip around town from above.

It was my wings. They were ruined.


The Voyage
By Rose Servitova

Spider webs and bats decorated the hospice reception … no ghosts or skeletons here. Twelve lanky, skirting-board-staring strides got him into her room.

There she was, in the bed, dying. Only her head, which resembled a shrunken turnip, was visible.

“Hi’ya Mam,” he said, stretching out his booted feet as he sat down by the window. The view—maple-syrupy Halloween—rich harvests of orange and red were mushed up with deep browns and greens.

All this beauty and it was no bloody use to her anymore.

Her hands, he couldn’t touch. Withered and weak, they meant nothing to him. How could he compare them with the strong hands he’d seen fling away her frustrated tears? Tears that had fuelled those hands into action, expelling her demons any way she could. She was forgiven yet he knew that somewhere, etched into his psyche and DNA, were the ghosts of hand-shaped bruising on his childhood legs.

Now he sat, as he did every night, singing to her Life is an ocean and love is a boat.


Okay is Enough
By Tyrean Martinson

Nisa hadn’t always felt this dissatisfied with life, but she felt overwhelmed by it now. Nothing had gone right today. Her boss didn’t have her paycheck ready. She’d locked herself out of her mom’s apartment, and then it started to rain. She didn’t have any money in her pockets to stop at one of the corner coffee stands, and they weren’t much for coffee shops anyway—just drive-thru shacks with awnings and plastic chairs at one end. She supposed she could walk towards the library.

Maybe she wouldn’t be soaked before she got there. And even if she was, she knew the librarians wouldn’t mind. One had even given her a cup of tea from their employee room once. It hadn’t been good tea, but it was a warm, kind gesture. She turned onto Waverly Street, though she’d avoided it for a year now. It was a back-street shortcut with older houses that sagged comfortably on their foundations like grandparents in armchairs.

As she walked over the lilting and cracked sidewalk, she looked across at the Stevens’ house. She slowed as she noticed James’ backpack on the porch. It wasn’t like James to leave his books out in the damp. A cracking noise and a yelp brought her attention to the side of the house where James, clinging to an old lattice, was plummeting to the ground, back first.

Nisa ran across the empty street and into the Stevens’ yard. She grabbed the lattice and attempted to pull it off James, but he was clinging to it with his eyes shut.

“Hey, let go. You’re down now. Are you all right?” Nisa said, all at once in a rush. She hadn’t talked to James since that night when she’d foolishly crossed the line of their friendship and asked him out on a date.

“Ow, ow, ow,” James said with closed eyes, his hands clenched together in fists.

Nisa moved the lattice to the grass beside her. It was awkward, but not that heavy. “What were you thinking, James?”

“Lost my keys. Thought I would climb up to my window. It wouldn’t open and the lattice broke.” He slowly opened his eyes and unclenched his hands. “I think I’m okay, but my back and ribs hurt.” He paused and looked at her with blue-as-sky eyes. “You’re talking to me.”

“Yes, James, I’m talking to you,” said Nisa, crossing her arms. “Why don’t we get out of the rain, unless you need me to call an ambulance?”

“Sure, I mean, no,” he said, and then slowly sat up, groaning. “Let’s get out of the rain.”

Nisa could have offered him a hand. A year ago, she would have. But things were different now between them.

*

James felt heat rush to his cheeks despite the cool rain. To cover it, he put a hand to his face and realized he was missing his glasses. That was why Nisa seemed a little blurry around the edges. “Nisa, do you see my glasses?”

“No, I … oh, here they are.” She knelt down close to him.

James went still, caught by her usual fresh minty smell—though she swore she never used scent. “Thanks,” he said, reaching out.

“They’re slightly broken.” She put them in his hand. Their fingers brushed and he felt as if an electric current jolted through him.

“Great! I mean, at least they aren’t lost.” James felt like an idiot as he brought his mangled glasses closer to his face. He straightened them and realized the problem was in one arm joint. With the right tools, he could fix it. Considering how tight money was this month, he would have to figure out a way. He put the glasses on, but they tilted precariously sideways.

Nisa laughed, her light, beautiful laugh that always seemed to indicate that everything was all right. “Oh, James. I’m sorry, but you look a little like a mad scientist. Your hair’s standing up and you even have a leaf in it.” She reached towards him as if to pluck the leaf from his hair.

James gazed at her deep brown eyes, and ran his hand over his head, pulling the leaf out himself. “Let’s get out of the rain.”

Nisa looked away. “Are you going to be all right? I was just going to the library.” Her voice had gotten quiet and tight again, like it had been for so many months now when he tried to talk to her.

“I’ll come with you,” he said, feeling the heat rise to his face again as soon as he said it.

“You won’t be able to read anything without your glasses.”

“Well, I’ll just get some books from the large print section, and in any case, I’ll be warmer there.”

“Okay,” she said quietly.

“Thanks.” James didn’t know how to say everything else that he hadn’t been able to say for the last year. At least she was talking to him again.

*

An almost content feeling washed over Nisa as she walked to the library with James. It was almost like old times. Not quite, but it was okay, and okay was enough.


The Proposal
By Kari Redmond

Joey supposed he would have won whether or not Sally Harrison showed up.

He would claim, for the next several years, that he had no way of knowing she was there as he maneuvered the electronic arm for what must have been the thousandth time, until finally the metal claw held tight to the giant stuffed ring and sent it down the mouth of the machine.

He will say that when he finally retrieved the ring from the chute, amidst the clapping and cheering of the crowd which had grown three rows thick with children as well as adults, he had every intention of giving it to Sally even had she not been among them. The fact that she was, made it ‘all the more romantic,’ Joey would say as he recounted the story on the playground in the weeks and months that followed, Sally standing proudly beside him.

Joey had been playing nearly every Sunday after church when his parents would take him for breakfast to the Denny’s Restaurant that had the only crane game in town. Joey saved his quarters all week. One for taking out the trash, another for keeping his bed made, another for collecting his laundry every Thursday and another for loading the dishwasher every night. The latter was a job usually meant for his sister, but since the discovery of the grabber game, Joey begged her to let him do it instead. She relented, preferring to watch American Bandstand, which played directly after dinner most nights.

On this particular Sunday, Joey had not four, but five quarters, having found a beautiful shiny quarter on his walk home from school the previous Tuesday. It rested between two rocks, bright against the grass growing between them. Joey took the quarter in his hand, inspecting it for authenticity, before placing it carefully in his pocket. He vowed that this Sunday, the Sunday he would have not four, but five quarters, would be the day he got the ring.

Sally Harrison knew about the kid who played the grabber game every Sunday. She listened in awe as children talked on the playground and when she learned that the prize he was after was the ring, she quietly blushed. She had played the game only once since its arrival at Denny’s and was particularly fond of the diamond ring.

Joey was not fond of the ring toy. It was simply the logical choice because of the nature of a ring. The claw would hold onto the loop of the ring much easier than it might a simple teddy bear. And for this reason, Joey had his sights on the ring.

On Sunday Sally made her way to Denny’s. She entered the double doors and found herself in the crowd of people already gathered around The Claw in the lobby. She had to stand on her tippy toes to be sure it was Joey playing the game. She then squeezed her way between an older gentleman and his wife to join the children in the front row. She asked the girl next to her exactly which quarter he was on. The fourth, the girl answered. Sally drew in a sharp breath, which she held, she figures, until the fifth quarter had achieved success.

A hush fell over the crowd as Joey carefully removed the coin from his lint-filled pocket. He settled it into the palm of his hand so he could blow away the remnants of lint before slowly and deliberately placing the quarter in the game. This gave Sally time enough to say a quick prayer to give Joey the steadiness to move the arm and grab the ring. By her assessment, the ring was in a perfect place having been held and dropped so many times that it finally rested diamond side down, loop side up.

Joey had a ritual he repeated before depositing each coin into its slot. He would visualize his next steps. It was something his older brother, now at college, had told him about once. And he had never forgotten it. So when the crowd grew still, Joey was grateful for the silence and the time to visualize his hand on the joystick and the giant mechanical arm moving over the ring and dropping perfectly around the loop of the plush toy. He then saw the claw pick it up, dangling the ring in its arms. He watched it move forward in his mind and drop the ring into the chute.

After the quarter was dropped, Joey was ready. He saw his tousled blonde hair in the reflection of the glass on the machine and watched a drop of sweat roll down his cheek. He was grateful no one else could see this. When the game activated, he moved the arm of the machine just like he visualized, so much so, that when things happened just as he’d foreseen, he had to blink his eyes twice to be sure the ring had in fact dropped down the chute and deposited itself for retrieving in the mouth of the game.

It was rather simultaneous; his sudden realization that it was not a visualization and the cheers of the small crowd that had materialized in the lobby. Claps and whoops surrounded him. He held the ring up for the crowd to see, and at the instant he turned around to face them, he found Sally standing in the middle; a shy smile on her face. He ceremoniously knelt on one knee and presented her with the plush toy.

Sally pretended to slip the overstuffed ring on her left ring finger. She patted herself on the back for placing the quarter visible enough for Joey to spot on his walk home from school. She remembered the look on his face as he held it up in the sunlight as she peered at him from the bushes.


IMG_5678Another Rejection
By Anthony Keers

Henry sat at his table reserved for two. As he tilted the drink towards his mouth, he scoured the room, occasionally glancing at the door. Being stood up had happened before. On numerous occasions in fact. But he thought somehow this girl would be different.

He’d been in the restaurant for 20 minutes. The waiters witnessed the unfolding scene and tried to smile as they came over every so often to ask if he’d like another drink. It was hard to act happy, so he avoided eye contact with them. The restaurant was crowded and the tables were neatly packed close together. The other customers glanced over and muttered small remarks to each other as Henry struggled to conceal his embarrassment.

Well, he thought, fuck it. He stretched his arm in the air, signaling the waiters. A few were discreetly hovering near his table and one rushed over in seconds.

“Yes sir, is everything all right?”

“No, not at all. But hell, can you bring me a bottle of the house white wine please?” replied Henry.

“Certainly, sir … Will your company be arriving soon?”

“Well, it doesn’t look like it, does it?” he said.

The waiter smiled. “I’ll bring the wine right away.”

Henry nodded and watched the waiter walk towards the bar. He glanced down at his watch, hoping his date would arrive. But as the bottle arrived and the first glass was filled and emptied, that hope became permanently sedated. He sat alone, watching the candle in front of him burn differently than the others. As he drank his wine, he looked over at the neighboring tables. The women there were laughing beautifully as their necklaces glistened in the candlelight. They looked comfortable, happy, entranced by their partners, who in Henry’s eyes looked like male models from fashion magazines. It all seemed so easy.

As the last glass of wine made its way to his stomach, loneliness began to seep into his mind. Any feelings of hatred he had towards his date were now long gone. Instead, he looked only to his humiliation, and rejections he’d had in the past. Eternal rejection. The restaurant was emptying and waiters began to clean the last tables.

Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled money from his wallet and slapped it on the table. As he walked out, he stood on the edge of the curb for a few seconds and looked up at the sky.

“Even the stars have been matched up,” he said, before the night wrapped his body in comfort, took him by the arm and walked him down the street. Just as it had done many times before.


Seeing Red
By Jan FitzGerald

“You can train yourself to make obsessive thoughts to go away,” Sue’s counsellor said. “It’s about learning to refocus. I want you to choose a colour here today, and from this moment and throughout the week, every time you see it, ignore it, and think of something else.”

“Okay, red,” said Sue. “I hate red.” She glanced at the counsellor’s crimson boots. “Whitebait fritters,” she said quickly. They both laughed.

I didn’t realise red’s so bloody everywhere, she thought afterwards, as she walked down the street. Even the taillights on parked cars are look-at-me red—artichokes are not worth the preparation.

Funny how traffic lights show out more on gloomy days—I wonder what I’d look like bald?

Where have all the silver cars gone? It’s the latest colour, isn’t it? Today they all seem red—I can’t begin to imagine what the vet bill will be.

That woman’s scarf’s red—who cares about Kim Kardashian—and there’s a woman in a red puffer jacket—itchy backs are a pain when you can’t reach the spot. Now that’s Angus tartan with the red stripe—tam o’shanter is such a weird word!

 The pedestrian buzzer’s not working. I can’t look. Is the little man green or red? Raku sells those cute Japanese teapots with the long handles.

 How long have I been lying here in a puddle on the road? This is an ambulance light flashing above me, right?

Okay, I’m not dead.


The Gingham Tablecloth
By Bruce Costello

A place for everything and everything in its place.

Grant’s voice echoes in Lana’s head as she searches the house for somewhere to put herself.

His memory lingers in every room. There is no calm place for Lana to be.

She pours vodka into the void within.

Lana’s father finds her cross-legged on the floor, making high-pitched wailing sounds. Vomit runs down her sweatshirt.

“I knocked at your back door, but you didn’t hear me,” he says. “The Police just told me.”

“Why, Dad, why?” she cries out. “Why did this happen?”

“It was Grant’s time.” He squats beside her and puts an arm around her, awkwardly. “Your mother would’ve liked to come round to see you but … ”

“What?”

“You know what she’s like.” He leaves the room and returns with a towel and a bowl of water.

Her mother rang a few days later.

“Your father told me you’re not coping after Grant’s accident and I would’ve been to see you, except I’ve been really depressed, what with your father the way he is!”

Lana holds the phone away from her ears.

“It was a pity Grant got killed, but that’s life! Was it because you’d been arguing with him? Had you told him you wanted to leave? If your father wanted to leave me, I’d be jumping for joy!”

“Mother!”

“Well, if the truth hurts…”

“Don’t speak to me like that about my Dad!”

“You always stick up for him. What about me? Daddy’s little girl, aren’t you!”

*

“You know, Dad,” Lana says, two months later, her voice sinking to a whisper, “I sometimes wished Grant dead. Often when he took off on his motorbike, I just hoped he wouldn’t come back. Then it happened.

“You didn’t kill him. A truck did.”

“The police think he rode into it deliberately. Autocide, they called it.”

“He was troubled long before you met him, love.”

“But we’d had a bloody awful shouting match just before he went out the door.”

“He was a grown man.”

“It’s funny, but when you’re kissing someone, you’re close. When you’re fighting with them, there’s still a kind of closeness, a … connection, some sort of involvement or something, I don’t know. It’s just weird. Maybe it’s true what they say, a negative relationship is still a relationship.” She takes a deep breath. “But that doesn’t go for my mother! I don’t love her. Why the hell should I? And I’ve never been able to figure out why the blazes you put up with her!”

“It’s not all her fault, Lana.”

“Do you still love her, Dad?”

“No. I can’t.”

“But you stay with her!”

“I know.”

“And look at you! You’re a bleeding mess!”

“I don’t like the way you blame your mother for everything. I’m not the perfect husband. And I’ve got my own ways of coping.”

“Not getting any easier, though, is it!”

“S’pose not.”

“I’m worried about you, Dad.”

“Don’t be.”

“I know all this crap about me and Grant has been hard enough on you … but I think something else has been going on in your life … and you’re not telling me what it is!”

*

“The truth is,” Lana said a week later as they sat side by side on her back porch, “Grant made me miserable most of the time.”

A mid-morning winter sun shone down on them weakly as they hugged their coffee mugs.

“But I still centered my life around him, forgave everything. Just wanted the best for him, really.”

“You loved him.”

“Yes, I did. Took the rough with the smooth, though it was unbearable at times. Isn’t that what love is about?”

Her father stared at her. “I stopped loving your mother years ago, and I’ve never stopped feeling really bad about it.”

“A person can only take so much, Dad.”

“I know, but … ”

“Love is a thing you do rather than feel. And you’ve stood by her for thirty years, despite the way she is with you.”

Tears rolled down her father’s face.

“From things you’ve let slip,” said Lana, putting her hand over her father’s, “I think you stayed with mum at the start because of me. You were scared shitless I’d turn out like her, if she was the only parent I had.”

Her father nodded, slowly.

“I’m not a little girl now, Dad.”

“I’m starting to realise that, but can you imagine what it’s like for a father when his little girl grows up and leaves?”

“That was seven years ago! You’re not staying with Mum for my sake now, you know. You’re staying because you’re scared of ending up on the scrapheap alone.”

*

“I want to live a little before I die. Who knows how much time I’ve got left?” Lana’s father said quietly, two days later, in her tiny kitchen.

He set the coffee cup down carefully on the little gingham tablecloth Lana had laid. She thought it always evoked a certain intimacy, like the curtain on a confessional.

“I’m surprised some other woman hasn’t fallen in love with you,” she said, smoothing a fold in the tablecloth.

Her father stared at her, then lowered his eyes. “I was kind of accustomed to the way my life was, like a man who’s always been on a bread and water diet and doesn’t know any better.”

“Till somebody offers him a nice roast, you mean?”

“Yeah. Sort of.”

“So what’s happened?”

“Nothing. Not yet.”

Lana gazed at him and smiled. “Tell me about her.”

“Actually,” her father faltered, picked up the coffee cup, saw that it was empty and put it down again. “His name’s Eddie.”


IMG_1246Little Red Huddy and the Wolfman
By Maurice Cashell

Before I entered the station I’d already dumped the mobile and swallowed the SIM card.

I’m a professional. You win some, you lose some.

I don’t hang around children’s playgrounds or amusement arcades. That’s for losers. The modern sex player sees grooming as a managed process. The sheer genius of the idea is in enticing children into a world in which, ultimately, they are a willing part of the game. There are no rules, only moves. I begin by targeting the candidate and sizing up his—I prefer boys—emotional neediness and lower self-confidence.

Remember the Red Huddy case last autumn? The kid from Clonshaugh? That was one of mine. A good time to go hunting, autumn. Kids starting second level, confused, unhappy. And what do all those confused and unhappy kids do? They play on-line games with other unhappy kids. They’re like: “It’s a way to escape all the crap going on in my life”. Escape? That’s rich. Move One: I separate the candidate from peers by creating a sense that I’m special, giving him the kind of love that he needs. Yes, I know that’s ‘shrink talk’, but hear me out, I’ve brought this theory to a fine art.

My vehicle is a game called Stockpile, which allows players to exchange messages. Sometimes, I’ll start a private chat with another player to discuss cheats, tips, strategies; you know the kind of stuff.

Obsessed with Stockpile, Huddy was easy game. I made contact, but was suitably reticent. I let on that I thought that he was older than me, he was so good at the game. He liked to be looked up to; it didn’t happen to him at school or even at home. I explained that I lived in Dundalk. We became “mates”. Soon, when he revealed that he was depressed about stuff, we were meeting in private chat rooms.

After two or three weeks he was getting comfortable about having someone who respected his feelings about school and parents, but he had a natural reserve. It was time for Move Two: gaining his trust. That turned out easier than I thought. We’d got to know each other well and we exchanged mobile numbers. So when his Mum or Dad would kick him off the computer or make him go to bed, he could still text me.

I started to ask him some really personal things. He didn’t think it was that strange because we’d become such good mates. I watched and waited, getting to know his needs and how to fill them. The really difficult part about Move Two is striking a balance between filling a need and becoming too familiar. Too much personal attention or gooey intrusiveness provokes suspicion. So, I was a spy, and just as stealthy.

Move Three—isolating the candidate—is exciting. When the mid-term break was approaching, I suggested a meeting. I told him that I had asked my Mum if he could stay over and that she said it was fine and that she would buy the train ticket. At this stage I had a good picture of life with his parents and had no difficulty in making “my parents” appear cool compared to his.

It didn’t surprise me that he packed an overnight bag and went to the train station without his parents knowing. But I was excited when he took the train. When it was approaching Dundalk, I texted him to meet at the hotel instead. He hesitated, but he didn’t stop, didn’t even stop to think it was weird.

Unfortunately he never made it to the hotel because he was intercepted by the police. You maybe read about it. He had left a note. His parents worked out what happened and called the police immediately. It was only when he saw the police on the platform that he finally started to add two and two.

He told them that on the train when he realised what he had done, he couldn’t escape a sense of dread, a feeling that he was being stalked and that something bad was coming. He never found out that his friend whom he had thought was the same age as himself was actually the 40-year-old man who was seated four rows behind him in the carriage. Neither did the police.

The SIM card? No problem, I keep all my information in sync across multiple devices.


Oldest in the World
By Wilson F. Engel, III

France may have taken the Gold medal in the earliest stages of the Ageing Olympics back in 2015, but the USA took Silver and Bronze medals. America then decided—as a matter of national pride—to take a Gold medal within fifteen years and to retain it for the subsequent fifty years. U.S. determination was fully funded. The U.S. Department of Ageing was established. Its duty is to boost the number of verified contenders by an order of magnitude each decade. Some of us felt the U.S. competitive advantage should be leveraged from cradle to grave. France legislated the “Jeane Calment Competition” along that line, and the USA never passed a chance to overtake the French.

As Head of the USDoA, I keep statistics and monitor programs. I demand transparency and fair recordkeeping. International chicanery abounds, but perfidious movements have evolved within other U.S. Departments like Labor, Health and Human Services, Defense and Commerce. They fight against my department’s budgets and make the outrageous claim that people should be forced into hospice care at age 70, mandatory retirement age. Murderers! AARP now preaches against longevity. For exposing their covert aims to euthanize the aged, I have received death threats. Supercentenarians are now protected by the Secret Service. The radicals’ tactics merit daily exposure. They ardently pray for my earliest demise.

My unfair advantage in this deadly game is my longevity. I am the oldest human alive, and as long as I survive, America will be the Gold medalist: I represent the miracle of beating our medical and pharmacological mafias. Since I am exempt from mandatory drugs, I am free to compose my life for everyone. Forty years ago I understood the game. Replacing my body parts and brain, I’ve eluded all traps of ageing: Project Methuselah survives in me.


H…E…Double Hockey Sticks
By Alan D. Harris

I got a seventh grade English assignment due tomorrow—300 to 500 words about a poem that doesn’t make sense. So I took my homework to the ice rink today and tried to work on it in the lobby before practice:

I really really enjoyed a poem by T.S. Eliot.

It’s called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

I only had 281 to 481 words to go when Georgie Aziz sat down across from me.

“Whatchya doin’?”

“Homework … due tomorrow.”

“My mom and dad woulda made me miss hockey if they knew I had homework.”

“I’ve never seen you miss hockey. You must be pretty good at homework.”

“You just watch when Ramadan falls on the hockey schedule—I’m gone, out like Shout. But there’s no way I’d tell them I got homework. They’d kill me, or at least make me miss hockey.”

I realized then and there that you just don’t know how rough other kids got it at home.

“Can I read what you got so far?”

“Sure.” I handed Georgie my first nineteen words and a copy of the poem.

“This is a good start. Seventeen words. Really like what you did with the word really. You should repeat more words. Pure genius. You really really are a good writer.”

“Nineteen words.”

“Why T.S.? Who names a baby T.S.?”

Just then Jesse Cook walked up and asked, “T.S. who?”

“T.S. Eliot,” I answered. I didn’t know it, but Jesse’s dad had crept up behind me.

“Never heard of him,” said Mr. Cook. “But love the name. Shoulda named Jesse—T.S. Cook.” Georgie and I looked confused. So instead of moving on to complain about his favorite subject—the practice schedule, Jesse’s dad took the time to explain what his version of T.S. stands for. I don’t want to write down exactly what he said. So I’ve decided to keep the word tough for T but the word sugar is a much better choice for S. Call it poetic license. Tough Sugar Eliot, I’d like you to meet my friend and teammate, Tough Sugar Cook.

On second thought, if I ever name a baby poet—T.S. would be just fine.

“What position does he play? We need another winger,” said an obviously confused Mr. Cook.

“He’s not a hockey player. He’s a poet. Hey—I’m a winger and we already got three full lines.”

Jesse’s dad smiled. “I meant we need another goal scorer. My kid can’t carry this sorry team alone. I never heard of Eliot. Did he play hockey in college? Europe?”

Just then Dr. Aziz walked up. “Who is doing homework at the rink?”

“Not me,” said Georgie.

“Yes sir, Dr. A,” I confessed. “But it’s nothing. Just poetry stuff.”

Georgie’s dad looked over my notebook, adjusted his thick dark glasses and said, “Ahh…Thomas Stearns Eliot. As a young man in Beirut, I memorized The Waste Land. It taught me much about American culture.”

Jesse and I replied at the same time—Huh? But Georgie nudged me as if to say he wanted to go to the locker room rather than listen to his father tell stories.

“It’s a stupid love poem, Dad. We got to go get dressed,” said Georgie.

“Very good—the Prufrock poem,” said Dr. Aziz. “It ushered in the Modernist era. Do you have a copy?” So I handed him the poem. I really really didn’t think he’d understand it any better than me. After all, it starts out in a foreign language. Understanding poetry is hard enough. Why would anybody start off a poem in something other than good old English? Maybe I could write 100 words or so just about that.

Mr. Cook looked over Dr. Aziz’s shoulder and said, “Don’t waste your time doc. I know a little Espanola and someone’s pullin’ your pata there, Padre. These words don’t make no sense.”

Dr. Aziz picked up the poem and read the first stanza:

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,

Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

This time it was Mr. Cook who said, “Huh?”

“Italian,” replied Dr. Aziz.

Jesse’s dad’s not often impressed with anyone besides himself. But with a bug-eyed smile, he said, “You speak English and Eye-talian?” Now Jesse started eyeballing for us to head to the locker room before his dad said anything else.

Dr. Aziz replied, “In truth I speak four languages. None of which are Italian. I am simply like any learned schoolboy—I read Dante’s Inferno.”

“Oh yeah, me too,” said Mr. Cook. “Help me remember exactly what it was about.”

“Hell,” replied Dr. Aziz.

Mr. Cook seemed relieved and asked, “You forgot too, eh?”

“Dante’s Inferno is the seminal work on the metaphoric Hades—or at some level, hell on earth. With the use of metaphor and understated subtlety, T.S. Eliot has captured its essence, especially for the lonely man—disenfranchised from love.”

It hit me then that understanding a poem comes with a price. You have to deal with unwanted surprises. “I gotta write 300 to 500 words about H…E…double hockey sticks?”

“Hell, that should be easy, kid,” said Mr. Cook. “Ask any married man about hell on earth.” For the very very first time, I saw Mr. Cook and Dr. Aziz share a smile. I put my homework away and finally followed Jesse and Georgie into the locker room. Both wanted to get away from their dads for different reasons—none of which had anything to do with J. Alfred Prufrock.

“What are you gonna say to your teacher if you don’t write another 281 words before tomorrow?” asked Georgie.

As I tossed my hockey bag on the locker room floor full of tape balls, broken laces and empty juice boxes, there was only one thing I could think of to say. “Tough sugar,” I said.

“Tough sugar.”


IMG_1973A Night for Action
By David J. Wing

Baxter Collins sat in the beige Studebaker he’d pilfered from his mom and watched. His hands sat on his lap and stroked the .45 absently. It was one of those smoke-laden LA nights, the ones where your headlamps did more harm than good. The house he was spying on was a stucco job, modern and absent of character—he’d never liked it. He reached into the glove box and lit up. The flare would show his face to any tom or dick watching, but nobody was. Nobody cared where he was or what he was doing; they were too busy with their parties and their martinis, and she was too busy with him.

The butts began to stack up, and after the tenth Camel Baxter decided it was time. The light from the living-room window had vanished some time ago and they’d either be asleep or in the act; either way they wouldn’t notice him.

He clicked the car door shut and crossed the street. The palms wavered in the evening breeze and he felt a chill. His hat jittered but a swift tug sat it back down. He reached the front gate—unlocked. The door at the back of the property had always squeaked, but he’d come prepared. A little oil on the hinges and it gave it up easily, like the lady of the house.

Stepping through the porch, Baxter glanced down at his dirt-laden boots and grimaced. He ventured into the kitchen and to his relief saw no muddy prints. He hated mess. On to the living room, where he had watched the figures through thin curtains, dancing and drinking and kissing. Wine glasses sat together and an empty bottle of California white pooled condensation on the mahogany. Strange, he thought, she usually likes red.

Up the ample stairwell, he passed framed photos. The one from Copacabana, that summer he graduated. The one from the diner they used to like, with the chocolate malteds and the juke box. They looked happy. No. They looked joyous.

Now he stood outside the bedroom door. No light shone. He reached inside his coat pocket and withdrew the .45. Twisting the door handle, slowly, quietly, he pushed and entered. The carpet, the one she’d wanted, that they had on back order for six months—a shame really.

Standing over the pair, their bodies covered in Egyptian cotton blend and breathing calm breaths, he watched. His eyes fixated on her. The man didn’t matter. He’d do him first.

Extending his arm he pointed and pulled. The flare from the muzzle lit up the bedroom for a fraction of a second and a dark splodge hit the bed head. She sat bolt upright, eyes ablaze in the nightlight. He flung his arm back and pointed at her.

“What? Wh—”

Baxter flinched for a moment and then the .45 kicked. The effect was the same.

He flicked on the side light. Curious. Morbid.

Not her. Not his Mavis. Sharon, her friend from college.

He breathed, fast, then turned and darted down the stairs, the .45 still in hand. He blasted out the back door, knocking an ‘in case of emergency note’ off the kitchen table. He ran out into the street. The car screeched and careered down to the boulevard and beyond.


Tamiami Trail Recitative
One Act Libretto for the Rest of Us
By Betty Story

Setting: A sidewalk in front of a strip mall with a pawn shop, a coin laundry, and a convenience store. Outside the laundry are benches and buckets with sand for ashtrays. A No Loitering sign is on the wall.

Characters:

BOY-About age 4.

MAN-Thin and worn, chain-smoking.

WOMAN-Also washed out. Wearing cutoff jeans; legs & arms covered with tattoos.

SWEEPER-The boy’s grandfather—tall and greying.

The BOY is on his knees pushing toy cars on one of the benches. A thin worn MAN is standing outside the pawn shop smoking a cigarette. A tattooed WOMAN is also outside folding the clothes that are in a wire cart.

BOY: Vroooom, vroom, vroom, I’m goin’ to Miami. I’m goin, I’m goin, I’m goin to Miami. I’m goin, I’m goin, I’m goin to Miami. Vroooommm, vrooooom, I’m goin, I’m goin.

MAN: Little man I been to Miam-ah. I lived in Miam-ah. I got children there who don’t want to see they daddy no more. An I won so much money at the dogs when they was babies. You never saw such a time we had. Me and they momma gave them bicycles, baby dolls, big yellow dump trucks that you boys love to push, a little table and chairs, a tea set, and a armful of teddy bears. Those teddy bears protected my children at night. They would take shifts standing on the balcony outside their room, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

BOY: Mister, you crazy. (Turning back to his cars. Then looking up.) What happen to the dump trucks?

Man: Son, you know what a hurricane is? A monster wind that comes and blows harder than anything you ever knew. A wind that takes an ocean up over your head and slings it all over your life. That wind blows in snakes and frogs and any kind of meanness it can. First umbrellas sail by, and then roofs, and later people go by in rowboats drinking beer and they don’t even wave at you neither. You get so wet you don’t ever want a bath again.

WOMAN: You talking about Hurricane Andrew? You know who he was, don’t you? He was the Fireman! He aimed to put out the fires in people’s dreams. Dreams of schoolgirls learning to smoke and then catching their hair on fire. Dreams of men practicing for a bake-off and having their ovens blow up. Dreams of love letters burning up and leaving a hole in the writer’s heart.

See these blue letters on my legs next to the dragons? After I burned everything my old man wrote to me, the man inked these letters on me. They rearrange themselves every night when I’m sleeping.

Dreams of driving and your brake foot going right to the floor. The dream you have that ends with you tumblin’ down that long James Dean cliff and at the bottom—boom!

It’s always too late for the Fireman though. Dreams of getting my kids back before they start smoking.

MAN: Aahhh, I wasn’t in Miam-ah for Hurricane Andrew, I had moved on to New Orleans. That Andrew had nothin’ on our bitch Katrina. She put out the fire I had in my heart and the dreams I had in my soul. That woman sweeped up my life with a flood of nasty water. I ended up doing real bad things for a lit cigarette. I been too wet to ever go back to Miam-ah.

WOMAN: Darlin, you think you were missed? Those teddy bears probably danced a jig with your wife and shared their smokes. Were you in First Class on a Greyhound out of town? Yeah, big spender, I’m with the boy, what happened to the dump trucks and your children? I bet your ex wants to fire you up with boiling sugar water. You’re always fixing to send some money but you’re really hoping the child support orders were blown away.

(The SWEEPER, a tall man with greying hair comes out of the laundry holding a broom. He nods to the boy and the boy picks up his cars and stands beside him. The SWEEPER begins sweeping as he talks to the boy.)

SWEEPER: I don’t waste myself studying these people. Talking about smoking teddy bears and little schoolgirls catching fire. That sign needs to say No Foolishness. Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm. (He begins sweeping the walk near the smoking man and continues down the walk by the woman. Dust begins to swirl around on the ground as a wind blows across the parking lot. Cigarette butts, scratch off lottery tickets, bottle caps, beer can tabs, receipts and finally letters of the alphabet begin to spin in the wind and encircle the man and woman. She looks at the glowing letters on her legs; he sees the tip of his cigarette is a small flame. As the whirlwind encircles the man and woman, the dust begins to sparkle and glow and rise around them. The sweeper moves the pile toward the curb and with some flicks, the mess of people and small life debris rise slowly, spinning around faster and faster until it is a blur. The SWEEPER leans his broom against the wall, and turns to the BOY.)

SWEEPER: Now this is when I’m supposed to say, Mmmm, mmmm, mmmmm, how trash does fly in the wind! Or some such. And now I’m to say that I know you’re thinking, you’re thinking about a little yellow dump truck and we might be able to do something about that on the way home. I just might say that.


Writer’s Cough
By Ed Higgins

Okay, so I’m sitting here trying to write through a frigging cold. And I … Oops, wait a sec! … I’m stopped, astounded, stunned between coughing my left lung clear over my keyboard and watching it flopping on the back of my desk just now … Oh shit! My spat-up, spasm-seized lung just slid behind my printer and down the crack between the wall and desk … wait, wait, hold on a minute … OK, ok took my slipper off and I can just feel it with my toes … too squishy to grip though … there, there, nope … wait, slowly, slowly … yeah, great, barely managed to drag it out from behind and under the desk with my scrunched up toes—once I took my sock off. Kinda looks okay … dust-bunny-coated on one side and I’ve had to flick off a couple of lost sticky notes, an old toothpick and a blue paper clip … but oops, oh damn, looky-here, just noticed a rough three-inch tear on one side of the upper lobe … sheesh-to-shit!! What-a-crime, musta happened when I jerked the poor thing around the surge protector. Well, all right, some superglue’ll fix that, I think. Give me a bit while I climb outa my loft here and go rinse this ugly mess off in the kitchen sink.

Ah, damn-it-all, the agony of writing, let alone interruptions like this frigging medical crisis!

Fine, fine back now, and I think the tear was just where lefty attached to some bronchial tube or other. After rinsing as best I could, I stuffed the whole pinkish, prolapsed fucker back down my throat and am hoping for the best.

As added insurance I’m chewing another piece of zinc gum. Tastes like a half-rusted galvanized rain gutter (if you need a taste analogy for a fucking ineffectual zinc cold remedy). But I’m a true believer anyway. Still, zinc gum doesn’t keep your damn lungs from flying out during a raging coughing fit.

And would you believe, one of the lost sticky notes from under my desk that I flicked off my dust-bunnied lung is just the inspiration I need to finish up this frigging story I’ve been stumbling around in. “Snot. Do something with snot,” the still bright-yellow sticky note says. That’s it, of course! Not only have I been trying to write while literally coughing my left lung out, my green-cement-loaded sinuses have given me a headache the size of the Starship Enterprise.

So, I’m thinking of adding nasal decongestants and acetaminophen to the zinc gum crap info. And snot hasta be good for a narrative line or two. Write what you know, they say. Okay, I’m about to intensify the plot-character-coughed-out-lung-crisis with a virulent snot attack.

Meanwhile, your narrator-protagonist seems to be lung safe, for the moment at least. But wait, wait, hold on a minute … again … now my cold’s recurring nose-tickling’s demanding an imminent sne … sneeee … sneeze! There it goes, rudely flying outa my partially relieved nose. OMG! All over my iMac screen with an unsightly, viscous, green-infused splat drooling down the screen’s center, while still unwinding from my schnozzle like a loosed fireman’s hose. Whoa, an embarrassing mucous lament, mostly the color of limes, sliding slowly onto my desktop! Damn, what to do, what to do? No hankie, no Kleenex. And I’m inches away from another coughing fit. Or just a follow-up sne … sneeee … sneeze!! There it goes, ripping onto the screen again.

That’s it, that’s it. I’m too fucking discouraged to carry on any further with this frigging story. No real resolution anyway … so I’d better just leave it for now.

Hmmmmm … maybe a double-whiskey hot toddy will help the ol’ inspiration along? Or at least comfort my overactive sinuses somewhat. So, now I’m climbing outa my loft headed for the fifth of Southern Comfort stashed in the kitchen’s under-sink cupboard. Yes, this story’s gonna get better before I’m done.


In the Ranges
By Penny Westhorp

Range after range of blued-out mountains, fading behind each other; their tops craggy and battlemented; hiding secret lands scarcely inhabited by wary tribes—I stare and stare at these forbidding shapes. How can something so harsh make my heart soften? The people there, my old people, are suspicious of strangers; their territories patrolled by fearsome warriors, as thin, alert, and wild as the winged beasts they ride. Would they allow me, an outsider now, soft and slow and fat with water from the plains, to climb, short breathed and aching, back to their watching eyries? I came from there; I ran away. I live in the comfortable boring plains. I want to return.

Will they treat me as a child again? Send me to collect the twigs from the sparse, twisted, precious shrubs, or to scoop up fresh water from the tiny pools between the rocks? Or can I be as a young adult and go back to the ledges where they summon their winged mounts?

Might my partner, my ex-partner, once again show me how he summons his beast with that unique shriek? I cannot call the beast—it answers only to him. A flyer must be wily and fearless to catch and tame his own winged partner, deepest love of his life. He lures it with a fresh kill, baited in a trap that holds but does not harm. He keeps it tethered until it will take food only from his hand. He gentles it until it will tolerate his lithe and agile weight. He did the same with me—this man who screams, as high and piercing as the beast’s own cry, every time they launch over the sharp, shattered rocks of the ravine. The one who screeched with me, the first time we jumped together from the cliff to the salted water. The one whose cries of harsh freedom haunt my dreams and draw me back.

I will not be allowed to see the sombre big-eyed children, who learn at earliest age the value of silence; who stay hidden. Rare, fragile, vulnerable to sudden death from cold, danger, or privation, children are too precious to share with returning strangers.

I will be subject to the silent appraisal of the elders, those shriveled old men. They will not trust me as they used to. They will watch to see if I truly accept the ways of the stone hard mountains. They will keep everyone separate, waiting to see if I will accept, submit, recant.

Those elders will not deign to discuss the longings of young women, our desperate yearning for unrestricted space, a place to run unhampered, an unfettered life. Such feelings are irrelevant, unworthy, dismissable.

They will assume that I know of the fierce revulsion of the young men for a life of ease, tied down in those meadows. I do know it; I saw it on his face. He could not leave. But I could not stay. And now, I cannot stay away. I have tried both worlds, and with regret in every step away and towards, have come back to the old ways. The life here, tightly bounded, screaming free, means more to me now than the lazy swill of the flat lands below.

There are hardly any old people here; only those few ancient judgmental men. They are small, brown, as seamed and twisted as the tough rooted bushes. Sometimes, there is a terrible longing in their eyes, when they watch the young men leap onto the winged creatures. Their old broken bones, poorly set, are irrelevant payments for the fierce unspeakable joy of flying a beast. It’s why they demand that nothing changes.

But there are almost no old women. Most of them have gone, worn out by constant grief; the loss of wailing thin babies who died, or who grew despite the odds into untamed, sinewy warriors. The loss of boys who died trying to catch a beast. Of girls who fled the sharp, stony ridges. Perhaps the old women followed their girlhood dreams and went down to the wide wet meadows to die.

This is the prospect I have come back to. A man who flies wild; a child who if born, will be drawn away from me, lured by either the wind under his wings, or the softer life she will find below. And a short old age. Will I stay to become one of those rare fossils? Or retreat again, when life becomes as hard as stone?


An Indian Folk Tale
(From the Myths and Legends of the Tandoori)
By Paul Sherman

In the ancient kingdom of Dansak, the mighty Phall called his princeling sons, Sag Aloo and Sag Ponir, “My little Sags,” he said, the lines of wisdom in his face as old as those in the Sacred Book of the Biryani, “It is time I bequeathed to you parts of my Kingdom. To you, Aloo, I bequeath the Land of Bhindi Baji, and to you, Ponir, the land of Onion Baji.”

Both Sag Aloo and Sag Ponir looked displeased, but they knew better than to say anything.

“As to your marriages,” the Phall continued, “You Aloo, shall wed the Princess Bhuna, and you Ponir, will wed the Princess Koorma.”

Back in their Nursery, the little Sags approached their revered Nurse, Peshwari Naan, who had nurtured them and looked after them and had a personality as sweet as a sultana.

“Why must I only inherit the land of Onion Baji?” Ponir complained, “It is barren and smells of onions. And marry Princess Koorma? She is ugly and smells of coconuts.”

Peshwari Naan’s eyes darkened and the little Sags shook in their shoes. When angered, she could transfer herself into the formidable Keema Naan or even the dreaded Dopiaza.

“Have you taken leave of your senses?” she roared, “Or have you been partaking of the Methi? Guard your tongues lest they be infected by the Murghi.”

Sag Ponir fell on his knees, shaking as if possessed by the Sagwala.

“I am sorry Naan,” he cried, “It is only idle chat. I will be satisfied with my lot. I will not complain again. I do not have the raitha.”

“And what about you Aloo,” Naan demanded, “Do you think you have the raitha to complain?”

“Peshwari Naan,” Aloo ventured, “I love the smell of onions and coconut. I would happily inherit the land of Onion Baji and marry the Princess Koorma. My brother then may have the realm of Bhindi Baji and marry the Princess Bhuna. If he so wishes.”

Ponir slapped his brother on the shoulder.

“By the ancient law of the Chapati, we may swap inheritances,” he cried. “We are identical twins. The Phall will never know.”

“What a vat of vindaloo,” moaned Peshwari Naan, “What a mess of madras. Yet boys will be boys. Chaps will be chaps. That is the law of the chapati.”

“Peshwari Naan.” Both the little Sags took her hand in theirs. “What will be will be. And it will, like water, passanda the bridge.”

“Ghosht!” sighed Peshwari Naan.


Super 19 School Uniform Club
By Brian Sheehan

My name is Chihiro Hoshino. I am president of the Super 19 School Uniform Club.

We are ten girls from the Shibuya District who are 19. The uniform of our club is the same uniform as our old school, Aoyama High, except we wear pink jackets instead of blue. You can change the colour of your clothes with fabric dye.

There used to be eleven girls in our club. Misao Tanabe was a member but she is no longer allowed. Last week she called my house but I pretended I was not home. Afterwards, I saw her in the park with her mother, still wearing her pink blazer. She was crying. It is difficult for her but she is 20 now. In our club you have to be 19.


Invasion, Odds Are
By Romana Guillotte

Dwight gave Steve’s sleeve a tug. “Let’s go to the attic. You promised.”

“Do you want to get electrocuted?” Steve snapped back, his voice barely above a whisper.

A huge thud above them gave the signal that the time was going to be sooner than Steve anticipated. Dwight put on his tin foil hat, sprung up and ran for the attic stairs.

“Dwight!” Steve cried after him.

Upstairs the lights didn’t work—they never do in these cases—so Steve popped his head into the attic without being able to see.

“Steve!”

Steve nearly fell down the stairs. “What!”

“He’s here!”

A bright light shone, streaming from all sides. Steve had to shield his eyes until it dimmed and a slender figure appeared.

The figure was impressive—dressed in a grey suit, his black hair slicked back, shoes perfectly shined. Oh … and his eyes didn’t match. I hoped you’ve guessed he’s an alien, because you’d take home the new car if we had the funds for it.

“Steve, Dwight. Hello.” His human accent came out English as he moved his mouth around the words, a motion that looked as if he were trying to free a popcorn kernel from between his teeth. He smiled in recovery.

Dwight smiled back. “What’s the good word?”

The alien bent down to wipe a smudge off his shoes. “Oh … invasion, odds are. But don’t worry, I plan to spare you.”

“Excellent!” Dwight said.

Screams came from the neighbors next-door.

“Can I pour you a cup of tea?” Steve asked.


 Issue 5: March 2015


IMG_4538DESERTER
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.


 Issue 6: June 2015


IMG_6658Old Jimmy
By Young Lee

Old Jimmy approaches the street corner, paper grocery bags weighing in each hand, and pushes the yellow walk button with his elbow. He has on cotton yoga pants, cut off at mid-calf, partially revealing a pair of great bass swimming upshore. The old black ink faded to a watery grey against his own scaly skin. At his sleeves, his lanky, fleshy arms have long been inked with mystical birds and masks like weathered totem poles. Inspired by past winters, hunting moose, in the South East Alaskan terrain. Ancient hieroglyphics decorate his forearms to commemorate his late wife. And the markings of Buddha, the All-Seeing Eye, the Hindu Ganesha, along with Christ seated on Jimmy’s torso, front and back. Tombstones of his past.

Old Jimmy pushes up his prescription glasses with the tip of his thumb, wiggles the blood back into his fingers. He feels faint from Bikram Yoga and hunger as the amber sun presses down on him. Through the asphalt mirage across the street, Old Jimmy discerns a young man in a vintage Jim Morrison tee shirt approaching the opposite corner. He had that shirt once, a long time ago. Remembers going to their concert. As Jimmy observes him, there is something else familiar about this young man. The manner of his walk. The way he jerks his head to throw back his long wavy bangs. Sweat runs down Jimmy’s back and he rests the bags down beside him as he rubs his tired eyes and scratches an old scar on his right cheek. Despite the heat, his fingers are cold and moist. He readjusts his glasses and studies the young man’s face as he’s retrieving something from his pocket. He regards the boy’s compulsive blinking. The exact habit he had before he got cataracts in both eyes. That arched nose reminds him of his father. And the same thin lips that purse when he sniffles. Then suddenly he notices the payphone that he entered nearly forty years ago.

Old Jimmy contemplates the young man’s pure unscarred skin, and looks down at his own left forearm. His first tattoo of a pirate ship on rolling waves. Below the ship is the swaying banner written 1/12/20 – 8/20/73.

Young Jimmy stands whistling Riders On The Storm while listening to the ringtone. It had been two months since he called home. His mother would pick up and get upset as to why he waited so long. Then she would cry as his father takes over the phone and breaks the news of his cancer.

Young Jimmy does not respond for some time. He remembers all the days when his father used to cough. The one night he saw him in the bathroom spitting blood. He recalls the days when his father got sick, then recovered after two whole weeks in bed. He thinks about why he moved out to the city. The fight they had the day before the move. The phone calls he ignored while he watched TV. He thought of all these things and then thought he had more time.

“Hey, I was thinkin. Although, your mother thinks this is a bad idea. I’ve always wanted to sail the Atlantic Ocean. When you visit this summer, I thought we could make plans to go. Just you and me. What’dya say?”

“Yea dad. Let’s do it.”

They sailed for 10 days. Sunburnt with five o’clock shadows. Manned the sails during light and resting on their backs just before sunset. A beer in each hand, they spoke lightly, never mentioning the cancer. Mostly they yielded in silence to the majestic sky above them.

On the last day, Jimmy’s fishing line snatched on a brisk wind, and swung around to catch his right salty cheek. He bled. They laughed. Partly delirious from the buoyant voyage. The longest time they’ve spent in proximity.

“Now you’re a real man, pretty boy,” his father will say, pouring whiskey over Jimmy’s wound and applying gauze to his cheek. It would be the last time his father took care of him.

Old Jimmy waits. Five seconds counting down. The bags slightly trembling in his hands. The breeze slips in between the spaces of his fingers, cooling them. The walk sign takes its turn and both old and young Jimmy step onto the quiet and empty street as the summer wind blows past them.


Country House
By Lisa Gordon

Madonna lives in an abandoned barn on Ceb’s property. She dances in there. The situation essentially came out of nowhere. He heard thumping one day, and went to investigate. He knocked, and there she was. It took him a second to recognize her, but that gap between the two front teeth was hard to forget. She put a finger to her lips and then waved another finger in front of her face, as if to say, “shhhh”, or maybe it was “no”, and she smiled a sly smile before she shut the door.

(He can’t actually hear her dancing, of course—the barn is several paces away—and yet, the thought of light whispers of feet drawn across the sawdusty floor keeps him up at night.)

She was her younger self. The short, chopped hair with the bad roots, the lacy fingerless gloves and bulky denim jacket. Of course, Ceb didn’t really notice these details at the time, but when he went inside and went online and Googled Madonna, he thought, yes, it’s her. How strange. He never really liked her music, but his daughter did, so he’s glad for that. Then he fixed a grilled cheese, perfectly crisping the outsides of the bread, the way his daughter used to like it, and brought it to the front door. He knocked once, left it on the ground, and walked away. When he looked back, it was gone.

He picked up the phone to call his daughter, even though he knew she wouldn’t believe him. Her name was Lina, and she lived in San Francisco with her sometimes boyfriend. She worked at a bank doing things Ceb didn’t really understand, and he didn’t ask, because he didn’t want to seem like he didn’t understand. She also wasn’t really his daughter. She was his sister’s daughter, but she, along with her family, were in an accident. Lina became his at the age of 8. But she did call him Pops; a small victory.

“Pops,” she said, a flurry of traffic noise in the background. “Heading to work, what’s up?”

“Nevermind,” Ceb said. “Go on.”

She was always in a hurry, even as a child. What would he have said, anyway? Do you like Madonna? She would have called him crazy. He knows how she sees him, but what’s a man his age to do about it?

Still, he wished he had someone to tell.

A few days went by. Ceb did everything he normally did—painted, read the paper, sat on the porch—but now, he had one extra thing: cooking for two. He found himself paying extra attention to what he made. He made his chicken picatta, he made eggs florentine. He’d always liked cooking, but when Lina moved out, it was too depressing to do it all just for himself. He listened to Madonna’s music. Quietly, just in case she could hear. He didn’t really like it, but he felt it was something he ought to do. Her voice wasn’t particularly enjoyable, but he liked that she had something to say. At least it seemed that way, back in the 80s.

The plates were returned, clean, always. He wanted to ask her what she liked, but didn’t know how to go about doing that. He was trying to be respectful of her space, and didn’t want to overstep his bounds. He decided to leave a slip of paper with the next meal, where he listed several menu items:

pork loin with cranberry sauce,
whole wheat pasta with sausage,
salmon with lemon rice.

He included that all ingredients were purchased from the local market—fresh as could be. That night, he could barely sleep. In the morning, along with the clean plate, he found the piece of paper, ripped very carefully around the pork loin option. It was a kind of excitement—the kind that came with purpose—that fueled his new energy. He shopped with a smile on his face, and set about his cooking that afternoon. He saved the extra rosemary for another dish—surely he’d need it. He saved the extra cranberry mash in a mason jar—maybe that could be used for something. He plated carefully, arranging the meat tastefully, drizzling the sauce as decoration. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was something. He set the plates on the counter, remembering the linen napkins tucked away in a closet somewhere, not having been used in years. He thought he remembered them having thick blue stripes. Yes, he thought—they’ll be perfect.

When he returned to the kitchen, Lina was there. She was bent over, inspecting the plates, bemused.

“How did you know?” she asked. “That I was coming?”

“Hello there,” he said. He stood wringing the napkins stupidly in his hands.

“Haven’t seen those in years,” she said, then began opening drawers, setting the table.
“I felt bad,” she continued. “When you called the other day. I’m always too busy, aren’t I? I missed the quiet of this place. It’s what people who live in the city yearn for, and to think, I’ve had it all this time.”

“Always here,” Ceb said. He couldn’t believe that something he’d wanted for so long was coming true now, after all this time. He watched her, looking for changes. Her clothes looked expensive.

Lina unfolded the napkins. “This was for me, wasn’t it?” she asked.

“Actually—” he began.

“Beer!” she cried out. “This would be great with beer.”

“Actually—”

“Pops?” Her head was all the way in. She pushed aside the heaping bounty. “What’s all this? Do you have—?”

This was the moment. As he walked, he placed the napkin over the plate to keep it warm. There there, he thought, admiring it for moment before straightening up and heading back. Lina watched him from the kitchen window. He hoped she could stay long enough for him to make something else.


IMG_6558Fairness Is Just a Word
By Paul Beckman

Don’t wait. Do it now. You might not be able to do it later. You never know.

Take your time. Think about the consequences first. You can always come back and do it later.

My parents gave me conflicting advice over the years and now I’m conflicted. I haven’t seen them in the two years they’ve been in prison but I do correspond occasionally and they still give me advice and of course it’s still conflicting.

Don’t turn your back on people. Stand up to a bully first thing or the bullying will get worse. If someone asks you to share, offer to trade.

Use your time to improve your mind. Read and write. Keep to yourself as much as possible. Only make friends with people in power.

I’m living in a foster home until I’m eighteen and then I’m on my own. None of my parents’ relatives who I wanted to take me in would have me, and the ones who would have me I didn’t want to be with. No one wanted me out of the goodness of their heart. They wanted me to quit school and work, hustle, steal or to be a farm hand. There were other choices—none better.

I wanted to be with the doctor’s family or the teachers’ or my aunt and uncle who worked in a factory. They were afraid I’d corrupt their kids and taint their lives when all I wanted was to be in a safe place.

This foster home is not a safe place. I’m with this family who take in foster kids as a way of making money. I have lots of chores and rules and don’t get any allowance but I am allowed to work for spending money as long as I give them half.

My parents get out in a year and a half but I won’t be allowed to live with them or see them unsupervised, not that I have any great desire mind you. It doesn’t seem fair they’ll get out before I do. I have two years left until I’m eighteen.


Aging
By Joshua Bohnsack

Working in the shop, with all these seventy-something, degenerating people eating their large twist cones at 2 in the afternoon, makes me worry about my own mortality, like when two elderly customers know each other and make small talk, makes me wonder if we’ll break apart and grow up, then fifty years later, I’ll be waiting for some teenage girl to make me a large twist cone and you’ll walk through the door, just as my wrinkled palm grasps the cone, I notice your cane, and try to gaze into your eyes to see if they are the same shade of green, but can’t really tell, because you’re wearing those big, dark sunglasses that cover your eyeglasses as you drive, and I’ll recall how blind you were when we met and wonder if you got that semi-corrective surgery, which technically hasn’t been invented yet, because this scenario is fifty years in the future, and your dark brown hair has so many strands of silver and mine has been turning grey since I was 19, so the color on my head had long since past, and we’ll stop for a second and exchange “hellos” and “how-about-this weathers” and I’ll try to straighten my spine, because you always said I was too short, and I’ll ask if you still sing and I hope you say yes, but I know we will be in different towns and I’ll be wishing for this the next fifty years.


Oil
By Zohar Teshartok

Beer-Hail, a temporary community settlement, was founded in 1981 in the Negev area. Until 1989 it contained 15 families living in provisional housing. Today 80 families live there.

There are no secrets in Beer-Hail, the community settlement in which I live with my family. Romi and I run around the rooms of our empty house, playing chase. After the clearing contractors emptied the house of its contents, we can even play ball without anybody shouting at us to stop.

Yedidya is crying on the wet balcony. My mother tries to feed him in vain. He refuses to eat without his TV program. On Tuesday people from the Cable Company came to disconnect the TV and Yedidya has not stopped crying ever since.

Eli, our contractor, gave Romi and me sweets and told mother that it was a good thing they found the oil that they’d been seeking for a long time, while he went from room to room deciding which wall to demolish, as they had done in our neighbor’s house. I don’t know why oil is so important. The sweets did not taste good.

To get our things out of the house as easily as possible, the contractor broke the wall in the living room. It rained at night and the rain made puddles in the living room and our game of chase became a really wet game in which it was forbidden to catch the person standing in the puddle.

I jumped into the puddle in the living room a second before Romi could catch me. Through the demolished wall we saw our neighbors eating breakfast and the girls from the National Service distributing flyers and promising that the Sing Song would take place this evening in the Community Center yard, and Amiel, the postman, trying to distribute the last letters in spite of the rain. Romi and I waved him farewell.

On the evening of the opening of the Center, I stood near the entrance gate shaped like wings, and offered sweets to the guests. Romi helped me to hold the basket and offered sweets mainly to herself. Now the large gate was lying on the wet ground.

The balcony is silent, Yedidya is sitting on Amiel’s lap and mother is feeding him with a spoon. There are no secrets in Beer-Hail. Romi and I are still running around in the rooms of the house.


Hallowed Place
By Carina McNally

The light that once danced through the tall branches of the trees was now encapsulated in mist. An ear cocked to the damp undergrowth hears the laughter of the missing child pulsating through the gloom of the souls it now resides with. The leaves whisper even in the absence of wind, speaking in Gaelic, the language of ancestors who once ruled the plants; perhaps lamenting a lost tongue, a lost soul of a land now pervaded by a higher culture of stars and banners and glossy chattels. Possibly one considers, the child is better off lost in the woods, a domicile of wattle, safe with still a sense of place.


IMG_8298An Incident of Note
By Paul Gray

It is the consulting room of Dr. Henry Jekyll. The great man sits at his desk, writing, his patient alongside. ‘This sick note,’ the Dr. muses. His voice is well modulated, deep, and vaguely hypnotic—the better for putting patients at their ease. ‘How long should I make it out for?’ His patient ponders. ‘Oh, shall we say five, maybe six … years?’ ‘Of course, no trouble at all,’ beams the medic with cordiality that has become a by-word and made him the most popular physician in London. ‘I’ll just sign it … ’ But as the signature is appended a series of terrible shudderings wracks the Dr. and, before his patient can blink, there sits before him Dr. Jekyll’s alter-ego, the evil Mr. Hyde. ‘There is your note,’ hisses this hairy, stunted travesty of a man. ‘Take it and get out!’

The patient eyes the form critically. ‘This is no good,’ he says. ‘It isn’t signed by a doctor.’

‘Do you dare take issue with ME?!’ hisses Mr. Hyde. His fingers double into murderous clubs, his bullet head sinks aggressively between his scrawny shoulders, and his sticky brown fangs clash audibly at such temerity.

‘It must be signed by a registered doctor,’ insists the man. ‘This says “Edward Hyde”.’

‘SO?!’

‘It won’t be accepted.’

For long seconds Mr. Hyde glares at the man opposite, his lips champing murderously. Then, as though some last vestige of the kindly doctor still resides within the depths of the monster’s soul and has called upwards, Hyde relents. ‘Oh very well!’ he screeches.

Mr. Hyde leaps up and with curious ape-like motions shambles across the surgery to where a trestle table stands laden with beakers and chemicals. A curtain is viciously drawn. There comes the sound of a preparation being frantically mixed and the air is suddenly noxious with the taint of stinging reagent. There follows the sound of a man guzzling. A series of frightful howls issues forth and a beaker audibly crashes to the tiles. Then the curtain is ripped aside, revealing once more the suave, handsome, and lightly perspiring form of the good doctor.

‘Sorry about that,’ he smiles walking unsteadily to his swivel chair. ‘I keep losing control of the transformation. Now this sick note.’

He begins filling out a fresh form. Abruptly he ceases and glances mischievously at his patient. ‘You’re probably fairly confused about what just happened,’ he twinkles, an impish smile playing about his lips. ‘But it’s really quite straightforward. Have I ever told you about my little … experiment?’

‘Yes.’

His patient’s boredom notwithstanding, the doctor continues. ‘It all began a year ago when I realised that man is not truly one but truly two.’

‘I know. You tell all your patients. Now, about this sick note …’

But the doctor has entered a reverie and is quite indisposed. His eyes are gleaming away into the distance and his quill pen taps absently on his teeth. ‘Little by little it dawned upon me that certain reagents were to hand—here, in this laboratory—which, if harnessed might well rip aside that fragile veil separating the dual personalities residing in each of us. But what would I find? What indeed?’

The doctor shudders; his face darkens as at some terrible memory. The patient tugs at his moustache somewhat impatiently; somewhere in the creative cavities of his brain an idea is stirring … a story. He shrugs it aside for later consideration.

The Dr. resumes. ‘So it was that I laid my plans. Some, like that fool Lanyon down the corridor, mocked my research, called me a heretic if you please! But I cared not. One night I prepared the fateful tincture. I drank …’

‘Please!’

The doctor blinks back to his good self. ‘Hmmm?’

‘My form!’

‘Oh yes … of course. Can’t think what came over me. You shall have it at once. Mr. … Mr. … ’

‘Stevenson,’ the other replies and there is a hint of pride in the voice. ‘Robert Louis Stevenson.’

‘Ah yes … ’

No sooner, however, has the Dr. complied when he is wracked for the second time.

‘Hello, Mr. Hyde,’ sighs the patient. The pen, which has not paused for an instant, drops from the simian grip. ‘Take it and get out of my sight!’

The patient shakes his head. ‘It’s still no good.’

‘What is it now, you little cretin?’

‘You’ve done it again, written it in one hand and signed it in another. They’ll think it’s a forgery.’

‘Do not try me too highly, little man!’

‘Look,’ the man perseveres, ‘why not take the form to the cabinet and fill it in as the transformation back takes place?’

It is an excellent suggestion and even Hyde cannot reasonably quibble. Even so … the man-monster seems on the verge of apoplexy, the very foam upon his lips. Once more the spark of goodness within that ape-like breast asserts itself, though it is a close-run thing. Pausing only to shatter his desk with a single blow, he snatches a fresh form and bolts for the alcove.

Once again the curtain is drawn. Once again comes the pungent reek of chemicals. The aural performance is repeated. New screams rend the air. Then—another sound is heard: the frantic scratch of quill upon paper. ‘Success!’ The curtain swishes aside and there stands Jekyll, deadly pale, perspiring insanely, but with the completed form brandished in his hand.

And then—tragedy! The repeated infusions of poisonous chemicals have wreaked havoc upon the Dr.’s heart.

‘Aaaargggh!’

But even as he sinks to the parquet flooring he is not exempt from the curse. The shudders consume him and he is, for the final time, Mr. Hyde.

Appalled, the patient dashes across, making sure to seize the completed form before kneeling beside the stricken creature.

‘Is there anything I can do?’ he babbles. ‘Anything I can get you?’

Seconds from death, Mr. Hyde rolls up one leathery eyelid. ‘How about a doctor?’ he gurgles.


The Sudden Decompression at Waterloo Station
By Eugenio Eustace

As way of description, he was a man who had once purchased—and indeed lay for—a stamp-like tattoo that ran in black across his left buttock. One that read ‘Do what you love. Love what you do’ in a big, basic typeface. As if the decision was more practical than anything.

His mother was furious of course—when told, six years after the fact. She’d always warned him what she’d do, should he graffiti himself like that. Not that her promised ranting and raving got to him all that much—or at all. God blessed you with a lovely body she’d occasionally say, in words to that effect. Broad shouldered, like your father. So imagine her ire, matched only by this man’s actively reaffirmed indifference. She genuinely didn’t speak to him for two weeks. A reaction this man told his wife was symptomatic of the problem. His wife had seen his tattoo many times of course, and disliked its aesthetics almost as much as his mother hated its concept. But conceptually it meant a lot to him, and therefore a lot to her. Even if it did once feature on a Pros/Cons list, rustled up in a Wetherspoon’s with friends and wine, some dark time.

He’d been an illustrator back then, and despite his wife’s steady employment as a primary school teacher money was always an issue. His regular visits to local brothels didn’t help matters. As such there were a few other women about town who knew about his tattoo. He often worried about its uniqueness, and the subsequent potential it offered for street-level identification, should one of the many he had been behind wish to out him—should they bump into, or track down, his wife. She was the only one who knew, as far as he knew, apart from them. So he was always extra courteous, as he figured who could wrong a nice—a kind—man. He was in no position to tip though. And he constantly worried about whether his usage of their joint bank account was impeding his wife’s. Or whether his treatment for a bad back and all the massages it entailed—some of which he technically attended—was enough to happily fool her.

She somewhat resented him, on the sly, for where his artistic ambition, in rhetoric at least, had led them. She thought the massages were a bit much, and offered to do them herself, and secretly swotted up after work on her laptop, sat across from him on the sofa, legs intertwined. She learned all she could about pressure points, and where they were, and how to expertly manipulate them in service of health and wellbeing. That was before, of course, she did a bit of extracurricular research, to keep things lively. In covering her tracks she occasionally came across her husband’s Internet history, but took it in jolly faith and usually used it as research, to be implemented, where practically possible. She secretly judged him, if anything, for his carelessness. Or maybe, she thought, he didn’t care, and was just taking a rather relaxed attitude to the whole thing. Which was entirely possible she thought, as, you know—the tattoo. In matters of carelessness the tattoo seemed to sway things that way, you see. To the conclusion of possible prattishness. To the conclusion that her husband, even after all these years of knowing and loving him, may in fact, be a prat. And this worried her more than it should. And only manifested as something at all positive when the wife herself was being a problem—in her own words and by her own admission. And when she was a problem she considered her problem pairing a perfect match. And therefore any prolonged periods of sanity proved to be problematic, relationship-wise. At which point the tattoo, and all it represented, sometimes became too much to bear. Which sent her on a downward trajectory, sanity-wise. Which inevitably evened the score.

There was a lot of hugging. And eventually the cumulative effect of the hugging, the years, and the genuinely held and felt love that he had for her cooled him. He took up a sensible job in the city, and wore a tie to work. He decided that he would give it all up and ground himself, if you will.

So it surprised him as much as anyone when there was a catastrophic atmospheric event, and a train’s worth of commuters were sent flying out of the open doors at Waterloo like the carriage had just depressurised. The coroner’s report said he had died from overwhelming blunt force trauma. The first response crew had scraped him—and the hundreds of others that didn’t make it through the ceiling and out into London—from off of the ceiling and walls.


Tamara’s Wish
By Zohar Teshartok

Tamara finished eating her supper in the living room, watching her favorite TV program, The Great Migration: the Wonderful Flight of the Birds. She was allowed to eat in the living room only when she stayed alone at home.

The program came to an end. Tamara tried to read the illustrated Book of Fairies and to color the red-winged beetle in the booklet, but the noise outside prevented her from concentrating, and the crayons remained scattered on the living room table. Tamara looked at the message left by her parents: `We went out with friends, we won’t be late, there is food in the refrigerator and don’t forget to wash your hands.’ She wanted them to return home already.

Suddenly she heard a voice near the house and ran to the window to see if it was her parents’ car, but what she saw was a large vehicle, unknown to her, and people in uniform approaching her house. The people in uniform went up to the third floor and Tamara was frightened when she heard them knocking and ringing the bell of the Tal family’s flat. ‘I would love to join the migrating birds and fly far away with them,’ she thought to herself.

She increased the volume of the TV in order to hush up the noise from the staircase, and ran to her room, the only place that was safe (where she felt safe). In her room there was a fairy and a goldfish; once the fairy had helped her drive away an evil ghost who tried to enter the room through the open window.

The knocking at the door turned louder and Tamara hurried to hide under her bed. In her hiding place, with closed eyes, she smacked her tongue, pulled her ears – once the right ear and twice the left – and, holding the blanket over her head, she whispered, ‘Gold fish, gold fish, take me far way now.’

When she opened her eyes she almost fell off the back of the fish. She immediately took hold of its fins trying not to look down. Around her was a group of animals carrying little boys and girls on their backs. She saw a lion with a golden mane and a red-haired boy hiding inside it. Aviv was sleeping quietly on the back of a tortoise, and a moment before the injection at the dentist’s, he knocked twice on its shell. Tamara knew some of the children from the neighborhood who had joined the trip, and they waved their hands to each other. A fairy led the troupe through green and orange pastures. All the children clapped their hands when they saw the snowy crest of a high mountain over which they passed. Tamara felt much more secure with her friends on the journey. Suddenly she noticed the amusement park and the mountain train passing through it. The fairy bid the members of the troupe to proceed in a column, head to tail, on passing the narrow mountain crossing, on the way to the park. Before landing in the park, the goldfish moved carefully among the tree tops and Tamara bent her back so as not to get hurt by the thorny branches.

On raising herself, she was slightly hit by the base of the bed under which she was hiding. She checked what was going on and listened to the voices around her. The goldfish was swimming in circles in the aquarium in her room, and the fairy doll was resting at its side. No noise was heard except for the TV in the living room; no knockings at the neighbor’s door and no sound of steps on the staircase.

Tamara ran to the window to see if the large vehicle was still standing in the street, but all she saw was a green frog for recycling the garbage, and street cats. After lowering the volume of the TV she collected some of the crayons scattered on the table and began coloring a wish-tree. She painted its leaves in gold.


IMG_8654Snowy Mess
By Francesca Baker

It was like walking on subtle vibrations, a tremor underfoot as each flake of snow melted on the touch of her boot’s sole. The overall effect to a bystander might have been ‘crunch crunch’ but it felt much softer to her stride.

She turned back to see the foot shaped depressions in the snowy carpet. The driveway stretching ahead looked long and clear, the cathedral arches of trees weaving over the serene landscape. Dazzling white snow blinded her, its purity making her feel dirty and wrong. It was so beautiful. So natural. So real.

A tear started to form.

She stiffened her jaw as she silently admonished herself. This soft crap was just the drink talking. She needed to sleep it off, then this feeling would pass. This twisting, violent rush of anxious anger that was welling up inside her, like knives rioting in her stomach, thrashing itself against every atom of her body and ready to splurge out—all over the clean, white, snow.

Must. Not. Make. A. Mess.

Like she always did. Because that’s what she was. A mess. A big fucking mess. And for no good reason. School was easy, the best education on offer and a quick mind to absorb it. Mum and dad loved her, and gave her everything she wanted. They argued a bit, but mostly seemed to have some blissful dynamic. The grand fairytale house in the countryside, her four-poster bed stationed loftily in the front room, waiting for her, at the end of the pristine driveway.

But – she didn’t belong here.

Her head started to swirl, the dazzle of the snow like glitter in eyes. The tab Jared gave her was kicking in. Teetering on the side of her feet, she watched the world begin to shimmer, dilating in crystalline beauty. She moved to the delicate branches of the tree, at the tiny icicles suspended upon them, so close as if to try to see the intricate and unique formations. They looked as soft as feathers. As brittle as a heart. If she touched them they would wither away.

Putting a gloved hand to her mouth to stop her warm breath melting the beautiful frozen water away she began to cry again.

Must. Not. Make. A. Mess.

She lay down. Her hair immediately became wet, and she shivered and spasmed as the cold jarred her nerves. She just wanted it all to go away. Before she tainted things any more.

The tab wore off. The drunk feeling passed. She saw the glistening purity of the frozen landscape in front of her. She did not know whether she was alive or dead.


How Your Daughter Died
By Ronnie O’Toole

I don’t think you know me proper. They call me Chase. I work in the post-room down the corridor from you. I’m always in an Arsenal jersey.

It was me that took that book from your desk, the book about your daughter. I’m real sorry. If I’d seen the cover I’d never have took it. But people are allowed to pick up books from desks, aren’t they? You can’t read other people’s screens or answer their phones or lean back in their chairs. But if you see a book on a desk it’s okay to just pick it up and read the cover, I seen people do it. That’s all I did.

It was the picture on the cover that stopped me. Those girls looking so sad even though you couldn’t see their faces, so white, like a feather would knock them down. Ghosts.

I stared at it so long I thought someone must have seen me, so I put it on the trolley under the envelopes. The second I got to the post-room I hid it in my duffle bag and then decided: it’s the weekend, I’ll bring it back Monday. That was my plain intention.

And I read it. All Saturday, kept it by my bed, read every last page. The things they go through, them girls. The way their bodies change, they stop talking, their periods go messy. Yellow skin, did she have that? Lumbago. I had to look it up. I cried for her.

Then I had another plan. That I wanted to see her, to be close to her. To see where you lived and what she was like. See what stage she was at. It’s easy to get someone’s address when you work in the post-room.

But she wasn’t there, nor you. Just your wife hanging washing, and a boy playing football against a wall. So I left the book where I thought just you would find it. In the shed. Couldn’t leave a book like that just anywhere. Living with Anorexia. You wouldn’t know who knew and who didn’t.

So when I heard she was gone I cried all night. Thinking of what you’d all gone through. Horrible. I won’t be at the funeral but I’ll be thinking about you. And her.

I bet she was pretty.

Chase


The Breakout
By Charles D. Tarlton

He had a hard time deciding what to pack. What do you take when you are leaving for good? The thought occurred to him briefly that he could always come back later for whatever he forgot today, but his mind refused the idea. He was going now forever.

Stuff accumulates, then you clean house, throw things away, and begin accumulating again. That’s what all these possessions represented, habitual accumulations, nothing that couldn’t be replaced, would be replaced, and had always been replaced. He chose the smaller of the suitcases.

He put his suitcase down on the porch, held the screen door open with his elbow, and used both hands to close and first lock and then unlock the front door. He shrugged and picked up the suitcase again and the screen door closed behind him with a click as he turned and walked to the waiting cab.

He’d made the final decision to leave only this morning, but it was a long time coming. He’d packed up and left in his imagination a thousand times before, but then she would come into the room, say something to him, and the bubble would pop. “Dinner is ready,” he could imagine her calling to him today. She’d go back to the kitchen, grow impatient and come looking for him, but he’d be gone.

As the cab pulled out into traffic he felt a faraway tinge of something and wondered if it was guilt or what. Ah, but he dismissed it. He was escaping from a life sentence, after all. Still, he felt another quick spasm. Times like these even the strongest resolve might waver a little, but what the hell. He dismissed it again; no way he was going back.

He didn’t have a physical ticket, he realized, as the cab came to a stop at the airport. He only had the page ripped from the tablet by the phone where he had scrawled “EU59968T99SVU”. He assumed the airline would know this was proof he’d paid for a flight to Santa Fe, but if not, he could always show them the charge on his card. “Stop worrying,” he told himself.

He was walking away from his share of the house, the car, the investments and the bank accounts (except for a little one he’d opened in his own name months ago). That would help make up for what he was doing. No one could say he’d left her high and dry. She had the house, the car, and the money. He had his freedom, if this shaky feeling inside was what it felt like being free.

Passengers were lining up to get on the plane. It was six o’clock and he’d be in Santa Fe by midnight. No, wait a minute, that would be midnight New York time, Santa Fe would be two hours earlier, only 10 p.m. He wondered if they would give him dinner on the plane.

He got into Santa Fe with hardly a bump. The dinner had not been very good, so he was looking forward to something from room service at the hotel. He took another cab there (two in one day, a record) but he went to bed instead of ordering more dinner. He closed the drapes in the room and fell asleep. He slept all night and awoke exhausted in the morning.

He wasn’t certain at first where he was when he woke up, though, and he was frightened for some reason. “You picked up and left her for good,” he said to himself, but it didn’t sound so wonderful somehow. He looked over at his little suitcase with his few pitiful things spilling out. He was sweaty and the strange room depressed him.

The phone rang and he froze. How could she know where he was? The phone rang again and slowly he answered it. “Hello?” he said, but it was just the front desk with his wakeup call and reminding him breakfast was being served in the lobby. “Fine, thanks,” he said, and hung up.

He took a shower, but his hands were actually shaking when he tried to shave. He could feel a kind of high frequency vibration inside his arms and legs. He felt sick, had some diarrhea, took another shower, and then just sat trembling on the end of the bed in his underwear.

His whole body had become heavy and slow, from the inside out, and his stomach actually hurt. Something was twisting him into knots and he had trouble just sitting still. He paced furiously and, then, without really thinking, he stopped and stood very still in the middle of the room. He was like stone for a second, and then just as suddenly he got dressed, stuffed the rest of his things into the suitcase, looked around the room, and went out. The housekeeper’s cart was in the hall and he squeezed by it on his way to the elevator.

He was lurching back and forth miserably while the doorman hailed him a taxi. “The airport,” he said as he crawled into the cab. He fidgeted the whole way, impatient to do what—he didn’t really know. He had to go back and fix things, he kept saying to himself, and then just once out loud, “It’ll be all right!”

He was in another taxi, pulling up in front of his own house. He got out and looked up at the windows, then paid the driver. As he came up the front steps carrying his little suitcase, the screen door swung open and she was standing there, holding it open with her elbow, a funny look on her face. “What is wrong with you?” she asked, her voice just a little harder than usual.


IMG_6579The Third Gender
By Camillus John

Stephen Roche didn’t take drugs in the same way post-modern Rugby players don’t take steroids, in the same way I don’t, for it’s a communion with a bicycle I didn’t understand. Like I didn’t understand electronic dance music until I got inside the liquid wheel. Until Lenny my bicycle, the bicycle that can lick your mind out, licked my mind out.

I cycled up the Greenhills Road every day to my job with the hole in the Donut Factory at the top of the hill, my skirt and hair trailing in the breeze. Cycle to work. Cycle home. Ad nauseam. My bike just transport. One dimensional. No gender. Until I listened to the druggy rumours in world commentary. Doctor Scream. I got excited. As Bono would say, “I haven’t been this excited since seeing the Dutch tax rate for non-residents for the very first time.”

Halfway up the ascent I have to stop, too tired, too wretched. Feet on the ground. I hear a voice, a beacon clad in Lycra, don’t ride the bike, let the bike ride you. So I relent when I see the length of tongue coming out the saddle at me. From off this proffered tongue I take and swallow the tab, the Donut Hole, put my feet to the pedals and pump steaming pistons up the hill again.

Lenny is now my bicycle and just as I imagine I can’t get any stronger, his tongue—my steroid and I decide that Lenny is a he—his tongue rams itself up my nostrils, probes deep into my head and licks my mind out. And there it is—there—with my body being synthetically re-sequenced into thumping bass-lines. Beyond interpretation. But everyone should interpret cycling for themselves as long as they vote yes in the referendum for the legalisation of steroids in the workplace for all hard-working families.

Lenny’s wheels, vinyl records spinning in black, break-beating at hardcore speeds. I intensify with the energy rush. Pour my liquid mind and liquid body into Lenny’s two liquid wheels. I’m right inside cycling, the cool core of existence. Buzzing like paired-thin electrical wires. I am a he too, for the moment, I decide.

The bicycle reaches the very peak of the hill, time-stretching, and lifts off into the blue sky towards the sun. The sun, which today, is a ring donut frosted in pink and sprinkled with white icing-sugar.

Our thighs thunder, our calves lightning, we cycle through the hole in the dead-centre of our donut-sun. We yearn for rewind after rewind after rewind. For cycling without the mask. The quintessence. All psyched up and ready to work more efficiently at the Donut Factory; harder, faster, stronger—as long as we get our soma.

Rugby players can legally stamp, spike and grievous-bodily-harm their fellow human beings on pitch yet cyclists have to illegally commune with God on bike looking over their shoulders constantly for the dope-testers, pedalling scared. But now that the Minister has said that it’s going to be in the water in higher dosages, when the referendum passes, riding past from Italy, I’m as thrilled as my local GP, Doctor Smoked Salmon, when he sees sick babies in his surgery. He says, “I don’t see sick babies, I see fifty pound notes.”

But I don’t see sick babies, I see the new kinaesthetic intelligence. A third gender. As pregnant as Molly Bloom’s last, as yet unrealised, yes, in Ulysses. Our baby’s due in November, stabilisers on the future. As Madonna said, “So good, I threw my husband out the window.” No need to reinvent the wheel. Just keep it spinning.


Floorboards
By Tracy Sweeney

I loved our house from the very first moment that we crossed the threshold. My mother always told me that old houses have character. And this one was no exception. The floorboards creaked as we climbed the stairs, the windows rattled with every gust of wind and the radiator hissed angry bursts of squealing steam. In the winter I wore scratchy wool socks to bed, and in the summer I blew out the circuit breakers running both an air conditioner and a fan to keep cool. Our house had character—it was just really pissed off.

But I didn’t mind. Well, most of the time. There were those nights when I was alone. But I wasn’t supposed to be alone. The nights I stared at the clock incredulously, waiting for the scratch of a key against the door. Waiting for the sounds the house was missing. Just waiting. And when I’d finally feel the house shake as the door slammed shut, I’d hold my breath expecting the shrill sound of an alarm being fed a clumsy code. And if we were lucky and the alarm didn’t sound, I’d listen for footsteps. Would they continue on to the living room stopping at the couch, or would I hear those floorboards I loved so much creaking under the weight of someone who should have been home hours ago. And if the floorboards didn’t creak (oh please, don’t creak), I’d fall asleep more alone than before.

On those nights, our house wasn’t the only one really pissed off.

Not all of the time. When it was quiet and I had nothing to do but burrow under the lush covers, I swear I could hear the house settling around me. It was my own private lullaby—the house’s way of making me feel safe, welcomed, protected. Those were the best nights.

But when I finally stopped waiting for the scratchy sound of the key against the door. When I changed the combination to the alarm. When it was quiet and still and our house was just my house—the creaking, the rattling, the hissing—were deafening. I’d drown out the sounds with ear plugs, music, white noise machines. Anything to escape. I couldn’t bear it.

Until I was sick of the ear plugs, the music, the creepy white noise. I stopped and listened to the sounds of the house once again. The floorboards creak, the windows rattle and the radiator hisses angry bursts of squealing steam.

I love everything about this house. It has character and it’s mine.


After Copernicus
By Nels Hanson

The heavy locked safe, enclosed by three lead-lined steel boxes, was lowered down the deepest shaft of Earth’s most penetrating mine, the moment the leaking Ohio train car reached the army base not marked on any map or named in public documents.

Still the shielded light escaped, the powerful rays attracting awakened night creatures – a thousand owls, and bats diving blind, through waves of Gypsy moths suddenly thick as gathered starlings.

A darker place was needed, a scientist said, so men wearing black-visored helmets lifted the container with the crane. On its chained hook, the metal cube weighed tons, but held less than one full pound.

The unknown substance had fallen from the sky, found yesterday by the boy in Cleveland near his backyard swing. His mother had feared he’d caught fire playing with matches and gasoline, before she saw the glow encasing him came from something in his hand.

She made him drop it in the grass, then called 911 and authorities arrived and took possession of the suspected meteor.

Now packs of dogs raced antlered deer, chasing the tarped truck rushing from the mineshaft to the harbor and a fast ship in readiness, just in case …

A nuclear destroyer, pursued by harbor seals and two Greenpeace cutters equipped with cameras, steamed for the South Pacific, destination the Mariana Trench, its abysmal floor 35,000 feet below the surface, a mile deeper than Everest is high and almost as cold.

On dazzling TV screens, the world watched as the square cargo fell like a streaking shooting star, into water flaring to a cyclone funnel of light.

Alarms and sonar warning horns blared. Birds, fish and whales, arriving from every compass point, behaved erratically. Shearwaters plunged and tiger sharks, jaws clamped tight, overtook blue schools of tuna and dolphins diving for the abandoned gold.

The aura kept propagating, in rings like ripples from a boulder, tsunami tides of photons widening, blazing on the globe’s dull shores as now everything appeared lit from within, no longer just reflecting light.

We saw the dark sea turn the palest turquoise green of shallow ocean within an island reef, and something changed inside us. Utter silence, no bird sang, then shouts and cries rebounded from house to house, enemies hurried to embrace and weep, and strangers recognized their friends. People gave belongings away, until those in need were overburdened and looked for others to share their treasure.

No one was certain what the new fire was or how it worked, except that all the lonely found love and any love already living was multiplied.

“Is the Pharaoh’s Ship of the Sun returned and voyaging, the great bonfire on a royal raft rowed by ghostly oarsmen, the Grateful Dead?” one scholar asked on television.

“No, the fearful Rapture’s finally begun,” a preacher answered.

“Event Horizon,” a physicist countered.

Another said, “The Hidden Imam has revealed himself.”

The cargo was retrieved, the craft coiling miles of cable, sailing tepidly through water boiling with life, milling terrapin, rare giant squid, floating transparent jellies like glass fishing floats, inside them luminescent clouds in clear-domed skies.

The prow parted brimming silver anchovies and sardines, slowly as an arctic breaker prods a trail in ice. The hull became a sieve shooting glowing spears, the armored hold alive with a hedgehog’s ball of golden spines too bright to watch for long.

We walked in a different light and forgot the ship sailed on, unaware the captain had received new orders and alerted all hands.

India and Africa abaft, Atlantic to Cape Canaveral, the destroyer picked up speed, faster than any fish could swim or ship could follow, and soon made port in Florida and was unloaded, the weighty fire delivered by flashing motorcade.

The veteran NASA crew was waiting in asbestos suits, with hoods of executioners and welders’ black goggles. In padded gloves they transferred the safe within the lead-lined boxes to the puffing rocket and retreated quickly down the brilliant gantry.

Our planet’s citizens were still dancing in the streets when the black ten-story missile secretly blasted for space, the circle of its burners eclipsed by the payload’s growing shine, as if the object could feel or think and its light grew stronger as it realized it wasn’t wanted on Earth.

Then it was away and the trouble started – the late afternoon grew brighter, at dusk stars and the moon blanched out like the sun when it set, and a different morning came. Everyone stopped and wondered, went home and locked their doors, to listen to the news and stare at the early brightness at the curtained window.

Over shocked horizons, had a new sun been born? Evening didn’t come, that day or any another, and the exuberant and thankful became increasingly disturbed. Many prayed for darkness, blamed others or the government, picked fights and cheated, committed crimes, demanded back their prized possessions.

Finally, days becoming weeks, a constellated night returned, the flame gone out in the far vastness of deep space, a match dropped down a well. There were Orion, the Dippers, the Pleiades, secure and distant, and the white moon again, and our milder sun!

We were glad as hungry nocturnal animals in Alaska’s waning summertime. At last the blinding substance from the Cleveland boy’s backyard, the heart-shaped stone appearing one noon, from who knows where, why no one knows, was bound into the void and we were saved, the emergency ended, as we were now informed.

World leaders met, and afterward our president addressed the nation:

“No longer vulnerable to the burning passion to live only for love, we can rest assured that our planet is stable and will not illuminate again a universe in which momentarily we became the pole star.”


HOW CLOSE SHE HAD COME
By Patty Somlo

A weary voice in Miranda’s head reminded her that nothing was ever going to change, as the wood-sided, turn-of-the-century houses, some painted in three or four bold colors, passed in a blur. The August morning was warm and bright, but you wouldn’t have known it from Miranda’s mood.

Walking east about ten blocks, Miranda couldn’t shake the deeply gray gloom, even after taking in the splendor of the summer flowers—roses almost absurdly huge and Oriental lilies with their overwhelming perfume.

Miranda turned and headed west. She had enough pills laid out on the kitchen counter. Could she find a reason not to go home and swallow them?

How insanely boring this depression had become. It was like those cheap ads they showed on Saturday night, endlessly regurgitated, hawking vegetable choppers and under-the-counter lights and plastic bags guaranteed to keep cheerful yellow bananas from resorting to their natural inclination and turning brown. Her only recourse seemed to switch the power off and put an end to it all.

Miranda’s thinking was going along like this when she spotted the bus. It looked like something unearthed from the mud, a vehicle with a devilish purpose. What grabbed Miranda’s attention was the NIAYH painted in straight white letters above the front windshield of the bus, the body of which was covered with the flat black paint used for late-model cars. This was the first thing in weeks that had lifted her spirits up. NIAYH. What could it possibly mean?

Alongside the bus Miranda found an answer. Again, all in white.

NOW IS ALL YOU HAVE.

The words made Miranda feel ungrateful for wasting so much of her life. She even felt a bit silly for being depressed.

Still digesting the significance of running smack into a phrase like that while questioning why she should stick around, Miranda turned the corner. The community garden, full of plants she didn’t know the names of climbing thin bamboo poles toward a tantalizingly blue sky, was on her right. Traffic passed steadily up and down Twentieth Avenue. Her eyes drifted to the sidewalk.

This message was scrawled in yellow. Instead of printed letters, crisp and straight, the writer had relaxed into cursive.

Don’t Give Up, the message on the sidewalk read.

By now, Miranda was convinced. Something otherworldly and life-shattering was afoot. She stopped and took in a loud deep breath. The air entered her throat and floated down. She could feel her lungs expand and contract, growing clean and pure, as if scrubbed with a bar of Ivory soap.

Miranda followed the breath with her mind, through her belly and thighs to her calves, on down to her toes. She wiggled her big toe and then tapped the front part of her right foot, from side to side to side.

Forgetting to look both ways once she lifted her foot, Miranda stepped off the curb. Feet from where Miranda stood, a green SUV slammed to a stop. Just in time. Oblivious, Miranda continued on her way across, until she heard the tires let out a painful screeching sound. The putrid stench of burning rubber entered her nostrils.

She looked up, as her heart kicked into a quicker beat and her throat went dry. She didn’t notice that the black lines left by the burning tires aimed directly toward her. The driver barely missed her as he sped off.

Walking the rest of the way across the street and stepping up onto the curb, Miranda Wilson was still unaware. How close she had come this miraculous morning to having her wish to end it all finally realized.


Cat
By Deirdre McGrath

Every day Jimbo and Flox frequented the same fast food joint for a cappuccino and a milkshake served by Angela, the waitress.

“Bondjour Angelique me auld flower! Two of your finest beverages if you please,” Jimbo said before filling his lungs with air, and then off he goes until he runs out of puff.

A reading from the book of Jimbo is delivered from a podium of plastic, illuminated by stark florescent light:

“You should see it Flox, the old lady sees a cat on the street, pets the animal as if she really likes it, gives it a false sense of security like and then, for no reason, shoves it into a wheelie dustbin. Well, I got some laugh out of it. She is some operator, I thought to myself. I got the nephew to show it to me on the computer, on that You Tube. Ten times I watched it with the tears rolling down my face.

“The nephew has some set-up, it’s like Cape Canaveral with wires and screens and flashing lights and gadgets and gizmos. Technology ha!

“I mean to say, if that happened with the cat a few years ago no one would know about it, no one would see it. Sure, things happened long ago and even if you saw something a bit off, you didn’t believe it yourself. There were fellas who took the sight from your eyes and would tell you black was white and right was wrong. There was no You Tube back then for all to peruse, but by Jesus tis there now and tisn’t goin’ away, Flox boy.

“There’s uproar about the cat now of course, they’re baying for the old lady’s blood. Well, by Jesus if they think that’s bad they wouldn’t want to have seen uncle Mossie on the You Tube, God rest him. D’ya remember? I can still see him heading off to the river with the jute sack. It didn’t knock a feather out of him though. He was a tough nut, he did the dirty work no one else wanted to do I suppose. Sure, who am I telling, weren’t you his assistant for a while? Thanks Angela, fine cuppa brew. Will ya marry me today turtle dove?”

“In your dreams, Jimbo,” said Angela.

Flox Flanagan winced and stirred his vanilla milkshake with a red straw. He had intended to get the strawberry flavour today but despite this he heard himself ask for his usual. “I’ll get it tomorrow,” he decided.

“Do you know what happened to the animal, Jimbo? Did he escape from the bin?” asked Flox.

“Jaysus, Flox, he could still be in it for all I know! Tis how he got there is the entertaining bit. Tis all equal what happened to him afterwards. I’ll get the nephew to show it to you tomorrow in the Star Ship Enterprise. I’m telling you, it would make a cat laugh!”

Flox had no notion of watching the cat episode on the computer. There was a knot in his gut at the thought of it as he focused on the vapour rising from his friend’s cup. It would be like watching himself. He pledged that tomorrow would be different for him; he would climb out of the dustbin himself or at the very least lift the lid to let some light in to warm his soul a little.


IMG_5824Lady in Green
By Maurice Cashell

When Mike’s contract ended in Geneva in the mid-1970s he came back to Dublin on the car ferry with his seven-year-old, Neil. Neil wanted to fly but was won over by the promise of McDonald’s hamburgers and some key rings in Paris.

They started, inevitably, at the Eiffel Tower. Mike had a coffee in the second-floor café while Neil looked at key rings. Within minutes he was back, furious, minus his money and with a minuscule plastic Eiffel Tower in a paper bag. He had asked for his money back but the diminutive saleslady in the souvenir shop told him that she had registered it in the cash register, couldn’t reverse the process and then ignored him.

Mike got the same story when he went to negotiate with the darting little hummingbird of a woman in her cage. Money in cash register, transaction over and if Monsieur was so sore about it he shouldn’t have let the child shop on his own. He could talk to the manager when he came around in the afternoon … if he came around in the afternoon.

The rest of the tour was spoiled. At the Arc de Triomphe some old soldiers were laying a wreath. One patted Neil on the head, asked him where he was from. In no time the boy was declaring war against France. Mike made the appropriate apologies and dragged him away for another hamburger.

Towards evening they went to meet a friend who worked near the Etoile. The meeting point was a coffee bar in the Rue Rude (honestly! you can’t make these things up). He was late and Neil amused himself by reading aloud the titles of records in the jukebox. Mike explained that Joe Dolan—who had two records, “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” and “Lady in Blue”—was from Mullingar, near where Mike was born. Soon a young woman with Kelly-green hot pants approached. From his teenage years Mike had consumed whole shelves of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Flaubert and de Maupassant. The world of prostitutes was an ever present and fascinating microcosm of French society. What was more natural in the Rue Rude than a prostitute?

She smiled at Neil. What a nice boy, she said, and where are you from? And how do you like Paris?

She didn’t stand a chance. Out it came, the biggest outpouring of the day. Eiffel Tower. Key ring. Plastic. All my money. Won’t give it back. Tomorrow no good. Going on a boat. To Ireland. Never coming back. And having let it all out he collapsed like a punctured balloon.

When he finished she opened her purse and gave him a ten-franc note.

“Just remember that all Parisians are not like that lady,” she said, “and come back when you’re a little bit older.” And with that she went back to her friends.

But Neil had to have the last word. He thanked her for her note and with some change from Mike went to the jukebox. He played “Lady in Blue”.

He got the colour wrong, but his heart was in the right place.


Snow
By Shevaun Rutherford

“Watcha doin’ up there, Snow White?” calls up the short one.

“Come down, Snow!” says the tall one. “Let down your hair!”

“That’s Rapunzel, doofus,” says the big one, whacking the tall one in the stomach.

“Don’t have to hit me, Stan,” says the tall one, backing away with a hand thrust out protectively. The big one, Stan, takes no notice.

“Gonna come down, Snow White?” says Stan.

I sigh. The cloud of hot breath dissipates into the frosty air. “No,” I say to Big Stan. I watch him out of the corner of my eye, pretending to be occupied with a particularly stiff fingernail.

“Then we’ll have to come to you.” Stan begins ascending the playground ladder, and the other two follow closely.

The bullies have never managed to scale the playground, not right to the top anyway. There is no way they’ll manage it today, not with the painted metal slick with ice, their gloved hands slipping for purchase. That was their biggest mistake; they won’t make it halfway with gloves. I suppose they can’t manage without them, but I’m used to the cold. I never liked summer. In the summer I can’t go out at midday, or without a gallon of sunscreen or those ridiculous sunglasses they force me to wear.

The difficult fingernail comes loose with a final rip. I begin nibbling free a loose shard of the remaining nail.

The short one is the first to fall, crashing into the tall one on his way down the rock-climbing wall. Big Stan makes it to the top of the monkey bars, but stops while he’s ahead. He cringes at the sky.

I smile and poke my tongue out. I catch a few snowflakes before Mrs. Graham appears and ruins everything. Thankfully, she stays to make sure I get down from the roof of the playground turret all right, telling me off all the while.

I don’t mind though, because she never really calls my parents. I smile at the bullies as she leads us inside, and am happy to see that they’re itching to get their hands on me. They don’t though, because Mrs. Graham will call their parents.

Mrs. Graham rounds up all the kids quickly enough, with various degrees of sourness in her comments. “Hurry up! Come back here! You’ll get your uniform wet! Hurry up!”

Soon, everyone is in the classroom, playing cards and board games. I sit in the corner with my drawing book. I’m biting the thumbnail of my right hand, and fixing Big Stan’s hair with the other. In the drawing of course, I would never dare touch Stan’s hair, or any part of him for that matter, even with Mrs. Graham about. I think I capture the angry look on his face quite perfectly. A shadow comes over the playground scene. I look up.

It’s some new kid. I can’t remember his name. I remember very few names.

“Hey, wanna play outside? No one else will come with me,” he smiles, contorting his ugly narrow face.

I scratch my sheet-white arm nervously. No one ever talks to me, except for Mrs. Graham and the bullies. “We’ll get told off,” I say.

“Nah,” he says, waving a thin hand. “She’s reading. We can sneak out.”

I look up to see, yes, Mrs. Graham is stuck in Woman’s Weekly magazine. I have finished the drawing. I stand up.

“Golly, Jordan,” says the boy, looking up at me, “you’re taller than you look.”

I’m taken aback to hear him use my name, and it is extra embarrassing that I can’t use his. Of course he’s surprised I’m tall. No one ever gets close to the albino kid.

We’re lucky the door is already open, and sneak out easily enough, but if the bullies had noticed us we’d have been goners. Mrs. Graham may not be fond of them, but if they dobbed that we were sneaking out my parents might be in for a shock.

The corridor is empty and the noise from the other classrooms blocks out the sound of our footfalls on the concrete floor.

The air bites my flesh when we go outside. I begin to catch snowflakes on my tongue.

Whack. I have a mouthful of snow.

“Snowball fight!” says the kid.

I wipe the snow off my face, and underneath is a smile.


Pour le Mérite
By Andy Jones

The harsh tone of the loudspeaker silenced the throng on the platform initially. Then a collective moan of despair began, only to be stilled by the smack of rifle butts on flesh and bone. The young SS officer recoiled from the spectacle, hoping that colleagues hadn’t noticed his disgust.

A national socialist believer before he came here, he now knew that what the leadership said was untrue. These people were not a threat. They were harmless, bewildered, crushed by their ordeal. The growing mound of personal belongings scattered all around them bore mute testimony to their transience in the new world order.

They were quiet now. The only sound was the hissing of steam as the locomotive prepared to return for its next load of superfluous human beings. Even the dogs were quiet, panting after the frenzied excitement of the arrival. Some of the bedraggled crowd realised they were doomed. Others still clung to the hope that this was a prelude to something better. Children played around their parents’ feet, or tried to hide in a forest of legs.

In his mind he had not crossed the line. It was true that he had used his riding crop a few times, but never with malice. When the recipients of his half-hearted blows looked at him from behind protective arms, he tried to tell them that he was sorry with his eyes, but they could not see beyond his black uniform with its death’s head insignia.

A man was trying to attract his attention. The same thing had happened many times, and he had learned to steel his heart to the frantic pleadings, but … there was something about this man. The SS officer was drawn towards him, while closely watching his comrades at the other end of the platform as they began sorting the soon-to-die from the die-laters.

As he approached, the man opened his hand to disclose a small velvet box. Inside, nestled in crimson silk, gleamed the order of Pour le Mérite, or the Blue Max. This shadow of a man had earned it as a young pilot twenty-five years earlier, serving in the Kaiser’s war. Curiosity aroused, the SS officer indicated that he should quietly move towards the stragglers at the end of the line.

The bearer of the decoration spoke softly to him. ‘Thank you, Herr Leutnant. You can see that despite my religion,’ he gestured at the yellow Star of David stitched on his overcoat, ‘I served Germany well. Now it has come to this.’ He looked around. ‘I am not worried about myself. My concern is for my wife.’ He indicated the slight careworn figure behind him. The SS officer knew that nothing could save them, not ten Blue Maxes. Certainly not a junior officer such as he. ‘I am sorry. There is nothing to be done! It is impossible.’

The soldier began to move away, but the man spoke once more, quietly, urgently. ‘I can see you are a decent man. I would like you to have this to remember me.’ The officer decided quickly. There was a gap in the wall near where they stood. Taking the man roughly by the shoulder so as to avoid the attention of the other damned, he pushed the couple through onto an overgrown patch of earth.

‘Do you understand what is going to happen to you when they come?’ he hissed, his own fear adding an edge to his voice. ‘Yes, Herr Leutnant,’ came the steady response. ‘Do you wish another way?’ The old man looked at his wife, clinging to him like a frightened child. ‘Yes. I would be very grateful to you.’ The officer drew his pistol and placed it on the nape of the frail woman’s neck. She sagged in her husband’s arms as the weapon bucked. Kissing her, the old man laid her down gently. With a whispered ‘thank you,’ he turned his back, bowed his head and awaited delivery from the torment planned for him. The executioner stooped and prised the glorious confection of blue enamel and gold from the dead hand, slipping it into his pocket.

He stepped back onto the platform just as the selection team neared the end of the line. The SS doctor looked at him quizzically. ‘What have you been up to?’ he asked mildly, indicating the still smoking pistol. He pushed past the younger man and saw the sprawled bodies in the weeds. ‘What happened here?’ The Leutnant felt the warmth of the medal in his pocket and replied, ‘The old fools tried to slip away from their fate, Herr Doktor. I couldn’t allow that.’ His superior nodded. ‘Good man. But no more freelancing, if you please. There is a quota, you know.’

That evening Schnapps and Vodka flowed in the bar. The next morning the Lieutenant applied for a transfer to the front. A Russian infantryman, looking for bread in a dead German’s pockets, found the medal in the ruins of Minsk. Exchanged it later for a crust.


Queue
By David J. Wing

We use it in all walks of life, every day and long may it continue.

We queue at the Post Office, while we wait on our giros, our stamps and our penny sweets that now top 10p.

We queue in Poundland, while we ponder our need for that nail-set and movie themed shampoo in our basket.

We queue in the bakery at lunch and salivate over the cheese and ham slices.

And while we queue, we wait, patiently.

It’s an in-built English nationalism; a stereotype of the most respectable order. Pride of place, handed down from generation to generation. Never will it change, never will we barge.

We queue at the Polls; to waste a vote and dream of a better future.

We queue at the bus stop and hope that of the two that come, one has space for us.

And when the Zombie apocalypse comes, we will wait, patiently and orderly for the rescue buses and the salvation trains, the Apache Helicopters and that fellow with the machete and when the monsters seek to steal our position, we shall turn and say…

“Excuse me, I believe this lady was before you.”


IMG_8427Creatives
By William O’Hara

“I will move mountains,” she said and mountains were moved. “Now let there be life,” and there was life. The skies teemed with birds and the seas filled with fish. She looked at what she had done and saw it was good but was still not pleased. “It needs people,” she said. She created people. In the beginning, they had no clothes, houses or tools but stumbled around and died. She led them to a place of safety where food and shelter were provided. Whenever they died out she made new ones. She placed them in a garden with a wall around them to protect them from disease and wild animals. “There,” she said. The number of people multiplied until there was not enough room for them in the enclosure. She lowered the walls and pushed them out. Soon she would move over the face of the Earth and find them everywhere. But they remained at the same level. She would speed up history: Thousands of years would pass by in seconds, and after thousands of years had passed they would still be doing the same things they had always done. She left out tools for them but they would not use them. In anger, she killed most of them. Advancement quickly followed. Small gatherings of mud huts grew into large gatherings of mud huts, and then stone structures appeared. Temples and palaces sprang up all over the world. Sometimes one of the new cities would displease her because their houses were built in the wrong way or painted the wrong colour and she would flatten them. “That’s sorted them,” she would say.

The people began to develop by themselves. Sometimes she would check their course and send them on another way but they would eventually revert to the way they had been going. She would invent ridiculous clothes and beliefs and the people would wear them and believe them. Advancements moved at a faster and faster pace. Technology spread across the world. They would sit in front of computers and create, maintain and develop countries and civilisations. Once she had directed everyone’s life, and then the lives of selected individuals—but now the people made their own world, directed their own lives. She tried not to interfere. Civilisation had reached an advanced level and she wanted to see what would happen next. Now and again when she grew restless, she would start the odd earthquake. The people would scramble over the rubble and start all over again. It was about the time when artificial intelligence was developing that her mother called her down for dinner.

She stared at a man getting out of his car.

It had been a hard day at the graphic design office and he was glad it was over. New orders had come in and his section was understaffed. It was a lovely summer evening, and as he got out of his car he breathed in deeply the rich aroma of flowers. Walking into the sitting room, he greeted his wife and children who were seated on the sofa watching television. The television went on and off and then so did the wife and children. Looking out the window, he saw the trees disappear. Inside the house the tables and chairs and walls followed. The wife and children kept glimmering off and on. Now he could see them, now he couldn’t. It went dark, parts of him flying off until finally, his elongated head suddenly contracted into a screaming point of light and he was gone.


Picasso the Wonder Dog
By Ty Spencer Vossler

Rad had lived his entire life in Atascadero (Spanish for Deep Mud). Course nearly everyone living there called it something else. He’d tried out community college in San Luis Obispo for a semester, but higher learning didn’t set right with him. He’d never been much of schoolboy, and Atascadero hadn’t been the best place for academic inspiration. In fact, on the first day of English 101 at the nearby college, a girl sitting next to him asked where he was from. She sniggered when he told her, pretending not to have heard him right and whispered, “Deep Shit?”

Few weeks later he dropped classes, took back his job at the Atascadero Rite Aid. It was about 103º on his first day back, and Jessie (a high school chum) took him out to the Burger Queen after work. Jess peppered him with questions about college. Rad took three minutes to summarize his experiences, and then changed the subject to Picasso. Jessie almost spit his Dr. Pepper, clamping a hand over his mouth to keep from spraying. He paused and looked down at his burger basket to make the sign of the cross.

Rad’s jaw dropped, “No way—gotta be shittin’—

“Yep. Seen it happen. Picasso was creatin’ a masterpiece on ol’ man Vinson’s front step. Vinson seen from his front window and surprised Picasso with a BB-gun. Fuckin’ dog tore out on the street, run smack into Big John Rucker’s Chevy Silverado.”

“That’s messed up. He was an artist, man.”

“Yeah,” Jessie laughed, “Seen him balance a turd on a sprinkler head once—then turned to admire it.”

“Remember when he dumped in my mom’s gardenin’ shoes?”

“Leave anything like that outside,” Jessie said, “he’d find it.”

“Front bumper—Rod Gardner’s Mustang—”

“Oh yeah—Rod’s all, WTF and Picasso finished up by pissin’ on his rims—”

“Rod still got that ol’ Mustang?”

“Far’s I know … ol’ Picasso—yeah, he was somethin’.”

As he sipped Coke, Rad thought about Atascadero’s famous mutt. Picasso, the wonder dog, he mused, picturing him as he finished the last of the curly fries on his red plastic basket. Just an average size dog—kind that nobody ever stopped to pet ’cause the damn thing was covered in filthy dreadlocks, had sores on his legs and hair missing from his ass. Picasso smelled like piss, and it seemed the critter couldn’t go ten paces without lifting a hind leg to lick its little pink boner. He walked as if his body was wracked with arthritis. Hell, Picasso had even ruined one of the most intimate moments in Rad’s young life.

Rad remembered a date his senior year with Marisol. He’d asked her out ’cause it was getting late in his virginity and he’d heard she might be able to help out. Things started out pretty well. His Dad let him borrow the Ford F100 and he drove Marisol out to Lake Success, more of a puddle really, not something you’d attribute success to. Marisol looked kind of pretty—short black hair framing a face you’d never see on a checkout stand magazine, but she was pretty exotic for him nonetheless. She had almond shaped eyes and looked Chinese in the glow of the half-moon that night. But she was Mexican—said she was from Oaxaca. She spelled it for him, but he couldn’t pronounce it.

Marisol wasn’t skinny, but her fleshiness was pleasant to the touch. Luckily it was a Wednesday and they were by themselves. He’d given thought to taking her into a prune orchard, but was afraid he’d get stuck. At night you couldn’t tell if the trees had been recently irrigated or not. Lying on an old quilt in the bed of the truck, they looked up at the sky and remarked about the three stars hanging there. The cat-scratch moon gave off enough light for him to see the shirt buttons and the snap on her pants. He’d had a condom in his wallet for six months and it was burning a hole in his pocket. Just as his hand conquered the clasp on her bra, there came a noise. Marisol sat up to look around. Rad tried to pull her back down, but she pushed him away.

“C’mon baby, ain’t nothin.”

“Heard something,” she said, her accent tickling his ear.

“Shit,” he muttered, sitting up, wallet was in his hand.

A stand of bushes off to the side of the truck snapped and rustled. “Raccoon or opossum,” he predicted. And then the perpetrator emerged as if on cue. Picasso waddled a ways and looked up at the couple.

“Shoo—get lost, mangy mutt!”

Picasso stood his ground, studying the canvas before him.

Rad looked for something to throw, but he’d cleared the truck-bed for the quilt. Should’a gone to the Easy 8, he reprimanded himself. It was Easy 8 because it cost eight bucks for a room. He could have afforded that. Damn it to hell anyway, he smoldered.

“Go on! Git!”

“We should be going,” Marisol said.

Rad put an arm around her shoulder and kissed her neck. “It’s early … ” then looking up, “Hey, more stars have come out, look at that.”

Picasso had summed up his options by then. He flipped to his back, twisting so the lucky couple had a bird’s eye view. Out came his tongue, making slow, noisy licks to his penis.

“That’s gross!” Marisol said, reaching up behind her back to hitch her bra.

Motherfucker, Rad thought. Lamely he tried to draw her toward him. She struggled away and he gave up.

“We should go,” she repeated.

“All right.” He was defeated.

A slurping sound foretold the end of his Cola. Rad burped painfully through his nose and squeezed it with a thumb and forefinger.

“Yep, some dog,” he sighed.

Jessie went to refill his Dr. Pepper, and Rad stole a curly fry from his basket. Didn’t matter much if he got caught––he was already in Deep Shit.


Warmth
By Ben Mason

There’s just enough time for one last search—felis catus in place of “cats”, slightly more scientific-sounding keywords on either side.

She must know what will become of them. They’re tranquil now, one lolling under the desk, another in the empty aquarium, yet another atop the bookshelf. But after a few days—or weeks—with no oversight, who’s to say they won’t revert to some primal state? Who’s to say Junior and Leo won’t eat Celine’s share of the food? Or try to violate her? Or, God forbid, each other?

There are still no answers.

She walks to the window above the kitchen sink. Through the glass, as always, it’s a parade of ankles, the odd cigarette or wrapper or gobbet of phlegm hitting the sidewalk. She springs the latch and pushes, barely manages to force the gap to whisker width. The cold buffets her face, pricks at her eyes. Pant legs shush. Car horns honk. A man says Unbe-fucking-lievable into his phone. It will be an adjustment, no doubt. But better to leave them to the outside, to trust that alley culture will keep them in check, than to let them live in a world solely of their own design.

Here kitties,” she calls.

Her phone vibrates. It’s E_____. ETA 15 min.

She replies. Same. Getting dressed.

She disrobes on the way down the hall. Her shower is hasty, unsatisfying. The moment she emerges from the bathroom, wearing just a towel, hair still wet, she’s freezing. She jogs in place as she checks the bedroom for cats. None. The living room. None. Finally, in the kitchen, she finds all—four—of them sitting on the heating vent beneath the table.

“Who the—?”

She takes a few steps towards them, bends down, rests her hands on her knees. The stranger, a fat orange tabby, holds her gaze.

When her phone vibrates this time, she doesn’t look.

She runs straight to the bedroom, throws on a sweater, jerks herself into long underwear, socks, pants and boots. She sprints back to the kitchen. The cats watch her every move, rapt as she stands before the sink and scatters two generous handfuls of seafood nibbles on the sidewalk.

“Yummy yummy yummy.” She scoops up Celine and the stranger, one in each hand, and puts them through the window.

Leo meows. Junior meows.

“I didn’t forget you.” She grabs them, sets them down next to the others, yanks the window closed.

E_______ texts again. S_____ and I on site. S______ in place. ETA?

The embassy is a 20-minute walk; the ceremony starts in 10. ETA 5 min.

She lingers for a moment, taps the glass. “Psst. Kee kee kee.” The cats, still eating, are oblivious—even to the passersby who narrowly avoid stepping on their tails. They don’t notice when she slips away.

In the entryway, beneath the coat rack in a fancy department store box, are the hat and coat S_______ delivered yesterday. She unties the ribbon, opens the lid, puts them on. The hat is knit but not particularly warm, a shade of green—dayglow, nearly—she’d never, ever wear. The coat, a network of obscure packets and wiring stitched meticulously into the lining, weighs at least twenty pounds. Its pockets are sewn shut, save the front right, through which she’ll access the detonator. She’s been reminded more than once not to rest her hand there—not until the appointed time—no matter how cold it gets, no matter how fidgety she feels.

Her regular, everyday coat hangs on the rack. She checks the pockets for her gloves. They’re not there. She tries her raincoat. They’re not there. She tries her regular coat again. Still nothing. She bolts for the bedroom—but catches herself, slows to a walk. As she passes the kitchen, she glimpses the cats sitting in a line at the window, looking intently in. Leo sees her, paws the glass. She keeps going, stiff, upright.

In the bedroom, she empties one dresser drawer, then another, then another—all to no avail. Likewise the shelf in the closet, the box of scarves under the bed. On her way to look in the living room, she stops to watch a young boy, maybe five or six, squat and pet Celine. Celine hisses, strikes, scratches his hand. The boy stands up, kicks her. She runs away, followed by Junior and Leo, followed by the boy. The stranger inches closer to the window, lies down, licks his groin.

She’s searching under the couch when her phone vibrates once more.

RU on site?

She starts removing cushions with one hand, types with the other. Slight delay. ETA 10 min.

The ceremony may have ended by the time she arrives; the crowd may have begun to thin out. E_____ may spurn her, refuse to make eye contact as he gives the signal from across the courtyard. S_____ may mutter some mild, disapproving oath as he watches from his safe remove. But she will not leave until she’s ready. She will find her gloves. She will be warm before she’s absolutely hot.


Issue 7: September 2015


IMG_4658The Sea in Her Ear
By Opal Palmer Adisa

She was drowning, and doing everything she knew she shouldn’t.

She opened her mouth and tried to swallow the sea.

Its ceaseless motion rocked her body; its voice whistled and echoed all around her. Splashing and crashing, its wetness clung to her like weighted cement that attempted to pull her down. The sea had gotten hold of her and was not ready to let her loose.

She opened her mouth to shout for help and gulped more water, then thrashed about frantically, her hands flailing like slender branches forced to dance under heavy winds. She was drowning and knew her survival depended on her relaxing and allowing the buoyance and heavy saltiness of the sea to keep her afloat.

Something about the neediness of the ocean scared her, the possessive way the water draped her legs, the intimate fishy smell that engulfed her nostrils, the roar of the waves locked in the chamber of her ears, the vast emptiness of the sea, slick like oil yet colorless, invisible. God’s Child knew only a fool would try to save someone bent on drowning herself, and she was both fool and self. She knew she needed to conserve her energy, but her heart was another current in the ocean gravitating towards other channels of currents so Yemaja, the great goddess of the ocean, dragged her down and rolled her like a barrel plummeting down a steep hill.

With arms raised above her head and body stiff and straight as an arrow, she flicked her feet and ejected from the water like a cannon. Mouth wide open she gulped for air as her ears thundered. Immediately, she sprang up in bed, spat out seawater and shook her head furiously to dislodge the water somersaulting in her ear. When that didn’t work she opened her mouth wide and yawned repeatedly. She heard Yemaja’s spluttering laughter and her dismissive remark, “Not ready for you yet, but don’t tarry too long.” Then Yemaja dove into the water like lightning, descending to the deep sandy bottom, lost among the seaweed and corals.

The bed was dry. Her skin was gritty as if she’d spent the entire day at the beach, dipping and then drying off under the sun. She was in her room at her house, not pulled under by a current. No prevailing black ocean awaited her. Shaking her head, fully awake, she scanned the room, then cursed. Rass! What the hell you want with me? She could hear the cawing of the sea, six blocks away; and without seeing the ocean, she could tell that it was flat and shimmering as wet glass. One could be fooled into believing it was harmless, but she, God’s Child, knew better.

She knew she had to go. Was it still night? Rolling out of bed, she crawled on her knees to the window, through which she peered, searching the star-filled sky. It was early morning, probably between one and two o’clock. She kept kneeling, even though the tiled floor sent shooting pains through her left knee where she had fallen when the man cursed her. He had set his dog on her as she ran, tripping over a naseberry tree stump, and then the dog had licked her face, and her knee was covered with blood which the dog licked instead of biting, while the man, the owner, stood there watching them before turning away with a contemptuous wave of his hand, saying, “You both deserve each other, but leave me naseberry alone.”

Now she picked up the naseberry from the windowsill, the last that she had taken, and bit into it as she used her right hand to steady herself, turning from the window, dismissing the lazy moon at her back.

The smooth sweetness of the gummy fruit watered her mouth. She chewed slowly, prolonging the pleasure of the fruit and delaying going where she knew she had to go. Hearing the urgent call from Yemaja, she shouted a response, A coming. Water and fish not going nowhere. The puppy that she has stolen, and who now slept by her door, raised its head, its ears immediately alert. Bending down, she picked up the puppy that she named Dream Undone. Hush, she said, caressing his back, is not you a shouting at, is that damn woman in the ocean who drown me awake. Come we go see what she want. Naked as at birth, she pulled her door shut, and with Dream Undone’s front legs over her right shoulder, she ambled down the road, a liquid sound guiding her steps.

Damp sand gripped her toes and squished under her soles, and immediately Dream Undone began to squirm. You too nasty, she said patting his back. Almost a week now you don’t have a sea bath, you well overdue. You can’t let me go to that cantankerous old woman by meself. She held him firmly as the waves ebbed at her feet. The water chilled her, making her tremble as it rose to her knees. Dream Undone yelped softly, trying to climb on her head. You betta behave or me go fling you in mek de fish eat you, she whispered to the dog, his body wound like a scarf around her neck. The water swelled above her waist, and the chorus of the ocean called to her in soft melodious rhythms.

She knew she had to take the plunge but hesitated, scanning the water, till she lost her balance and fell, splayed. Dream Undone escaped her grasp and she saw him swimming frantically away from her towards the shore, and she was listening now. Was ready to hear what Yemaja wanted to say to her. Closing her eyes, she allowed the currents to embrace her, taking her under into their chambers.

Her body relaxed into the arms of the ocean, and God’s Child felt herself floating like a plastic Buddha, bubbles like diamonds circling her face.


IMG_4683On La Concha Beach
By Maurice Cashell

He was never going to be so much the centre of attention as he was on that Saturday morning.

Even as the boat bearing him to the shore was still some distance away people were running backwards and forwards, excitedly, nervously, people in various uniforms, important, serious, with mobile communications that chattered ceaselessly. An area to receive him was prepared and police with dogs forced back the hundreds already gathered to gawk. They responded slowly but without the sullenness normally shown to the police in this part of the Basque region, because this man had earned almost total attention and respect.

Almost total. Mothers ran after wandering children or peered nervously as their view of the playground was becoming obstructed. Groups of visitors had oriented their sun-loungers to face the southern sun and lay with their backs to the shore, throwing only an occasional glance in his direction. The ferret-faced boy who sold bocadillos at inflated prices never took his eye off his customer base.

The man was alone. I’ve been in other situations where friends and family are involved and they usually get in the way. This man’s aloneness added to the intensity of the occasion.

Surrounded by officials and helpers, some whispering confidences or reassurances in his ears, he was borne in a throng that flowed by me like a torrent. Throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity, as if taking everything in, or nothing in. From there to a vehicle that, preceded by police outriders with blue lights, sped off in a hysteria of alarms.

On Monday morning the event garnered no more than one four-inch column in El Diario Vasco. His name was Luis Ortega and, according to the District Medical Officer, he was already dead when his body was taken from the water.


Caníbales
By Linda Musita

The phone rang. Mama picked it up. Three minutes after ‘hello’ she was still listening.

“Thank you,” she finally said.

She then went to her bedroom and came out shortly wearing her fur coat.

“Come on, we have to go mandicate your brother at the morgue.”

“Mandicate? What does that mean?” I asked as Ben and I followed her to the car.

No answer.

*

She gave me the money.

“Tell him to give you a quarter of a kilogramme.”

I took the money from her hand and her long pinkie finger nail scratched my thumb. It always did, every time I took something from her hand. I believed and still believe that it has a life of its own, separate from mama’s.

Money in hand I went into the morgue and the man with the apron and the chef’s hat was standing over a grill. There were several grills. Each had a name tag. Meat, liver, intestines, male privates, female breasts and other organs were roasting and on the side of all the grills was a bowl and a tiny brush, like a paint brush.

Lucky for me the man was standing at the grill whose tag read, Name of Deceased: Mwachaku Alonso. That was my brother. I gave the man the Kshs 500 note.

“Mama said to get a quarter of a kilogramme,” I told him.

He took the money.

“Should I slice it into pieces?”

“I guess you should,” I said.

He dipped the brush into the bowl, brushed the quarter of a kilogramme with the liquid and sliced it into pieces with a knife. After placing it on a platter and covering it with a stainless steel clinical bowl, he licked the grease from his fingers and handed the ‘corpse’ to me.

“Here you go. My condolences to your family.”

*

Mama and Ben were eager to see the contents.

She complained as usual. “Ah, you’ve been conned. These pieces are not as chunky as they should be. Your brother was a fleshy man.”

Ben said nothing. Instead he picked a piece and munched it. I thought that was unnatural, one hundred percent abnormal. I looked at mama and she seemed okay with it. She even took a piece of Alonso, slipped it into her mouth and swallowed it without chewing.

“Go on, eat up!” She yelled at me.

“I hope your father and his mistress get here before we are done.”

Ben was eating Alonso like he would eat grilled chicken. Licking his lips and pausing to pick the best pieces.

I picked a piece, ate it, and within two minutes saliva welled up in my mouth. Salty saliva. Tears struggled out of my eyes. My throat hurt like hell; it usually does when I am about to vomit. Alonso came out, painfully, together with other yucky things.

Mother was furious.

“You do know that there is no more land left for burying the dead, don’t you?”

“Yes mama, but … ”

“Eat up! At least you get to keep a bit of your brother in you before the bar and restaurant people come to make their bids.”

Take two did not work either. This time I did not swallow the meat. My hands chucked it from my mouth. Mama pulled my ears and watched my mouth curve into a yell and deflate into muffled sobs.

They ate the rest of the quarter of a kilogramme, returned the platter and bowl and we went back home. Mama’s fur coat was catching a cold and she complained.


IMG_1678Supermassive People Hammer
By Eugenio Eustace

The eruption of a collective sigh acts as starter gun. It rings out before suburban streets are submerged. Before village greens are criss-crossed and overground carriages—their doors swallowing bones and all—are filled to saturation. Before the carriages catch and trap behind push-button doors. Before they close, until spilling their contents onto platforms at Liverpool Street or Paddington or Waterloo or Moorgate or Marylebone or Paddington.

Or Wherever.

By 8am, Canary Wharf teems and bubbles. The rails at Clapham Junction, once so naked and exposed, have all but disappeared under metric tons of carriage. Zone Two hammers snooze buttons before springing a reluctant leak of 9am starters that drip from beds and soak half-asleep into the ground. Only to be sputtered back out again at quarter-to onto black tar streets that soon run pitch.

Kerbs are sloshed up. Steps sloshed down. Cement and stone, ridden hard. Staircases are, with much insistence, step-by-step ascended. Glass elevators (so silent in their twilight fluorescence) are now daylit and square-inch by square-inch, filled. Buildings hat-black to the brim.

9am—The doors of a thousand foyers shudder shut until lunchtime. And come lunchtime any stragglers are sucked up, nails dragging, with a slurp, come two.

It’s not until the best of the daylight is catapulted halfway around the Earth, in fact, that the chain is mercifully given a convulsive yank. That the floor falls away and the contents of the buildings are flushed, yawning and damp, onto the plains, come six.

It’s all such serious business.

Yet on this winter morning, something remarkably silly is happening. Something a tad improper. Immature. Imprudent. Insensible. Inproductive. Imnecessary. Umefficent. Unorthodox.

Unexpected.

Something—as the alarmed would attest—rather alarming.

On this strange day the black mass that usually flows with such caffeinated efficiency laps stagnantly against a rough-hewn island of grey pavement off a ninety-degree bearing from Bishopsgate. Bounded on all sides and spanning eight-or-so metres at its widest, the shore tentatively shifts and surges with the various whims and obligations of the tide. A tide which now (more-or-less stationary) can be seen for what it is. A colossal, respirating mass of white shirts, grey ties and black jackets. The all-black everything hanging harsh against the anemic white faces. Each and every one a skin-pore-clear camera-flash, frozen in the crisp air of a December morning.

Holding their all, amidst them, a middle-aged man oscillates. He leaps to and fro. He throws himself, occasionally, into a series of ersatz pirouettes with arms formed in a trite triangle, scalene, above his head. Other than this he covers his paved stage with bare, quick, unsubtle feet, in an attempt at what newspapers would later call dancing.

But, understandably, no one is watching with consideration for the aesthetic. The assembled eye was initially caught, and remains so, by the exposed skin. Kissed brown from head to waist, knees to feet. A milky white from waist to knees. You could pour that on your cereal, an eyewitness would later report. Another bespectacled witness will mistakenly swear the man was wearing a rather scanty pair of white shorts. An easy mistake to make, were it not for—as one social commentator commentated—the 70s porn-fuzz.

It’s nippy out as well. The centrifugal afterglow of intermittent spinning failing, resolutely, to throw out certain extremities quite as far as he would like.

And just scan across these higher-achievers. These ambitious, driven, thoroughly proper, thoroughly stimulated, engines of society. These best of the throbbing best. These bright and shiny Russell Group hons-toters. These Oxbridge fortunates and laureates. These movers. These shakers. These decision makers. Executives. Heads. Assistants and Managers and Associates. Each one, only a cough or two away from a given other, in a game of Six Degrees of Job Designation.

They gawp, is all, as the sun rises on a day holding nothing more impossible than infinity, in terms of opportunity and outcome. As it rises, for them, on the full, effervescent moon of a man some of the gathered can’t help but recognise. Each and every riveted one of them, themselves, now driven to acts of irregularity. People, prone to silent scowling on their commute, today turning previously heavy heads—now helium filled—to their neighbours. Engaging strangers in an exchange of exclamations. Sharing various facial expressions of either bemusement or amusement, with similarly bemused and/or amused people who could well be their friends, but aren’t. Quick one-two’s of bared teeth thrown and correctly construed as smiles—little “I can’t believe this” smiles—made in response to any prolonged eye contact.

But all of this is fleeting. And their numerous attentions soon return to a man regarded by many as one of the best of them.

And of course, as one, they stare.

They stare, as the pearlescent whites of their inconceivably complex eyes are steadily, and hungrily, consumed. Their bodies too—fading away, until these people form nothing more than a monochrome polka-panel of impenetrable, quite simple, pupils. Each dilated to its bleeding black edge.

And as their cheers slip down an indiscernible gradient, to jeers …

And as their faces pucker and sour …

And as their gestures broaden, and their smiles, once so fluid, harden to solid smirks …

And as they hold phones to their faces, pressing eyes and noses and nostrils, white-raw, to the glass …

And even as the word fuck sends smoke twirling high and pretty into the morning air …

Be sure to make no mistake.

Because, as this naked man grabs an unfortunate, clothed, woman and holds her in what could be called an embrace. This is, without exception, the highlight of their day.


IMG_1339Coming To a Van Near You
By Paul Gray

Sebastian Guano (not his real name) gave his bowtie a final neurotic twiddle, and smoothed back his ample, if greying, locks with both slim-fingered hands. Rising to mouth-level before him only the greasy mike on its stand separated him from the filthy glass wall through which he could just about view the lone technician (tattooed oaf!) faffing about in his attempts to ‘set up’. God, Sebastian thought, hands on hips: what a dump! Not at all what he’d expected. He rather doubted that the other voice-over artistes—the Talking-Book mob—would have to put up with such bog-standard surroundings. Why, it was a mere booth! And none too clean either, judging by those cobwebs. And that awful stink of oil … !

And yet. It didn’t matter. For this was his break, the opportunity by which his talents would at last be conveyed beyond the limited, stifled circuit of his acquaintance to the wider world beyond. And about time, too. Fourteen years he’d had of it. Fourteen years, after graduating from the Frinton School of Drama, of slogging about in weekly rep, declaiming to hordes of unappreciative pigs who probably thought Hamlet was a bacon sandwich. God, it had been hell—hell! But now had come his chance to break away from all that and receive the due his gifts merited. True, he had only one line to speak—but WHAT a line: declamatory, incisive, self-explanatory, emotive, power-packed! It had everything if delivered the right way: HIS way, though what, exactly, that way was to be he did not quite know. But he would find it. Had he not sat up every night this past week struggling to bring forth the intrinsic dynamic possibilities that he sensed lay locked within these deceptively simple syllables? It had been hell—hell, but he was ready now. If necessary, he would tear the damn line to pieces in his quest for integrity. There would be blood, sweat! There would be—

Click!

“Okay, mate, when yer ready.”

The scruffy engineer, earphones up about his ears now, gave Sebastian the nod. (‘Mate’! God … ) Sebastian sniffed, cleared his throat, and delivered his ‘Lion’s Roar’, specially nicked from Peter O’Toole for the occasion. Nothing like it for clearing the pipes.

“You all right, mate?” queried the engineer.

“Is the tape … running?” enquired Sebastian. Disdaining his own greasy earphones, he raised one arm for dramatic effect and stepped forward. No prompt. No prompt needed for what he had taken so vitally to heart.

“Stand well clear— this vehicle IS reverSING!” he thundered, and staggered back, already shaking his head. Not right. Not right!

Click!

“Nice one, mate. Fanks a lot—”

“Again, please!”

“Yer wot?”

“I’d like to do it again,” snapped Sebastian. “The emphasis … all wrong. Wrong, do you hear?!”

An incredulous pause ensued. Then:

Click!

Once more the great thespian lunged for the mike.

“Stand well CLEAR—THIS vehicle IS REversing!” he screamed. “No! NO!”

Click!

“Thass all right, that,” said the engineer. “Fanks very—”

“Again! I say again! The projection … something … not right … ”

“Look,” sighed the engineer, “It’s only an ’aulage firm, not the bleedin’ Old Vic …”

“Just one more,” gasped Sebastian, his temples throbbing. “Just one—I swear it!”

“Look.” It was the engineer, in kindly tones. “If you just dropped the silly voice …”

Sebastian threw him a baleful glare. “Have you ever acted?” he hissed.

“Er … not really … ”

“Then how dare you tell me how to deliver a line!”

“It’s only an ’aulage firm!”

“Again!”

“Fack me … ”

Click!

Sebastian recalled those occasions when, on taking applause and mouthing apparent obsequies to the audience, he had been secretly muttering: “Pigs … pigs … ”

Yes, yes. Here was a great clue. Enmity. Hate. Hate the buggers.

“STAND WELL CLEAR—THIS VEHICLE IS REVERSING!!” he raged like Richard III. And then, all but sobbing: “Again!”

“Fack me … ”

Click!

Three hours and forty-one takes later, he nailed it.

*

Sebastian and his bemused agent had been hanging round the haulage firm all afternoon, waiting. At last there came, from around the corner, the sound of fast revving, followed by the tell-tale premonitory bleeping. Electrified, Sebastian rose and clutched his agent’s arm.

“Hark!”

“Stand well clear—this vehicle is reVERsing!” declaimed the mechanical voice happily.

“That is MY voice!” said Sebastian smugly and stepped forth just in time for the reversing vehicle to hit him.


Beauty’s Heir
By Priya Dabak

Emmi braces herself and steps up to the podium. Absently tucks a dark lock of hair behind her ear. Eyes focussed down, a lopsided grin on her face, “Hi.” That’s original. A pause. The grin dissolves. She looks at the crowd. Catches a lady in a crisp pantsuit at the front table winking at her. Across the room, a young man gives her a thumbs up. And Emmi, with a trusting spurt of confidence, a confessor finally letting go, commences her rehearsed speech.

“Hello. I am honoured to be here today as a guest of the AnStrat Society. I applaud them for the work they have been doing all these years. I am new here, but just as passionate to the cause, if not more. Because, let’s face it, it has gone on for long enough. The hoax, the pretence. The truth needs to be … freed. I am here for justice. I’m here for my great-great-great-great, you get my point.” The formality of tone makes her uncomfortable. A nervous giggle bursts out. Her laugh is tinged with that loud Italian charm; the media will wax eloquent tomorrow. ” … great-great-great grandmother. I am here, because I discovered something about myself that changes … everything. And I don’t just mean my personal life, though there is that.” Stick to the script, Emmi.

“I am what you have been looking for, for ages. Proof. Alive and fighting. My name is Emmi, short for Emily Lanier Johnson. Good morning.” The middle name is just a test. Twinkles and flashes of recognition among the listeners. Wow, these people know their shit. Her face responds in spite of her, a naughty conspiring smile. It aims to be pretty. On her, it twists. The cameras scoop it up with exasperating precision. Tomorrow it will be in the papers. And unlike most of yesterday’s news, it will stay. Her favourite caption for that photo, her memoir will say, had been from The New Local—Beauty’s successive heir. In another century, Amelia Lanier would have appreciated the pun.

It all started with a rumour. A joking comment on fine ancestry at Emmi’s rehearsal dinner. Really, Mama? She was intrigued. Emmi, who was never passionate about anything, found an unlikely obsession. The wedding was pushed ahead. And a little further. Months of nothing but old letters and sleepovers at various libraries led to a strained relationship. Then a confrontation. On its heels followed the ruthless heartless break-up.

Emmi’s search only grew stronger. It was two years before the last piece of the puzzle fell in place. A signed letter. A thank you, from her to him. Poor Amelia, all alone. So, the discovery, when it came, was almost a let-down. Where do we go from here, Emmi? AnStrat was the suggestion of an old aunt. Indulge in your fantasies, everyone is allowed those, the aunt said, when Emmi visited her at the hospice. A polite thank-you was all Emmi could muster then.

But look! Today on stage, Emmi Johnson’s words have the audience rapt. “And now! We call ourselves Anti-Stratford! How she would have hated it! Who am I to speak of love? But the truth is nicer than one is led to imagine. He was lending her a voice.” There was a cheer, unexpected. Maybe you are crazy, Emmi, with your flights of fancy, but no more than these people.

“The trickiest part of any speech, my publicist says—yes, I had to get one of those—is the punchline. But I have just the right one.” Emmi knows that Mary-Anne, with her professional bun and sharp nose, will disapprove of any improvisation. But Emmi is right, what a line it will be. Fit to be a headline! “Here goes. This discovery like most great finds leads to more questions. And do you know what the most pressing one is? What on earth is the feminine of “Bard?”

In her memoir, years from now, Emmi will write—

Prologue. The night air rustles with secrets. Desire burns in her, like the sun. She watches him. Casting aside his doublet, rolling up his sleeves, that bumbling grace of a handsome drunkard. The young actor stumbles into her bed.

Cue playful laughter. “Thou, dear Sir, art intoxicated,” she chides him, as he buries his face in her midnight locks. ” … and thou, m’ lady, art intoxicating,” he replies. A well-worn game.

Later, she must ask. The performance? Wide dark eyes, voice hoarse with hope.

“’Twas marvellous. Such wond’rs thou maketh, thy audience stood entranc’d.” His sincerity brings a rushing red to Amelia’s grey cheek. Then cupping her chin in his hand, he tells her what they have named him. The Bard of Stratford. Boyish delight in his eyes, teasing.

She slaps his hand away, annoyed yet pleased. Ready with a retort. “O! What’s in a name?”


Air-Born
By Eve Merrick-Williams

It all began when my friend June got put up the duff by her skydiving boyfriend Jim.

They were the first couple to make the beast with two backs jumping out of a DC3 at 50,000 feet. I was falling alongside with the camera to record the event. It was only my second jump.

I’m glad to say that Jim wasn’t a stayer, though it seemed a bloody long time coming with the ground rushing up at 32 feet per sec. I decided after that that skydiving was not for me and I resolutely refused any more jumps—at least the skydiving kind.

I was having coffee with June when she broached the subject of me being her birthing partner. I’d never heard the word ‘doula’ before. But it seemed cool; all I had to do was attend antenatal classes with her, generally be supportive, and be there at the birth.

No problem. I thought I might rather enjoy it.

About eight months in, she dropped the bombshell. She and Jim wanted baby Jenny to be air-born! Well, I knew they were both a bit mad, but this was beyond. I started backing towards the door, muttering things like no way and you’re both freaking mad. Then June started crying, and saying she didn’t think her best and oldest friend would let her down like this.

Well, naturally, being a spineless jellyfish, I gave in. We made our preparations, and a friend at the flying club loaned his Cessna 421 Golden Eagle. It had room for six people including the pilot; so there was room for Jim, the midwife and me.

The plane was fueled and ready to go; the pilot on standby.

Well, 6am the phone rang and it was Jim … ‘Pink squadron scramble.’ June was waiting, looking like a whale in a pink nighty and parachute harness. (The parachute was a custom job with the straps rearranged to allow little Jenny free exit.)

The pains were coming pretty fast and June and I were sitting in the back of the Jeep panting like a pair of deranged setters on a hot day.

We came to a skidding halt next to the Cessna, its engines already revving. We bundled June into the cabin and followed, buckling our chutes as we went. ‘Tower, this is Bravo zero foxtrot clear for takeoff.’

‘Bravo zero foxtrot you are cleared for takeoff, runway two.’

With a roar of engines we shot along the runway accompanied by the piercing screams of June calling Jim a freaking horny son of a goat and threatening that she was going to do a Bobbitt on him if she survived.

The plan was simple: As soon as the top of little Jenny’s head showed we’d all bail out. Well, that was okay except that June got stuck in the door. Unfortunately I got pushed out first and was hanging onto the door while the others tried to extricate June who was screaming blue murder at this point and swearing like a pub full of sailors. Suddenly she pops out the door like a cork out of a champagne bottle.

I lose my grip and begin dropping like a stone. I get a perfect view of baby Jenny’s emergence into the world.

She evades the midwife and begins her first skydive sans parachute. Daddy tries to get into position but misjudges his speed and overshoots. Jenny’s dropping like a stone and screaming her little lungs out and falls right into my arms. With a sigh of relief I cut the cord, and pull the rip cord and baby Jenny is air-born.


The Phantom Lover
By Nels Hanson

The white stallion in sparkling bridle bursts from the trees, running through the grass, bearing a rider with a stripe of silver dollars heel to hip. His sombrero blows straight out with the horse’s mane and an ivory pistol grip flashes at his thigh above the star-wheel spur.

“Un momento, Rey Blanco [A moment, White King],” the horseman murmurs, lightly pulling at the rein.

They stop short at the crest of oaks and wild wheat, staring out across the strange valley filled with millions of electric lights, dimming the stars.

Summoned by the secret scent of dry breathing grasses and the resin of bay laurel from a hidden creek, remembered star jasmine and blooming four o’clock, the Flower of Peru—the perfume of a black-veiled woman wafts through the night, delaying the heart of the urgent rider.

He shivers with her sweetness and recalls a vanished April, an evening among pungent blossoms of lemon and orange, quick shining eyes and waist-length raven hair.

The yellow light touches softly at his belt and holster buckles, the brass cartridges asleep in his crossed bandoliers. Now he slips the cameo from his short jacket and holds it open to the rising August moon.

“Ah, Belle Solar [Ah, Lovely Sun] … Tu nombre lleva luz [Your name carries light]—como un ángel [like an angel]. Adelante [Advance],” he says, and Rey Blanco leaps forward, plunging down the hill of high oats, his raised head like the masthead of a Viking ship parting a silver sea.

“Rio de vida o rio de muerte, quien sabe, eh, Rey Blanco [River of life or river of death, who knows, eh, White King]?” the rider asks, and they descend toward the white ribbon of water.

Past the clinging branches of Manzanita and buckeye, through sycamore and cottonwood and tart-smelling willow, the horse enters the shimmering current, splashing up at moon-bright hooves.

The stream quickens in sudden waves as it joins the wider water tumbling toward the valley—one story meeting another—and the lone Joaquin Murrieta guides his brilliant horse to the near bank of the swift and icy Kings River.

Under the branches of madrone, ignoring the call of great-horned owl and the night heron’s cry—broad wings beating above the constant river—Joaquin turns sharply to the north out of the willows onto the grassland, to race the sun.

Intent as a charging cavalry captain, he spares no glance at the barn and ranch house, the corral of swirling horses, a palomino lifting its head, whinnying at the running snowy stallion.

“Una vez amor, una vez amor, una vez amor, una vez amor [Once love, once love, once love, once love].” Rey Blanco’s hooves beat against the asphalt, iron shoes striking fire.

Down the long hill to the main road, letting the sleeping pastures and farms sail away faster now, racing on the flat land, Joaquin urges, “Apúrese, Rey Blanco, apúrese [Hurry, White King, hurry]! Ah, Rey Blanco, si tuvieramos alas [Ah, White King, if only we had wings].”

Black scarf flying at his neck, Joaquin bolts through the nighttime-shuttered town he once would have robbed, beyond the hill of shining tombstones.

“Ahora solamente el guiño del ojo oscuro, Rey Blanco [Now just the wink of a dark eye, White King]!”

On his forehead Joaquin feels the sun, aimed through the notches of the Rockies, falling in amber shafts across Utah and Nevada, bathing the granite eastern flank of the Sierras in a lateral line, climbing the bare citadels and minarets toward the summit.

Closer now. “Apúrese, Rey Blanco!” Joaquin shouts as the sinking orange moon touches the Sierra Madre and the jagged Sierra Nevada Mountains sharpen against the brightening sky.

At a wall of dark walnuts Joaquin nods to the right and Rey Blanco veers like a white arrow, leaving the road and jumping a levee, galloping through the grove where the last moonlight falls in dusty rain.

“Este vez llegue a tiempo [This time I arrive in time]—Como te prometí [As I promised you]—”

A one-story house freshly painted too-bright pink fronts a park of English walnuts with thick trunks whitewashed against crown gall. A white peacock struts stiffly along the open porch, dragging its tail past a grilled door and row of barred windows. At the steps, a pair of chocolate Doberman Pinschers waits alertly on their haunches, heads tilted as they watch the road.

Now It’s Morning in America! a blazing red, white and blue placard announces from the yard’s sudden island of sun as the walnut leaves flame yellow, the pink porch leaps crimson, and the golden peacock shrieks to its mate.

“Otra vez llego demasiado tarde, siempre tarde, mi querida, mi único amor [Again I’m too late, always late, my darling, my only love]! Joaquin cries under his breath, then whispers: “Ah, lo siento, Belle Solar, lo siento tanto [Ah, I’m sorry, Lovely Sun, so sorry]—”

Across the street, an awakened glowing structure—Un castillo secreto en nubes verdes [A secret castle in green clouds], Joaquin thinks—peers from the branches of an enormous elm. Great upward-reaching limbs spread above the white house, throwing shade over half its roof and wide lawn.

The sunlight explodes all around him on leaf and sparkling sand and the milky horse glides swiftly under the tree into dappled morning shadow, now turning dense with arriving late afternoon.

Shouldering a century and a half of loss like an iron cape, Joaquin yearns toward the new home of his old love, the ravished Belle Solar, until midnight when he’ll wake beside a fire’s ghost above the Kings River Canyon.

“Belle?”

“Yes, Joaquin. Hurry. The white men are here.”

Quickly he mounts Rey Blanco to race through death’s shadows toward love’s reunion, to meet in a dream cast by a book in a stranger’s open hands, to resume at last the lovers’ interrupted story.

*

Editor’s Note: Joaquin Murrieta was a Mexican bandit who turned to crime (during the California Gold Rush) after his wife was raped and his property stolen. Murrieta’s legend was recorded in a dime novel and may have inspired the creation of Zorro.


IMG_4744All-Inclusive Vacation for Pessimists
By Ashley Memory

If you’re a pessimist, you’ve probably avoided treating yourself to a vacation in paradise because it seems as if there’s little that can go wrong, right? Think again. Just for you, the one who takes pleasure in imagining the absolute worst and watching it come true, your friends at the I Told You So Institute (ITYSI) have designed the perfect vacation. Everything that can go wrong sure will or we’ll refund your money.

For just $1,250 per person, enjoy an all-inclusive five-night stay for two adults and up to three children in a two-bedroom ocean view suite at beautiful Villa del Paraíso in Cancun, Mexico. This low price includes airfare, ground transportation, all meals, snacks, beverages (yes, even alcohol), unlimited use of resort equipment, and free excursions to area attractions. Located on the famed Yucatan Peninsula along the shores of the Caribbean Sea, the five-star Mediterranean-style Villa del Paraíso is the kind of place you thought that only celebrities could afford. Sophisticated and elegant with stunning views, each suite also features a fully equipped kitchen and a hot tub.

“As soon as I walked into our suite, I was instantly depressed because I couldn’t help thinking of the dump I’d be returning to back home. Yes, I would have loved to let my cares float away in the hot tub but Clementine and the twins immediately jumped in and claimed it as their personal wave pool. With all the ruckus in the room, I had no choice but to sequester myself in the bathroom just to get some peace and quiet. I could have done that at home.” —Gwendolyn Quattlebaum, Oakridge, Tennessee

Cancun is famous for its virgin white beaches and turquoise waters. We offer complimentary lounge chairs, towels and umbrellas that you may use free of charge for a day at the beach. If water sports are your thing, help yourself to state-of-the-art snorkel gear or dive equipment and go on one of five daily expeditions that leave from the hotel marina every hour on the hour. And if this isn’t enough adventure for you, take advantage of excursions for parasailing, swimming with the dolphins, or exploring local Mayan ruins and more!

“There is no way that water could be that blue without chemicals. I’m convinced that the staff at Villa del Paraíso drops some sort of tablets into the water and pours bleach on the sand every night. And while I know they mean well by providing such a wide variety of excursions, it was too much for our family. Just when Casper and Culbertson agreed to swim with the dolphins, they changed their minds when they saw the bus leave for the zip-line adventure. We spent most of our time here alternatively bickering and then sulking. We won’t forget this vacation any time soon.” —Veronica and Andrew Petty, Savannah, Georgia

You may eat your meals within the sanctity of your private suite or opt to dine in the main restaurant with the other guests, who will be eager to get to know you. Enjoy a 24-hour buffet with hot and cold dishes or order special entrées from a tempting menu that includes porterhouse steak, loin of pork and chicken roasted in a wood-fired oven. Those of you with a sweet tooth will relish our roving dessert cart, which offers crème brûlée, bread pudding topped with bananas foster, and triple-decker tiramisu, just to name a few. Leave the diet at home!

“Yeah, the food was tasty all right and there was plenty of it. But after three days of stuffing myself, I felt like a bloated whale. To make matters worse, my wife kept poking my belly and telling me that it served me right because I always overdo it. I then pointed out that I was getting motion sickness watching her saddlebags jiggle while she shook the sand out of her towel. Don’t get me wrong. Neither of us expected a second honeymoon. We’re just lucky we didn’t kill each other.” —Bernie Dunlow, Dayton, Ohio

The Villa del Paraíso staff has innumerable talents but they share one common goal, and it is to satisfy your every whim. Whether you’re craving a midnight snack or want to share champagne on your balcony, just pick up the phone and dial “0.” Need your pants or dress ironed before dinner? No problem! Need a babysitter so you can enjoy a night of romance with your sweetie? Absolutely! Whatever we can do for you we will and we will do with it with a smile or your next visit is perfectly free.

“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this but the staff was too accommodating. Their sunny demeanor goaded me to no end. I purposefully threw a hissy fit more than once because I wanted to see if they were real human beings. When my waiter only laughed after I threw my wine in his face, it made me want to work that much harder to make him mad, which became an obsession for me. I will definitely come back! Thanks, Villa del Paraíso!” —Chuck Killjoy, Dover, Delaware

In the end, if you didn’t find fault with Villa del Paraíso, it’s simply because your five days ended too soon and you had to go back home. But we do our best to make even your departure unpleasant by mis-packing your belongings and loading your bags into the wrong airport shuttle. Don’t worry, we won’t waste your time by hosting one of those awkward little bon voyage parties. We would hate for you to miss your flight. (Although that would be icing on the absolute-worst-ever-going-wrong memory for you!) But that doesn’t mean the Villa del Paraíso staff won’t be crying to see you go. We’ll be (less than) heartbroken but we’ll somehow summon the strength to gather as a group in the lobby to hold the door open and blow kisses on your way out, declaring, See you next year!


IMG_3818LIFE OF NIGHT
By Perry McDaid

Friendless because it was that sort of society which skipped children whose parents found better things to do with their money than spend on MMORPG devices and credit for social sites, Sean had kicked his football around his garden until the sight of him had bothered those preparing for their Saturday get together.

“Go’on down the street and play with your friends,” his father had urged, assuming that child dynamics worked the same way it had when he was young. He’d passed some kids in the car on his way back from signing at the DSA office.

Sean didn’t even bother to glare. This routine had been played out so many times that he no longer had the emotional energy to be frustrated. He silently lifted the ball and dragged his feet down the middle of the sweeping road, not even bothering to keep an eye on traffic.

The eleven o’clock dimness was soaking in the essence of the deeper night, and clouds were gathering to lend a hand. Sean ignored the glower of a taxi man as he swerved to avoid the boy. The toot of the horn only cracked the gathering quiet on a temporary basis.

Sean headed for the poorly placed parking space for a house on the bend of the main estate road: an afterthought by a lazy architect with more notion of the aesthetic than the pragmatic. The crowd was long gone: some lassoed by caring parents; some to the nearby park—closed for the night, but still accessible to the innovative tween.

He dropped the ball and pinned it perfectly on the bounce; the impact on the low brick wall resounding through the cochlear estate. The rebound narrowly missed another car. Sean didn’t bother to note if it were a taxi or a neighbour. He waited out the scolding and for the driver to move on; then walked to where his ball had rolled, retrieved it and repeated the procedure.

*

Chased at midnight because the neighbours opposite had had enough of the constant echoing banging which reverberated right through their supposedly sound-proof double glazing to ruin any notion of sleep, or late night television, Sean mumbled something incoherent even to himself, lifted the ball and headed towards the mouth of the estate: away from his home. He didn’t hear the annoyed homeowner call him a “Bloody vampire”, so didn’t wonder at the reference.

He threw the ball into a pensioner’s garden he knew to be too timid to object or even move the ball, and walked to the electric box, reaching into the space between it and the park security fence to retrieve the stash he had been steadily ferreting away since last week in a mud covered plastic bag so as not to attract attention.

He could hear the rest of neglected ones whispering on the night air: the girls sometimes giggling; sometimes uttering excited squeals. He dipped his hand into the bag as he walked towards the access point, half-extracting the bottles of fizzy sugar drink and roll of foil-encased soluble pain-killers which mixed so well.

His decoding of the sounds from the hidden social group told him that this was the perfect time to arrive. Tucking his contributions away, he tied the bag into a knot and lobbed it over.

Smiling for the first time that day, he braced his back against the lamppost and walked up the eight-foot security fence until he could comfortably push off and merely step onto the fence to drop beyond and into the life of night.


IMG_4975Following
By Jacqueline Masumian

The first time Sunny noticed the man was a Friday in late September as she walked her little dog along Winding Lane. She caught sight of him when the dog stopped to sniff a mailbox post and she happened to glance back. He was standing about a hundred feet away staring at her. Black jeans, black tennis shoes, and one of those black hoodies young people like to wear that hid his face from view.

As she and the dog moved on, so did he, staying always the same distance behind. He sauntered, swaggering like the thugs she saw on TV. Whatever was he doing in this neighborhood, she wondered. Every time she and the dog stopped, he stopped also. When they turned left onto Old Farmers Road, she lost sight of him, but later, as they made the loop onto Side Hill, he was there again.

Yanking on the leash, Sunny headed home. She had no money with her, no key, no phone, but his persistent presence had her heart pounding. Every time she glanced back, he was there, following.

By the time she reached her driveway she was nearly running, popping the leash to keep the dog in tow. She looked back once more and there he was, loping along. Then he stopped as she reached her front door. Once inside she thought about calling the police, but what was the dark man doing, really? He was merely walking. The dog hadn’t even barked at him.

The next day he was there again. And the next. He always appeared from nowhere and followed. He never approached her or spoke, but he was ever-present, wearing the same black outfit, ambling along behind her. And so it continued every day as she walked her dog and breathed in the crisp fall air.

One blustery day Sunny chose not to walk the dog. She looked out the drippy windows, and while she did not see him, she could feel the man’s presence, like an invisible ghost hanging on the windowpane, looking in and waiting.

Sunny decided, after much thought on the subject, that her life was too busy to worry about who this stranger was—her days were too full of books and music, friends and activities. Old age has its privileges, and she wasn’t going to miss a one. Why should she care if he followed her? He seemed harmless enough.

And so it went for weeks—the Dark Man (since he seemed to need one, she gave him the name “the Dark Man”) following her and the dog on their daily jaunt. She wondered if this could be considered stalking. But why would a man stalk a woman her age? What did he want? He always stayed the same distance behind. Though, as the days wore on into October and early November, she did notice he followed a few paces closer each day.

Eventually, he became company for her. She realized he’d become part of her daily routine, an almost essential element. She thought about trying to speak to him, to get to know him, but she held back. She was curious, but cautious. Best to keep things as they were, she thought. And so she and the dog and their unlikely friend walked along together day after day.

One afternoon Sunny was feeling reckless. She couldn’t stand it; she had to ask him. After one of their frequent stops along Winding Lane, instead of walking left onto Old Farmers, she turned on her heel, tugging at the dog’s leash, and headed directly back toward the Dark Man. She walked up to him and looked him straight in the eyes, eyes that were deeply hooded.

“Hey, why are you following me? Who are you, anyway?” she said. He was silent and stood his ground. And then she knew.

“Oh, no!” she cried, her hand flying to her mouth, “Oh, no! You? Hah!” And she began to laugh. Right in his face. She laughed so hard, the dog gave her a quizzical look.

“Am I supposed to be afraid of you?” she asked the Dark Man. “Is that it? Hah! No way!” And she laughed and laughed some more, wiping tears from her cheeks. “That’d be silly to be afraid of you. Hey, you can follow me around all you like, but don’t expect me to be afraid!”

The Dark Man, of course, said nothing. But neither did he turn away.


IMG_2666I Don’t Know You Anymore
By Greg Jenkins

I had piles of money, probably too much money, and I could visit the Face Place whenever I wanted.

At first I was circumspect. I opted for a better nose, a more decisive chin; I eliminated the purplish bags beneath my jaded eyes.

But, as people often will, I went a step further. I began to purchase entire new faces, whole new identities. By turns I adopted the meticulously barbered guise of a senator, the wise and sympathetic look of a pastor, the lean haunted visage of a drugged-out rock ’n’ roller.

I might change my appearance once or twice a week. Then once or twice a day. Then a dozen times a day. It was a kick. The technology was superb, and my bank account was more than equal to the challenge.

Zena, of course, was enthusiastic. “I don’t know you anymore,” she’d gush and run her hands all over me, particularly over my latest face. “It’s wonderful!”

Soon enough, however, I was visited by a feeling of boredom and redundancy, and I knew I needed to drive ahead, to attain the next level of (re)invention.

I began to explore looks outside the human paradigm.

At the Face Place I told them I wanted the features of a bird—and not just any bird but a cockatoo, complete with beady eyes, a curved beak and a wild stand-up crest that would bring me a mien of perpetual agitation. My hefty bankbook supported my cause, and almost instantly I was a birdman. Mysterious, exotic.

I moved on to other species. I became an orangutan, a polar bear, a razorback hog. With a nod to The Beatles I became a walrus.

Even at this I felt a sense of being balked and restricted, and now I began to step outside the tame world of mere mammals. I became a snake, a lizard, and, in what I considered perhaps my grandest move, a sea anemone, with a cluster of pale translucent tentacles floating about my toothless mouth. I confess I felt a thrill when the tentacles quivered in the breeze.

Zena was enraptured. “I don’t know you anymore,” she gushed. Her hands roamed all over me. “It’s wonderful!”

Alas, I still wasn’t convinced I’d found it, the sheer specialness I’d been searching for in a face.

I reflected. It was stately sums of money, a royal plenitude, that had allowed my little spree to occur, and I felt I should steer myself in a direction that would accent my lofty status.

I wanted a face that would epitomize society’s highest rank. A face that exuded wealth and class, yet was kindhearted, empathetic, just and sincere.

Abruptly I returned to the Face Place and became Queen Elizabeth.

Zena had her doubts. “I don’t know you anymore,” she said. Her hands stayed put.

The mulish response somehow pleased me. I felt a measure of peace. I owned the exalted face of Queen Elizabeth, and it was good, it was right.

It was wonderful.


Undershirt
By Karen Levy

Last week, he took off his undershirt when he got into bed and I saw a smear of something on his back. I reached to wipe it away but it stayed, neat and permanent. Another woman’s name tattooed right there.

When? I wanted to ask. Why? But my mouth was dry.

He didn’t pull away. He didn’t explain.

I got up from the bed. I wanted to scream and throw things and beat him with my fists, but I didn’t. I put on my clothes.

He’d said he loved me but he’d tattooed another woman’s name on his skin.

He watched from the bed and said nothing.

I left the motel room and went home to my husband. He was on the sofa, watching sports.

I sat down next to him and cried softly.

I’m so sad, I said.

He put his arm around me and pulled me close. Forget it, he said, let’s watch the game.


Dear Colleagues
By Anna O’Brien

Professor Cecil Eriksson clasps his large, callused hands behind his back as he gazes out the window toward the bay.

“Dear colleagues,” he says in a voice so quiet and without his usual boyish enthusiasm that the lunch crowd behind him immediately hushes. “Although I am officially here today to tell you of my latest discovery of two previously unknown kelp species—” a slightly upward lilt betrays his hidden pride,“—I am truly here to announce my retirement.”

The scientists rustle in their chairs, pausing in their almost synchronous chewing of the halibut filets. Did they hear him correctly? Professor Cecil Eriksson, father of the Eriksson method for carbon dating Mesozoic substrata? Discoverer of not one but two sub-species of Arctic zooplankton? Curator of the second largest sea star collection on the planet?

Dr. Hallssonar, better known for her ability to keep her somewhat green complexion in check than her breakthrough study on the sexual dimorphism of the paddleworm, recalls the Professor’s sense of youthful adventure.

“Dear colleagues!” he’d call out at previous meetings. “Let’s climb that ragged butte over there after lunch. I’ve heard from the peak you can spy mermaids!”

A previous intern of the Professor’s, Dr. Gunnarsson recollects fondly the time he and the Professor calculated the retreat of a glacier while being stalked by a polar bear.

“Dear colleague,” the Professor whispered as Dr. Gunnarsson raised a shaky rifle at the hulking white mass trundling toward them. “The mother ship cares more about the loss of a rare bear than the loss of a researcher.”

Basically, he had mapped the entire country. Perhaps that was what triggered retirement—had all of Iceland finally been dissected and catalogued?

The audience watches as the Professor continues to gaze out the window. The yellow afternoon sun warms the reflection off the water and bathes everyone in a favorable light. Then someone sees the Professor begin to drip. A puddle of viscous fluid starts to gather on the tile next to his right shoe.

Now they have their reason.

“Dear colleagues,” repeats the Professor. “It has become obvious I’ve overstayed my welcome.” He turns from the window to face his audience, looking so morose in his smart gray suit and round glasses that the entire room sighs in utmost empathy.

“It’s time for me to go home.” The Professor walks out of the luncheon but not before discreetly putting a white napkin over the puddle he has created on the floor. Green goo bleeds slowly through the cloth.

At a back table, Dr. Gunnarsson sits confused. “Well, don’t we all have our problems?” he says, slipping a green tentacle from behind him to scratch his own back.

“Put that thing away before the waiter sees,” snaps Dr. Hallssonar, growing greener by the second and hastily applying mounds of powder to her face. “We’re on our own now.” She licks her lips, eyeing the luncheon staff. “Maybe now we’ll get away with eating them.”


Issue 8: January 2016


IMG_5797A Pain Artist
By Leland Neville

Before YouTube and reality television there was a brief but passionate interest in pain artists. I performed in the cutthroat Rust Belt. Local TV news crews were often present. Men laughed uneasily, women screamed, and children watched open-mouthed. The occasional groupie would even follow me from an Econo Lodge in Buffalo to a Super 8 Motel in Detroit and back again. I posed for photographs and signed autographs. Times really have changed.

My boss, a serious-minded operator, never ad-libbed. “Ladies and gentlemen, according to the FBI you will probably be stabbed, shot, or raped at some point in your life. And if—God forbid—you should resist and injure the man who is attacking you … ” My boss melodramatically paused. “If you should harm that man who wants to kill or rape you, well, you will probably end up in jail. And what will happen to him? He will get your house. He will get your life savings. He will be entitled to a lifetime of government benefits … ”

The complimentary chicken dinners remained untouched. All eyes were fixed on me, standing off to the side, stoic.

“In my pocket,” said my boss, “is the user friendly state-of-the-art devise that will save your house, your money, and your life.”

He withdrew the silver Taz-2000 from the right front pocket of his pants and held it over his head. The stun gun glowed but the potential customers in the first row of tables continued to stare at me. I was of average height and build. My looks were forgettable. I was an acceptable everyman.

“The Taz-2000 is guaranteed NOT to cause your assailant to suffer permanent injuries. Guaranteed. You will not be sued by some slick lawyer for the crime of saving your own life.”

Disgruntled murmurings escaped the stifling meeting room.

“Don’t worry!” shouted my boss. “He will suffer! He will pray for death! Guaranteed!”

Polite applause ensued. They thought they understood pain and revenge. The Taz-2000 was about standing up and pushing back. It was not about hoping for the best and believing in tomorrow.

I took two steps forward and folded my arms across my chest. The florescent lights brightened, the temperature rose, and there was a churchlike silence.

“We need a volunteer victim,” said my boss.

He ignored the raised arms and always selected a small middle-aged woman from the first row. As my boss praised the technology of the Taz-2000 I surreptitiously moved to within six feet of the intended victim. I lowered my arms and stood at attention.

“Now fire!” my boss commanded. “He’s prepared to attack. Aim and fire.”

The “victim” inevitably looked askance at the Taz-2000 that seemed to have mysteriously materialized in her tiny trembling hand.

“Just pull the trigger, honey.”

“But what if I miss?”

“Impossible. The electrodes in the darts are equipped with infrared homing sensors, just like the Navy uses on its Sidewinder missiles.”

“But … ”

“He’s a bad man, dear. He’s a convicted felon. I’m certain you’ve encountered bad men before. He’s a school bully. He’s a pervert. Buffalo isn’t getting any safer.”

The initial shock always felt like a vicious and unexpected kick to my stomach.

“Oh my!” The woman’s voice trembled.

My knees buckled and I gasped; the sour air was too thin. I lost control of my bladder, but remained conscious and aware of my surroundings.

“I think you have put the fear of God in him,” said my boss to my would-be victim.

I welcomed the pain. I burned and twitched. My head bowed into my chest. I moaned and shrunk into a helpless ball of flesh.

“Is he going to be all right?”

The gummy floor stuck to my face. My hands grasped at the unrelenting waves of misery.

“Should we call an ambulance?”

My eyes welled with hot tears. I was an artist, articulating the immediate. The pain intensified and the ineffable became visible.

“Ladies and gentlemen, he’s going to be better than ever.”

Perhaps I had perceived my soul or essence. Maybe I had witnessed the arrangement of my neurons. Regardless, it was a moment of undeniable authenticity. The more you try to avoid pain, the more you will suffer.

There was applause and a few cheers as I rose to my feet. Cameras flashed. Bleary eyed, I scanned the crowd. Had my pain and art been nothing more than a freak show? I never learned the answer and it probably never mattered.

The boss and I then proceeded to sell the Taz-2000s. The three-year warranty was extra.


IMG_5905Ice and Avalanche
By Cari Scribner

You hear the horn toot before the guy on the motorcycle waves. You are on the sidewalk at 4:01 p.m., leaving work, Tuesday. There is black ice so you are walking duck-footed. That’s the thing about black ice; you never see it until it knocks you on your ass.

He recognizes me from behind, you think. Then you remind yourself of how he knows you from every angle: he knows you as a young bride, in orgasm, birthing babies, sobbing at his mother’s funeral, losing jobs, gaining weight, howling over a suspicious mammo, screaming, laughing, mocking, satisfied, sarcastic, gone.

You were married to him for 26 years before things collapsed in on themselves. All your shared history was swallowed by a chasm in the wake of a runaway avalanche. Poof.

Earlier, a couple months ago, he drove up to the curb leaving his truck running to drop off the child support check. Wearing the blue T-shirt with the sailboat you gave him for his last birthday. Now, he guns the engine of his motorcycle, a non-Harley, his gift to himself after the failed marriage.

You no longer send out Christmas cards, post pics on Facebook, stop for milk at the corner Quick Mart. You avoid the old life that hits you in the face every time you look at your sons, talk to your mother, find a kindergarten craft made with sticky glue by the boys, hear any song from the ’80s, dream, weep.

The ice is slick. Startled by the horn, you almost fall over, toppled by something called grief.


Cerise
By Nod Ghosh

I lost a pair of shoes that day. Blood red with killer heels.

You said people don’t notice things by their absence. But I do.

It was the day Escobar disappeared. I haven’t seen my red shoes, the heinously expensive ones trimmed with diamanté bows, since that day. You told me other cats went missing that day—too scared of their own shadows to know left from right. I thought Escobar would return through the yellow dust and torpitude that enveloped us, if only to save me from the agony of imagining his twisted body crushed like grain between fallen rocks. The earth opened like a book that day, revealing granite lungs and a low lying peridotite heart.

Escobar never came home.

Most of what we lost that day was invisible. A carefree will. The spontaneity of kisses. Most, but not all of it. We lost a community of Saturday-neighbours, who would cluster like mushrooms around candlelit carafes of wine, prophylactically dousing hangovers with bread and laughter. An enigmatic cat who licked toes through socks. A pair of crimson shoes in a box.

But those shoes. I loved my shoes, so elegant, so inappropriate. Hardly worn. Tabletop high heels, impossible to walk in. Their cardboard box swallowed in a mound of empty cartons, discarded like a chitin shell. A box amongst boxes, packed with things no one wanted. Unnecessary things. Dated things. Abandoned things in an abandoned home. Yesterday’s dreams wrapped in the transitory tissue of forgetfulness. A pair of cerise dress shoes slotted one against the another. Yin and yang. Two halves of an incomplete puzzle. The forgotten scent of leather, manure fresh, sharp as a pencil.

The shoes lie in a torn house. Our house. It perches like a predator on a vertiginous slope, ready to drop. Its windows boarded, fairy-tale vines eating into mortar like serpents. Rats and mice roam freely through gaps widened by neglect. With cabuchon eyes and tattered tails, they skitter past the red notice taped to the door, oblivious.

Entry prohibited …

Like robbers, the red-eyed rodents feast on tattered papers and last year’s clichés. And there are chips. Fat slivers of potato that fell into cracks on a careless Tuesday. Rats nibble year-old food and line their nests with adverts for caravans and sensual massage. Ovoid droppings decorate dusty corners, like colonies of woodlice locked in a loveless dance.

Tonight I pick a crimson dress from a sagging rail. A semi-lucid memory jumps into focus. The killer instinct that drove me to pounce on dagger heels. Hemoglobin-red, with silver buckles that could slice flesh. They were meant to be mine. I nearly shed someone’s blood to have them, swallowed in a stampede for bargains. And still they went beyond sensibility. But you bought them for me. For your birthday, you said, though it was months away.

It’s only when I can’t find the shoes tonight, that I remember they must be in the house on the cliff, with discarded mattresses and my discarded youth.

I slide black ballet pumps over my stockinged feet. They’re scuffed at the heel. I slip my arm through yours. The shoes are not right with this dress, but your arm fits mine like a key in a lock. Escobar’s ghost slides between us and offers a benediction.

New shoes. Old life. New life. Old shoes.


IMG_3698Harold & June
By Kirby Wright

Harold hated June for flying to Boston to visit her mother. He couldn’t keep her by his side during summer months, despite the lure of living in Hawaii. He knew her brand of love had conditions. Love to her was not really love at all unless she received financial advantage or the promise of something valuable. She’d been his target at Harvard. She was poor. He knew the money she smelled in his future was what drew her to him, not his looks or his bravery in the war or the love poems he recited beside the Charles River. “Opportunist,” he whispered, switching off his study lamp. He forgave her because he was an opportunist too, a man pursuing a virgin a decade younger. A bird’s cry echoed through campus. He guessed it was an owl. He considered June a naïve girl-woman, a child he could mold and shape to satiate carnal urges and his lust for control. He considered her soul. He’d quit believing in god yet sensed some spiritual life in her, a sacred power beneath the skin. He knew this force gave her a few pounds of courage.

June slipped out of the covers to escape Harold’s snores and deep mumbles, sneaking into the kitchen to boil water for tea. This was the start of it, that first night she’d left him by himself in bed. “His dreams can keep him company,” she muttered. She eased into the pantry, pulled out a box of chocolate-covered almonds, and created a chocolate-nut-and-tea sanctuary in the dining room. She felt safe there. He would never dig up the secret buried deep in her soul. That secret was hate. It was a hate so powerful it melted his looks, reducing him to a hunchback tucking pillows under her ass. She closed her eyes as the hunchback pumped away. The hatred within her burned with a savage fire. Everything she was inside, everything she’d become, begged for his death. He moaned pulling out. “Shower time, June.” She felt numb stumbling the narrow hall down to the pink bathroom. She thought about life. Would she have turned out a different woman married to another man? But being with Harold made her hate all men. June turned on the shower, pulled a rubber cap over her hair, and ducked under the stream. The midnight water made her skin burn.


IMG_1818Mascot
By Jason Half-Pillow

Jasmine felt the beginning of beads of sweat forming along her hairline and went to rub them off before they truly started itching. But, upon raising her arm, and raising it only slightly, she realized she was trying to bring a huge duck paw up to a giant duck head and the paw was much heavier than a mere feather-light hand. Each hand of her costume had three, pudgy fingers and something resembling a thumb. How was she supposed to hold the bullhorn by her feet? She wasn’t even a duck.

She saw the white, costume paw pass before the eye slit that wasn’t even where the eyes were but down at the bill. The slit kept slipping sideways, and everything looked framed kind of like in a war movie when someone is shot and is dying at the end, and you see what they see in slowed down silence, the sounds fainter and fainter, until almost completely enveloped in a tunneling kind of echo.

She heard pass by some kind of whisking and the energy made by it almost knocked her from her webbed feet. She was too near the track, so she backed up like a drunk just punched very hard in the face. As she righted herself, the slit tipped even more sideways, and though she was upright, watching the string of black, huge-legged women flying by her again at supersonic speed, though still clear, not in a blur as one might expect (given her state of sensory alteration) they looked to be sprinting to safety, away from the earth’s sudden opening. The roar of the crowd she took for their terror at being left behind, or maybe just the rumbling roar sounds that gurgle below the earth’s surface, not at all atypical of the usual 9.9 quake.

She felt the sweat now itching, not yet running, and was half-certain that mixed in with it were little, barely visible bugs suddenly awakened and now crawling. Why not? This mascot uniform was ancient, built for a huge, lumbering man. She was here subbing for some idiot pretending to have a head cold. There has to be some kind of Title IX violation going on here, she thought, and saw zooming past her sideways two black women with what looked like jelly wobbling thighs. Just after them trailed the Ukrainian from USC whose participation in all of her track events that day was taken to be symbolic, in tribute to her village in a Russian majority province now in smithereens from bombs said to have come from Putin himself. He denied it, speaking from a huge ceremonial chair in a bright, gilded ballroom. The back of the chair seemed ten feet tall and he looked almost like a midget. When he was done, he reached over and shook the Secretary of State’s hand. He too had a huge, unwieldy head.

Then came a whole pack, mostly black, but she saw some thin white girl with a glued-on head of black hair like a flapper, in the middle of the pack, whose posture was almost that of one of those weird walkers from the early morning competition, when she was sitting in the middle of the field in the center of the track, the stands mostly empty, trying to figure out how the snaps of the duck head worked on the white collar of her too big uniform that kept folding down, which presaged it simply falling off.

She eventually asked a man twirling a starting pistol around a finger if he would help.

“It’s not my job,” he said. “But what the hell, huh? It’s not like anyone’s looking.”

And he took from her the huge, cavernous duck head and, facing her directly like a tailor seeing some slight asymmetry in the shoulders of a suit, slowly lifted the duck head over her own, and as it was coming down, she saw passing her a gaggle of bobble-headed white men passing like they had to get somewhere quick but for some reason couldn’t bring themselves to actually break into a real run.

They wore ever-shifting contorted, pained expressions, like they were at a nighttime Luau and running across an infinite bed of glowing hot coal, each little brick of it pulsing steadily as if animated by the heart of some singular beast.

“All right,” Jasmine said. “I’m ready.”

She wiggled her shoulders and took in a breath and down came the head. She heard her breath echoing.

“I feel like Darth Vader,” she said.

She heard nothing. Was the man with the gun even still there? She saw the shadowed steps of the morning sun touching the stands and then the bobble-headed men again passing. They looked like crazed puppets, their limbs rattling off.

“Discombobulated,” Jasmine said suddenly, excited to have recalled the word. “They’re really falling apart.”


The Sandwich
By Frank Beyer

Over the top of my sorting case I noticed a half-eaten sandwich in someone’s cubby-hole, and on closer inspection it turned out to be Donna’s. As the morning wore on everybody was mentioning this sandwich sweating in a triangular plastic package. Donna claimed it wasn’t hers. One of the managers got told about it, but she said it wasn’t her job to throw it out. So for the next couple of days it stayed there. Donna just worked around it, waiting for the bastard who put it there to grow a conscience. Then Saturday, out on my run, I found the sandwich in the side compartment on my electric mail delivery vehicle—a Swiss made ‘Kyburz’. I knew John was the culprit; he was the practical joker around the depot. I was so busy that I forgot to throw the sandwich out at the end of the day and we had Sunday off (in case you were wondering). Monday the sandwich was still there, but my Kyburz didn’t smell as much as I had feared. I went to put the sandwich in John’s vehicle—he caught me in the act—so I threw the thing at him. He picked it up and put it in Donna’s Kyburz. It began thus.

That sandwich kept doing the rounds between the three of us—a good balm for mail sorting blues—your mind on where the sandwich might be in your vehicle. Once it got found you could put some thought into the next hiding place. However, one day in a fit of anger I threw the sandwich out. I had found it under my seat—its plastic container now held together by a couple of the rubber bands usually used to secure bundles of letters. My rage? We had flag referendum letters to deliver—that would take ages—and I’d been in trouble with the team leader that morning.

I could have been in trouble for being late, for not wearing the uniform properly, for having wet undelivered mail drying on my case—but no, all that was too organic—it was a graph of my performance versus the standard that was the problem. The standard showed the times needed for sorting daily mail volumes over the past month. It was a line graph fluctuating greatly between heavy Fridays and light Tuesdays. My performance times followed these fluctuations but were consistently above the standard line. Part of it was how I was filling out my docket, not capturing lost time or putting in my breaks—but, basically, I was too slow and THEY knew exactly how fast I had to be … I wasn’t in trouble really—just given a message: hurry the fuck up. I thought I was going fast enough already, shit … So I threw that sandwich in the bin.

Game over. It was one battle I thought I’d win.


IMG_4588Depository
By Charles Rammelkamp

After the murder-suicide next door—Mister Pilachowski drowning his kids in the bathtub and then shooting himself—all kinds of people started driving down Linden Avenue, just parking and staring. It’s a dead-end street, so they had to go out of their way to do it.

Everybody knows everybody else in Potawatomi Rapids, but nobody really knew the Pilachowskis. They came here from Detroit six years ago. Mister Pilachowski worked at the microchip plant. The oldest boy was five, the twins were two. Mrs. Pilachowski died in a car accident about a year ago—blindsided by a truck—so there wasn’t any question why he did it. It was grief, obviously, but still it was like there was more to find out, some dark mystery nobody knew, some secret buried somewhere that would explain it all—but irretrievable now as Mister Pilachowski himself was, right?

People my parents hardly knew called to ask questions. What was Mister Pilachowski like? Were we surprised, had we suspected anything? Because we lived next door, everybody thought we knew the Pilachowskis, even me, but I’m sixteen, so why would I know any of these people?

“I don’t know,” my father would say patiently into the receiver, shaking his head as if the caller could see him denying any knowledge. “I just don’t know.”

Once Mrs. Pilachowski waved at me when she was getting out of her car and I was walking up to our house. But she’s been dead over a year, so that doesn’t count. She was a very attractive woman, and everybody said it was a real tragedy when she died.

I remembered when we went to Dallas to see my aunt, and my dad made a special trip to Dealey Plaza to see where Oswald killed JFK. He stared up at that window in the book depository, trying to figure the angles.


IMG_5062Saltwater Remedy
By Kathryn H. Ross

“Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over … Hey now, hey now—”

I kill the alarm with a swipe of my finger and lay back against my pillow. It’s early, 4:30am, and my room is dim—darkness shot with the pale blues of morning. I rub my eyes with my knuckles, phone still in hand, and try to remember the dream I was having before Crowded House serenaded me into waking. I try to re-imagine the dream, but it’s dissipated into a blur of static, like the VHS tape of your favorite movie that no longer plays. All I’m sure of is that he was in the dream, again. I feel it like a presence, this overwhelming certainty that he was so close to me only moments ago—but by now I know how powerful the mind is, how real it can make someone feel when you step out of reality and into untamed, subconscious wanting. Sighing, I look at my phone and see that a few minutes have passed. I put it aside, kick off my covers, and swing my legs over the side of the bed.

Somewhere down the hall the clock chimes five times. I sit at the breakfast counter with a mug of warm tea and a plate of eggs, listening to the slow silence as the chimes, reverberating on the air, fade into nothing. The house breathes around me in unison with my sleeping family, unaware of the rising sun or the gold-flecked sky or the dew forming on the lawn—the irrelevant things—the things you don’t remember or care about nine days out of ten. The things that go unnoticed until they change. I wish I could say it was the same with him—but he was the one I thought of ten days out of ten, the one that was there until he was not, the one whose absence I felt and feel like a missing piece of body and soul. I rub my temples, shut my eyes, try to forget. Taking a last sip of my tea, I put my dishes in the sink, grab my keys and bag, and head out the door.

Damp denim blue, the horizon lifts its eyes like a veil being raised from the earth. It watches me coming ever closer, running to meet it on swift legs. The sharp, salty smell hits me, beckons me forward until I am flying—no longer soul bound in car. The machine wraps around a hill and I see it—an expanse of brilliant blue taped to the sky with a strip of burning sunshine. I maneuver my way into the beachy suburbs, past sleeping homes and early risers walking their dogs in the chilled air. They take no notice of me as the car glides silently by, their eyes on the ground or in the sky, thoughts so detached I can almost see them floating away.

I park away from the homes and begin my walk to the beach. A man sits in a booth where people pay for parking, snoozing against the glass. I pause, wondering if I should wake him, let him know I’m here, but I decide against it and move on, clutching my sides and feeling as if my small hands are the only things holding everything inside.

The ocean breathes like a lover fast asleep. I can hear its great lungs working as the tide pulls in and out, over and over again, on the dark sand. The sea and the sky hold fast to the sun, knowing it is the only thing connecting them to one another for these few moments at the start of the day. It is bright, almost white, and it is not warm. All I can feel is the wet wind as it blows across the shore, breaking down great rocks with each air current—tiny teeth eating away at stone and glass, forming sculptures before my eyes that I’ll never see to completion.

I remove my shoes and socks and walk, feet numb, on the sand toward the water. I imagine myself in my bright mustard sweater, nothing more than a blot of paint, a second sun on the canvas. I remember with a pang that he’d always liked this sweater; I think of him, thinking of me, thinking of him—an endless reel of disillusioned hopefulness.

Hey now, Hey now … Don’t dream it’s over—don’t dream it’s over—don’t dream it’s over—

I say this, an ironic mantra, and think with each repetition of his eyes, his lips, his hair. I think of his hands and how they felt in mine. I think of his arms and how they gently held me. The sea bites my toes, swallows my feet, laps at my ankles. The calm scene sounds suddenly tempestuous with eyes closed, each wave a wailing voice on the wind, crying on every shore on every continent until someone takes notice. I think of his own voice and how it washed over me. I think of his scent, his laughter, his hopes, his dreams—everything he poured into me, I pour out into the sea.

Beyond my eyelids I can tell the sun has completely risen. The wind moves around me, caressing my skin, dusting my hair with salt and water, and I speak, dropping his name into the surf, allowing the current to pull it out to sea. The bottoms of my jeans are wet and my boots begin to feel heavy in my hands. I step back, feel the ocean hold me, then gently let go. My feet touch dry sand and I keep moving, backwards steps, keeping my eyes on the horizon line—

I can almost see him, driftwood bereft on the water, floating out into oblivion.


IMG_9779A Kitten
By George Everet Thompson

Our rooms were dripping torrents of water through their ceilings making them dim, watery caves where nothing could live, where it would all rot, so we moved outside.

Sitting on the bench Tony pulled out his handkerchief to mop his nose and it came apart in his hands. Everything has been wet for days, a palpable thick dampness that penetrates making everything soggy and waterlogged.

An old man on a bicycle came by us, moving so slowly he had to jerk the front wheel this way and that way in order to stay upright. He watched the wheel carefully as if its movements had nothing to do with him and he was studying them for scientific purposes. I studied him instead. He was bearded and small, hunched over the bike wearing a ridiculous hat, the kind comedians wear to impersonate Europeans, too small with a decorative border on the rim and a tuft of something unrecognizable in the hatband. He had a coat to match again with a band around the edges and his pants were bright blue and tight giving him a spindly look. Then I noticed his shoes, heavy green hiking shoes that were strapped to the peddles of the bike like a bike racer would. He paused the bike a moment and teetered on it, moving the pedals back and forth very slightly to stay upright, and I saw it. His foot—or his leg where a foot should have been—came out of the green shoe. There was no foot at all at the end of his leg. A thin brown sock was pulled over a pointed stump. Then the old man slid the stump back into the shoe and was pedaling again, moving on down the street. I wanted Tony to see it, but it was too late, the scene had passed.

Later, after we had taken the bus and were sitting on a bench near the pencil bridge Tony began to tell me again about the time he visited Montreal and it was sunny and he walked to this antique store near the docks where a kitten was asleep in the sunbeams of the doorway and his brother bent down and took a picture.


IMG_9367Edge of Insanity
By Pat O’Rourke

Right now, you could take him. It’s just you, Mr. Tourist, and nature, the unspeakable witness.

He’s sitting with his back to you, guzzling God’s majestic gifts. His lanky legs dangle over your precipice as he photographs your birds, swooping in and out of your caves, in your little slice of heaven.

He’s wearing sandals and shorts. The back of his pristine white T-shirt is smothered in the fifty stars of the good ‘ol U.S. of A.

A black rucksack is by his side—half opened. A bottle of orange has rolled out onto uneven grass. A pack of sandwiches rests alongside his refreshments. It’s thirsty work this photography business, you mutter.

A cloudless sky reflects onto calm receptive waters that stretch out to infinity. You take another step forward. You glance left, then right, shielding your eyes from the midday sun. You stare across to the mainland that juts out unevenly. White bungalows and tiny cottages are dotted along the periphery of black cliffs leading all the way up to the last portion of headland. Next stop America.

A small fishing boat glides serenely through the bay towards the island—your island, your home, and the sanctuary that is rightfully yours from cradle to grave.

It will be interesting to hear the decibel level when his body meets water. Will it be noisy? Will he cry out as he hurtles towards this dramatic denouement?

Questions swirl about your head. Is he on holiday? Does he have a family? Has he really travelled all this way to your island? Will they miss him? Whoever they may be. Will they eventually find his body—or will it be forever lost in this vast Atlantic nothingness? Could it even end up from whence it came? Hardly.

There’s still time to change your mind. But the devil inside you rises up again. He won’t take no for an answer. He’s dictating your next move—your every move. He has a stranglehold of your senses. He’s refusing to compromise.

Do it now, man. Don’t change your mind. Push. Push. Push. Gentle or hard. Whatever it takes. Don’t turn back. You can’t fail. It will be over in a second, a second that will alter the course of your miserable existence. You don’t even have to look down afterwards. The deed will be a perpetual scar on your soul.

With sweating palms, you lift the cap from your head to wipe your brow. Trickles of sweat find a route to your eyes. Delirium eats away at your core. Primed, you clench your hands. Paradise is whispering your name. The whisper grows louder. And louder. The echo reaches a crescendo.

You’re just six feet away now. Five. Four. Three. Two. He swivels around. His face is twisted in shock. Horror screams from his lips. The juggernaut inside you won’t yield. Heeding the devil’s audacious command, you lunge at him, tip his chest delicately and send him spiraling into blue oblivion. Beauty is restored.


IMG_5278A Family Sunday
By Paul Sherman

I press the doorbell and the chimes beget bedlam inside, activating four children and a dog.

The door inches open. Ten-year-old Rachel stares at me though the gap.

“You’re late.” Her accusing eyes are dire.

“Got held up,” I lied, although if you accept a conversation with a guy in the pub over a couple of pints, it could be true.

Rachel opens the door and I enter the hall. Somewhere in the house, Miles Davis is playing Summertime on the Hi-Fi.

I do not get as far as the dining room when eight-year-old Henry and six-year-old Daniel hold me up with their toy guns. I could never understand how a liberated couple like Dick and Laura could allow their children guns, albeit toys. Nevertheless, I am shot dead where I am standing, and clutching my entrails, I fall to the floor with screams of agony, delighting my juvenile ambush.

Two-year-old Luke, shorts and nappies around his ankles, his face red-stained, appears and studies me philosophically. Topping it all, mad-dog Soppy Moppy sweeps in, all tail, legs and claws, and licks my face.

Dick rescues me.

“Hello, old man. Got you did they? Come and have a beer.” This is massive, florid Dick with the prominent teeth that show when he laughs, which he does frequently. We shake hands and enter the kitchen. Dick and I go back a long way, much further than his wedding to Laura. There is no sign of Laura. Barbecue food lays waiting—steaks, burgers, corn-on-the-cob and sausages.

Dick hands me an ice-cold can and we go into the garden. It is one of those rattling hot days when you can’t believe this weather could ever happen in England. Laura approaches, having just finished some gardening. She is wearing gardening gloves and holding pruning-shears. She could never look as beautiful as she does now. I think for a moment she might go up on her toes and kiss me a welcome, but I am disappointed. Laura wears her dark hair in a bob and has an incredible figure for a mother-of-four. Her eyes are her most significant feature; they say everything Laura ever needs to say. She never gives anything away.

It is an idyllic day. Dick and I set about getting the meat on the barbecue. I can see Laura through the window, making an abundance of salads.

I think she is avoiding my gaze, but it might be my paranoia. I wave at one point, and she tosses her head, smiles generously and waves back. I cherish the moment.

Later, we sit round the picnic table and eat. Dick and I consume considerable quantities of wine and exchange loud humour. The way Laura tends to the children is masterful. She is a wonderful mother. I ponder for the umpteenth time what making love to her would be like and glance at Dick, immediately feeling guilty.

After the meal, Dick snoozes noisily. The children are in the garden somewhere, easily traceable by their riotous assembly.

“So,” I say to Laura, ineffectually, “How’s life?”

Her expression is troubled, but she will never voice any discontent.

“How is it with you?” she counters.

I want to tell her just how it is with me. I long to get my feelings off my chest. I need to say how much I think about her every day and every night. I need to give voice to the terrible ache that is consuming me.

“Boringly familiar,” I say.

For a moment, the garden is quiet, apart from birdsong. Rachel has abandoned the boys and is stretched on her stomach, reading Harry Potter.

Laura reaches for her wine. Her exquisite fingers hold the fine wineglass delicately and she sips. I lean across the table and wait for her to put her glass down so that I can cover her hand with mine. Suddenly there is screaming from the house. Luke is in trouble. Soppy Moppy rushes barking into the garden, as if to confirm the fact.

“Uh-oh!” Dick wakens momentarily, shifts his position, and goes immediately back to sleep. I cannot help but notice the look that Laura gives him.

She and I are both in the house in an instant. Luke has tried to crawl onto a kitchen chair to investigate what is on the table and has pulled the chair over on himself. He is a little grazed, but not seriously hurt.

He comes to me for ministrations rather than Laura. This is merely house-politeness, I think.

“I love the way you get on with the children.” Am I mistaken, or is there a hint of something in her voice?

She kneels down beside me, lovely Laura, her beautiful eyes more than I can bear. But Luke is pulling me into the garden and the moment is lost. I look back at Laura, but she is already elsewhere.

Later, when it is time to go, I formally say goodbye to each of the children in turn. Dick sees me to the door. Some impulse makes me rush back to the kitchen, where Laura is clearing up. She reaches for me and kisses me on the side of the mouth. I can feel her quick breath and her urgent heartbeat.

My hands long to touch her, my fingers to caress her, my mouth longs to explore hers. But I walk away. Out of the house and down the road, past the semi-detached suburban Joneses and Browns and Smiths.

As I depart from this promise of Elysium and turn to wave, I can see Dick and the children, but Laura is noticeably missing from the scene, although the rest of this nuclear family wave until I reach the corner.

It doesn’t matter. The brief contact was enough. It was a heart-stopping moment in paradise. It will sustain me until I next see her. I do not wish to break up this family.

I do wish to take Laura from where she rightfully belongs. Not now.

Not at this particular time.


IMG_5243End of the Road
By Eileen Herbert-Goodall

The old man was ready to go. I could tell ’cause I spied his suitcase leaning against the open door, which was letting a slab of sunshine tumble in across the floorboards. The light snatched at dust particles floating through the morning air. I stepped forward, then looked out across the stairs. It’d been raining, but the weather had cleared and the street twitched with wet light. Up against the curb, the old man’s blue Falcon stood gleaming in the sun. Me and that vehicle shared a whole lot of memories. I’d done my first driving lessons in it, and there were them times when we’d head to the movie drive-in as a family. Best of all, I remembered cruising through town around Christmas. We’d go at night when all them pretty lights were shining, and Maddy and I would lie down in the way back section and stare out the rear window. It was like watching some magical, upside down world pull away from us. I never wanted them nights to end.

Soon the Falcon would be gone, along with the old man.

Stepping onto the porch, I took the stairs two at a time before making my way over to the willow tree where I used to play as a kid—I’d hide under its branches, imagining I was a famous Indian, or maybe a bad-assed outlaw like Jesse James. I couldn’t say when things changed, but at some point I figured I had to get real.

Slipping under the willow’s drooping branches, I lit a cigarette. I wanted to keep an eye on things, while not being obvious about it. I had nothing to say to the old man on account of the fact he had somewhere else to be. Who was I to tie him down?

The street was quiet and birds were singing.

Looking towards the front door, I watched the old man walk from the house, suitcase in hand, his chin tilted upright.

There he was, moving on to better things, and I was fine with that, but I hadn’t counted on seeing my little sister, Maddy, run out after him. She was ten years younger than me, which made me think our parents never planned on having her. Maybe it was the same with me.

She caught up with the old man and tugged at his trousers. The gesture undid my insides in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Taking a drag of my cigarette, I watched as the old man bent down and said something. Maddy looked at him, squinting against the sunlight. She smiled, showing her tiny white teeth, and waved as he headed for the car.

I knew he’d told her a pack of lies. He wasn’t ever coming back. Not for good, anyhow.

Maddy spotted me and came trotting over. ‘Hey, Tyler.’

‘Hey.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Having a cigarette.’

‘I heard they’re bad for you.’

There was no use arguing, so I kept quiet.

She looked at the cigarette between my fingers, then into my eyes. ‘Daddy has to go away for a while.’

‘Yeah, I know.’

‘He’s got work on, but should be home by the end of the month. That ain’t so long is it, Ty?’

Looking towards the Falcon, I saw the old man rifling through the glove box. ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘He’ll be back in no time.’

‘In no time,’ she repeated.

I must’ve let out a sigh ’cause Maddy touched my arm.

‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll help take care of Momma.’

‘I know you will.’

Maddy knelt down and picked a white flower growing in amongst some clover. She stroked the petals, being real gentle. Seeing her act so sweet cut me up and I had to look away.

Momma appeared on the porch wearing her nightgown. As she stared out at the street, I could tell her heart was broke and hoped like hell she wasn’t gonna end up back in the sanatorium where she stayed last summer. I didn’t like the doctors there, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t like me, neither. I don’t think they appreciated the questions I kept asking. They just wanted to make their decisions and that be that.

I heard the old man’s car start and told Maddy to get ready for school. ‘I’ll give you a lift, save you catching the bus.’

‘Okay.’ Maddy ran towards the house, throwing words over her shoulder as she went. ‘You’re gonna be home for tea, right?’

‘Right,’ I answered.

Reaching the porch, Maddy took Momma by the hand and walked her inside.

I turned round in time to see the Falcon swing right at the end of the road. Letting my gaze shift to the willow’s trunk, I stared at its crisscrossed fingers of bark. It made me think of my chest, which felt as if it were being squeezed tight. I swore under my breath. What did I care that the old man had gone?

It was strange what happened next—a common grackle appeared, landing on a branch beside me. I watched as its pretty feathers caught the sunlight. Tilting its head to one side, the bird stared at me. It didn’t seem afraid. When I reached out, the grackle stretched its wings and flew away, disappearing behind the line of houses across the street.

I dropped my cigarette, crushed it beneath my boot, and walked towards the house. I went through the front door then closed it behind me. The place was quiet. For some reason my breath came out in a rush and I had to shut my eyes for a few seconds. When I opened them, I looked at my watch and saw it was time to take Maddy to school. From there, I’d head to work at the garage, where I knew I’d pretend not to notice the sadness that was already burrowing its way deep inside my chest.


Saint Piran’s Well
By Barbara Lorna Hudson

The audience is down to five. It was fifty at the start of the university year.

Dr. Martha Brown is punctual for her lecture, as she always is. And suitably dressed: navy skirt, plain white blouse and a string of pearls inherited from her mother. She doesn’t get going till ten past twelve, hoping there’ll be some latecomers; but there never are.

Try as she might—detailed handouts, apt illustrations, even a judicious sprinkling of jokes—she has failed to keep them interested. Their feedback forms tell a cruel story—it seems she lacks the certain something that her charismatic colleagues possess in spades. She fears there will have to be another little chat with her Head of Department—he’ll insist she sign up for so-called teaching development seminars, or—worse—that he will attend her lectures himself and mentor her.

The room is musty and small—out of kindness they have moved her from the big hall she was allocated in the first term. She looks despairingly at her audience. One of them has got the crossword out in readiness. She’s aware they are only here out of sympathy. She wishes she knew how to reward and thank them for that.

She stumbles through the lecture. Here and there she stammers. Sometimes she loses her place in the notes and finds she’s repeating herself. Not that anyone notices. Martha’s faint voice grows fainter as the hour crawls by. When it’s over—indeed, while she’s still summing up—the young people begin stuffing their notebooks and tablets into their backpacks. ‘Have a good summer!’ she says, and two of them reply, ‘And you!’

At last she makes her way out, eyes down, hoping she won’t meet anyone she knows. She feels relieved—no more lectures till October. If only she could afford to resign this miserable job and quit this hateful city. She’d become an ‘independent scholar’ and write her book on the mediaeval sacred wells of Cornwall. She’d buy a smallholding and keep hens and goats, and become self-sufficient. Maybe she’d meet a kindred spirit to share her life …

She gets into the Micra. Drives out and round the Ring Road and onto the motorway. At the first service station, she pulls into the car park and opens the boot and hauls out a large battered suitcase. She carries it to the Ladies’, feeling guilty—but surely this isn’t illegal? She takes possession of the Disabled cubicle, feeling guilty again; hopes she won’t make some unfortunate woman wait outside, desperate for a pee.

She takes out the dress. Cream silk, calf-length, floaty. And the transparent tights. And the cream shoes—almost too high to walk in. Then she changes. She packs away the skirt and blouse and the flatties.

Outside, she garners some stares, but she forces herself not to mind and goes to the mirrors. Slowly, hands a little trembly, she applies makeup. Not something she’s used to—she only does this once a year—but she’s had a practice run, and a professional lesson in Boots. ‘Less is more’—she repeats the beautician’s advice as she smoothes on thin layers of lotions and lipstick and eye shadow.

Then it’s back to the car and a steady drive to her destination. She makes one last stop close to the entrance and lifts the hat gently from the round pink box on the passenger seat. It’s a wide-brimmed, pink and cream creation, adorned with silk roses and long pale feathers. She puts it on and looks in the car mirror. Her bright red lips twitch with pleasure.

She drives smartly through the open gates. Unchallenged—the two officials don’t notice that there’s no car park badge on her windscreen. Then into Car Park No. 1. She squeezes the little grey Micra between a maroon Rolls Royce and a silver Merc. Fortunately there‘s a crowd just going in, chattering and laughing. The women are no more elegant than she is. She tags along as they approach the turnstiles. No one stops her. No one asks to see a ticket.

Martha enters the Royal Enclosure. Once inside, she keeps moving around—standing on the fringe of one group, then another, not wanting to look conspicuous. She clutches her designer handbag tightly. Inside is the folded betting slip.

The race begins.

‘Come on Saint Piran’s Well!’ she shouts, so loudly that her posh neighbours stare in disapproval.


IMG_1130The List
By Alan Morris

The clock alarm reads 6:57.

At 7:03 precisely the alarm will sound and propel Albert Balchin (no ‘E’) to his life as a minor tax official.

He is rudely snatched from the warm embrace of his duvet and awakes from whatever dreams tax inspectors have. His duvet dissolves, the ceiling parts, and Albert—Bertie to his few friends—is travelling, rocketing skywards. All around him, other souls are doing likewise.

He stops at the back of a long queue. He is wearing a white nightgown, his usual night attire, but so is everyone else—no onesies or pyjamas in this queue. He shuffles forward politely because he is English.

At the front of the queue, a kindly looking old gent with a flowing beard, twinkling eyes and clipboard looks him up and down.

“Why am I shivering in my nightgown?” asks Bertie. “I was looking forward to my egg and soldiers.”

“You’re here because you are on the list,” intones the old gent, “and you’re shivering because a little trepidation and awe are normal when you’re about to meet the Almighty.”

“I’m just cold,” moans Bert.

“We can arrange a warmer location, if you prefer.”

“No, no. But why me? I file my tax returns promptly and always tick the charity box, but—”

“Even tax gatherers are welcome here.”

“Where’s my wife?”

“Well … there was that indiscretion on February 16th.”

“Indiscretion? What are you talking about?”

“Can’t say. Confidentiality agreement … but you are on the list. Albert Balchine with an ‘E’, welcome to Heaven.”

“I haven’t got an ‘E’, never did have.”

“Oh, so sorry; administrative error.”

Quick as a flash, Bertie plummets back to Mrs. Balchin (no ‘E’) to meet the Apocalypse by her side.


IMG_5263The Sixth Floor
By Adam Kluger

“Welcome to your new home down on the sixth floor, Mr. Smith … it may just look like a cubicle farm—but it’s really so much more … just kidding.”

“Call me Ted, please … otherwise you’ll make me feel older than I already am.”

“You got it Mr. Smith … I mean Ted … any questions?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of a million … but none right now, thanks.”

“Isn’t that always the case.”

“Okay—here’s one question … where’s everybody else? It’s already five past nine. I hope I’m not working with a bunch of young slackers who think the world starts and ends on Facebook.”

“Actually, Mr. Smith—I mean Ted—everybody’s on a corporate retreat with Mr. B—he likes to take the entire crew somewhere warm during Winter … and actually, I think it’s Twitter, Instagram, texting and face-timing that are what’s in current vogue.”

“Whatever, kid … I’m old school—I believe in talking to people face to face … so why aren’t you with everybody else?”

“Just lucky I guess.”

“So what should I be doing then?”

“Oh, just settle in … get uncomfortable—ha-ha.”

“Yeah, it is pretty hot in here. Is the A/C on the fritz? Also, I don’t see any water coolers—where am I going to waste time and catch up on the office gossip?”

“Yeah, about that—actually, Mr. B prefers the office at a high temperature—he says he likes to see all his employees sweating—that it’s good for the soul or something like that—he’s a motivational genius … he’s got a million sayings like that.”

“Yeah, Looking forward to speaking with this Mr. B—I’ve got a lot of ideas on how he could improve things in this office—like maybe even add a window somewhere and some air freshener.”

“Ha, Mr. Smith—I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation, trust me.”

“It’s Ted … Call me Ted.

“Yeah right, well I’ve got to go now Ted—but I can just tell you are going to be a lot of fun here at the Sixth Ring Corporation … says on your resume you used to have your own small law practice. That’s awesome.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“Mr. B gets a real hard-on for ex-lawyers.”

“Lucky me.”

“You said it, Ted.”


IMG_8820Mexican-American Word Salad
By Alex Galvez

Ingredients:
* A whole ton of Spanish
* A whole ton of English
* Wash, chop and mix

The first two ingredients start off whole, pure, organic and untouched. Spanish is harvested first. Both ingredients are force-fed to a child by the name of Aldo, and both ingredients are in harmony.

Until he starts school.

“What are you drawing Aldo?” the teacher asks, hovering over the child.

“He is mi perro Bolio, um … he vive conmigo,” Aldo replies, showing his drawing to the teacher with pride.

“Why do you talk weird? Are you even human?” a classmate scoffs.

His teacher sighs—looking very concerned—and goes to the phone. “Yes, I want to refer one of my students to the speech pathologist. It looks like he is confusing his Spanish with his English. Aha. Yes. No problem. I’ll send him right away,” Aldo hears his teacher say over the phone. The teacher gives him a hall pass, sending him to a small office with a professional who will fix his problem.

A woman sits on the other side of a desk with a fake-looking smile, making Aldo nervous. Tests are based on conversations they have while playing boring games. The conversations and boring games continue for a few years until English gets better-tasting.

After a while, Spanish starts to rot—making his parents at home frustrated.

“Voy hacer mi homework,” Aldo says one day coming home from school.

“Que dijiste?” Aldo’s father reprimands Aldo in a stern voice.

“Voy hacer mi homework,” Aldo says, repeating himself.

“Eres Mexicano y los Mexicanos hablan español,” Aldo’s father says in a tone of anger.

This leaves Aldo frustrated because even if he tries, only a few ounces of Spanish come out. The parts that English have not contaminated.

When childhood turns to adolescence, Aldo must revive the rotten fruit of Spanish. His parents force him to take an advanced Spanish course in high school because they believe he knows how to speak Spanish but is acting dumb.

“Bienvenidos a Español Avanzado, vamos hacer introducciones primero. Empezamos con Aldo,” the Spanish teacher announces.

“Hi, I am Aldo. I live in Los Angeles,” Aldo says.

“Estas en la clase de español señor Aldo. Necitas que hablar español,” the teacher scolds Aldo.

“What’s the point? Being bilingual is dead anyways,” a classmate mutters.

The teacher stands quietly, slowly devouring the comment and doesn’t say anything for the rest of the class. Aldo knows from that moment that he wants to get rid of the class.

He rushes home to speak with his parents. “I want to drop my Spanish class,” Aldo says, looking down at the floor.

“No, porque vamos a deshacer de tus costumbres Americanas. Eres Mexicano,” his mother says in a bitter tone.

Aldo stands up and leaves, frustrated and not knowing what to do but accept that the fruit of Spanish is fully covered in white mold.

As he leaves he hears his father say, “Él es ahora uno de ellos.”


Old Crow
By Ty Spencer Vossler

Saturday:
Tulare’s a Y town. Blacks and Latins live in the ears and white folks live in the tongue. The Mexican place I eat at is on an ear street. Poor ol’ Maria—husband got his name on the sign outside, but she do most’a the work. I seen ’im all the time flirtin’ with Gloria, the cashier. I like sittin’ where I can see Maria cookin’.

Reckon she’s mid-forties—tiny woman, long black salt’n’pepper hair. Someday she’s gonna smile—sun’ll come out, dry up all that rain she got inside. That’s what I think anyway. Raul don’t pay her no mind ‘less he need somethin’ or somethin’ ain’t right—then he rattles that saber tongue like a goddamn Mexican general.

My name’s Hank—just this side’a seventy—come into Maria’s openin’ day two years back—same day Nettie kicked my black ass out for good. Never got no divorce. Drinkin’s what done it, but I’m finished with all that foolishness.

Two daughters made me a granddad when they was still kids themselves—my boy runs a body shop in town—all ’em separated or divorced. Must’a learned’a thing’re two from the ol’ man. Sometimes I gets lonely, but I got no energy to go chasin’ no more.

Sunday:
Sundays, folks head to church. I ain’t take stock in no religion. Sins don’t need no Band-Aid—better to let’em scab over, form scars to remind what you done.

Sunday is for walkin’—quiet mornin’ sun clawin’ into the sky. Don’t nobody know how many sunrises we got, so I’m out ever cold mornin’ wrapped up like a burrito.

Lots’a crows in the early mornin’. If they’s an afterlife, I hope I come back a crow. They’s black, nobody mess’s with’em and they haw-haw-haw their whole life through.

Raul’s Fine Mexican Food is closed Sundays. Passin’ by I seen Maria by herself, clutchin’ a mug of coffee in both hands. I tapped on the glass, she smiled sadly and curled up a finger for me to come in. I sat across from her.

Her eyes had black smudges and her mouth curved down, like a rainbow without no color.

“You all right?” I asked.

Sunday’s for coffee—strong black coffee. She poured me a mug.

“Raul ran off with Gloria.” Her lips trembled and she had a napkin squeezed tight in her fist. “He took all our savings.”

“Don’t you fret,” I reached for her hand, “you better off.”

Sundays’re for confession. Maria gazed out the window. Everything looked dusty and lifeless. Can’t explain it, but seein’ all that emptiness out there was a frightenin’ thing. They was a crow sittin’ on the sign outside, laughin’ to beat the band. Maria was tryin’ to keep them storm clouds from bustin’ wide open.

“I’m real sorry,” I squeezed her fingers.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Don’t you fret none,” I said again. They was nothin’ else I could think of to say.

She nodded and tried to smile, “Drink your coffee before it gets cold.”

Sunday’s supposed to be the day’a rest, but had me an idea. After a few hours’ work in my garage, I drove to Raul’s.

Wasn’t no big deal. Maria showed up as I finished—had ‘er hands on ‘er hips and a real smile on her face. New sign read:

Maria’s Diner
Fine Mexican Food

We’s open for business. I wait tables, greet customers, work the till a bit. My Spanish’s a might better now. Sundays we’s closed. Yep, Sundays’re for spreadin’ the gospel—amen and hallelujah.


IMG_4182Time and Associated Fines
By Pavelle Wesser

Cindy stared at the gunmetal gray morning as a premonition of her own mortality dawned, followed by the realization: My alarm never went off! Jumping out of bed, she noticed her bedside clock displaying a series of red, blinking zeroes.

“Have I entered an alternate reality?” She wondered, as the clock emitted a strange pulsing sound.

Cindy wrestled with her too-tight clothes, courtesy of recent weight gain that she was in denial about. And denial, as a co-worker had quite rudely pointed out, was not a river in Egypt. Preoccupied, Cindy failed to notice a bed sheet slithering free and wrapping itself around her calf until it sliced her flesh.

“Owwwww,” she screamed, aghast that the softness of cotton could cruelly cut. With blood loss and fear causing vertigo, she supported herself against the wall, heart pounding in sync with the clock’s senseless spinning.

Feeling slightly better, she conducted a search for her missing shoe, locating instead a hammer she’d used for an interior decorating endeavor and which she now employed to shatter her bedside clock.

“So there!” She stared at its smashed remnants, temples throbbing and shadowed, sunken eyes betraying a latent depressive episode she also happened to be in denial about (that river was getting deeper). And yet, she was just turning the corner toward the slightest edge of better when a siren-like wail rose.

Cindy stood very still, her unbrushed hair forming a halo around her head as a police officerish-looking dude rose genie-like from the floor. Bluish-red police-cruiser-like lights bathed his beefy features, and the whole effect seemed so cheap movie-ish, yet she remained transfixed, her gaze one of semi-horrified fascination.

“What’s going on?”

“Assault and battery,” the dude slapped a ticket into her palm.

“Excuse me?!”

“What you’ve done to this here clock,” he indicated the debris.

“You invade the sanctity of my home on the pretext of a malfunctioning clock? Aren’t you a genie come to grant me a wish?”

“Magical thinking, Baby Cakes. A genie? Did I emerge from some bottle?” He shook his head, replete with buzz cut, “I issue fines; I’m an officer of universal law.”

“I’ve never heard of an officer of … what do you do … ?”

“Sometimes,” he tapped his holster, “I uphold universal law with this here firearm. And when I shoot, I aim to kill.”

Cindy swayed, swirling lights intensifying her vertigo.

“I suppose that shooting to maim causes more harm than killing. Go ahead and release me from my misery. As it is, I’m horrifically late for work.”

“Sorry, Baby Cakes,” he took a few arrogant, self-indulgent steps toward her, “but shooting you was never my intent. My aim (no pun intended) was only to fine you.”

“Oh,” Cindy sighed, “I suffered this strange sense of mortality earlier … ”

“That would be your own drama to uphold, Cindy.”

“Don’t patronize; my ex did that, which explains his status.”

“In the cosmic scheme, I’m nobody’s anything. Those who issue fines have few friends.”

“Right.”

“On that note, so long. Don’t forget to pay.” He swirled, disappearing into a wave of glittering dust.

Cindy remained once again oblivious to the bed sheets slithering snake-like across the room until they encircled her legs.

“Hey, get off,” she writhed as they cut her flesh. “Egyptian cotton, my ass!”

Denial is not a river in Egypt.

Make sure you pay that fine.

She wondered, at that moment, a) whether she’d gone insane, b) if the sheets would ever release her, c) how she could reasonably pay a fine when she didn’t know to whom it was payable.

The steady ticking of a clock (somewhere?) reminded her of precious time. The bed sheets had her ensnared and her white-knuckled hand gripped the ticket she had no idea how to pay. Just then, the room split into a vast number of portals leading to alternate realities, and she understood that the ticket had all along been an escape, and that the officer had in fact been a genie in disguise (which he’d denied but she’d intuited). And now, how could she recognize the ‘right’ portal (or the ‘wrong’ one—not to mention the entire spectrum ranging from marginally good to catastrophically awful) and with all the pressure, she felt like, Cindy, just pick a portal, any portal. In the end, all reality converges at one point.

And then the officer appeared in a glittering cloud of space dust amidst a mild atmospheric chill, and the Egyptian cotton sheets fell from her lacerated legs. She sighed in relief and ran her free hand through her disheveled halo of hair.

“I didn’t get your name,” she smiled shyly.

“I don’t recall,” he shrugged.

“I have no friends, either,” she ducked her head, “and I don’t even issue fines.”

“Time to leave,” he indicated the swirling lights of his spaceship outside. She followed him in and saw spinning zeros on the display.

“Where are we going?” She asked.

“Just enjoy the ride, Sugar Pops.”

“It’s Sugar Pops now,” Cindy balked.

“I don’t assign labels, Tootsie,” he shrugged, “your world does, though it’s not a universal norm.”

“So how are universal laws determined?”

“By what’s off limits: violence, property damage, abuse … like that.”

“What universal maxim dictated that you pay a call on my broken clock?”

“Not mine to question.” Another shrug.

Cindy stared pensively to the stars. “Can you turn the music up?” she asked.

“There is none,” he replied, and so there wasn’t, she realized, contenting herself with the steady ticking of the universal clock, eternal time-keeper, moral compass and guider of the mothership that transported her ever further from a psychic wasteland she’d once called home. And there in the inky darkness of deep outer space, as her former life dissipated, calmness enveloped her. Blessedly, time transformed into something other than the frenzied pace of a world where she’d seen fit to smash her clock, never imagining that through such a singular act, she might actually fine her way to freedom.


Issue 9: March 2016


IMG_9133Raphael and His Daughter
By Thomas Sanfilip

I saw her walking toward the Ponte Vecchio again late in the afternoon. Not even her eyes could tell where, so warm and lustrous, but always cast down as if the earth speaking, and her father watching, always watching, though not directly, as if a master guiding a horse from behind that, with the tap of a switch or the flick of an eyebrow or some low whistle in his throat, could make her turn or pirouette. She only had to hear the wind to move closer or more distant from everything around. He could direct her ever so subtly in a new direction like some magician probing a dark secret.

This passionless movement of the earth below her feet and the father’s power to move it and to watch his daughter move with it over the Arno, back and forth, was like some frothy wave of light. Her long brown hair twisted over her shoulder made me wonder. She looked like some melancholic angel fallen to earth, though no words passed between us, only this languid, distant walk, a product of her father’s training, his mind, his thoughts. Here he was with daughter pausing to his reckoning, her face consuming my heart like some wild inextinguishable flame night and day on the streets of Florence.

I watched them so many times and always in the shadows, Raphael and his daughter, maybe after too many inquiries, too many steps behind them, four steps forward, almost able to touch her hand, sometimes near enough to see her soft neck and absorb her transparent soul. She was so tightly bound to him, yet each time I saw her pass, even when drums sounded at night and the young swallowed their flames for a few tourist dollars, I wanted to wrest her away. But the father was there and the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, one or the other, the father on one scale, she on the other.

One afternoon I saw them sitting in one of the cafés in the Piazza Della Repubblica, breezily quiet and subdued, he slowly drinking a cup of cappuccino, she listening to him speak. From a distance it looked as though his lips never moved, stapled and pressed, every word, silent or spoken. Like some oracular voice directing her one way then another, pointing out with his eyes, but drinking in her attention at the same time as though calibrating the gas flame on a stove as one cooks a delicate piece of fish. Not too much on one side, ever so gently turned to the other.

I took a table nearby and ordered something inconsequential. The more his lips moved the less I made out words, the more he talked the more evident her nodding assent, as though conceding to a lover’s private request. A little spray of late afternoon sunlight bounced off the building facades that flanked the piazza. The gratification of her alone in the sun or under an evening moon was enough to satisfy my passion.

But then something stopped, as if planned, some awakening, some dull light imploding as if no one cared that her soul might extinguish, even her father who sat calmly vigilant at her side. I tried to catch her gaze, its madonna-like innocence overshadowing everything in its path, even the late afternoon sun slipping among the shadows. How could I not see her emptiness and innocence, a beauty neither living nor dead, but caught somewhere between, trapped in that mercurial space between waking and sleeping? I felt bound and ridiculed, everything inside me yearning to inundate her being, but it was not remotely possible. Her father was content to parade his daughter to the world. His was the way of the connoisseur who understands the preciousness of creation, she moving gracefully by his side transfixed by the unknown, the vague scent of flowers following in her wake.


IMG_8984Garden of the Fugitives
By Marcus LiBrizzi

Happiness separates the family like a spotlight on a subject. In the forum, the baths, the Villa of Mysteries, the family poses for pictures without a stranger appearing even once in the background. Oblivious to anyone else but themselves, they walk the ancient streets of Pompeii while stray dogs watch them from gutted doorways. Small and still, with mournful eyes, the dogs are everywhere, but not one shows up in any photograph taken by Fabian, his partner Rafa, or the three teenage siblings, Marius, Sol and Adriana.

Sometimes the April rain stops, and then the mist rises up into the ash-colored sky. During one of these ascensions, Mount Vesuvius suddenly appears stark in the background. Wispy clouds near the mouth of the crater make it look like the volcano is going to erupt. Another time, while the family stands alone in the Temple of Isis, noisy Italian schoolchildren pass by the street outside and sound like they’re speaking a dead language.

… eramus … alterum … amicis …

In glass cases, the plaster cast of a young man covers up his face, and the cast of a dog writhes on a chain. Long after the bodies had decomposed, victims of Pompeii left hollow cavities in the volcanic ash that buried them alive. Plaster poured into these hollows recovered the forms of people, animals and plants. Fabian remembers once seeing a picture of a whole family formed out of plaster. They were all lying down, dead or unconscious, except one man at the back was leaning up on one elbow to take a final look at his loved ones. Although these plaster casts are not in the glass cases, a large poster reveals their location. They’re exhibited in the place where they were discovered, an orchard behind a house on Via della Palestra.

After finding the street and walking the length of it, Fabian and the others never find the plaster casts, so they wander off to explore other things. Hours later, an announcement rings out from hidden speakers telling visitors it’s time to leave. Although an exit is nearby, the family goes in the opposite direction. They still have thirty minutes before the gate closes.

Once again, everyone heads down Via della Palestra. Premature dusk has settled over the ruins, and only the sound of their footsteps disturbs the intense quiet. No one else is around. Even the dogs are gone. The family comes to an intersection, Via della Nave Europa, which runs down a steep hill. At the bottom, there is a group of little stone houses with impressive doorways. This must be the necropolis. As everyone starts to walk down the hill, something else catches their attention.

It’s a garden, it has no entrance, but the walls are low enough to scale. The garden consists of a simple plot of grass with several rows of apple trees and five plaster casts lying on the ground, a woman and four men, the last one leaning up on one elbow to take a final look at his loved ones. As they walk around the plaster casts they tried to find earlier, Fabian and the others wonder aloud how they ever found the exhibition, hidden here in such an out-of-the-way place.

When their exclamations die down, a somber mood overtakes them all. The plaster casts tell a desperate story. The last moments of the Roman family unfold right now into a timeless present. Stark white in the premature dusk, the casts have become luminous while the rest of the world has gone curiously flat.

*

They all make it to the gate just as the attendant is locking up for the night.

“Che fortuna,” he says, winking at them.

Out they go, swept up into the world of the living, a taxicab to the station, a sleeper on the Eurorail, then the culmination of their vacation in Calabria and Sicily. A Boeing 747 flies them back to North America, where a year blows by like a whirlwind of changing scenes and seasons. Throughout it all, their journey to Italy stands out like a landmark.

On the anniversary of the trip, Fabian and Rafa plan a special dinner and invite Marius, Sol and Adriana. During the day, Fabian’s mind keeps returning to the strange experience they shared in Pompeii. He and the others often talked about the unbelievable odds of finding the plaster casts concealed in a place with no entrance. In the midst of the dinner preparations, Fabian looks up the casts on his iPhone. After a few searches, he learns that the statues are displayed in the Garden of the Fugitives. While he recognizes the location from the photographs on his screen, Fabian is surprised by the differences.

To begin with, the plaster casts are completely covered in glass to protect them from weather and vandals. They are not just lying on the ground in the open. Another difference involves the number. Thirteen plaster casts are on display, not five like there were last year. In fact, the casts consist of three families, not one, like there was last year. Before Fabian can investigate further, his children arrive, and the celebration begins. Only later that evening, Fabian remembers what he discovered, and he shares it with everyone else seated around the table. Until he starts talking, Fabian didn’t realize he was upset.

A strange mood falls over the table, an atmosphere so like the one last April when the plaster casts told their desperate story. Since the candles have melted down, dusk fills the dining room, so the walls seem to recede while flickering light makes shadows intertwine like branches of apple trees overhead. In a ghostly image hovering just below the surface of the present, the Garden of the Fugitives softly pulses in and out of perception.

Leaning one elbow on the table, Fabian stares ahead at his family and finds he cannot voice what he finally guessed. They will live forever.


IMG_6137The Silver Smile of the Hatchet
By Charles Rafferty

Magda was too tiny to kill a cow but her mother needed help with the weed-like tenacity of her daily chores. The chickens were put on Magda’s list. The worst one could do, her mother concluded, was to run headless around its pen.

Magda surprised her mother. With a succession of little kisses, she would persuade the chicken to her side. She let it peck the seed from her palm as it had done on a daily basis since the first time it left the henhouse. Then she scooped it up and took it behind the barn.

The bird never complained as she laid its head upon the stump. It may have smelled the dried blood or the feathery scent of a missing companion, but Magda reasoned the recognition was comforting, as if some grand reunion were in the offing. Then the silver smile of the hatchet thunked into the wood, and the body of the bird began to flap and sprint.

Magda was always careful of the head lying in the dirt, staring up at her with the last twinklings of consciousness. Sometimes it even winked at her, and Magda spoke to it as if she would make it better with a little extra feed, a little rub behind the ears.

One day, Magda’s mother interrupted the cycle of murder and comfort. “Magda!” she called. “Stop talking to that chicken.” Magda tucked a hair behind her ear, laid the head upon the ground, and stood to face her mother. “Your uncle is coming for dinner. Go get another bird.”

Magda had blood on her hands, an arterial spatter across her coveralls. She wanted to clean up before returning to the chicken yard, but her mother would never stand for that. “They’re just animals,” she would say, as if that put them into the same category as coffee cups or grass.

So Magda came out from behind the barn and picked another Black Star that had stopped laying eggs. It didn’t look much different from the others, but its insides had grown old. The chicken came over when Magda made kisses in the air. It climbed willingly into her arms as if it were accepting a hug.

But then the bird became agitated. Perhaps it could smell the fresh blood, or the hunger of her uncle approaching on horseback. Twice it tried to crawl up the front of Magda’s shirt, its claws cutting into her. There was a lot of flapping and squawking, and when Magda got finally back behind the barn, she kicked at the gate but it didn’t catch.

As always, the hatchet came down, and the body of the bird began to run. Somehow, it found its way between her legs and out of the un-shut gate. Magda hurried after it, but the remaining chickens saw its headless arrival, her bloody pursuit. The Black Star fell over into the dirt like a toy that needed rewinding.

Magda bent down to retrieve the lump of feathers and felt the blood trickling over her breast where the bird had clawed her. “Trying to walk to heaven” is what her mother would have said. Magda stood up. She felt conclusions being drawn. The silence of the chicken yard blossomed before her like a strange new orchard whose only fruit was fear.


IMG_8213Closeup
By Peter Jordan

On the walls of every room were photographs: some color, some black and white. Mostly the photographs were of the neighborhood; the inside of run-down diners, the front of dollar stores, dudes on the bottom steps of brownstones drinking from big bottles in brown paper bags.

Only one of the photographs was framed, it was Toot’s all-time favorite. It was a closeup of a woman sitting on the front steps of one of the buildings. She could have been anywhere between the ages of seventeen and seventy. She wore a faded black bandana pulled tight over her scalp and she was smiling but, when she smiled, she didn’t show her teeth.

Toot said she was a crack whore and she had just had a hit. The pupils of her eyes were blown, making them look black. There was a parched look to her skin, a mummified look. The shot was in black and white. He said it was a difficult low-light shot.

I stayed with him for two weeks at the end of that summer. Two weeks was enough. On one of those hot afternoons I heard two shots. They were loud and I knew they were close. I looked out of the big upstairs window. Across the street at the Superfresh, shoppers spilled out of the front of the store screaming and panicked, running short distances crouched low, looking for cover.

I hurried down the stairs, taking them three at a time, and out of the front door. Across the street, a black kid was lying on his back on the sidewalk. A woman was down on both knees bent over him, asking where he lived, where his momma was. I couldn’t hear his answer. She was telling him he was going to be okay. I’d say he was somewhere between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, although he was at least as tall as me.

He was on his back, one leg drawn up, and he was pressing down hard on the sole of his brand new white sneakers, like he was trying to push himself up the street.

There were two trails of blood and because the street was on a slope the blood met below his white sneakers to form a pool. He rolled onto his side, away from the woman. Then he gasped for air, like he had just surfaced from being underwater.

Some people came over to investigate, bent over, curious. The door of the Superfresh swished open as the people set off the sensors. Each time the doors opened I could smell roasted chicken and herbs, but it didn’t make me hungry.

When I looked inside the Superfresh there was a security guard sitting on one of those wheeled checkout chairs, at first I thought he was a cop. He had his hat in one hand, and he had a soda can tipped back to his mouth, his head tilted back drinking the soda. When the security guard put the soda down he looked at me, but it was like he didn’t see me.

The first to arrive was Channel-10-News. It was a little cream-colored transit van with a satellite dish on the top and Channel-10-News on the side. A guy in a cream suit got out, followed by a cameraman. The cameraman hoisted the camera onto his shoulder. And the man in the cream suit combed his hair.

I heard the ambulance before it arrived. When it pulled up onto the sidewalk two paramedics got out, raised their hands toward the sky and pulled on their tight blue plastic gloves. They examined the boy. Then one of them opened the back door of the ambulance, took out a green polythene sheet, unrolled it fully, and they both rolled him onto it.

The cops were the last to arrive. When they did, they got out of their patrol car with a tired but cautious look about them, in that slow way they do. Two big men, hats pushed back.

One cop was looking for witnesses. He went from person to person, wiping his face with a white handkerchief. The other cop walked into the Superfresh. He talked to the security guard and staff. Those cops had seen it all before.

Some neighborhood dudes sauntered over holding up the palms of their hands to stop the traffic as they crossed the road. They wanted to know what had happened. There was a feeling now that things were over, but there was also a feeling that something else was about to begin.

I walked back to the apartment and closed the door behind me. In the coolness of the dim corridor I stood with my forehead pressed against the wall.

When Toot got home from work I told him what had happened. He turned on the television and searched the channels until he found Channel-10-News. The guy in the cream suit was saying two young black kids had tried to rob the Superfresh. One of the boys had a tazer. But he was too slow.

Toot kept pointing at the television and shouting, “That’s just next door. That’s the fuckin’ Superfresh!”

When the news-piece was over Toot got up and turned off the television. Then he lay down full-stretch on the sofa, one leg drawn up, and he said, “Man, if only I’d seen that. That would have been some photograph.”

I checked my watch. It was still early. In an hour or so I would take a shower, get ready to go out.


IMG_1321Sailor’s Lament
By Shannon Magee

She was the mascot of the regattas. Every year she seemed to … she seemed to dance in the boatyard as the sailors rigged their boats. She inhabited space like energy, like light. I remember catching a glimpse of her before a race in July. Boats of all sizes were anywhere they could stand around the tiny clubhouse, small optimists, narrow Sunfish, and long 420s parked on dollies to be rigged and put into the water. Sails seemed to be flapping everywhere, tugging booms along as they swung freely from their masts. The sun was bright and the asphalt of the parking lot, where most of the boats were loitering, was baking. Thick white sails billowed in the wind like heavy canvas bed sheets and I saw her surrounded by them, sitting on the bow of her racing boat, legs wrapped around the mast as she fit the mainsail into the boom. She was smiling, but there was a weight behind her eyes like the heaviness you feel on a dark night in the middle of winter.

That was the summer of the endless heat waves. They rolled in like the waves, one after another for months, punctured only by brief—but intense—thunderstorms. The clouds would roll up on themselves and darken from a steamy white cotton thread to a thick grey bundle of wool. The sky would darken gradually, a film fading to noir while the rain gurgled from several miles above the bay. When such a sudden thunderstorm rolled in, she was faster than anyone at de-rigging and getting the boats covered up so we could all get inside and wait out the rain. She would sing or laugh the whole time, the wind stealing the sound from her throat before any of us had the chance to hear it.

She was from our town, but she was a stranger to us. I never even knew her name. I think that concerned a lot of people more than anything else—that she wasn’t close to anyone in town. That only became a problem later on in the summer. It meant more than some people first realized.

On the last day, the last race of the summer, the sun was glaring at us, bright and blinding. Children chased each other through the labyrinth of fiberglass and metal. The sky was a deep blue, the sort with layers you could just fall into endlessly, and the sea—the races were on the bay and the sunlight edged the deep green of the channel like gold lace. In the morning, there wasn’t a ripple on the ocean.

She was floating on the asphalt, twirling from one side of her boat to the other, hooking up the mainsheet on starboard, then tightening the jib halyard on port. No one thought the races would be any good, because the wind was so dead, but she seemed hopeful just the same. When she and her partner pulled up their main sail after they got their boat in the water, the wind picked up enough to carry her laugh to those of us on land.

But … it surprised us all. The storm. The sky just turned, like a coin flipped. We were already out on the water and there wasn’t any lightning. They don’t cancel races unless there’s lightning so, we stayed out on the water. Her boat cut through the water like a sword, splashing everyone with its wake as she and her partner cheered the rest of us on.

No one expected them to capsize like they did. It was just before the first flash of lightning. And I remember seeing her through the grey, sitting on top of the dagger board, sitting on her boat gone sideways, struggling to level the boat and raise the soaked sail out of the water. She was too small for that strength. She couldn’t have done much, but it wasn’t her fault. Her partner just got stuck … under the sail, you know? No air in that suctioned space between the sail and the water. By the time they got the boat up … just gone.

Of course, we all went in as soon as we could, called the paramedics even though everyone knew it was hopeless. Some people even blamed her for what happened; I heard the talk as the ambulance left the lot. I saw her then, lying on the dock. She was curled up, her body rising and falling as the dock bobbed on the current. Someone called to her, but I don’t think she heard and no one went near her. No one knew what to do. Her eyes were wide open, but they … they were staring at nothing.

She stayed there all afternoon. Through the storm and everything. No one tried to move her. No one knew how to talk to her. But as the sun set, I saw someone leave a storm candle next to her. The light flickered across her face as the sky went dark. It showed how empty her eyes were. I think it stayed lit all night. The next day, she had disappeared. All traces of the day before had vanished. I never saw her again.


IMG_8422The Butterfly’s Secret
By Erin Clements

The huge armoire in Anna Blue’s house changed locations over the years, but when she was eight years old it resided in her living room. Its height reached the ceiling at eight feet tall and it spanned four feet across. Beautifully handcrafted in Europe, the doors had carvings of roses and lilies. This high-quality craftsmanship meant that if her crayons touched any part of it, she would not live to see her ninth birthday.

As an entertainment center—overfilled with TV, VCR, speakers, amplifiers, equalizers, miles of wire, and so much more—the entire armoire leaned forward menacingly. It was obvious the looming cabinet was over its weight capacity limit and the wood would creak whenever Anna or her sister Melissa put a tape in the VCR. Normally, children would express this concern to an adult. However, their father, an engineering-school dropout, was sensitive about his ability to build and stack. Reminding him of his inadequacy to properly set up an entertainment center (or improve anything around the house) was forbidden—as it would tear at his already weakened self-esteem. Thus, the young girls watched cartoons cautiously, engrossed in coyote-desert-fowl relations, but with an ear always listening for the sound of wood under duress.

And then it happened.

Anna was sitting on the couch, a lucky bystander. Melissa had been sitting right in front of the tower of doom. Anna saw the armoire falling forward gently, like a sequoia coming down after generations of serving nature. She screamed for Melissa, breaking her away from the intoxicating cartoons. Melissa saw the carved masterpiece headed right for her. To their advantage, it was so big it fell like a massive dinosaur, gradually, as if gravity got lazy. Melissa scrambled backwards, scuttling like a crab. The noise as it hit the hardwood floor was deafening and intense, especially for young children. They immediately cried. Even though they weren’t hurt, they needed serious parental comfort. It took several scoops of ice cream before they could calm themselves.

After the incident, the armoire was moved. The family treated the catastrophe as if it were an accident and had nothing to do with the fact that their father burdened a beautiful but flimsy piece of furniture with about fifty extra pounds of electronics. It was repurposed as a liquor cabinet for which two children had no use. Even though the new entertainment center was sturdy and the armoire stood solidly in another room, the incident still traumatized Anna. She lost her sense of safety that day … and while most normal people are afraid of spiders or clowns, Anna had the constant fear of falling furniture. Any piece of furniture that stood taller than her five-and-a-half feet gave her the feeling that it would come crashing down.

This fear followed her to college, where it surprisingly worked out to her advantage. Her constant fear of tumbling furnishings pushed her toward the center of every room, away from minatory deathtraps that seemed to sway in her presence. Always being in the center of the room unconsciously made her the center of attention, even in large groups. Her fear of falling furniture made her afraid to be a wallflower. She avoided corners and hallways, trying to prevent herself from being crushed under a mountain of wood and knick-knacks.

While Anna didn’t mind how many friends she made, always being in the center of the room made her naturally receive attention. She was the one introducing people and chatting up whomever was nearby. People complimented her on being attentive to guests and friendly to everyone. Little did they know she was using them as human shields from towering bookcases and bureaus, tottering cupboards and cabinets.

Anna gave people the impression that she liked to be around them and was interested in what they said. She flitted and fluttered for a deeper reason. Even while she danced around other party guests trying to stay alive, Anna was always the social butterfly.


IMG_9022Wood People
By Howard Sage

Blanca said that we could stop by and meet her friend’s friends at the raw wood shop and still have time to catch the 11:48 train for the beach.

She had told me about those free and pure guys who wanted nothing more than to saw, hammer, plane and nail unfinished oak, maple, and sometimes pine. If Marina, the year-long-girlfriend of one of those worker-owners, John, stood for anything, then these wood people were as transparent and true as any surface on the earth.

We took Greenwich Avenue and cut quickly through from Sixth Avenue along Thirteenth Street, at the edge of the meatpacking district. The shop, alone on a corner, was close enough to the Eighth Avenue subway, Blanca had calculated, so we could spend up to 30 minutes chatting, run across the street to the station, and make it to the Long Island railroad in time to catch the train. I admired the way she took charge and elegantly arranged all the details so I could just follow her.

With all her craft and forethought she hadn’t figured on or even known or remembered the long ticket lines, so she told me to buy the tickets and she would wait on the platform and convince the conductor to hold the train doors open for me until I came. Blanca believes she can make anything that she wants to happen happen: convince people to believe incredible stories of her adventures, move strangers to help her with money and goods, have people hold doors open that should close.

She went down to the track, and I found my place at the back of one of the lines.

The ticket seller was fast, and the line moved quickly. My nervousness about missing the train slowly abated, and I began to think about how much I liked Blanca. Her white skin had a few perfectly placed dark spots, and when she walked toward me with her stately gait, she seemed just the right amount taller than her five-foot-three or five-foot-six. Yes, she was 40, but I remember her face with no lines and her mouth with no creases. She loved to run and exercise, even though she smoked, and her arms and legs were strong and solid.

After four or five minutes I was at the front of the line and bought the tickets. I hurried to the gate and skipped down to the track. I could see Blanca just inside the train car door. No one was on the platform, and I had a sense that something permanent and even final I could not stop was about to happen.

Blanca saw me on the steps and then down the platform.

The doors slowly began to close, but her arms didn’t move and her face showed no reaction. Something between a frown and a grin took shape on her face.

Her stolid form remained firmly and proudly motionless at the doors as they closed and the train began its starting jerks.


IMG_9664Heartbeat
By Joshua Isard

18th Street seems narrower than usual. I’m juking between other cars for the whole two-mile ride, and when I arrive I check to see that both my rearview mirrors are still where they should be.

“I’m bleeding,” my wife had said when she called. I was about to walk into a bar, but instead dashed back to my CRV, peeled out of my spot on the street, and committed violations of even Philadelphia driving culture on my way to her office.

I call from the street. “I’m here.”

“It’s fine.”

“What?”

“The doctor said not to worry, that this sort of thing happens, and that we should just come to the office in the morning.”

“Really?”

“Go back to the bar.”

The next morning, after a night where we both read full novels for not being able to sleep, we go to the ob/gyn office and get in right away. The nurse first takes my wife’s height and weight. Then she asks my wife to lie down, unbutton her jeans, and pull up her shirt so she can use the transducer wand to measure the baby’s heartbeat. She squirts out the gel and then rubs the wand just above the waistline.

There is a whooshing, like the wind through a cracked window just before a storm.

“Is that it?” I ask.

“No,” the nurse says. “You can come over here and hold her hand.”

I go to my wife and stand next to her while she lies on the exam table and we hear the sounds that her insides make through small sonar.

She starts to cry.

“What, hon?”

“They found it right away at my last appointment,” my wife says, “they found it in five seconds.”

“Nothing to worry about,” the nurse says. “The baby may just be turned away.” Then she seems to push harder on the wand, and I wonder if she half wants to poke the baby so it turns around and stops this lady from crying on the exam table.

The same whooshing, the same wind.

And then it hits me that the baby may be dead, and what if it is? Is there anything I can sympathize with my wife over less than a dead baby inside her? I’m sure they would have to remove it, probably today.

Whooshing.

It’s my baby, but right now it’s way more hers. The only sign I have of it is increased anxiety. What do you say to your wife who’s just had her dead fetus cut out of her?

She’s crying, breathing hard, trying to keep it in but not doing a very good job.

And I start getting emotional. I can’t tell if it’s for my wife or my child, but this—this is tragic.

Then the whooshing speeds up, and gets so it’s like a fan blowing right in my ear.

“149,” the nurse says.

“What?” I say. My wife can’t really speak right now.

“Beats per minute. The baby’s fine, and the doctor will be with you in a few minutes.” She cleans off the wand and my wife’s belly and leaves us.

“Goddamn baby,” my wife says. The tears are now a glaze on her cheeks. “Turned around at the worst time.”

“It’s almost like it was showing us its ass on purpose.”

“That little fucker.”

My hands are shaking a little from adrenaline. I don’t know if I got the rush when I thought the baby was dead or when I found out it was alive, but I have it now. My eyelid twitches a little. I can feel my pulse in my wrists, on my temples.

And the heartbeat I heard, it’s still with me, the soundtrack over all my sensations.

I think for a second: Well played, baby. Well played.


IMG_8835Expectancy
By Katrina Johnston

Sitting at the desk was a very pregnant woman who said something urgently to me that I couldn’t understand because of her accent. I ground my left heel into the carpeting. I don’t like doctors. They’re always poking something cold where the sun don’t shine and then they snip and stitch.

I hesitated, swallowed hard. I looked around me and behind me and counted seven pregnant women occupying the waiting room chairs. I’d been to see Dr. Forzani a few times previously. He’s my GP. Wow, he was sure dealing with a lot of obstetric patients on this particular Wednesday afternoon and I was his only male patient today, or so it appeared.

We must be having some kind of major population explosion. Those gigantic and far-along bellies took priority. There wasn’t a spare chair to be had.

They were young and not-so-young women; blond and dark-haired women, and women of various nationality, each steadfastly leafing through the outdated magazines, sitting like lumps of expectancy, bellies like pillows. I felt like the odd man who had wandered into a no man’s land.

I started sweating, turned back to the desk, but the receptionist had just grabbed the phone. I waited while she held a conversation in a language I couldn’t fathom.

One by one, as if by ritual, each pregnant woman put down her magazine and glanced over at me, shrewdly appraising while I idled by the desk. They scrutinized me with their steely, staring eyes, quite serious and calm and judgemental, causing me tremendous discomfort.

I felt like they were knowledgeable of all my misspent behaviours. “Boys will be boys. See, look here,”—they were accusing me. “What a mess your gender has wrought upon us. We are hard-working and well-meaning and long suffering women. This is your fault!” One by one, their silence was addressing me: “You did this. You Man! You thoughtless, self-centred man!”

I briefly studied the ceiling tiles, the artwork on the walls. I had counted seven, but actually there were eight pregnancies. I’d just now noticed another woman on the far side of the room. Together, they seemed to circle their wagons around me using their laser-sharp eyesight. I stood like a pariah.

Wait a minute! Another woman is coming in. Yeah, pregnant. She walks like a duck, tilting side-to-side, both hands supporting her lower back, presenting her belly forward. She appears to be as young as 20, expecting twins perhaps, due yesterday. Her stomach is enormous. I can see she’s weary. That makes nine pregnancies in here! No, ten! I’ve forgotten to include the woman behind the counter and now she’s hanging up the phone.

So while they’re all staring at me and thinking and wondering which belly I belong to, or which belly that I am responsible for, or wondering why I’m seeing Dr. Forzani and what’s my story, I lean over and try to explain: “I’m here to see the doctor at 3:15. My name is Mark.” I say this extra quietly.

“Ya,” she says. “Forzani, yeah, he move to 312. Dis is 304 and another doctor working. You want down far hall.”

Relief poured over me like warm biscuit gravy.

When I’d registered at Dr. Forzani’s new office, I was overjoyed that there were no pregnant women in his waiting room. I started to sweat profusely as my appointment time drew near—an assessment for vasectomy, later the same day. My wife arranged it.


IMG_8164It’s Not about Breastfeeding
By Ashley Kunsa

I’d stopped loving my husband, and so I did the only thing I could think of. I got pregnant.

My sister, who’d long ranked the marriage among my worst ideas, put this at the top. “A baby’s not going to keep you two together.”

“Of course not,” I told her. “It’s over. Why else would I want a child after fifteen years?” She did her jaw-jutting, lip-biting thing and shook her head.

My husband went into go-mode almost overnight. He slapped Mr. Yuk stickers on every bottle in the house, childproofed the cabinets, pitched matches and lighters. Usually, he half-read The Economist at the dining room table while Comedy Central yammered in the background. When he suggested a CPR class, I glanced up from my laptop, where I was combing two-bedroom apartment ads on Craigslist, and shrugged. “Go wild.”

The day of my 20-week ultrasound, a mountain of Amazon boxes awaited us in a pile of snow on the front stoop. I laced up my boots while he dragged in a Jenny Lind crib and matching changing table, a Baby Einstein jumper, a stroller/pack-n-play/car-seat combo in a gender-neutral plaid. He hadn’t taken such an interest in anything in years. But when he started talking about the three different breast pumps he’d ordered—speed, suction, flanges—I knew it was time.

“Look,” I said. “We need to talk.”

“I understand this feels very personal to you. I get that. They’re your boobs.”

“No,” I said.

“But I feel like this should be a family decision. I really hope it can be.” He was hugging the Medela box.

“Look, it’s like—”

“Breast milk is so important, for so many reasons.”

I covered my face with my hands.

“Please don’t cry,” he said. He touched my cheek. “Let’s talk this through.”

“Stop,” I said. “Just stop. This isn’t about breastfeeding. God, it’s not about breastfeeding at all.”

He sighed in relief, his almost-forty-year-old features falling into their familiar seats. Then he looked at me, expectantly, cradling the breast pump in his arms.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know how to say this other than—I’m moving out. I found a place.”

He clutched the box to his chest. “You what? You, wait. I don’t. What?”

“Things between us,” I said. “We just—stopped. You had to know. It’s been like this a long time now.”

Over slick roads, we drove in silence to the hospital. A small woman wearing a hijab rubbed cold gel on my balloon belly. I waited for her to list out the chambers of the heart, the kidneys, bladder, brain, spine. Instead, she whispered something in a language I didn’t understand and excused herself from the room. When she returned, it was with a doctor. He took up the wand.

“What is it?” my husband said, and I felt panic rise in the room like the rivers after the snow melts.

“The heartbeat,” said the doctor, hanging his head. “It’s stopped.”


IMG_9606Psychiatrist
By Alexis Copeland

I walk down the long hallway, following my psychiatrist to his office. When I get there, I sit down on the leather couch. He greets me and asks how I am doing. I give him my usual answer, “I’m okay.”

My psychiatrist’s name is Dr. S. He is an older guy with grey hair and bushy eyebrows. His voice is always hushed and you have to listen very closely to hear what he’s saying.

My mother sits in the chair beside me. I don’t like it when she comes into the room with me. I don’t like talking about my feelings in front of her. Plus, she talks too much and assumes she knows everything that’s going on with me. She doesn’t even know half of it.

The questioning begins. I stare out the window in Dr. S’s office and let my mother do all the talking. There is a big field out there, scattered with wildflowers. They look so free, which is the exact opposite of how I’m feeling.

Then Dr. S asks me how my medication is working.

I am in the experimental phase of taking anti-depressants. The first pill I took made me so tired that I could barely function. They started me on a new pill about a month ago. And to be honest, I don’t feel any different than before. I’m still depressed, still anxious, still suicidal.

Of course my mother gives her input. “Well I see a change in her mood,” she says. Of course she does. That’s what she said last time when I was sedated twenty-four seven.

Dr. S asks me how I feel. I want to tell him the truth, but I just stay quiet and shrug my shoulders.

My mother thinks I should stay on the medication. “It’s only been four weeks,” she says.

Most medications take six to eight weeks to work. Personally I think that’s a little ridiculous. A suicidal person could kill herself in that time.

Dr. S then asks me what I think.

I say, “Sure.”

So he tells me he will see me in another four weeks.

I say, “Okay.”

And then my mother and I leave his office and go back to the waiting room. My mother schedules another appointment with the receptionist. I stand beside her, staring into space.

Then we leave. We pass through the automatic sliding doors, and I think of how much I do not want to come here anymore.


IMG_8199Young Adult
By Charles Rammelkamp

“It’s an open casket,” Doreen said to her friend Sherry. “I don’t know if they’re old enough to handle it.”

One of Doreen’s daughter’s classmates at Potawatomi Rapids High had died in an automobile accident. Charmaine had been in a car with some other kids when a drunk slammed into them. Charmaine had been sitting shotgun.

“It was ironical,” Doreen’s daughter Tiffany had said. “Char usually sits in back with the rest of us. Sat.”

Tiffany had not been with them that night, for which Doreen had thanked God over and over.

“It might sober them up,” Sherry said, as if the accident had somehow been the kids’ fault.

“How could she have known?” Doreen replied, a mild rebuke. “How could Charmaine or any of them have seen what was coming?”

“I’m just saying,” Sherry said. “I just mean it might make them more alert. I know it would me.”

“Tiff wants to go,” Doreen conceded. “She says it’ll ‘bring closure,’ not that she has any idea what that means. It’s something that guidance counselor, Ken Faust, must have said. I could wring his neck. But I guess I’ll have to let her go, won’t I? All her friends are.”

*
The funeral parlor reminded Tiffany of a movie theater lobby. Dim lights in wall sconces, purple-cushioned chairs with gold brocade.

“And you know how in yoga class when they play that mood music that’s not really Indian? The music felt churchy in the funeral home, but I don’t think it was. Organ music. Solemn.”

“Did you look at the body?” Doreen asked, and it sounded cold to her and she revised: “Did you look at her? Did you look at Char?”

Tiffany nodded. “She looked … dead,” she said, but then, realizing she didn’t really know what “dead” was, she said, “She didn’t look alive,” and then she realized that that was what “dead” meant, and all at once Tiffany felt more grown up than she had ever felt in her life, as if she’d glimpsed a mystery, passed some invisible milestone. Now she had a history. Now she knew how time worked.


IMG_8144Sin
By Jamey T. Gallagher

Perry stood on the edge of the playground. He was in fourth grade, preparing for his First Communion, and he had just had a Sinful Thought. The thought came from outside of him; it wasn’t his. It had insinuated itself into his mind, a little egg casing that had hatched. He had thought the words: “Christ’s Crappy Dick,” which he saw as an acrostic for CCD, and he could not get the three words out of his head. He kept hearing them echo, especially the last two: crappy dick, crappy dick, crappy dick. He was going to hell.

Perry didn’t believe in the devil in a literal way, but he believed in hell and in evil, and the thought was clearly evil, the most evil thought he had ever had. Though sometimes he did things he knew were wrong, those were not thoughts so much as impulses, like the time he banged his brother’s head against the hardwood floor when they were fighting, as hard as he could, his brother’s skull making a reverberating, frightening, but deeply satisfying clong, Timothy getting up, holding his head and looking at him like he was crazy, or the time Jennifer M told him he could feel her hair because it was so soft and he had been unable to stop himself from yanking the lock as hard as he could.

Christ’s Crappy Dick. If he was capable of thinking this kind of thought, he was probably capable of worse. He looked around at the other children on the playground, children wearing mittens even though it was an unseasonably warm day in November, children throwing mud at each other, children hanging from the bars of the “eagle’s nest,” children pushing each other down the slide, children swinging back and forth and back and forth on the swings, making wide parabolas, some of them jumping off and flying through the air, their arms wind-milling, challenging gravity, and he wondered if any of them could tell what was happening inside him, if any of them had ever had such an evil thought.

Many of them, about twenty, went to CCD along with him, riding the same bus the two miles from Barry Elementary to Mary, Mother of Peace. Those twenty others were all devout believers, good Catholics, even though some were bullies and others smoked cigarettes in the woods and a few did things with a girl in the sixth grade who was already developed and wore a leather jacket and makeup and would do things Perry did not understand in the woods behind the school for ten dollars. Despite their failings, they were all better than him, were all going to heaven, whereas he was subject to evil winds. Perry stood near the water fountain, under the shade of a willow tree whose branches were covered in soft brown leaves, a place where fuzzy caterpillars collected, wondering if he would ever be a good person again in his life.


other side
By William O’Hara

In walks the man with the pointed face. The man of a thousand pointed faces. He springs into a boxing stance, two fists clenched in my direction. How are we today he says. How are we today is what he says every day. A creature of habit. Definitely some sort of creature. A big smile on his pointy face, he keeps looking at his fists then at me and then his fists again. Not a care in the world. Not this one anyway. I see two white coats standing in a corner talking to each other. Every now and then they look over. In the black corner stands a man dressed in black reading from a black book. Every now and then he looks over too. Pointy takes my jaw and moves it from side to side. I tell him to stop. I will stop when you stop he says softly. The others come over. That’s it, that’s it, they say encouragingly, three faces in a semi-circle looking down, being encouraging. I can see them grow tired of being encouraging and when they are tired they turn round and go. Except for Pointy of course. He has no place to go. Help me! I cry, Help me! Of course nobody does.

No one ever does.

Some time goes by. I don’t know how much time because there’s no clock in the room. Without some form of measurement it’s always hard to tell the time because time is relative. I learnt that a long time ago. Pointy likes to take his time. He likes to take my time too. He’s in no hurry. He has all the time in the world.

I can’t get away with anything. I know this because I am always trying to get away with something. Always trying. Always not getting away with it.

The light switches on. My eyes are unused to the light and they feel like they are burning. How they burn. I see nothing but blinding light. I wrench my eyes tightly shut. Fingers try to wrench them open. Water sprinkled on my face makes no difference. I drive my face inwards. A hand grabs my jaw and turns it upwards. I recognise the technique. I don’t like it. Not one bit. One day I am going to see how he likes it. I am told to open my eyes. I squint upwards. I didn’t agree to this. No one has ever agreed to this. It would lose its point if people agreed to this.

I hide further and further away until I have nowhere else to go but what is happening to me is following me like a hand. It has me and is dragging me out. Out into the light. I can’t stay but have nowhere else to go. I let go and it’s only then I remember that memory is something better forgotten.


59
By Michelle Greer

The table sat innocently in the dark room off to the left of check-in lines. No one could tell by looking at the table what it was fully capable of or the true nature of what the room was for.

Campbell eyed the scale warily; it had been a while since he had stepped on it. He really needed to attend this business meeting on Mars. He had barely eaten for weeks in hopes that he could take his clothing and his shoes with him. On his last trip he had been forced to part with his clothes at the last minute which was better than the alternative. He had spent the whole trip hand-washing his underwear every night and hanging his suit in the bathroom to steam clean it from the shower to get rid of the smell of the streets. If only the space shuttles would ease up on their weight restrictions. He longed for the days when money had been the only penalty for overweight luggage and a person’s weight wasn’t a factor.

He remembered in horror what his choices had been the last time he had travelled. It was not an experience he wanted to repeat. He had actually lain on the table before deciding to part with his clothing. No Armani suit was worth a leg …

The table was seven feet long and the surface of it lit up in the shape of a human. Depending on the size of the person who lay down on it the outline increased or shrunk. Along the human form were lines that denoted arteries and other valuable biological factors that had to be taken into consideration. Underneath that layer were fifty-nine scales beneath the various parts of the human outline.

The scales were maintained on a weekly basis to make sure they were accurate up to .01 of a percent of a gram. There was no room for weight calculation errors. Underneath the scales were strategically placed pressure points, each one with a saw and a cauterizing machine. The blades were maintained each night to ensure they were razor sharp and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. There was no allowance for error with the machine. Underneath the table there was a trough that ran around the length of the table. The trough caught all of the fluids and body parts that fell into it. The room was also equipped with an automatic washing system that vaguely resembled a pressure washer. It had two cycles: first the room was sprayed with water to remove any remaining fluids; then the whole room was blasted with a gamma ray to destroy any bacteria. The room was also maintained by a crew on a daily basis to make sure that there were no clogs in the drains or any other potential problems.

The lineup snaked along through three turnstiles. Some travelled for business and some for pleasure but everyone had to go through this ritual before their trip could begin. Each capsule on the shuttle fit one person and their carry-on luggage and had a weight restriction of seventy kilograms. Those even close to the seventy kilogram limit were severely limited in what they could carry. The check-in lineup was a nightmare for frequent flyers as they were never sure of just what they would be forced to give up to board the shuttle.

Campbell stepped on the scale with his carry-on luggage and heaved a sigh of relief when it flashed his weight at 69kg. The dieting had worked! He happily stepped forward to have his bag X-rayed.

Sue, the chubby woman behind Campbell, stepped onto the scale and alarms rang as the scale flashed 72 kg. Four security guards immediately pulled her out of the line and into the room off to the left of the checkout lines. She recoiled in terror when she saw the gleaming table.

Sue lay on the table as the fifty-nine perfectly calibrated scales did their work calculating what she would need to relinquish to board the shuttle. She made fists with her four fingered hands and tried to curl up her nonexistent toes. A frequent flyer who loved to eat, she had already parted with the aforementioned digits, one kidney, her appendix, and an ear.

“Spleen removal to commence in two minutes,” a disembodied voice spoke.

Fantastic, just the spleen, thought Sue. Her Prada bag and its contents were safe once again.


IMG_9431FRANKEINSTEIN
By Paul Gray

It is Switzerland. Outside, all is dark beneath the chilling thick blanket of a winter’s night. Only here, in the ramshackle laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein does light blaze, and that crazily.

The doctor peels off his surgical gloves and flings them aside with a moody laugh. It is finished! On the bench beside him reclines his creation, a hideous assemblage of body parts ripped from tombs by the light of the moon and stitched together into a shape more monster than man.

He steps back, wiping his brow. Of course, the thing couldn’t be done; they all said so.

What? Create life out of no-life? Animation out of inertia? Dynamism out of dust?! Never would he forget the mockery, the insolent laughter of those talentless little bench crawlers, those gawping, incurious, jealous reptiles. And all because he was determined to be the first!

He had walked out—had quit the seat of learning. In a fit of fury he had burned down the university, plundering the remains for the wherewithal with which to equip the creaking hovel he had rented with his remaining allowance. Here he had toiled like a lunatic. Ten years had passed in this creative frenzy; ten years in which the yokels had shunned him as a man possessed, a practitioner of the black arts …

Peasants! But he had shown them! He had shown them all.

The fruits of his toil lie on the laboratory slab, a froth of wiring bubbling to and from it, a forest of glass tubes rearing up all along its disfigured form. The great dynamo is charging up and presently its electrical payload would spit violently across. The impressive muscular bulk of the creature would twitch, heave. Aye, but would it live?

The toaster pops. Dr. Frankenstein sinks exhaustedly into a nearby wicker chair. He has done all he can. Now it is a question of waiting.

He picks up the morning paper, so sorely neglected. This is more like it. This is how he likes to relax, just himself, a cup that cheers, a slice of toast, and the crossword. Perfect. He frowns over a clue: “Heavy World Waiting For This Champ (7)”. “Frazier”, easy! He dashes down the answer, a sneer on his thin lips. How childishly simple these puzzles are! Why, a man such as himself for instance often completes ten or twelve of them in a day.

He takes a snickering bite of toast.

The timer blares.

Flinging aside the paper, he leaps to his feet. He strides across. He checks with a quick eye the status of the great dynamo. It is full. Excellent! Lab-coat aflap, he crosses to his creation. One hand trembles to the great lever, the wrenching of which will infuse the giant with the awesome energy of the cosmos. He pauses. He is remembering. “And what will you do with it even if you succeed?” “Will you keep it or will you abandon it once the novelty wears off? For we know you of old, Victor.” “What if it doesn’t like you? Very few do, you know that Victor, don’t you?” Etc. and etc. “Mind your own damn business,” he had snapped; “and piss off!” “My, with an attitude like that, you’d fit in perfectly well as a GP.”

What—him? Be content with peering up noses and lancing hemorrhoids? Bah! Money! Fame! That was his ticket.

The moment has arrived. He throws the great lever, heart in his mouth. At once the room dims, as indeed does most of the village. Huge gouts of raw electricity surge through the myriad wires and rip into the creature. It groans! It twitches! It rips away the restraining bands! It sits up!

Dr. Frankenstein moans in awe as, with great clumsy thrashings, the monster descends. Arms outstretched, it begins to lumber about the room. “Do you see?!” screams the mad inventor. “Do you behold my work? All you who mocked! All you who derided! All of you from that old, hateful Alma Mater—behold me now, you cheap, disbelieving bastards!”

The creature’s huge feet encounter the wicker chair, smashing it to smithers. Another blundering step and the coffee cup and saucer meet the same fate. The creature pauses. What in God’s name can he be looking at? wonders Frankenstein, by now on his knees. In massive fingers the creature catches up the newspaper. Mismatching watery eyes scan the print. It tuts. It shakes its great scarred head. From a bench it seizes a lead pencil and scrawls something on the newsprint beneath its bleary gaze. It lurches away. Frankenstein darts across, frantic. He snatches up the discarded paper. It is the crossword. ‘Frazier’ has been crossed out and ‘Foreman’ scratched in its place. Worse—it is the correct answer!

The doctor sniffs petulantly. Three stalking strides, perhaps four. He seizes the great lever and with a spiteful sneer wrenches it to ‘Off’. The creature staggers. It totters. It collapses, never to rise again.

In the sudden stillness Frankenstein folds up the paper and inserts it in his pocket. He glances at his watch. Good. Opening time. He shoots a contemptuous glance back at the fast-decomposing pile of protoplasm that was formerly his pride and joy.

“No one likes a smart-ass,” he says.

He exits.


IMG_9183SEE MONSTER?
By Perry McDaid

She snapped her serrated jaws shut with as much force as she could muster. The surroundings blurred in the force of her venting. Foliage bowed in the blast, inflamed by her power. Myriad and diverse creatures scuttled for cover in the multi-storey habitat the pristine coral provided amid its glorious jungle. The golden surface rippled, sparkling silica temporarily blurring the waters.

Slowly everything settled and an eye could see again through the chaos; but something was dreadfully wrong. Her coat glistened in the light of passing living lanterns. Her lips glowed in the neon of flashier neighbours. But still …

“Bloooo …” she began, but relented: those kinked lips pursing again in an expression of infinite puzzlement. Her comfort, her salve of so many years: her jewel … had been stolen as she slumbered.

In the distance, high above, a dark shadow rose towards a larger one, bubbles leading its bronze form to the surface of the Gulf of Manaar. She would have pursued it, but it was moving too fast, and she was pointed the wrong way. Plus … it had been so long since she had used that ponderous muscle thus. Kelp caressed her carapace.

She couldn’t sigh—not built for it: so she philosophised as a pebble hit her shell: dislodged from the reef by the departing palu-oruwa.

“I clink, therefore I’m clam,” she said in the way of the elder molluscs. “That’s runny á la carte,” she punned to cheer herself, absorbing the glutinous nutrients from her lodger algae. She laughed in an inverted shower of bubbles. The kelp danced in delight.

She reflected how nice it would be if her companions could appreciate the humour, but … she was a Clam Dragon with the gift of far-sight and the intelligence of all dragons. She had telepathically read the works of Descartes available in the library at Vidataltivu. She could see the thin sauce of the clam curries as they were prepared in the kitchen of Columbo’s Zaza. Her companions experienced only what their senses and mobility permitted. Sometimes she pitied them, but mostly—considering what she had seen in her lifetime—she envied them.

Descartes—unadapted—had said, “It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”

Her wisdom brewed longer, and lasted for eternity. Curiosity was a luxury for the young and fast-moving. The fallen pebble made its way down into the soft tissue of her insides. After the fashion of all miracles, nacre flowed. The void began to fill.


 Issue 10: June 2016


IMG_5089White Flowers at Dusk
By Jay Merill

Manon is an ingénue in life’s high drama. Love has gone, she feels alone. As though on some empty stage. Luc had ended things on the day they were to run away together, the timing as perverse as that. She’d sped to meet him through the Paris streets, seen him standing by the roadside all awkwardness and tight anxiety. A part she had never seen him play before. And she’d thought, Oh but he seems like a stranger; had a premonition of what was to happen. Since that moment she’s felt feverish; hardly able to keep still. Already one week ago now but her restless mood goes on.

It is evening. She’s been walking for hours in a circle which began in the Place Maubert then spread outwards. Eventually she arrives at the suburbs. Sees the high-rises in dull unpainted grey, the dome of a church. Now a canal, some factory complex. A gypsy encampment by a railway cutting, the wrecks of old cars. All unreal as stage sets. Her pent-up agony is unabsorbed.

Finally, as night comes on she’s back where she started. Here are the white apartments with balconies. Eglise St-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet. All the trees. Now she’s passing down a windowless alley. A street whose sole purpose is to lead to other places. Concrete office blocks with entrances elsewhere that give a shut-off feeling. She goes past tall buildings, catches glimpses of sky. And thinks of the recent past.

Luc and his troubled relationship with Clémence. How he’d said he wanted out, kept insisting he was in love with Manon. Then this abrupt reversal just as things were being set in motion. Had it all been an act?

She passes through the rue de Bievre and the rue Lagrange, seeing before her the Bouquinists-Quai de Montebello, the gleam of Notre Dame. Evening falls heralding a night in which she will not sleep.

Walking thoughts are different from sitting thoughts, they can jolt you, jog things out of you, move you on. As if a chunk of indigestible food had been stuck in your throat, movement the only way to shake it out. Sitting is being, walking is becoming. It’s walking to and walking away from. Never quite arriving, but sometimes you need to have that. You need to shift yourself. Rapid movement, the only way to stop from choking. Rapid thoughts, questioning the life you’ve been living, probing the glitch.

Manon thinks of the day she and Luc ran away together. The same day he decided to go back to his wife. Not that he’d really left her, had he. She has this embarrassed feeling she was part of some subsidiary performance the only purpose of which was to proclaim the main action: Luc and Clémence getting back together. And her feelings about that day have spilled over onto the way she thinks about Luc himself. An acolyte, a sideshow only and never the star turn. It’s depressing to see him in this new light but the images keep coming at her.

At dusk there are such sounds here. Scrunch of cracking glass, the clang of dustbins, a staccato of broken laughter as though to herald some spectacle. It’s breathtaking. And that strange cacophony of motor horns on the Place Maubert, which rises to a crescendo then fades. Theatrical, intense.

In rue Maitre Albert, she passes by Luc’s place. Sees the tall arched windows and curved iron balcony strung with white flowers. Manon hasn’t been able to resist taking a walk there one last time. She stares, desperate to see and yet dreading to see Luc. He isn’t in sight but on the balcony of the apartment Clémence suddenly appears.

She is pulling out petunias, pruning with a small secateur. The bush of flowers shakes and rustles. Clémence is tall behind the window box, then she’ll disappear into the curtains at her back and can’t be seen. But periodically her two brown hands reach up into air and throw out white flowers like crumpled paper napkins. They flutter down the four storeys to the street.

The hands in their discarding motion entertain on the window-stage, puppetlike. They move to left and right like lively dancers, meet together at the center. Bow. Now Clémence is filling up the balcony space, her body leaning forward. Manon catches the gleam of her upper arms, the bronze of her neck. Clémence sees Manon going along below and looking up. She waves, smiles expansively, the silver secateur swinging from one finger, as though to mock.

Manon doesn’t stop moving. She only goes the faster. Already she’s beginning to look at all that has happened as a fantasy she’d been indulging in rather than anything real. Well, whatever it was it’s over, her heart is quite clear about that. The urgent thing now is to get away. No more to see, no more to think about here. She heads off towards the École Nationale des Chartes, wanting to rest her eyes on that peaceful calming look of its stone.

Clémence nods once more, bows forward across the window box as though she’s the diva in some late night extravaganza. She continues with the trimming. There’s a quick flurry of the white flowers. A cascade that scatters at Manon’s feet. But she carries on regardless, hearing the quick slam a second later as the window’s shut down and bangs against the sill reiterating closure. End of the show, the end of this day. End of story.


IMG_1818Birds
By Korana Serdarević, Croatia
Translated by Iva Gjurkin

Birds were dying one after another. Swans were the last to switch off. They hung their necks and wilted slowly like the narcissus flowers in Grandpa’s garden. There were too many of them, and they were everywhere.

I’m old enough, but that’s still too young for me to know anything. My name is Sunny, for I was born under the summer sun on August 1st. People remember that year for the heat that caused the asphalt to crack, rivers to dry out and some animals to disappear.

Mum was sweating in the hospital bed; perhaps she even cried. With her was a midwife watching a Mexican soap opera, glancing at the TV high up on the wall under the ceiling. “Vete de mi casa!” cried Juanita, wearing heavy makeup, and the midwife grabbed my shoulders and pulled. I came out with a red face, red hair and wide-set eyes. The sun stuck firmly to the window glass. Mum wiped the slime from my head and lay me down on the dark side of the bed.

I’m hot. I’m always hot.

After that, my mum left. I don’t know where; I never asked. I did wonder why, but I didn’t understand the answer, so I decided to leave it alone. My dad and my grandpa took care of me, which was nice. Dad used to pour soup in his plate and his spoon always sounded like a motorbike. Before I fell asleep, Dad would stroke my back down to the shortest ribs and up to the nape. When I cried, he’d rock me and say: “Sh-sh-sh-sh.” He had curly grey hair that, over time, climbed to the top of his head, and his forehead stretched like pizza dough.

Dad sits on the floor of our barn, sweat dripping down his cheeks.

Grandpa and I walk the yard with the animals every day. There are a lot of them, but we like the birds the most. That’s why we feed the chicks first, bright yellow and squeezed into an old cardboard box. Grandpa gives me one, and I hold it gently in my hand so it doesn’t break. I can feel the warm heart against the middle of my palm. I remembered that from yesterday. I was sitting at the table in the kitchen, gazing through the window, when a sparrow fell out of the sky to the ground like a dry leaf. I went outside and took it in my hand, its two soft feet sticking out of my palm like arrowheads. Dead sparrow. Broken.

I don’t care how fish swim with their white bellies turned up towards the sun. I will not count the open wounds on the ground. Everyone has their own worries, and mine are birds.

Grandpa would water the garden while I was still asleep, after which he’d clean the barns and sweep the yard. Later we’d feed the chicks together, then the geese and chickens, and then gaze high up into the walnut tree, where the birdhouses were. I can’t reach them; I can only watch as they sway in the breeze. My grandpa has thin hands with long fingers that put food in the birdhouses and pour water in the dishes.

I wash my face several times a day, and the water evaporates before I can even lick my lips. I watch out the window all the time, waiting to see the birds. Let them be spots disappearing in the sky; let them be sparrows that jerk their heads; let them be storks with red feet that break in half.

The fields behind the house are brown and flat. The border between the earth and sky is a hazy, broken line.

Grandpa and I had to spend summers inside, in the dark shade, on a dirty yellow couch in front of the TV and crosswords. Grandpa doesn’t like the heat, because then all he has is early morning. Later, Dad makes him go inside.

“Grandpa’s heart is not working well anymore,” Dad says. “He has to stay out of the sun.” Two years ago, the doctor told Grandpa that he can’t eat anything that grows above the ground. Last year, Dad told Grandpa that he can’t clean the barns, carry heavy weights or push the wheelbarrow. All he was allowed to do was feed the birds.

If only it would rain. The water dishes are empty, and I’m too short to reach the pipe and too weak to carry the water from the river. Birds are drying out in the heat. Their beaks are open all the time, their throats plugged with their tongues.

Dad explained today that Grandpa wasn’t allowed to work anymore, so he had nowhere to go and nothing to keep his hands busy. I buried all the chickens and the geese behind the kitchen door, in the loose soil where flowers sometimes spring. That was all I could do by myself.

Before they started to fall from the boughs, from the power lines and street poles, birds fell from the roof of our barn: a pair of storks, five doves, tens of sparrows, a grey hawk and a big motionless heron. They started to scratch the bricks early in the morning. Grandpa wasn’t in his room to ask him what to do, so I went outside to look in the barn. High above my head, Grandpa’s body hung from a thick rope, swaying like a birdhouse.

Sweat drips from our cheeks, my dad’s and my own, all day long. We sit in the house and wait for the heat to pass. We can hear cows mooing and sheep bleating from the outside, but we never hear the birds anymore.


IMG_5371Great White
By Jesse Mardian

When the shark ascended upon Rusty, he was sitting on his longboard and staring out into the horizon. The teeth sank into his thigh, puncturing to the bone, and sending his body and mind into hypovolemic shock. His life didn’t flash before his eyes. There was no bright light. No gates of pearl or fiery pits. Rather, as the trauma deprived his brain of oxygen and his heart rate decreased, his mind took off on a memorable curling right.

The offshore wind blew mist off the face as he stood and bottom-turned. Far down the line, he could see a barren backdrop of perpetual rolling hills. There was no thought or feeling, just the sensation of surfing. The sea pervaded the air and a deafening roar of whitewater billowed as he carved up and down, up and down, cutting back and snapping the lip.

Rescue 13 to St. Peter’s, requesting physician for med control.

Rusty floated over a cascading section, landing on a pillow of whitewater. Slowing and reforming, the wave passed over a deep shelf. He judged the line ahead, adjusting his feet. On the shoulder, an old man dropped in. Blue-striped rails, deep-nose concave, Rusty knew the board; his father’s last. He dug his rails deep and followed his old man’s composed carvings. When he was within arm’s reach, his father glanced back, revealing an eternal smile. “You’re almost there, this one’s almost over,” he said. Then he was gone, launching off the back and disappearing behind the mist.

Rescue to St. Peter’s be advised we’re on route to your location. Code three. Level three.

The wave reformed and Rusty hovered close to the whitewater. Echoes of voices past, those taken too soon, cheered for him. Gregor’s holler, the whistle of Benny, Morgo’s machinegun laughter, and even the flatulence of Coons, all resonated in the hollow tube. Standing in the pocket, Rusty hugged the wave as it hit a shallow reef and threw. In the barrel, he tucked and stared forward. At the end of the barrel was an eye-shaped opening. Everyone, everything, looked in. Rusty grabbed rail.

Be advised we have a male, thirty-five years of age, involved in a shark attack. We have a severe laceration of the femoral artery.

Deeper he was sucked into the barrel, the eye enclosing far ahead. The surge was strong behind him, and his board rattled violently. He held fast.

Blood pressure is 79 by palp, a current pulse of 43 and dropping.

Ahead, the eye closed. Through a kaleidoscope of blues and greens he could still see the landscape. He crouched lower and lower, fetal, as the wave ended. The colors disappeared, the board vanished, and Rusty twirled in a womb of whitewash. He reached for his leash, but it brushed by his fingers. For a moment he floated in dark water. And when all the fluid drained, he was taken from his world into the Great White.


IMG_0809The Visitor
By Frank Possemato

There’s a reason why people fight these things coming to town. It’s summer and the second night of the fair. My parents take me, each holding on to one of my hands—pulling me for a change—and I linger at the smell of livestock and food and see the moon on the face of a chewing cow. We swim through the humidity, through the crowds at the turnstile, and stop in the open air. A band is playing and everyone dancing is older than my mom and dad. A girl walks by with an enormous apple dripping with candy and I follow it backwards to the line for the stand.

“He’s already had McDonald’s today,” my mom tells my dad, and I don’t care. I’d rather have McDonald’s than wait in that line anyway. I look up and there are thousands of stars and only three of us. The crickets make a sound like they know everything, but I think they’re asking.

When we walk past, someone throws a ball at a stack of cups and knocks them all over except one. Hanging on the tent is a stuffed bear the size of the moon.

“Should we try it?” my mom asks.

“That game’s for marks,” my dad says.

I look up; people are moving all around and the stars aren’t. A balloon pops outside my ear so I turn around and people cheer, and the host hands over a stuffed dog way smaller than the moon. Kids take turns throwing darts. They don’t even come close. One of them hits the sign that says “3 Hits Wins A Prize.” They’re busy laughing.

My mother looks at my father and he looks at the balloons like there’s no chance he’s missing.

“Wait here a second. Don’t wander off.”

I don’t want to wait in line for the bathroom but I feel another line pulling me and jump up to see what’s in the tent. “Fortunes Told” the banner promises. I get closer and there she is. “Regina” with her crystal ball and her hair in a bandanna and a lot of makeup, her hands outstretched, her nails sharp and red.

There’s a reason people don’t want these things coming to town and I’m about to find mine. Something turns in my stomach like I’m afraid and safe all at once. I follow the line of Regina’s dress and her leg shooting out. Her foot moves with the words as she’s talking in some accent. Above her hang faces with tongues out, and masks in sickening gold and above them is the night sky still there and the stars, and down there Regina’s leg comes all the way out of the slit and I follow it up as I get closer to the jewels in the big belt she’s wearing and the reflection of the rest of the world I don’t know about.

She looks right at me. “Let me tell you your fortune,” she says and her mouth spreads.

*

Everyone’s dreams die and some people’s die young. Tonight there’s a sky full of dreams out the windshield and even more when I lean my head out the window of the parked car. Kayla Minter has her knees on the steering wheel and her shoes off.

“This is where it was. Or over there.” I show her with my fingers but it’s hard because it’s all just fields now. A song she hates comes on the radio and I wait for her to say it and she does, this time accompanied by a poke to my stomach. I breathe out and put my elbow on her shoulder. I don’t even have to kiss her.

In the black night sky it’s still there and I protect myself from it by my promises to her.


IMG_2136ELVIS TOO
By Arya F. Jenkins

He points to his favorite belt buckle with a lion design on it and says, “This way, I’m king of the jungle,” while peering at us, his coworkers, over the rim of tinted glasses with ornate, gold-lacquered frames purchased at a store in Graceland, where he once performed with other Elvis look-alikes at the height of his now defunct career. At his last gig, a wedding reception, the drunken Best Man smashed his $2,000-dollar guitar, he tells us, eyes dog-sad, straining to look deep.

He is aware, as if only he is aware of this, that his looks matter less than his voice registering strong and sweet when aimed into the microphone of his headset as he tries to reach minions in a telemarketing booth. He knows that, even disguised, his existence with his nagging, abusive wife and as a struggling operator, the fact of him, five feet two, hopelessly-infatuated-and-still-faithful, fat and middle-aged, cannot be erased. Still, the belt buckle and glasses, long, blackened sideburns, white pants and boots, flowery shirt open to the navel, shield him somehow, provide a sense of suave allure, lift him, if only temporarily.

At work, he sneaks glimpses into a pocket-sized book of Elvis sayings—his own personal bible. “I’m trying to keep a level head. You have to be careful out in the world. It’s so easy to get turned.” When a supervisor approaches, he slips the book out of sight under his thigh. It’s all right because, even without Elvis in hand, he can recall, “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.”

At break time, he sits in his 1974 BMW 2002 with its dented fender, ailing windshield wipers and bald tires he cannot afford to replace, and blasts Elvis’ songs that he accompanies not wholly out of tune, and sometimes with the window down.

When he was seven, playing ball while his mother lay sick in bed, his blue nylon shirt grazed an electric heater; he went up in flames. His mother put out the fire, encasing him in a sheet. Unconscious, he looked down from the ceiling at her long hair weeping over his mummy-like form on the bed. In the hospital, doctors and nurses thought him very brave, although he never felt pain. Years later he asked his mother why the giant boil on his back never hurt him; she explained she had prayed while he was unconscious that his pain would become her own because he was too small to bear it.

This moved him. He understood that he too should bear the burdens of others. So that is what he does; he assuages those he calls with his voice, one by one, taking away their pain, even as his own life threatens to disappear into a night without reprieve—a song no one will remember.


IMG_3497You’re the One I Love
By Miguel Gardel

My father, before he was my father, fell in love with a crossed-eyed girl who was very beautiful. My father married this girl and together they had a very beautiful daughter. But the beautiful crossed-eyed girl died while giving birth. The baby girl had normal eyes and was healthy. Before the mother died, on her deathbed, my father promised her that he would never marry another woman. That no other woman was worth marrying. That he could love no other like he loved her.

No one else saw this scene, no one else heard, or remembered in any way my father’s words. No one witnessed this promise my father made to the beautiful crossed-eyed woman. And it was definitely not an intelligent thing to say. He was a young man. And I don’t want to believe that his beautiful young dying wife would ask him to promise such a thing. But that’s the story he told me.

In those days, in that town, if men were really serious about marriage and or seriously in love, to impress the girl and, or the parents of the girl, they would serenade the girl they loved. My father couldn’t play an instrument and knew hardly nothing about music. So he hired a professional serenader to serenade his beautiful girlfriend. The girl had two sisters who were equally beautiful so the musician asked my father, Which one, exactly? I need her name. My father told him. And the musician said, Ah, the one with the eye. Because it was one eye, the left one, that rebelled and refused to look straight up front. Yes, my father said, proudly. She was very beautiful and the imperfection made her very special.

And that night the professional serenader came close to the girl’s window and under the moonlight began to pluck and strum his Spanish guitar and serenaded my father’s beautiful girlfriend while my father watched from across the street. A Ti Te Quiero, was the song my father told the serenader to play first and last in the set that was the serenade. It was a bolero my father had heard coming out of a jukebox while he was having a beer in a bar. My father never forgot and never will forget that night of the serenade. That man could sure play a guitar, my father told me.

He met my mother in the city, at a nightclub, a year later. And then they dated and that nightclub became their favorite and it was there where he proposed to her. That was a very special and happy evening for my mother. That evening was also exceptional for my father but then the rest of that night was terrible and horrific.

On his way home after walking my mother to her place, my father remembered that promise he had made to his beautiful dying wife. He had to go through a very dark corridor to get to the room he rented right outside the city. The strong guilt he felt, combined with the pitch black darkness, made him hallucinate. And he saw the beautiful young woman at the end of the corridor. She was standing, wearing the dress with the flower patterns my father loved to see her wear. He thought she was going to speak, and he waited.

My father stood there facing his former love with his heart pounding so furiously he thought it would knock him to the ground. But the beautiful woman did not speak, and my father remembered that my mother too was a crossed-eye woman. And he realized he had a thing for that particular imperfection. And then the guilt began to subside, and his original love began to fade. My father felt stupid and cowardly. And then he started to walk toward the room he rented at the end of the corridor. He walked with his head up high and very conscious of every step he took. And he hummed that old song, A Ti Te Quiero.


IMG_3431Disbelief has always been the theme of my life
By Kate LaDew

… because you believe in the whole world, but I just believe in a few things.

You’re still smoking, maybe even the same cigarette, maybe I haven’t missed a thing. I’m kneeling in front of the toilet, hair sticky with whatever fast food we had that night and out of the corner of my eye your clean profile is like something off a coin.

I’m trying not to remember all the stories you’ve told me about your mother, the drunk who lives in your house, the fleshy stranger I’ve only seen asleep, clutching a half-used vodka bottle like a life raft, drowning slow. I’m trying not to remember all the times you’ve said: this is it, this is the one, this is the last drunk I’ll forgive her. But you make her breakfast the next day and the next, linked by invisible chains, because she’s got you. From the moment you were born, she’s got you, forever and ever. So I’m trying not to remember you’ve seen all this before, done all this before. Held hair back, sat on a bathtub watching liquid pour out of mouths that claim to love you.

You’ve done all this before. So when I turn my head, find your eyes on me, I hold perfectly still, hold my breath, make my heart slow and try to force myself out of existence. Because anything’s better than knowing what I am and waiting for you to say it. Anything’s better than seeing that slow realization dawn on your face (eventually we all marry our parents).

I sit on my feet, staring into the porcelain, a nothing, and nothing happens, for so long, I almost believe it until hands lift me, press me into a warm chest, and I am rescued, not deserving it even a little bit. Colored lights go off like bottle rockets behind my eyes. I breathe out, start my heart up again and hold onto you with everything I’ve got, trying to strangle out the guilty and wanted words looping in my brain: I’ve got you now forever and ever. I’ve got you now.


IMG_5377Heroes etc.
By Peter Fraser

I’d seen the announcement in the Mirror that Bacon Purdon, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate was attending a local poetry reading. This was so improbable I just had to be there.

I suspect I lived in a cultural backwater, a small town that found literary fame a difficult concept to understand. He was a standard, a measure. I ripped the advertisement out of the paper and put it under a fridge magnet.

When the day arrived I organise it to fit the event. I try to recapture my youth by sleeping in. About mid-morning I head off to the public baths. I take the side entrance and straight away see the baths are empty. Thursday, cleaning day. A large hole in the ground gapes back at me. I retrace my steps, right back into my apartment. Irritated at my stupidity.

The day drags, it grinds at an irritably relaxed pace. I look for one of Bacon’s novels, lie on the lounge and start flicking through it. ‘The Untamed Frontier,’ the book that made him famous. It is like peering into an old family album, which starts with black and white photography. Still, it was published forty five years ago. It seems predictable and awkward, then ends in a comic book conclusion. I reason that tastes change, Bacon would have moved on, like his audience. It’s a book just demanding to be burnt.

I search the place for another piece of his literary jigsaw, sifting through ancient piles of literature. Yes, ‘The Beast, My Beast’. His third book and a bestseller.
But this one is even worse than the first. Zombie characters that lack any connection to humanity, clichés about love and inner bravery, some nonsense about looking death in the eye, a bizarre plot, involving trains racing across the countryside, then he pretends it all happened in London.

I feel dispirited. I have just defiled a personal, cherished memory. It is a part of the midden of books I refuse to abandon. Although I have a Kindle and hedge my bets.

Yet it might be me. The words of Bacon Purdon don’t ring true anymore? No? That couldn’t be right. I have a white wine. Too early to start drinking, too late to correct my life. But I head off to the reading and manually adjust my attitude to positive.

And it is him. In a local pub he sat as conspicuous as possible, at a table in the middle of the back room. A few years ago this would have been filled with tobacco smoke, but now a gentle air conditioning shuddered through the room. Bacon Purdon sat resolute in tie and stylish casual jacket, completely in character. He hadn’t aged in all those years. The awkward skull showed limited weathering, the hair only slightly diminished, although the colour appears to have faded. It was certainly the genuine Bacon.

A young woman was excruciating over lost love, on a small stage. She held a wad of narration. Her eyes seemed wet with agony, her face soaked in meaning. The words were addressed to the large bronze statue. Purdon focused and seemed to be following the words. He was more than a dinosaur, it was so impossible that a literary, New Yorker, dressed almost like my grandfather, would be sitting in this room listening to the sad fortunes of local lost love.

As the poets changed I had to talk to him. I felt an entitlement, an urge to confront my past and present in one quick encounter.

“Mr Purdon, could I have a quick word.”

I felt like a dishonest disciple, but it was all that I could say. I hadn’t thought it through. He tried to focus on me, perhaps shocked that he was hearing these unannounced words, standing next to him, his eyes looking past my shoulder, following the young female poet.

Bacon seemed annoyed that I had interrupted his line of vision, then switched with a liquid eye, an eye that only the elderly can possess, to my presence. He was affronted with my proximity. What the hell was I doing, standing there? I should have just asked for an autograph, or got someone to take a picture of me standing next to my literary hero. He seemed annoyed that he had to respond. Yet his words were clear and polite. “No. Please leave me alone. Thank you.”

He had no interest in what I had to say, even though I didn’t know what I was going to say myself. I had been dismissed. He had just placed a rejection slip on my forehead. Bugger off.

The female poet and her agonised love were now sitting next to Bacon. He seemed to be most interested in what she had to say. Were they colluding over structure, fabricating traditional themes or just polishing some light imagery? They soon left and retreated into the front bar of this poets pub.

There were unshaven and bearded workers playing pool, there was football on a large flat Chinese screen, there were regional greyhound races on small monitors around the walls. Yet Bacon Purdon, in my grandfather’s clothes, the man who had accepted a Laureate and Pulitzer was here chatting away at ease to a young poet, who had lost in love.

He whispered in her ear. He stroked her hand then pushed some hair behind her ear. Why wouldn’t he talk to me? Could he feel I wasn’t a believer anymore? That my faith had been found wanting? He should be dead, the old bastard. They finished their drinks and walked out into the night.

He hailed a cab and Bacon Purdon, with the young poet, entered the vehicle and disappeared into the simplicity of night. He would have to be a hundred and fifty years old, but he was accustomed to collecting literary prizes.


IMG_5375HOUSEBROKEN
By Ray Morrison

I’d been thinking about getting Kim a puppy or kitten for weeks, so when Ingrid, one of our paralegals, told me her own dog had puppies, it seemed that Fate, or God, or whatever force manipulates all the shit in our lives, was making the decision for me. I drove to Ingrid’s after work and picked out the puppy I thought was the cutest. It took no more than five minutes.

On the drive home the puppy scrabbled up the side of the box Ingrid had given me to carry him in. His brown and white spotted head popped up then slid back down. He began to whimper, so I rubbed his head to quiet him as I drove toward the house to surprise Kim. And while I was somewhat ready for Kim to reject the puppy, I wasn’t prepared for the vehemence of it.

“What’s this? Your attempt to snap me out of my malaise? To put the pieces of our life back together? You’re fucking pathetic.”

“It’s just a puppy,” I said. “Don’t turn it into something it’s not, Kim. I figured we’d both enjoy having a dog.”

I watched the sudden shift in her expression I’d seen often in the past eight months. The anger drained away, her eyes moistened, her lips quavered. If I could distract her, I thought, maybe we could avoid the complete collapse we were headed for.

“What should we name him?” I said.

Kim looked at me in a way that made me wince. Her eyes drifted to the box on the floor between us. The puppy had managed to get its front paws over the edge of the box and was dangling from it, whining.

“Why not call him Jacob?” Kim said. “That’s what you want him to be, right?”

She reached down and the puppy began to wag its tail wildly in anticipation of being picked up, but Kim’s hand hovered just above its head, never touching it. When she stood back up, I saw a tear streaking her left cheek as she glared at me, her mood having catapulted back to anger.

“You’re an insensitive fuck,” she said flatly. “You used to give a damn about my feelings. What’s happened to you?”

Of course, she already knows what’s happened to me. To us. A random chromosomal flaw, or whatever the doctors call it. But I’ve concluded that simple bad luck is all it really is. Shit happens. To lots of couples. The doctor said we only needed to wait a couple periods and we could try again. But after four months, Kim still wouldn’t consider having sex. She’d threaten me if I touched her in bed. I managed to convince her to go to a psychologist for help, but three months in I hadn’t see any change.

So two weeks after bringing the puppy home there I was, standing under an umbrella in the backyard, shivering as I waited for it to pee. He’d doubled in size since I got him. Kim still wouldn’t have anything to do with Buddy, keeping him locked in his crate while I was at work and if I couldn’t get home at lunch to let him out, he’d be covered in piss and shit by the time I arrived in the evening.

The puppy seemed oblivious to the chilly rain as he meandered around the yard, sniffing the grass, occasionally picking up something and chewing it. After ten minutes I gave up and carried him into the house. He shook the water off his fur and trotted into the living room where Kim was sitting on the couch with a paper plate holding a half-eaten microwave burrito tilted on her lap. The puppy squatted near her feet and urinated.

“No!” I screamed, and raced to stop him. The pup, frightened by my outburst, ran under a chair.

“Aren’t you glad you got me a puppy?” Kim said. “Maybe little Jacob needs a diaper?”

“His name’s Buddy, not Jacob. Stop calling him that.”

“Okay. I will,” she said. There was an icy edge in her voice that unnerved me.

I went into the kitchen to get a rag and disinfectant to clean the spot where the puppy had soiled. As I knelt on the carpet scrubbing the spot, I glanced up at Kim who was smiling as she watched me. A speck of burrito sauce had dripped onto her chin and a larger spot that stained her wrinkled blouse resembled drying blood.

“You know you’ll never get him housebroken, don’t you?”

“I could if you’d help me,” I said. “I got the damn puppy for you, after all.”

“I never asked for a puppy. I never asked for any of this.”

She took a bite of the burrito and spit it back onto the paper plate. Then she stood and tossed the plate onto the floor next to me and marched up the stairs. A glob of partially-chewed burrito landed on the back of my hand. The puppy ran over and began eating the remains of Kim’s dinner. I started to take it away, but decided to let him have it.

*

I unhook Buddy’s leash and watch him race across the patchy grass field of the dog park toward an overweight Basset Hound I recognize as one of the park’s regulars. Buddy has just turned eight and is nearly seventy pounds now. Only rarely when I look at him does he remind me of my time with Kim. I don’t know where she is now, or if she’s found someone new, but I hope she’s well, I really do.

Buddy runs back and sits in front of me, his tail sweeping the ground. I pull a treat from my pocket and his eyes lock on my hand. I toss him the treat and he races away to play. Watching him makes me smile. I’m lucky, I know, to have him.


IMG_5372Run Over
By Beth Konkoski

In the weeks following her daughter’s abduction and return, Connie carried the child at the hip, slept with her curled in tight to her belly, pressing until it hurt, as if she could restore her to some untouched space in the womb. As any toddler would, Ashley struggled to get to the floor, to run and play in the backyard with her brother, but Connie could not release her hold, arms like cuffs locked around the body she had almost lost; the skin of her neck where the ear attached became an event to be studied like she had once memorized paintings by Rembrandt, Turner, Whistler in a classroom with cold, slanting desks and the smell of her instructor’s Juicy Fruit.

Connie’s own mother was the kidnapper, and she had not yet been able to ask why. The word was rendered almost meaningless in the smell of her daughter’s snores, the dance of her fingers when she stroked her face, but it haunted her, the need to someday get to such questions. The Italian police and the FBI had captured her mother in Rome and taken her into custody, with Ashley in her arms, within two weeks. The few hours Connie slept during those days, she sometimes dreamed of toy trains chasing her through the aisles of a grocery store where she flung diapers and cans of soup to form a barricade, trying to knock them off their tracks; other times it was real trains pressing their hot engine breath down her neck as she tried to out run them. Upon waking, she spent hours wondering why she didn’t just jump out of the way, how she could know they were coming, but not step off the track to let them rush past.

The jail cell was several hours away, and Connie could picture her mother sitting alone, a gray set of prison wear, her hand not wearing its wedding ring or the sapphire that had been in their family for over a hundred years. She did not let herself imagine her face. One morning she sat down to write a letter, try for an answer to her questions. Dear … But she got no further, realizing how broken language had become.

While Ashley learned words for the world and laughed when she was tickled, Connie and her husband agreed without speaking that there would be no word for grandmother.


IMG_0344Trials of Father Johanon
By Mitchell Grabois

1.

I wade into the peasantry like Moses into the Red Sea, but these peasants lack the dignity of reedy water that quivers with the spirit of God. These peasants film each other beating each other up, sometimes in ancestral native dress, sometimes in ghetto threads. Turn on YouTube and see them.

I’m drinking Pepto Bismol and Stoli as a prophylactic. I watch the Polizia carry their machine guns. They are old fashioned machine guns, recycled from Chicago gangsters. In my courtyard I make cardboard cut-outs of these weapons, paint them realistically, and stockpile them for the use of my cardboard army.

I strip, lift my right leg over the lip of the tank. My balls hang low, brush the concrete. My servant averts her eyes. What will she do for money, she still wonders. How far will she go?

She has wondered this for years, as long as Love in the Time of Cholera, and she still wonders and still does nothing outside her proper role of servant.

2.

As Habakkuk 3:18 attests: Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen, though the apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted, though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty, I exult in the firm young bodies entrusted to my care.

We direct our worship outward, but do we ever feel worshiped ourselves? I worship them. I give them the experience of being adored. I give them a small portion of Godhood. They will remember me forever.

3.

Strawberry is the flavor of innocence, of holiness. I dream of casting off these robes, inflicted on me by my parents, the papacy, and God, and putting on a blue-collar shirt, Craftsman jeans and going to work in an ice cream factory, crushing strawberries.


IMG_1810Deep River, Iowa
By N.J. Campbell

“You got another?”

I handed him a cigarette.

“Thanks,” he said and took the lighter from my hand.

The wind pulled at the flame and washed over the ends of what little hair he had left.

“You from here?”

I pointed down the road past the lot, the abandoned grainery and the remains of the town I had grown up in. The town my mother and father had been born in. The town my grandparents had farmed outside of. The town my great-grandparents had settled in.

The man looked off down the road following my finger.

“They got jobs here?”

“In the fields,” I said, remembering the time when I was seventeen when my friend’s mother was drunk and pulled me into the field behind their home and said that I would remember this as she took off my pants, that I would remember this for the rest of my life.

“Corn?” he asked as I heard a train whistle in the distance beyond the fields to the south of town where turkey vultures circled all day.

“Corn,” I said, remembering the corn alcohol Mickey, Hank, John and I would make in big batches to drink before we’d climb the water tower for the hell of it, the hell of it being the last time, the time John lost his footing, the time John fell back sixty-three feet and broke his neck and died in the hospital three summers ago.

“It always this hot?” he said as he exhaled smoke into the mid-afternoon sun.

“Always,” I said, remembering the wet, heavy heat on the day twelve years ago my mother, who never smoked, bought a pack of cigarettes and told me to get out of this town just before she got out of this town to somewhere she never told my father and me about.

“They got a VFW bar?”

“On the west end of Main,” I said, remembering the nights my father would spend there after my mother had left, before he told me that I reminded him too much of her, before he told me I’d need to be tougher, before he told me he had liver cancer, before he fell to the foundry floor among the showers of white sparks saying he was just a little dizzy, just a little dizzy and that’s all, before he died on that grease stained factory floor north of town last spring.

“They got a Deep River?” he asked, waving his hand at the sign across from the bus stop.

“Depends on the season,” I said, remembering when my grandfather had taken me to the river as a boy during the rains one spring and told me that the river, like any hardship, like any suffering, was only as deep as you make it, as deep as the way you look at it, and I told him that that was a lie because you could see the rain falling, because you could see the water rising.

“Well, you comin’ or goin’?”


IMG_2521This Has Got to Stop
By Paul Beckman

Manny’s right hand was out of control. It swung wildly, punching him in his left shoulder, forearm and then bloodying his nose with two more ferocious roundhouses. Meanwhile Manny’s left hand played with the change in his pocket.

Righty finally tired himself out, and Lefty, no longer tossing the loose change, was now playing pocket pool. Righty reached around to get the handkerchief and held it up to Manny’s nose to help stem the flow of blood.

Lefty, having just gotten off, took his hand out of his pocket and took charge of the handkerchief. He wiped his hand and Manny’s nose simultaneously while Righty shook, trying to get the soreness out.

Manny sat down on the curb trying to figure out what he’d done to Righty this time. Righty, for his part, hoped that Manny learned his lesson but just in case he hadn’t, Righty lifted Manny’s right leg and with his size twelve Doc Martins stomped on Lefty’s ankle, knocking Manny back screaming. He was lying on the sidewalk wailing like a baby when a cop car drove up and two gorilla-sized cops got out ran over and asked Manny what happened.

One helped lift Manny to a sitting position while the other called an ambulance. Putting away his cell phone he asked, “Who did this to you?” and Manny looked around and saw his wife’s brother pull into their driveway and pointed his sore right finger at him. Both cops took off after him, tackling him before he got to the front door and knocking his ultra-suede skullcap off.


IMG_0606Another Life
By D.S. Levy

Flying along US Highway 31, we’re listening to “Appalachian Spring” blare through the speakers. Marla’s my slumped passenger, seat belt unbuckled.

“I’m just saying it’d be better,” she says, staring out the window. “Kiss the family’s butt. And I wouldn’t have to worry about someone dying ‘cause they’re already dead.”

We’re going to Interlochen. Marla’s crazy about Aaron Copeland. Some youth orchestra’s playing “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Marla scored us two free tickets.

“Then do it,” I say, nudging up the AC.

I keep my eyes trained on the tree line. Deer thick as gnats in these parts. Never hit one yet. But there’s always a yet lurking somewhere. I feel it like the hairs on the back of my neck, keep my hands 10 and 2.

Marla’s in one of her moods. “Hey, you mind if I smoke?”

I do, but I’m crazy about Marla. “Be my guest.”

She rolls down the window. “And regular hours. No night shift. No more 16-hour days.”

“Go for it.”

You know how many shades of green in a Michigan forest? Almost as many as in Marla’s deep-set, thick-lashed eyes. That girl’s also got poetry in her veins.

In another life—a previous life—Marla was a flapper. Bobbed hair. Jazz lover. Maybe Isadora Duncan. Swears she sometimes wakes up with the feeling of silk around her neck.

Once, I woke up to the scent of roses. I smelled them the rest of the day no matter where I went. Marla said a spirit came to visit me. The next day I got a sinus infection. I never told Marla: Best to let her think what she wants.

Wind whips her bottle-blonde hair like octopus legs. On her, messy hair looks better than good. She blows clouds of gray out the window. Marla is one person who actually looks good smoking. Like she was made for it.

“And here’s the best part,” she says between drags. “There’s a funeral home two blocks from the house. I’ll never be late. And black. I look good in black. At least I think so.”

“Of course you do.”

Two days ago Marla had a patient “die on her” – that’s how she refers to death, like the patient had a say in the outcome and chose to involve Marla. The guy was only twenty-two, a college graduate, blue-green eyes Nurse Marla couldn’t help but notice. His end was expected, but Marla wasn’t expecting it to come on her shift. These things, these awful, sad things she has to handle.

“Well, I can’t go back to that fucking hospital.” She tosses the butt out the window.

We talk about going back – or not. I’m not going back to teach at the college except when I have to, which is in another week. The reason: due bills, past-due bills.

Interlochen is a town in northern Michigan. It’s also the name of a fine arts school where Marla thinks she should have gone back in the day. Really, Marla is a dancer trapped in a nurse’s body. She’s got lithe limbs and a strong torso and cuts a nice line when she graces the floor. But she’s got to have something in her veins to get her bare feet moving. Last night, at the bar, her feet had too many and she ended up falling off the table. Well, bar-types will never appreciate a good jitterbug.

“Pull off here,” she says, pointing at a rest stop. I thread the car down the ramp, pull beside a jack pine. Two rigs are parked in the semi lot. It’s useless to try to get Marla to ignore them. “I’ll be right back,” she says, and marches off. I cut the engine, get out and walk to the vending machines. Two of the three – out of order. I drop quarters, wait for my cup of coffee. The cup drops crookedly. I reach in to straighten it, hot coffee drips on my hand, and before I can stifle myself I cry, “Ouch, fucking dammit!”

A woman dressed in overalls and a tube top comes around the corner. I’d recognize a lot lizard anywhere. This one has more than a forked-tongue, but she’s nice and runs into the restroom and comes back with a couple of wet paper towels for my hand.

“Thanks,” I tell her as politely as possible.

She drops quarters in the slot, points at some words on the machine. “‘Warning: Coffee is hot. Not liable for damages incurred from this machine.’” She grins, pulls a cup of hot cocoa from the holding bay. “I’m just pullin’ your rope. It don’t actually say that. Ya gonna be okay?”

I tell her I’m fine and watch her walk out to the shiny red-fleck cab, see her hoist herself up. Just then Marla comes out of the restroom, lips painted fresh burgundy, hair pulled back in a scrunchie, beaming.

Back in the car, she waits until we’re on the highway, rolls down her window, lights the joint. “Did I ever tell you about Paris in the 20’s? How I met Hemingway and Fitzgerald?”

She taps my shoulder, holds out the joint.

What the hell? I think. I don’t want to cough my ass off while I’m driving so I take a small drag. The smoke burns in a good way.

Not another car on this two-lane road as far as the eye can see. Pine, birch, pine, birch, pine-pine-pine—we’re flying past these fabulous evergreens—ever – green—and they’re doing nothing but being noticed. Trees, I so envy them. Covered with snow, they’ll at least be beautiful come winter.


IMG_8672SURVIVAL
By William Masters

At sixteen, my older brother Mike was tried as an adult and sentenced to a year in the lock-me-tight for running out of the Scottish fast food joint without paying for his order. After a month’s incarceration, he had gained 14 pounds. For the first time in two years, he no longer went to bed hungry each night.

At eleven, as soon as the cast came off my younger brother Sam’s left arm, he hopped a freight train to St. Louis. After a month, most of his cuts and bruises healed and faded enough so that he could wear a short-sleeved shirt without having to answer questions or attract unwanted attention.

At fourteen, panicked at being left the sole target for my parent’s attentions, I drained the brake fluid from their car on Thursday night. Desperate, and hoping to survive until Friday morning, I locked the door and barricaded myself in the empty pantry.

The next morning, I heard my parents shout obscenities, blaming each other for the empty coffee canister. I heard one of them throw the canister against the pantry door…followed by an uncanny silence, during which my body shook as I watched the pantry doorknob move from right to left.

“Oh Steve… come out, come out so I can punch you good-bye,” my father said.

“Oh Sweetie… come out, come out and give mother a kiss good-bye before the house burns down.”

I climbed up on the canning table that stood beneath a port sized window. I waited… and I waited until I saw my parents finally leave the house and climb into the car.

As soon as I saw the car drive away, I released myself from the pantry and rushed through the great room, which reeked of the beer my parents had substituted for the missing coffee, walked out the front door, sat down on the porch swing, and watched the car drive past the first turn.

With sober anticipation, I imagined my father’s surprise as he tried to apply the brakes to the first hair-pin turn as he drove down the steep mountain road. As soon as I heard the explosion, I took a deep breath and exhaled. A few minutes later, too far away to see any flames, I watched a plume of smoke straighten out and rise vertically into the sky. The smoke congealed into a single, dark grey mass, and then split in half into a pair of lighter colored grey clouds floating together along the line of the horizon until the November breeze snuffed them both out.

It wasn’t until late in the afternoon when two cars arrived, one from the sheriff’s office and one from Child Services. Still hungry, after eating a can of tomato soup and a small packet of saltine crackers, the only food left in the house, I asked the sheriff if he had a candy bar. His deputy pulled a tootsie roll out of his jacket pocket and tossed it to me. I thanked him.

Child Services looked at both the policemen, then scanned a file folder, and then looked at me. “You don’t want to spoil your dinner with that candy bar, do you… Steven?” Then it blandly informed me that both my parents had been killed in a car crash that morning.

My body twitched as I concealed my joy in the confirmation.

Then Child Services gave me an empty box with a lid. “You have fifteen minutes to pack one suitcase and fill the box with your belongings before I transport you to a temporary holding area pending your assignment to another location.”

Ten minutes later, I stood silently, holding all my clothes and possessions in my mother’s suitcase. I made a dead stop in the main room and kitchen area. I felt trapped between the empty frying pan on my right, and the sight of Child Services I saw through the window on my left.

As I touched the back pocket of my Levis to make sure I had my tiny address book, I gripped the suitcase and moved to the front door which Child Services had opened for me and headed to the police car. In an act of telepathy, the deputy opened the car’s trunk for my suitcase.

Child Services vigorously protested and waved a paper at the two policemen, demanding that they move my suitcase into its trunk and escort me to the backseat of its car.

Silently I stood my ground. I looked the sheriff in the eye, belligerent and pathetic. The sheriff opened the back door of his car for me and told Child Services, “I’m just following protocol.”

Apparently, though still a minor, I needed to make a formal statement at the station and had the right to make calls to anyone I chose for assistance before Child Services could claim me.

As I sat in the backseat, my muscles relaxed and my respiration returned to normal. Ignoring further protestations from Child Services, the policemen got back into their car. As the deputy started the engine and shifted the car into gear, the Sheriff offered me a bottled water.

“Here kid, you look like you could use a drink.”


IMG_4511The Constellation Andromeda
By Chelsea Ruxer

“There’s a spaceship.” He breaks some easy, talk-with-your-mouth-full kind of conversation this way. “On the table.”

I set down my Chipotle. The spaceship is black and grey plastic and, as promised, in the middle of the dining room table. I lift it off the runner. The table, without a spaceship, is probably what gave us a second date. It made me think he might cook. I remember opening the drawer on the side and finding cloth napkins his mom must have left there.

“It’s a Constellation Andromeda.” He’s looking at his burrito.

“I don’t understand.”

He explains why he’s telling me this now—he needs to set an alarm to buy an Aegis Javelin Destroyer when they’re released at three in the morning. The real Aegis Javelin Destroyers in the persistent universe. He was concerned I might wake up and misread the situation.

There are only 200, he says—real ones, online, that may or may not come with plastic models, depending on the package you choose. It’s urgent, and doesn’t interfere with our dinner plans. And he was going to tell me about it sooner. It just didn’t come up.

“You’re playing a spaceship game.” Of all the things he could be doing at his computer late at night, this never occurred to me. I remember how late it was when I saw his Facebook post about the politics of Star Wars, how tired I was, unable to sleep after finishing the sixth Harry Potter book and scrolling hopelessly through my news feed trying to find some tidbit that wasn’t about Dumbledore’s murder or a bunch of orphaned dogs after the wildfires.

“The game itself isn’t out yet.”

I thought he only played soccer and never watched him in high school. I didn’t know until eleven years later, when I saw the picture of him playing at a park two blocks down from my apartment, that we were living in the same city.

I reiterate that I don’t understand, and he explains the particular spaceship on the table is a model of an ‘RSI’, like my car’s a ‘Ford’, and ‘Constellation’ is like ‘Escape’, and ‘Andromeda’ is its role, like ‘Limited’.

“The Phoenix is more luxurious,” he tells me, that this could be worse. “And I have an Anvil Aerospace Carrick Explorer with warp capabilities and sensors to find wormholes, like your blind spot monitor.” He meets my eyes now, appears to believe this explanation satisfactory. “The Javelin’s a good buy. Everything over $1,000 comes with lifetime insurance.”

“Dollars?”

“It’s a really nice spaceship.”

“How over?” Like his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Kelly, that prompted his move here, or like the apartment over my budget I got on his side of town because of a big picture window that was full South for the succulent garden left behind by a grad school roommate.

“It doesn’t cost as much as a car,” he says. He looks back at his burrito. “It doesn’t cost as much as your car.” I needed all wheel drive to get over the mountains in January, an SUV to fit a crate in the back for my cat. Burlin in his Christmas sweater was the first picture he liked of mine of Facebook, which was probably why I saw that first Star Wars post to begin with.

He tries again to look at me as he says how responsible he is with his space money, which starts as real money. He tells me the company sent him a collector’s book, that crowd funding is making Star Citizen a better game, that there are so many other perfectly healthy, well-adjusted people like him on this world to have contributed over 74 million to it.

He stands and presents the book to me. He thinks I’ll be persuaded by the graphics, if not so impressed by his graduation to Space Marshall last week. These things were not on Facebook. They never came up, any of the ways they might have when we almost didn’t end up here.

But we are here, and this is when I decide whether I retreat to tell all my old high school friends what became of our relationship when I started sleeping over on week nights.

“I want the model,” I say before I’ve considered even the foreseeable consequences. “Of the Javelin.” In his world, I see this is a diamond tennis bracelet.

Then he’s smiling, fetching me a tub of sorbet, leaving me here with this book of intergalactic war to wonder at the probability we could find ourselves together here, of everywhere in all the cosmos, with a Constellation Andromeda on the dining room table.


IMG_3517Giddyup, Buttercup
By Chris Milam

She stood bow-legged on the dirt-covered parking lot, tongue pushed against a cheek like a wad of tobacco, her right hand cocked. “Bang, bang. You’re dead.”

“Dead like our marriage?”

“No, dead like your …” Yes, she usually wins any verbal war.

There were eight couples with us, all draped in western garb. Bolo ties, leather boots, chaps, a dangling toothpick. We were gunslingers with bored hearts. The brochure advised letting go, be playful, embrace your inner-outlaw. Wrangle some romance. This revival was being held in an old shopping center in the non-hipster part of town. Nothing says reignited passion more than a Big Hank’s Discount Emporium ripped apart and transformed into the Boneyard Saloon/hotel/brothel. Cupid was probably lurking around the corner with his reduced price, rock bottom, deal of a lifetime bow and arrow.

This wasn’t our first stop on the rekindle the flame tour. At a refurbished gymnasium in northern Fairfield, we acted out scenes from that heart-busting movie The Notebook. What do you want? A husband who looks like Ryan Gosling. What do you want? Chardonnay flavored wheat crackers, yogurt, arugula, turtle blood. WHAT DO YOU WANT? You? I guess? It went like that for two days. It was a blast. But we stayed a single, frayed unit and we both somewhat agreed that that was probably a good thing. At dinner, we ate chicken fingers and mocked the thespian aspirations and abilities of the other participants. This was our version of love.

Last summer, we attended a festival where unhappy yet resilient folks took turns mud wrestling in a homemade pit inside a red barn. The place reeked of broiling estrangement instead of the chickens, pigs, horses, and polar bears usually associated with farm buildings. GET FILTHY FOR LOVE. SUPLEX YOUR DESIRES read the sign hanging from the rafters. She kneed me in my money-maker (beer gut) and I told her to use the mud as a kind of spa-like mask to remove her blackheads. She laughed at the immature jab with her left knee. Again. It was a fun experience, if barbed insults and physical assaults are fun to you. They are to us I suppose. Still going strong after 20 years!

Later, in the faux saloon, she poured a whiskey. “Aren’t you parched?” She wasn’t asking my mouth.

“Thirsty as dead grass. You?”

“I wouldn’t mind a drink or fourteen.” We knocked back shots and flirted a bit, a drunken attempt at burning away the breathing dullness of too many selfish years and too many silent nights. It didn’t hurt that she looked nice sitting across from me, all liquored up and animated with strands of greying hair matted to her forehead. I couldn’t tell her that, though. The first to toss a compliment was the weak one in our teeter-totter relationship.

On the last day, us rotten scoundrels were tossed in a plastic jail by the women with silver stars on their chests. “Don’t give us any trouble,” they said, “or we’ll be forced to mess with your fantasy football lineup.” We saw zero humor in that blasphemous threat. They sentenced us to three hours of hard time and supplied us with paper and pens. We were to scrawl multiple reasons why our wives were ridiculously awesome. “Use good adjectives, please.” Most smart hands moved with a genuine ferocity, a couple of stupid ones remained clenched in defiance.

We hit the road the next morning. Claudia was already plotting our next adventure into distraction-ville. Her eyes soaked up a website on her phone. “There’s a decent one next month, we can play therapist and patient. They even let us use a real office with a desk, leather couch, artificial plants, and a pot of free, weak coffee. A receptionist named Joan. What do you think?”

“Sounds depressing.”

“Well, we can work that out in our fake session.”

Indeed. “You look pretty today. Just thought you should know that I noticed.”

“Hold on, let me Google that word.” Her smile was a lighthouse.

Our flimsy second act was on the move (at 75 MPH) beneath a sky the color of a fresh bruise. Next stop: the house with no sounds.

When the Ashley left for college, we left each other. At home we each have our own parcel of space. We eat dinner together but nothing is said beyond could you pass the salt, please. She likes plants; I like hockey. She volunteers in the community; I sulk on the couch. Sometimes she sleeps in our daughter’s bed to roll around in her lost scent. I tell her don’t do that, she isn’t dead. She says she might as well be.

The road trips are an escape from memories, from complacency. What can’t be resurrected in this two-story crematorium, can be remedied in Trenton, Fairfield, Mason, or Columbus. Any place that isn’t here, where we hang on the walls behind glass, young and untarnished, still intoxicated by touch, hope, and the unknown.

Fill the tank, babe, she’ll say a week from now. And we’ll be gone, a blur on the horizon, a desperate duo with a map, suitcase, and miles of road in front of us.


IMG_1681Something After Frank Stanford
By William Doreski

Inhaling bus exhaust on Boylston incites something about “white barns of the afternoon,” as Frank Stanford put it, a place of excellent overlap. The white barns used to be green. When the deeply Republican proprietor repainted them virgin bride I left New Hampshire weeping.

A dog off leash dares traffic. Everything stops, especially time. I lean into my coffee cup and snort mixed fumes. The dog returns whole and grinning to the curb. I curse its owner with a vision of white barns rumpling like cheap paper. Women in clog heels clomp past. They’re eager for their offices, where responsible events take responsibility for other events. Everyone benefits.

Meanwhile the “little flowers of the cemetery” bloom without regard for their species, motif, or styles, and creatures cuddle up to other creatures, enjoying the raw light moments before they eat each other. In my cup of coffee I divine great things, each thing different from every other thing yet subject to undiscovered laws.


 Issue 11: September 2016


img_0991Ernesto
By Melissa Hunter Gurney

Ernesto left his wife and she forgot what flowers looked like. He used to buy her flowers on Sundays and she became so used to them she hardly saw them anymore. That’s why he left—she didn’t see him. She saw the workings of their life together. The way he woke up before her and the coffee was already made—a cup placed on the space between burners. Now, there was no cup, no coffee, no freedom from rolling over into the middle of the bed. The middle wasn’t a luxury anymore, a place to spread out. Now the middle was merely empty and she stayed on her side unless she was having one of those crying fits where she throttled herself onto what used to be his side hoping to catch his scent engraved in the fibers. When he left she didn’t change the sheets for 2 months. They were white and her body stained one whole side beige—his side was crisp and un-festered.

She didn’t realize how little Ernesto spoke anymore. Because when he did speak she was usually in the midst of something—cleaning the kitchen, dusting, watering the plants, folding the clothes he left on the chair that morning. She used to follow her mother around the house when she was young—her mother was a tinkerer who spent her time fixing and admiring her fixings. She moved decorative pillows and throws from couch to chair while her father stacked wood and mowed the lawn. No one really listened to her, they just let her follow them hoping she would pick up some of their intricacies—the pride that came with the look of things. Her mother spoke about her son with disappointment, “He didn’t learn anything we taught him about keeping a place nice. He lives in a room with a bed and a cat tree. How could he expect I’d want to stay there—the mattress literally sat on the floor.” Her family communicated by fixing things, building things and putting things together beautifully. That’s how they showed love. At night they’d sit around the dinner table and admire their work. She wanted Ernesto to be proud of what they had created too, to fix things, mow things, create nooks that came together like magazine pictures. Ernesto grew up in a house where clutter was the aesthetic—the droppings of a life showed beauty. He liked a simple, cluttered home with signs of human movement. A half-smoked pipe next to a bag of tobacco. Wilted flowers hovering over what used to be a glass of orange juice. The smell of arepitas and carne asada left over from the night before. Atahualpa to bring it all together and nights of dancing tango in the living room looking at each other instead of the clutter. He disliked white sheets and white walls. He wanted every room to be a different color, “Baby, colors inspire emotion—white is colorless, emotionless—it kills smiles,” he said, as he hugged her and squeezed her ass to get a laugh. Even though they were together for over 10 years every time he squeezed her she got that nervous smile—he loved it—it might have been his favorite part of her.

Ernesto liked making breakfast. He would lightly fry the edges of cured ham, waft his hand over the toaster to smell the bread as it burned and pop it out so that it flung above the toaster onto the plate looking up for accolades each time. He danced salsa in the kitchen and his good mood in the morning annoyed her. She read the New Yorker, blew her nose into the crumpled up tissue she kept by her bed at night like her mother did and held her coffee close to her mouth blowing on it as she sipped. She wore glasses in the morning, a T-shirt and underwear. She never wore pants around the house when she didn’t have to. Ernesto liked this about her. When they first moved in together he would come up behind her as she poured her coffee, pull her underwear down as she laughed nervously and stick his hand between her legs before entering her right there in the kitchen—her hands against the stove. Ernesto loved having sex in the morning and after he came he would hold her from behind and move his hips slowly to the music singing in her ear. Eventually her coffee spilled from the stove onto her leg and burned her. She screeched and pulled away from him—he got a damp, cold cloth and cleaned her up—kissed her legs and apologized. After that they didn’t have sex in the kitchen anymore. He tried once but she denied him and that’s all it took for him. He wasn’t the kind of man who begged. He did lovely things until you told him not to and then he would never do that particular thing again. Even if you asked. At the end of their relationship she tried to have sex with him in the kitchen again but he denied her this time and she felt what he must have felt every time she denied him—sadness, loss, disappointment, betrayal. When he left he was already gone. The man who loved her and danced in the kitchen moved on years ago and she hadn’t even noticed. Now she was alone and she noticed everything.


img_8297 I’m the Entrepreneur in a Bad Neighborhood
By Daniel Aristi

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, 2007

I was thirteen both only and already, too, because, like the tropics, a tough borough does hasten growth. A childman, thus—un niñombre—and my role was clear enough: I was the tinkerer, the fire-maker, the one carving totems out of lampposts.

It was early summer and I imagined these hi-fi skulls where the eye sockets were two black-welled loudspeakers; the dial ran across the teeth and the iPod you just slotted in the back, like an execution—

Música & Muerte in equal measure … our barrio lives forever on these two inexhaustible tits.

I showed my sketches to the compadres foraging for crack. They said ándale and puto and ay, carajo and chingada. Then they decided to finance my prototype with 200 bucks:

– Half meth, half coke, all Reserva Federal!

I told Chato that with my invention he’d be able to listen to corridos looking just like Hamlet. Looking just like your mother, ése, he laughs shaking wildly, him, a squall of tattoos.

I finished my musical skull with papier-mâché at Don Tito’s piñata shop. The very first test—22 July it was—and a slap of reggaetón suddenly burst out. IT’S ALIVE! Don Tito said. Don Tito once got a bullet straight into his pacemaker. For years he wondered whether God intended to kill him and missed, or if He had saved his life instead.

We attached the skull to the hood of Chato’s Opel and drove it straight like a hard-on.

We cruised—oh, we cruised—until the battery died off, and just then someone else also died some blocks away. We heard The Three Gunshots:

Uno al busto,
Dos por si aca, y
Tres por gusto*

Música & Muerte, in equal measure.

* “One to the bust, Two just in case, and Three for fun.”


img_1815The Watchband
By Richard Krause

She lost interest in me soon after I bought an alligator watchband. She said it was not me. That there had been nothing about it that even remotely suggested that I should have that strip of leather on my arm, even to tell time.

She knew I didn’t even like Florida, the clammy warmth of its climate, the almost year-round humidity, the heat and swampiness. She said she knew I wasn’t made for everglades, that there was something deciduous in my personality, that the air I needed was brisk, bracing, and seasonal, that a part of me had to be shed periodically, not cut from in strips, torn away for profit. And too she knew that there wasn’t anything stubbornly hidebound about me, that nothing in me could be flayed and dried in the sun and stitched together into a handbag, shoes, much less a simple watchband.

Yes, she did admit that I had rather large bumps on my head, that my cranium had certain prominent orbits that heightened the roundness and protuberance of my eyes. And, yes, too there was a certain underbite, a certain prognathous jutting of the jaw that until I had the watchband on she had never noticed before. And my arms, they had never seemed so short, and the froglike fingers now that she noticed them were webby, and stumpy, that’s what she said, and when I smiled at her she seemed to notice my teeth for the first time, the incisors elongated into a silly grin that nothing could wipe off.

But it wasn’t until I suggested that we go for a swim, even though it was at a lake and admittedly a temperate climate up in New England, that she hesitated and for the first time I read fear on her face.

Never before had I seen such an emotion on a woman. My awkwardness on land had always been a joke between us. She always took it as a kind of embellishment to her own grace. And though she knew I was a good swimmer—at least I told her I had represented my high school on the swimming team—she never put the two together, my talent in the water and my awkwardness on land with the alligator band I was now wearing. But she only repeated, “It’s not you,” as if to assure herself.

She looked at me as I grinned at her and I could sense how she lengthened further my already large nose into a snout, how the nares floated up in her mind long before we were to enter the water and already became large breathing vents that alone were enough to give also the impression that my eyes were lidlessly drifting up the side of my head depriving me of bifocal vision. And not even I could see how she then imagined a thick tail, and the convulsion of disgust that rippled through her body as my skin grew more reticulated, swelling my midriff so that someone could ride me in the water, and tame me, that too she turned away from, as from my white underbelly.

She wanted power in a man, but not the kind that would at one swift and unexpected stroke snap its head with the strength of ten men and dismember the person on top—even if it were someone holding onto my neck for a joke. She turned away from that as if wreathes of blood were already garlanding a lost limb in the water that was hanging onto the body only by the whitest pretext of a solitary tendon.

She sat there on the beach, me with my robe still on, and smiled at my two legs deceptively exiting from the hem and said, “Don’t you think you’d better take your watch off—looking at the alligator band—before you go in the water?”

“Oh,” I said looking at her with a train of thought as long as the body the rest of the band had been cut from. “No, it’s waterproof.”


img_7846A Penguin’s Predicament
By Fiona McPhillips

It was Bulger, the singing salesman, that gave it wings, so to speak. Bulger, with his cocked hat and loosened tie and his leather briefcase, strutting past the presses on the factory floor, warbling the top of the pops over the clatter of the machines. He’d been up above in the office with the young ones, the three of them pressed against the glass, laughing, as I’d staggered back from the toilet. Christie, the one with the shaggy dog hair in her eyes, waved to me and the other one with the necktie put her hands to her face as Bulger opened his arms and his mouth as if performing an aria for the plebs below. As he passed my press on the way out, he sang “Goodnight Mr Penguin” to the tune of “Goodnight Sweetheart”. It was only when he tipped his hat to the girls upstairs and the knowing smiles against the window that I got the joke.

I’d just returned to work after the operation that had stuck my pelvis back together. I’d have stayed home longer only I was getting under your feet and you still needed space to get over the baby. At least the car crash had spared you any physical pain so you could wash and clean and clear away the remnants of it all. So while you were busy being tough enough for the two of us, I waddled back into the factory and became Mr Penguin.

I’ll be honest, at first I couldn’t take to it at all. I was nothing but a cripple with a nickname, a fish out of water, a rebel without a cause. It was all I could do to stay on my feet and keep the presses rolling. I’d try to bat the words off with a laugh and a joke but they kept coming, hitting me in the gut until I just let them. In the end, it was your idea. You swear blind you’d never have suggested such a thing but I remember.

“If they keep calling you Mr Penguin then why don’t you act like a fucking penguin, see how they like that?” Maybe not your exact words but you always did get excited when you were making a point.

The cup came first, a dumpy wee creature with startled eyes and an orange beak. There’s a great solace in the right cup of tea and that little fella refilled my spirits every day. Then there were the everyday Christmas jumpers, bold and bright, loud and proud, just in case there was any doubt. You rolled your eyes at the cuddly toys and the pictures but you always made good use of the corkscrew.

Long after Bulger had moved on from printing to cars, his famous penguin songs were sung in my honour. I wish you’d spent an evening there, machines dormant, voices and beer in full flow. Maybe you’d have understood the jubilation, the acceptance if you’d seen me with my flock. Penguins are social birds, they need camaraderie and friendship to survive. There was little of that at home, just the silent stares of the birds and the bottle.

As we struggled to know what to do with each other, Mr Penguin became known at the grocers, the butchers, down the market. The postman delivered letters addressed to him, callers on the phone asked you if they could speak to him. An official name change was then surely no more than an administrative formality. You wouldn’t have ceased to be my wife, my home was always your home, nothing would have to change. But it turned out that change was what you wanted or maybe it was what had been happening to you right under my nose.

I thought you’d take it all with you, the memories, the loss that you bore for both of us. But you left it behind, hidden amongst the cuddly cushions, the egg cups and the tea pots. It was the elephant dressed as a penguin, the same one that had sat between us for almost twenty years.

I want to let you know that the penguins are going. Some to the museum, others to the children’s hospital and the charity shop. I want to make room in the house for other things, new things. For you, if you want it. But Mr Penguin, I can’t let him go. I can only be what I am. And that is either a shrunken, broken man, a joke soon forgotten or someone simply fulfilling his destiny and making a name for himself by adapting to adversity.


img_3440Linda Love Less
By Shawne E. Steiger

I have always pitied Linda Loveless. How could she help but live up to her name? In elementary school, the kids called her Love Less instead of Linda and she always played alone at recess.

*

When I first saw the name Linda Lovelace on my boyfriend’s father’s porn DVD, I thought it was the same girl I knew. I thought, wow, Linda Loveless got famous. Maybe, now that she’s famous, she’s finally loved. But the girl I knew wasn’t a porn star. And my Linda Loveless was only in high school in the nineteen seventies. Linda Lovelace made Deep Throat in nineteen seventy-two. Of course, even if Linda Loveless had made a porn film, that isn’t the kind of thing that gets you loved. You don’t go putting it on Facebook so all your friends can “like” you.

*

At lunch in high school, Linda Loveless sat on the grass hill outside the cafeteria with her cello and her books and watched us play Go Fish and Bullshit. We laughed a little harder, aware we were performing for Linda Loveless. We hugged each other more and made sure to watch Linda Loveless watching us get hugged.

*

At the senior prom, I was busy dancing and showing off my prom queen crown. I was busy laughing with my friends. I was busy making sure everyone knew how popular I was, kissing the prom king and making out in his car. I think Linda Loveless was there, huddled in a corner watching everyone have a good time. I’m certain we all imagined she was. Poor Linda Loveless invisible in a corner and there we were, surrounded by friends. It made the prom more special—the idea of her there watching us and being unhappy while we had a good time.

*

The last time I saw Linda Loveless was in The Gap at the mall eight months after high school graduation. She came in to browse the blue jeans and at first I didn’t recognize her. She’d gotten a haircut and was wearing makeup. My Linda Loveless never wore makeup, but this one, this post high school Linda Loveless did and she looked pretty, but she was still completely alone.

*

“Linda,” I practically yelled. I gave her a big hug and she sort of hugged me back, but not the way my friends used to hug. She pulled her hip away so we wouldn’t touch and gave little taps on my back. I guess Linda Loveless didn’t learn how to hug properly in high school despite all that watching she did.

“You look great,” I said.

“I’m okay,” she replied and I tried to think if her voice had always been that husky and, well, sexy. “I’m going to community college now, majoring in music,” she said.

I told her about my baby and my husband the prom king and how he was working at my father’s bar. I told her about my Gap friends and high school friends I still saw. Linda smiled and nodded and it felt so right to have her there as my audience. This Linda Loveless watching me be happy while she stood on the sidelines, alone.

It was the first time since I got pregnant and my dad gave me a black eye and made us marry and my prom king started drinking that I truly, truly felt happy. I couldn’t believe how happy seeing Linda Loveless made me.

“Hey, if you ever need a place to stay, we have an extra room,” I told her. “You could rent from us.”

I gave her my number. It would be so great, having Linda Loveless alone at the end of the table while I feed my baby and kiss my prom king husband and get ready for my job at The Gap.

I hope she calls.


img_8286Rehab
By KJ Hannah Greenberg

Frank, Elisa’s soldier son, recently returned from Kordestan, yelled from the tent that he had “secured” the cookies. Elisa sighed. Perhaps bringing him to Burning Man was not the best reintroduction to civilian life.

In balance, the playa was located in a familiar milieu, a desert, attendees willingly shared food, booze, and intimacy, and, scheduled activities notwithstanding, the “city” was both dynamic and protected from corporate hostilities via its adherence to decommodification. Frank ought to feel both comfortable and liberated.

Elisa shook her head at her boy, who had emerged into the sunshine wearing a feathered skirt, a white T-shirt, and his dog tags. Two of his subordinates had been killed in the Iran-PJAK conflict. The USA was not supposed to have participated in the Baneh clash. Black Rock City’s ARTery wasn’t supposed to feature desiccated cows.

A girl a few years older than her boy also emerged. She, too, wore feathers and a T-shirt. Some sort of crystals glistened in her updo. “Mom,” she beckoned, extending her hand toward Elisa.

“I read The Jackrabbit Speaks. I don’t have to,” responded Elisa. “My ‘radical self-expression’ involves sitting here until my sunscreen needs to be reapplied. It’s restorative to do nothing.”

Frank shrugged. The girl shrugged. He put his arm around her shoulder. She put her arm around his waist.

“Think of it as an alternative sort of prom,” Elisa self-counseled. “After all, they’re heading toward a concert hosted by Esteban and the Clowns.


img_6096WE HAVE TO TALK
By Emil Draitser

“We—have—to—talk,” she states, stretching out her speech.

Oh—oh. I hear these words, coming from her, and I have a bad premonition.

“What about?”

“You’re a writer. Written many stories. Why not even one single story about me?”

I laugh.

“What’s so funny? I’m totally serious. You write about God knows what women in your life, but not me? We’re an item for over ten years now, yet not a line about me. Why?”

I laugh again. But she’s dead serious.

“Well, you see,” I say, “writers write about their beloved in remorse. Usually about lost love. Or unattained. Look at Petrarch. If his Laura would have reciprocated his feelings, there would have been none of his beautiful love sonnets.”

“So, what of it? You’re not in Petrarch’s predicament. You’re a lucky man. Your feelings are reciprocated, aren’t they? Your excuse sounds lame to me.”

I laugh a bit less enthusiastically.

“Well,” I say. “You know, writing is mostly a subconscious process. The need to write about some stuff gets into your system without much effort on your part.”

“So, what you’re trying to say is that, despite ten years of happiness, I failed to enter your subconscious?”

The tone of her voice does not sound too jolly. I try to backpedal as fast as I can, as if I am in a rowboat heading for a waterfall, suddenly looming in front of me.

“All right,” I say. “Give me some kernel of an idea. What’s my story about you supposed to be about?”

“About how much you love me.”

I snicker. But she does not seem any bit amused. I make an effort to keep a straight face.

“Well, there’s no story here,” I say. “Typically, in a story, there should be some conflict, some problem that the protagonist must overcome.”

“Since both of us should be in the story, who has to have a problem? You or me?”

“Whoever.”

“That’s easy. All right, tell me how much you love me. On a scale of one to ten.”

I try to stay on a safe side and say ten.

“No good,” she says. “Give yourself something like eight and a half.”

“Why not ten?”

“Because,” she nods confidently, ”you have to have room for improvement. For growth. Here you have it. Plenty of a problem to overcome. No more excuses.”

I’m cornered. It looks like I no longer have a good excuse.

“Wait a minute,” it suddenly dawns on me. “If I write down this conversation, it’ll make quite a good story about you. You can’t deny that!”

She mulls it over. Says after a short pause:

“Why is it so short?”


img_1292An Occurrence at Osceola Avenue
(A Contemporary Retelling of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge)
By Ran Walker

“I can’t breathe,” Jarius Jackson said, as he struggled to rotate his thick 6’3” body away from the bear-strength arms of the police officer behind him. “I need my inhaler!”

The officer jammed a knee into the back of Jarius’ leg, causing Jarius to fall into a kneeling position. The sidewalk screamed at his kneecaps, which only intensified the burning in his lungs.

“Don’t move!” the officer behind him shouted, and out the corners of his eyes, Jarius could see at least two other officers approaching him on either side, guns drawn. “I’m warning you, big guy. Stay down!”

Jarius wheezed hard, trying to take in as much air as he could. “Can’t breathe!”

“He ain’t even do nothin’!” a woman yelled from beyond the officers. “Y’all just want to mess with him ’cause he big and black. Shame on y’all!”

Jarius tried to lift his head to see the growing throng of people forming a semicircle around the police officers, but the burning in his chest was starting to draw his body into a ball.

“Everybody stand back!” one officer yelled.

“He already told y’all he can’t breathe! Y’all gon’ let that man die out here?” a guy in the crowd said.

Darius felt the panic set in. He had only been without his inhaler once during an asthma attack, and he thought he was going to die. He survived that episode because his mother got him to breathe into a bag and calm himself until they could get to the local pharmacy and refill his prescription. Still it had been a close call. Not only were there not any paper bags around, he was acutely aware of the guns pointed in his direction.

The burning in his chest intensified with each breath he attempted. Maybe if he could just stand up and stretch, then he could get enough air to calm himself a bit. He just needed to summon the energy to get to his feet. His hands were outstretched and empty so there was no reason for the officers to think he was armed.

Jarius grunted hard, like the engine of an old car coming to life, and he began to rise, lifting the officer draped across his back with him. Just as he reached his full height he heard a loud, sharp popping sound. Startled, the excited crowd began to scatter. It was in this melee of animated bodies that Jarius took a deep breath and began to run.

He could barely feel his feet beneath him as he sprinted on the balls of his feet around the corner and down through an alley. He could hear the walkie-talkies and sounds of the police officers pursuing him, but he refused to look back. That’s how you tripped and fell and let them catch you, he thought.

He reached the end of the alley and turned left, racing down the block. He could no longer feel the tightness in his chest as he ran. His adrenaline drowned out the pain. If he could just get home, he could get to his inhaler—but even more importantly, he could get to his wife. Osceola Avenue was roughly six blocks from his apartment. He was determined not to let anything stop him.

The crackle of the walkie-talkies persisted, so he cut right, racing through a courtyard between two large brownstones, and leaped a fence at the back of the enclosure. At this point, he could see his apartment building in the distance. In a flat-out sprint, Jarius propelled his body down the street, seeking to close the two-block distance with the strides of his long legs. He could no longer hear the police officers behind him. He patted his pockets, searching for his cell phone to call Yvette, but couldn’t find it. It must have fallen out, he thought. But just ahead in the remaining block, Jarius could see her walking down the steps of the apartment building.

“Yvette!” he called out, running towards her.

She looked up and smiled.

With his arms outstretched, he closed the remaining distance and reached for the warmth of his wife’s embrace.

Suddenly, the crack of a single gunshot pierced through the cacophony of police officers and onlookers on Osceola Avenue.

Jarius Jackson, who had just risen to his feet, fell forward, face-first, toward the concrete and into the waiting arms of his wife.


img_0079Congested Traffic on the Third Ring Road on a Thursday Afternoon in November
By Craig Loomis

The next day’s newspaper—page two, column three—will have a lengthy description about what happened: how traffic was moving just fine for a November’s Thursday afternoon when suddenly the red wink of brake lights was everywhere, followed by horns honking, traffic slowing, slower, stopped, backing up as far as the Mishref turnoff, and now bigger and longer honking; and how an armada of police cars—flashing redandblue lights, loud speakers blaring—insisted drivers get out of the way, slow down, get ready to stop, etc. And some of those drivers heard and obeyed, while others, thinking the gravelly unused emergency lane is there for a reason, veered to the left, and in a spray of windshield-shattering pebbles hurried on. But never mind, because by now some have even pulled over to get a better looksee. One red SUV—family of one boy and one girl parked neatly, picnic-like on the shoulder—the little girl, one hand firmly attached to her mother, the other straining to touch the sparkly white clothing at her feet, at everybody’s feet. The mother, knowing all there is to know about such clothing, lets her daughter grab. Meanwhile, the father with son are content to watch, thinking, perhaps, that this sort of browsing is best left to the women. In fact, the boy—ten or eleven years old, who’s to say with boys these days—thinks this is funny and turning red-faced towards his father says something that starts out being serious but—he can’t help it—ends up being full of laughter.

The road is littered with the stuff—from here to there; a large wooden crate has fallen from a truck, splintering, its fresh, white wood filling the road with a colorful collection of bras and panties, a roadway of white other clothing that has not stopped twisting and turning in the traffic wind, swirling desert heat.

Meanwhile, again, the police have arrived to, finally, make the problem go away, this sort of reckless display of lingerie, along with friendly scavenging. But of course it is too late, and tomorrow’s newspaper will read: how this unfortunate spillage resulted in a long line of congested traffic as lingerie clogged the roadway. And so, police officers step out of their cruisers to consult with one another. Blueandred lights forever flashing as they finger their holsters because their police training tells them you never know. Eye-balling the situation, they radio for advice: need they retrieve the clothing if it is already off the road? In the end, police headquarters tells them that yes, officers are to leave their cruisers and to collect the clothing, to pick it up and push the broken crate to the side of the road. All done fingering their holsters, for the time being, they advance on the lingerie.

As the police do their duty, car windows are being rolled down with heads peeking to get a better look. Meanwhile, the desert winds care nothing for things like this—a pink bra (cup size 34A, if truth be told) is seen cartwheeling over the highway, closely followed by two, no three, purpleandwhite panties (sizes unknown). The police walk faster to capture these pieces. Haram.

A big white car jerks to a halt, and the driver—Indian, maybe Sri Lankan—bounds out to gather a handful of brightly colored clothing, and just when he thinks he has done his duty, he turns to the car as if being spoken to, listening, nodding—windows tinted, talker unknown—and now backs up to claim what looks to be a candy-caned bundle of softness; he has it and looks back again, and yes, that’s right, now back to the car and his real job as driver.

But never mind, because by now the police have sealed off that part of the road and all is well, and as they slowly begin to collect the lacy field of lingerie, using their dusty boots to push all to the side of the road, and traffic begins to restart, crawl forward, as people, one last time, lean to take photos, before accelerating into the hot Thursday afternoon, giving one final honk for good measure.


img_5797Unlucky
By Gareth Vieira

Johnny Smyles was the unluckiest bastard that ever lived. Do you want to know how unlucky? He was so unlucky our town passed a bylaw restricting Johnny to his house. Which he accepted poorly with a grunt, which wasn’t unusual as Johnny was an Orc, and the last of his kind. And let us be real about what happens to Orcs in the end?

Johnny’s head sat on a permanent angle like he cracked it one too many times. His posture was quasimodo and his fingertips were stripped of skin from dragging across the pavement. He could smell a fart from a distance—his eyes would squint upon the scent and his cheeks would muscle up. He’d breathe in, filling his chest with air, letting the putrid smell run up his nostrils like a line of coke.

Mrs. Adams and her husband Frank, the Town Crier, argued at town council that for the good of the community, Johnny Smyles should be locked up in his house with only matters of life and death as an allowance for him to come out. And Madame Carto, the local psychic, forewarned of imminent danger, the kind that leads to mythic proportions, if Johnny Smyles walked the streets. Madam Carto’s prediction was as good as a guilty confession from a repeat offender. Council’s vote was unanimous. In fear of Johnny’s bad luck turning into an epidemic he was quarantined.

That was a year ago.

*

Johnny’s days are spent smoking Camel straights and peering out of his living room window. The neighborhood boys would be out playing road hockey mimicking their favorite players in the NHL. Every five minutes a car would drive by and the boys would have to pick up their nets and move to the side of the road, but they hardly minded. Interruption is part of the game.

The goalies wore a single knee pad, as only one boy owned a pair. The girls skip rope, singing repetitive songs that burrow into Johnny’s head and comes out gruffer and creepier and more animalistic than it began. Johnny knew all the songs by heart and sang them long after the kids had gone home and the streetlights came on.

In the evenings fathers stood on the porches smoking pipes, thinking things that fathers think when they have a moment for themselves. Mothers’ voices were heard through open windows chatting loudly on the phone.

Yes, Johnny Smyles’ one consolation was his Camel straights and the view from his window—that is, until an eagle swooped down and hit the glass, smashing it into pieces and cutting poor Johnny’s wrist. On the way to the hospital the ambulance broke down on Concession Road. A storm brewing all day erupted with a bang and Johnny lay in the back of the ambulance on a gurney, his face a thunderous cloud.

The power went out at the hospital. The generator smoked a fuse. The nurse at reception printed out the wrong wristband and the doctor mixed up his files. Johnny was operated on by a surgeon who stitched him up, forgetting his scalpel inside.

When Johnny came home his house was on fire and the fire truck collided with a van. (It seems Johnny forgot to put out his cigarette when the eagle landed.) Johnny found a blanket and placed it over himself and tried to sleep beneath the stars. He saw a falling star whip across the sky and wished on it, but it just kept falling, hurtling through space into our atmosphere, plummeting down, a ball of fire that landed and burnt poor Johnny Smyles alive.

R.I.P. you unlucky son of a gun.


img_7686Bird
By Robert T. Krantz

You walked out of the house looking like a little girl, head nodding down toward the sidewalk with your curly brown hair bobbing in your eyes, one hand behind your back. When you stopped at the end of the walkway, I noticed your floral pattern stretch pants, not because I normally notice these things, but because one leg was crossing behind the other as if you were off balance or ashamed. The police car flashers weren’t on and it was noon, so I didn’t think it could mean that much trouble. But one officer stood outside your bedroom window and another—at the opposite end of the house—guarded the door by the garage. Four cruisers! That’s a lot for a Tuesday afternoon.

I paced in my living room with the front door open. The pacing had nothing to do with you, but I did feel awkward. The whole affair seemed private. And who was I to be watching you anyway?

For your sake, I hoped Richard wasn’t drunk again. I know how mean he is to you when he’s been drinking. It probably wouldn’t go over well with the boys in blue if I walked out of my house with Martin’s old shotgun like I had to last summer, when Richard threatened to kill you and you came to my door crying. Truth be told, I don’t keep that gun loaded anyway. I’m not much of a gun person. I hoped those days were over for you when he started to go to meetings. I have to say, for a while I noticed him leaving your house every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7:40. I figured he was making the 8:00PM meeting down at the Arid Club just west of Squirrel Road. Then I guess I just stopped noticing whether he went or not.

So I see you have a new boyfriend. I saw his lean torso and tattooed arms just yesterday as you two walked from the car to the house. Today when you came out he wasn’t with you. Maybe they were waiting for him at the bedroom window and garage door. Still, there was nothing dramatic about the thing at all. You reached the end of the walkway looking like a little girl. Then you talked to the policemen for a while and got into one of their cars.

When you entered the backseat of the cruiser, your hands were still behind your back or was it only one hand? It was hard to tell if you were cuffed or not, because by then I was peaking through the blinds of my window and trying to act inconspicuous. The other three cruisers stayed for a long time after you were taken away. But there were no sirens, no Richard, no guns, and I guess no boyfriend.

Orange-breasted robins bobbed their heads in my yard, pecking for grubs in the lawn. I wondered if the fertilizer I had spread just yesterday was what brought the robins. They haven’t been around much before today. One of the robins flitted and flew up and landed on Bucky’s roof next to my porch. He was about eye level and I thought he was looking at me.


img_1388A VEIL OF COBWEBS
By Pat Slattery

It is a good Summer. There is a blackbird singing in the old ash tree. The air is filled with the scent of the rich vegetation all round me. So different from noisy, smelly Yonkers. I stand in the laneway. The house is not as I remember it. It looks smaller. The door is held by one hinge and is partly open, sagging. I enter the garden, overgrown, grass intermingled with weeds up to my knees. I am apprehensive, fearful almost. I do not want to reactivate the memories. But I have to. I have travelled too far. They have all gone, my mother, my father, my one brother. The earth has claimed them, as it will eventually claim me.

I enter the kitchen cum living room through the front door. The solitary hinge breaks off when I manage to push the door open. There is enough light through the open doorway for me to make out the ancient rusty range, the remains of the old dresser, the sink with one tap. Someone must have removed the other one. I turn on the remaining one, no water, then I remember there is no electricity, therefore no water pump. The tattered remains of a net curtain hang in the window. I remove it and there is a veil of cobwebs. I rub them off with the curtain. There is more light. I open the door leading to the big bedroom. It doesn’t look very big now. The room is empty, no bed, no wardrobe. This had been my father and mother’s room. The one other room had been mine and my brother’s. I feel a lump in my throat. I do not look inside that room. I look again at the kitchen sink, covered in dust and plaster that had fallen from the rotting ceiling. I can see my mother standing there washing the dishes. She had lived in this house from her twenty-first birthday until she died aged seventy-nine, fifty-eight years in all. How many times had she washed dishes in that sink? Three times a day, 365 days a year, multiplied by fifty-eight, by my rough calculation sixty thousand.

The Sacred Heart picture is still on the wall, together with the little red candle-like electric bulb underneath it. We had knelt, my mother, father and I, before that picture. We were afraid and pleading for help. The accident. Michael was dying. We were not given the answer to our prayers that we had pleaded for. That was in 1955, when Michael had been seventeen.

Tears now run down my face and I go out into the laneway. I turn and look once again. Addressing the rotting house I say to myself, “You too are preparing to return to the earth.”

I turn and walk to the car. I do not look back.


img_4387Rough Finish
By Martha Clarkson

The hardwood floor refinishers took five days to complete the work, when they promised three. Shar and Michael were forced to spend extra nights in the tiny cabin advertised as Cattail Cottage, the place they began to call Frog Hovel not too long after arrival. “Forced,” maybe, was not the right word, because they chose to rent, rather than stay with friends. It seemed less constrained, cheap, and close by.

The floor being refinished was dark walnut they’d paid dearly for ten years ago and the floor refinishers—brothers Hank and Robel—had only experienced oak. They commented on finding a walnut floor installed in the Pacific Northwest and asked Shar if she was from Philadelphia. She was not.

In the small town of Oso, two hours northeast, a catastrophic mudslide took place while Shar and Michael were huddled in the Frog Hovel. Perceptions of mudslides as mild gushes that occasionally blocked train tracks were shattered nationwide. News agencies tracked the body count, and labeled the others missing. But everyone knew they weren’t coming back. Mud had rushed in at sixty miles an hour, swallowing houses, cars, and loved ones.

Shar became obsessed with the disaster’s media coverage, especially the way her favorite evening anchor was put into a yellow anorak and placed at the nearest Grange hall. Shar and Michael watched the news mostly in bars, because the $50-a-night Frog Hovel was the size of a thimble, so low-ceilinged you felt like Alice when she grew, so they tried to return just before bed. They felt homeless, vagabond, transient. The feeling was uncomfortable; they were too old and settled to need to feel this way. When Shar and Michael returned at night, usually drunk, there were one to six frogs clinging to the front door. The rest were unison-croaking in the wetlands behind the cabin, so loud the freeway noise was gone, swallowed.

Hank and Robel left the key on the mahogany buffet after calling to say they were done. Shar and Michael took their shoes off on the porch and let their stocking-feet slide onto the wood. Light poured in from the den window and immediately illuminated an ill-selected refinisher. The beautiful walnut was rippled, and it was not buffer marks. They could feel the ripples on their cottoned soles. Like a foot massage. They smelled the remnant poison gases of the applied stain, but that was nothing compared to the ripples. Those were for good. Shar began to cry.

“At least we’re home,” Michael said, taking her elbow and pushing her forward into the dining room to see the extent of the amateur job. Shar turned the TV on. The mudslide counts now included the number of homes lost, mortgages that would still require payments. Pastor Celia tied ribbons on a bridge railing and said to the newscaster, “Yellow ribbons mean they’re coming home.” This wasn’t some Vietnam hope Tony Orlando and Dawn could sing about. No one was coming home. Who was “Dawn” anyway, Shar had always wondered. It was a sadness to tie those ribbons, in Shar’s mind, as if you could will the missing to appear. It called to mind images of arms flailing above the brown muck, or worse yet, not flailing, but still, a dead forearm, gold band visible on a finger.

Michael and Shar slid on the wood floor in the socks they’d worn at the Frog Hovel, which inexplicably demanded shoe removal for its vinyl floors. Shar speed-dialed Robel about the ridges and he said, “Put the furniture back—well, not for three days, but when you do, you’ll never notice it.” They had not been told three days for putting the furniture back, and Shar’s mother-in-law was due for dinner on Saturday. Shar wailed and threw the flip phone at the CNN crew on the screen, who she felt didn’t belong in tiny Oso. She grabbed the remote, a more comfortable device, and tuned in her anorak anchor, who really had nothing to report.

The ripples were real. The floors would need refinishing again. Michael would calmly retain the check he planned to mail, but they’d be moving out again. Transient, homeless, probably for more days than estimated. This time they’d stay with friends. Shar imagined wine, dinners the friends would fix, long conversations. The way they should’ve done it the first time. Who knew when it all would be taken away, the house, the friends, the very idea of life?


img_0707A Ride to the Trees Place
By V. Joseph Racanelli

Me and my Man, we went out when it was still dark, before the big light ball comes up. Usually we go after it comes up, but this time it was different. I couldn’t smell why at first.

We used the moving box. Usually, it takes us to the trees place, which I like. Sometimes to the woman who smiles but she looks in my mouth and sometimes hurts me. Thing is, I can never tell which way we are going by the look of Him. I don’t know why my Man takes me to the smiling woman. I love Him.

That day my Man looked around. He looked around again. I looked too. Nothing. Then He put a big bag into the back of the moving box. I jumped in. There was a smell—in the moving box—that I’d never enjoyed before. Like bad food, but not so bad that I would not eat it.

We went to the place with the trees. I love it there. My Man dug a hole! He does not do this a lot, but I love it when he does. I dug one too. I wanted something, a bone, anything, to put in my hole.

He took the big bag out of the moving box. That was the smell! How did I miss that?

He had a hard time moving the big bag. I barked. I wanted to help him. But my Man made the bad face and put a finger to his lips. I never understood this thing He does. Never. And I have tried.

The big bag flopped over, opened and another man fell out of it. This new man smelled like a man I saw in my Man’s sleeping place before the big light ball came out. This man didn’t talk like he did before. He didn’t move either.

I had an urge to mark him but I did not. My Man would not like this. He dropped the quiet man in the hole and began to yell at the man in the hole! My Man made the bad face, the one I don’t like. But this was not for me. So I remained happy.

The man in the hole didn’t say anything back. I didn’t know why the man in the hole would stay there. But he did. My Man covered him like a bone. I liked that, but He did not do a good job. I wished that He would let me help. But then He wanted to go and ran quickly back to the moving box.

I thought it was a game so I ran too and checked out some trees and bushes on the way. He said the thing that means I should come to Him right away and I jumped back into the moving box.

My Man smiled at me and said quiet things to me. I like that.

Then we took the moving box back to the sleeping place. Inside He gave me a nice chewy snack. I love Him. I can’t wait to go out again with another man in a bag.


img_2910Impassable
By George Vivian Paul

“So our entire unit was deployed,” said my father, reclining on his chair with a slight smile as he sipped his military standard issue rum.

My mother was in the kitchen preparing supper. My sister and I sat on the couch in the TV room, listening to one of my father’s daily anecdotes at sundown.

Supposing what Father said was true, Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, was advised to wear a bulletproof vest in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1980s. The government of the day decided to import a bulletproof vest from Italy. It would cost an exorbitant amount of money and, of course, it had to be quality-tested before the Prime Minister wore it.

Who was better qualified to scrutinize the vest than the Indian Army? The station where my father was posted got the job, a prestige assignment. Back then not many, even in the army, were acclimated to wearing apparel that could repel bullets, and no one knew what to do with the thing. Nobody was willing to wear the vest facing a fellow soldier firing ammunition. The thought of explaining to the widows what had happened made the senior officers refrain from giving stern orders.

They couldn’t just hang the damn thing up and shoot at it since the bullet impact registered would not replicate a natural scenario.

Eventually, a Sepoy came up with an idea that the Station Commander accepted. The vest would be put on a stray dog—a test subject—tied to a post. If the physical examination of the dog showed no signs of damage after the completion of the exercise, it would prove that the vest worked.

Consequently the dog, clearly bewildered, was given a bath and strapped into the million-dollar vest. The Sepoy tied the dog to the post. Men at a distance armed with assault rifles took positions, aimed at the vest and waited for orders to proceed. The Station Commander from his tent at the edge of the training ground gave the nod, and shots were fired.

BANG!!BANG!!BANG!!BANG!!

Everyone’s eyes watching the exercise were focused at the spot where the assault rifles were pointed, and they heard the shrill burst of a shriek by the understandably surprised animal.

The moment the dog heard gunshots, it must have decided “OK, THIS IS IT!!! I’M DONE WITH THIS POPPYCOCK. SO LONG, FOLKS!!!” and broke loose, bolting like lightning into the wilderness on the outskirts of the training ground—leaving the Indian Armed Forces, the biggest “voluntary” army on the planet, staring cluelessly at the post with a broken strand of rope attached.

It took some time before the men recovered from the shock. My father, adjutant of the unit, was summoned to devise a strategy ASAP to capture the runaway tyke and seize the missing vest.

“So our entire unit was called out,” said my father.

All four companies in the unit were deployed. Those who were getting ready to leave were stopped, and those who’d returned to their families after the day’s duties were called back. Every soldier in the cantonment was alerted. Equipped with jungle-warfare gear, the men followed the dog took into the wild.

The men spotted the animal on multiple occasions but it somehow always managed to escape. They tried firing at it, but the bullets did nothing except toss the dog a little in the air. Evidently, the Italians had not been joking after all and the vest worked as advertised.

Meanwhile all the senior officers in the station were running out of “fish stories” to tell Army Headquarters about the missing vest. All deadlines were breached and the scale of panic in the camps grew exponentially with the passing of every hour. Those unable to cope with the stress were admitted to the Military Hospital.

Finally, the search parties found a vigorously shuddering, tired and hungry dog that had collapsed under a very old tree. The dog got a hero’s welcome when it was brought back to the unit. Still shaken, the mongrel protested little when the vest was removed. It finally calmed down when the Sepoy who had handled it initially arrived with a large packet of glucose biscuits from the unit’s CSD canteen. The vest was cleaned and sent to the Prime Minister’s security squad.

To commemorate the success of this mission, a statue of a mongrel wearing a vest and sitting upright obediently (a work of fiction, to say the least), was presented to the colonel of the unit by Station Headquarters. It is now on display in the officers’ mess. There is no text on the statue, for reasons best left unexplained.

“You mean to say this is true?” I choked.

My father—now a colonel—nodded with an almost childish grin on his face. My sister’s eyes, and my mouth, were wide open in amazement.

“Really?” quizzed my sister.

“DINNER IS GETTING COLD!!!” bellowed my mother from the kitchen.

“Hold on, we’re coming,” my father replied.

He finished his drink and led the way to supper as my sister and I tiptoed behind him. We were still taken aback by the entire episode. My mother stood beside the table and looked at her children with a frown.

“Eat dinner and go to bed. Both of you have school tomorrow,” she said.

I was not sure how to sleep after what I just heard. It seemed too real.

“How was my gasconade?” asked my father.

“What was it this time?” quipped my mother. She just needed keywords to recollect my father’s stories.

“Bulletproof,” answered my sister.

“Papa! Be real. Is this one of your cooked up stories like the one about Bhutan?” I asked.

“Were you even in the service during that time?” interrupted my sister.

My mother, sister and I looked toward my father for a definitive answer.

With an unusually content face, he burst into whooping roars of laughter.


img_7643Coup D’oeil
By Taylor Jordan

“When I sit real still, I can feel myself shifting,” Nina said. We were lying on her parents’ deck, the cicadas just starting to howl. “Like my bones and my guts are all moving around, and sometimes I think they’re just gonna fall out and there’ll be none of me left.”

“That’s impossible.” I never believed Nina when she started talking about stuff like that, weird stuff that made no sense. She liked to make up stories, to lie, but we’d been friends since kindergarten and that’s just not a bond you break. “People can’t feel things like that.”

“I do,” she insisted, propping her head up on a smooth elbow and pointing at a place on her stomach. “This is my spleen, and right now it’s doing a backflip.”

“Shut up,” I laughed, and she squealed when I gave her stomach a tiny punch—barely touching her, just in case. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for her spleen oozing out of her belly button.

We were nine when Nina first told me about shifting. At first it was just a silly thing. She’d tease me about feeling her stomach acid dissolve the grilled cheese she ate for lunch, or getting a cramp when her kidneys decided they were bored and wanted to switch places. But then sometimes she scared me. One time—Nina told me—it felt like someone was crushing her between two hands, so hard a rib snapped and poked a hole in her lung and she slept upright in the rocking chair every night for a week, panting like a sick dog. Another time she swore someone tried to pull her spine up through her mouth and she threw up so quick she didn’t even make it to the bathroom, just coughed the watery slime into her hands. In it was a tooth she kept for a week and then showed me under the covers at a sleepover: “See, I’m disappearing,” cupping it like her biggest secret. And she didn’t know why or when it would finally happen for good, but she did know these things were happening because she was changing. Shifting.

“Mama says they’re growing pains.” She said the words like they actually did pain her, guttural and raw in the back of her throat. She stood at the vanity, brushing pieces of hair that fell down her back in straight sheets of pecan-pie brown. I sat on her bed with my knobby white knees tucked up under my chin and played with the corner of a fraying blue quilt, watching her under my eyelashes. Nina threw the brush down and twirled around suddenly on her toes, arms up over her head like a ballerina performing onstage. “But if that’s true, how come you don’t have any?” She spun until her hair wrapped tight around her head and she fell into me, tangling our fabrics and our fibers. She smelled like watermelon Pop Rocks and worn-out scrunchies.

Nina moved away after seventh grade, and the time in between then she stopped telling stories about her body. It was like she had made a movie and asked everyone to watch it, memorize it, and now she wanted the movie returned, burned, and forgotten. As we grew older we traded scrunchies for eyeliner and Pop Rocks for Pocky that we pretended to smoke like cigarettes. We said we’d try the real thing before high school, but then Nina went away.

We took turns calling each other at first. Every time, I wanted to ask about her growing pains. I craved her old made-up stories, the way she embellished with her hands and her arms, how she ran right to me with her face all pinched up when she was feeling something. I missed her energy, the clatter of her mind. One day I got up the courage to ask her about it. She had just turned thirteen; my birthday was still a month away.

“What’s shifting?” she asked. I could almost hear her throat wrinkle up with the word, and I wondered how she would have described it.

“You used to talk about it all the time,” I said. “How you felt things moving in you.”

“Oh, that.” She laughed into the phone. “I forgot.”

“Does it still happen?”

There was a ruffling through the receiver, and the sound of her breathing. “Why? You never believed me anyway.”

She hung up and didn’t call again.

I phoned for a while, but she never answered and I slowly forgot. And when I did remember to think of Nina, I didn’t call but stood in front of the bathroom mirror with my shirt off, tracing the ridges between my ribs, cupping the tiny hills of my chest; I peered around at the curve of my back, felt the small bulge of my abdomen just above my pelvis, peach fuzz grazing the tips of my fingers. I held my breath and listened, wanting to hear and see her in me, feel her coming out of my body and changing me from the inside out the way she herself had changed.

Nina was wrong. I remember the day she spun around like a top in her room, pivoting and spiraling while I watched her, secretly wishing she would fall. That’s when I saw it, so quick that if I’d blinked I’d have missed it. While she was spinning her body around the last time, the space around her and within her cracked and splintered, and she was gone, a static blurry void of Nina—her hair, her skin, her being—there and then not. All of her, vanished, confetti-colored dust swirling in her place like shadow molecules in a lazy pirouette.


img_9949INTO THE BASEMENT
By Robert Garner McBrearty

As we walk on the nearly empty outdoor mall on an early Sunday morning, Christmas coming on soon, no snow today, but cold in the air, my wife’s shoulder bumps mine and we both teeter a bit and she says, “This is really bad. We’re both having nervous breakdowns at the same time.”

“I know, I know,” I say, “don’t worry about it, move on.”

“We’re only doing this because we’re crazy,” she says, “you know that.”

“Of course I know that, what do you think I am, crazy?” I look ahead and to the side and see a man huddled against a storefront wall, a blanket over his shoulders. His breath comes out in white puffs in the air. “Look, there’s one there. Grab him.”

“Jesus,” she says, “that’s not the right approach. Invite him.”

“Hell, I don’t know if it’s such a great invitation. It’s just a lousy basement.”

At first we just gave the street people food, but we’re upping our game. We have some resources that we might as well use since our own children are grown and gone and doing well on their own. They live far off across the country. They don’t visit much. Sometimes they call or send an email. We were on Facebook with them for a while, but I think they unfriended us. Maybe we need somebody who needs us. We have a big basement and the homeless shelter is full, so we’re letting some of the homeless crash for the winter.

“Maybe we’d better pass on this one,” my wife says. “We have ten now. What if they become unhappy with the basement? I heard shuffling around last night.”

We have friends who have warned us we’ll be robbed or murdered if we’re not careful. But our visitors seem like friendly people. They like it when we bring down breakfast and fresh towels. But we keep them in the basement. “Don’t worry. I’ll shoot them if they come up the stairs.”

“God!” she says. “Don’t say that! Are you nuts! This is all because we feel guilty.”

“We have too much.”

“We could just give it away.”

“Then we would have nothing to give away. We’re selfish. We like having something to give away.”

“Maybe there’s a better way of doing it.”

“We’re old. We’ll probably be dead by this time next year anyway. And I still can’t decide whether I want to be buried or cremated.”

“God, would you stop saying depressing things like that!”

“Sorry. Maybe I haven’t had enough coffee this morning.”

“If you would just for once stop saying these depressing things.”

“Okay, okay, you’ve made your point. Cremation or burial are both fine with me. Whatever works for you. I want to make it as easy on you as possible.”

“Forget it. Let’s go invite him.”

Side by side, we steer our bodies toward him and stand over the fellow. A cold wind blows against our backs and we almost topple over on him. He looks up, a stoical expression turning frightened. He’s been left in the cold too long.

“What’s your name?” we ask.

His eyes go wide. He lifts and spreads his empty hands as if it’s a tough question.

“I know,” I say, “I know. I can hardly remember my own.”

“Stop it,” my wife says. “Do you want the man to think we’re crazy?”

“We want to offer you a place in our basement,” I say. “Just until the weather warms up. It will be a little crowded. There are already some others down there.”

His lips tremble. “You know my name.”

“We do?”

He stands, raising himself on creaky knees, adjusting the blanket like a serape thrown over his shoulder, giving him a faintly Western gunslinger look. Now that he’s standing he looks younger than I first thought, maybe in his thirties. “I lived in that basement.”

“You did?”

“I’m Jeffrey. Your son. You almost killed me off in that hell hole. You forgot about me down there and let me rot. Fuck your basement.”

He stumbles away, a certain weaving dignity to his steps. We watch him all the way to the corner, crossing the street to the next section of mall.

My spine tingles. My wife’s shoulder feels jittery against mine.

I stare after the man, though he’s already disappearing behind some trees on the mall. I lick my dry lips, set my brow in thought. “We didn’t have a son named Jeffrey, did we?”

She breathes out hard. “Stop it! Of course not. Do you want me to think you’re losing your marbles?”

I take her elbow. “Let’s head home.” My steps are determined now, forceful, I know where we are and what we are doing. A winter’s sun shines brightly. “Of course we didn’t have a son named Jeffrey,” I say. “Of course I knew that.”

The mall is beginning to pick up with people now, more morning strollers, a street magician starting to prepare his gear for the show. We have seen his show before. He can swallow a whole burning sword and pull it out his ass.

A sudden wind blows dead leaves across our path, the swirling taking us by surprise. We fall against each other. “We didn’t, did we?” Her voice is rushed, anxious. “Tell me we didn’t.”

“We didn’t.”

She’s near tears. “It’s not a hell hole. It wasn’t. Our children were happy. Weren’t they? Weren’t they?”


img_7633Sons and Mothers
By Sophia Li

Her hips sway in the way that makes gentlemen cough politely and others, those who have not been reared with proper etiquette, stare and—if they’re really looking to get their heads bashed in—whistle like she’s the star of their favorite adult movie.

Of course things never go well for the latter group because every night that goes like this continues on in the same manner: You grab them by the collar and slam them up against the nearest wall; you lighten your grip (for that split second when you can hear their gasps for breath) only to slam them back up again, this time harder so you can hear that extra crack! rip through the air as their skulls go through the wood.

By then, the bartender has called the cops, and the men in blue, protectors of the people (and yet, where were they when those men were thinking filthy, filthy thoughts about the most wonderful woman in the world?) have forced you to the ground, gripping your arms behind your back, cuffing your wrists so they can take you down to the precinct and process you like you’re an actual criminal. Like you’ve committed a real crime.

Sometimes the officer on shift, Rick or Dennis, will recognize you and sigh because it’s not the first time that you’ve done this, and they’ll threaten you with judges that condemn assault with five years in the slammer and lawsuits and punitive damages, things which cost money that you don’t have and the one thing that doesn’t relate fiscally but hits you hard all the same: Who would take care of your mother?

In the end, when they’ve finished the rant that you’ve heard a hundred times over, they’ll slap you on the wrist, and tell you to call someone to pick you up, and that they won’t book you this time, but if you ever do something like this again, you’ll be sorry. They say these words like they mean it, and you nod as if you believe them. Because anyone who has met your mother always falls in love. And that is why you keep getting in trouble.

But this time when you arrive at the precinct, Rick and Dennis aren’t on shift. It’s this new guy, and he treats you like he treats any man with a black eye and metal cuffs on his wrists. During the night as you lie on the jail’s cold metal bench, you pray to God that your mother has gone home for the night, and has not done anything stupid just because you got arrested again. You can handle jail for a couple of days, call a friend and beg for a favor. You don’t need her to suffer tonight for your sake. So you close your eyes and promise God that you will never commit a sin again if only your mother is at home right now with nothing—no one—in the bed except a pillow and that $600 maroon comforter you bought for her last Christmas. (It took you weeks working in the motor shop to make enough money for that one purchase, but the smile on her face makes it worth every penny.) And even though you don’t believe in God, your hands still fold together in prayer, and you sleep through the night with pleas for His salvation.

When you wake up in the morning, your dread reprises its spot in your mind because your mother is down here at the precinct, and she’s posting your bail. You’re let free with a court order, and when the two of you walk towards the car, you don’t ask her about where she got the money that she doesn’t have because if she does, you will kill someone. You will find that man and stab him forty-two times in the stomach, twenty-five in the face. You will hack his dick off, and shove it down his throat. So you don’t ask. Because if you do and she replies, you will be locked up for the rest of your life. You will lose everything.

That would be okay with you except for one thing: You cannot lose her.


img_6923World’s Best Grandpa
By Karin Britt Gall

Grover Cleveland Smith looked at the ‘World’s Best Grandpa’ T-shirt in Hazel’s hands. The shirt depicted an elderly man with a few wild gray hairs dotting his head and black horn-rimmed glasses. The man held a baby bottle in one hand and a newborn infant in the other.

Grover looked nothing like the man on the T-shirt. That man was white, and Grover was a black man whose belly threatened to overrun his belt.

A six-year-old child sat before him playing with her breakfast cereal. “Better drink your milk before you go to school,” Grover said, pointing to a glass sitting on the kitchen table. Kelly was his neighbor Hazel’s youngest. “It’s a long time before lunch.”

“Okay.” The child smiled up at him with clear brown eyes.

When the neighbors first met, Hazel had invited him over for coffee one morning followed by dinner later in the week. Now, they met regularly. Despite their age difference, he liked talking to Hazel and seeing her two kids laugh and play. He missed his own family and she missed hers. Her husband had abandoned them for another woman.

“Bye, Grover,” Kelly waved as she followed her brother out the door to the school bus.

“Be good today,” he called out to them.

“Look, Grover,” Hazel said, holding up a white T-shirt with a decal on it. “This is what I’m sending to the kids’ grandfather for Father’s Day. He lives in Colorado.”

“That’s real nice,” Grover said.

“I can get you one.”

“How much is it?”

“$29.95 plus shipping.”

“Nah, not right now. Rent’s almost due.”

To Hazel’s credit, she hadn’t asked any questions about whether he was a grandfather or not. Grover liked that about Hazel. She wasn’t nosy.

*

Two weeks later, Hazel was ordering the shirt for a friend, and she mentioned it again.

“It’s half-price now and free shipping,” she said. “On account of it’s past Father’s Day.”

“That’s a good deal, ain’t it?” He sipped his coffee and thought for a few minutes. “You know, I think I’ll take one of them shirts. I’ve always wanted one.”

The next day, Grover arrived for their morning coffee and counted $15 out onto the chipped Formica counter. It was a mixture of crumpled dollar bills and quarters.

When the shirt arrived, Hazel presented it to Grover. He knew he looked like a kid opening a present at Christmas. It’d been a long time since he’d bought himself a gift. It brought back memories of happier times. Before the knife scar.

He hadn’t seen his daughter and son in over 25 years. Both were married with children now. Grover tried to contact them after he arrived back in the city, but neither of them returned his calls. Their mother divorced him shortly after the trial and then remarried. He hadn’t seen his children since.

His pastor told him people made mistakes and that the main thing was to learn to forgive yourself and to change your ways. Grover had tried to do that. He read the good book every day and stayed out of trouble.

*

Today, Grover had an appointment. He opened the door of the Franklin County Rehabilitation office and gave his name to the girl behind the desk. “I’m here to see Kevin Barrows,” he said.

Grover lowered himself onto a blue plastic chair, set his legs wide apart, and waited. When his name was called, he entered the inner office and sat in a stiff-backed chair.

Barrows, a middle-aged white man with a receding hairline, smiled at Grover. They reviewed what happened since their last meeting and talked about Grover’s job as a janitor.

“I like your T-shirt,” Barrows said, pointing to the silkscreened image.

Grover knew the man was trying to use some psychobabble bullshit so he would talk more about his past. “It’s nothing. I got it on sale.”

The parole officer persisted. “I know you miss your family. I’m sorry.”

Before Barrows could speak again, Grover cut off his words. “My family is none of your business.”

Barrows leaned forward and lowered his voice. “It’s part of my job to make sure you’re happily settled. I’d like to help.”

“I’m fine. Are we done here?”

Barrows nodded. “Until next time.”

Without another word, Grover grabbed the edge of the desk in front of him and pulled himself upright.

On the way out of the building, he patted the front of his shirt. He’d be a great grandpa if they let him. He’d call his kids again tomorrow. Maybe this time, they’d give him a chance.


img_6125Shaking Heaven
By Huang Guosheng

This morning those who celebrated last night’s Middle Autumn Festival still tasted the balanced deliciousness of moon cake on their lips, though the moon had been hidden in heavy clouds because of the typhoon and rain.

In the hall of the ancestral house of Zhou Haonan, at Nawu Town, the western Canton Province, Haonan’s mother E’shen slept silently. Her corpse had been dressed in the fancy blue clothes Haonan had chosen for her. Her eyes and mouth were closed; her face was made-up and her white hair was well combed. Her expression was so calm and peaceful that Haonan felt she was just still asleep.

After one group of villagers left, another came to honor her.

Haonan walked out of the house alone. The eight restless days of taking care of E’shen, inseparable as a shadow following his body, made his step heavy, but his heart was heavier still.

He took out his mobile phone, calling a manufacturer in Shenzhen. “I’d like to purchase a glass box of these dimensions,” he said. “Two meters long, one meter wide, one meter deep. Can you also send six gallons of Formalin?” The manufacturer named a high price, but Haonan agreed to pay. “Please send my order by express delivery. It must reach me no later than tomorrow.”

Haonan’s older brother and his son had journeyed to a nearby mountain to find a place of entombment for E’shen. When they returned, E’shen’s family and villager friends stood in front of the house discussing how to manage her funeral. The older brother wanted to summon the Taoists to prepare a ceremony, but Haonan stopped him.

“I don’t want to put her in a tomb,” Haonan said.

“What do you mean?” His older brother stared at him.

Haonan was silent; then he told his brother about the supplies he’d ordered—the glass box and the Formalin. He explained that although he knew their mother had passed away, an undeniable fact, he didn’t want her to leave. He still hoped to see the figure of his mother whenever he returned to their hometown. Thus he quietly announced a heaven-shaking plan, to store E’shen’s body in a glass box, kept in the hall of their ancestral home.

As though a giant meteorite abruptly fell from the sky, family and friends were staggered by this plan and looked at each other dumbly.

One villager asked, “Aren’t you afraid her body will decay?”

Haonan replied, “I’ve researched it and, provided that Formalin is applied properly and the body well-sealed, my mother should be preserved forever.”

The older brother intervened. “A corpse lying in the hall will bring bad luck.”

“I don’t think so,” Haonan said. “Our mother will certainly protect us.”

“But no one in the history of our village has done anything like this,” one of the countryside fellows still doubted.

“Yes, but others have treated their dead parents as if they were still alive. Let me tell you two stories,” Haonan said.

He continued: “In the ancient Wei and Jin dynasties of our Chinese nation there was a man named Wang Pou from Shangdong Province, and his mother feared thunder more than anything. After his mother died, a thunderstorm was coming, so Wang Pou hurried over to his mother’s tomb in a nearby forest, consoling her, ‘Your son is here now, so don’t be afraid.’ This is the story of ‘Hearing Thunder and Sobbing in Front of the Tomb’.

And there is an additional legend of ‘Carving Wood to Worship a Parent’. Lore has it that there was a man named Ding Lan from Henan Province in the ancient Eastern Han Dynasty, who missed his dead father so much that he carved a likeness of his parent from wood. Every morning he refused to eat until he’d worshiped his ‘parent’, and he also reported to his ‘parent’ every time he left the house. It is said that later on he saw the carving shed tears … ”

Despite Haonan’s recitation of these stories, E’shen’s family and friends still didn’t agree with the strange idea of “Storing Mother in a Glass Box”. By the following day, however, his older brother became convinced of Haonan’s sincerity in wanting it done and bowed to his wishes.

In the hall of the ancestral house, E’shen slept face upwards in the glass box, covered in red shrouds. Her expression remained so calm that it seemed she was only sleeping.

Whenever Haonan returned to his hometown from Shenzhen, he could see his mother and when he did, he fell on his knees to kowtow three times with his forehead touching the ground.

Many years later when Haonan died, the villagers buried him with his mother in the same tomb in a nearby hillside so the beloved mother and son could stay together forever.

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