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writdisord

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The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

Bafler 19 (Arrow)

Heceta Head

Still Life

Portal

Placid, TX

HBK

Open

Out There

Port Window

Escape

Goodbye


Artist Statement:
I find pleasure in discovering the artifactual nature of common objects, the sacred proportions in landscapes and urban scenes, and the perfect imperfections in birds and animals.  This series of photographs taken within, and in observation of, various Pacific Northwest homes, ships, WWII coastline surveillance buildings and other structures, explores the voyeuristic nature of human curiosity.  

Bio:
I grew up in a family where something was always being made, repaired, or embellished. I earned a BA in Humanities from the University of Houston-Downtown, and have pursued art and photography as hobbies for many years.  In my native Houston, Texas my works have been included in exhibits such as “Houston Collage Underground” at DiverseWorks, and “Earth Visions” at the Museum of Printing History.  In my new home of Beaverton, Oregon, my photography and collage have featured in a “Beaverton Arts Mix” exhibit and in “#YourArtMoment”, an online gallery of works by local artists.
  
Links to Online Works:
Some of my art and photographs can be found at these links:
https://changesevenmag.com/artwork-winter-2020/#jp-carousel-15410
https://changesevenmag.com/artwork-winter-2020/#jp-carousel-15409
https://feralpoetry.net/when-im-playing-gta-and-they-make-me-shoot-an-elk-by-olivia-kingery/
https://feralpoetry.net/lemon-cream-by-peach-delphine/

Larceny

by Sandra Yauch Benedetto

Renea was tallying up the money she’d spent on exorcists when she heard the elevator gate clatter open in the hallway. The out-of-pocket total was $17,683.21, because even after meeting her high deductible she had to fight with insurance to get “elective” services covered. On the plus side, she had just enough years in her work life left to rehabilitate her retirement savings. There was a knock at the door, and three more in even succession.

Renea froze. If I don’t move, they’ll go away. Silence strummed a hollow chord in the echo chamber of her head. I will win if I keep still. She was six years old again, hiding in a coat closet at her grandparents’ house, rationing woolen Pall Mall air, so that nobody could hear her breathing. Her brother should be onto another part of the house to seek their cousin, who would be giving himself away with giggles by now. Tension stretched taut between the decades. She waited for the sound of victory in the resigned retracing of footsteps.

Instead, a man’s voice called out, Hello, Mrs. Holten? Are you there?, and Renea was again at her kitchen table, with an abiding understanding that win-lose is a false dichotomy. To the door she must go. A familiar starched navy on the other side of the peephole foreshadowed what would come next. Despite knowing at the first knock that the presence in the hallway was yet another outgrowth of the shape-shifter that possessed her daughter, dread dropped like a cannonball through her body. It tore past her clamoring heart, gutted her viscera, and plowed through the floorboards.

“What is it?” Renea asked as she opened the door.

Officer Aquino of the SFPD presented his badge and introduced himself. Placid expression, even tone, an exhalation of ennui. Whatever he’d set out to prove twenty years ago had already been sufficiently documented, uncontested, and filed. Renea waved him in for the requisite inventorying of her studio apartment. Nothing about her decor signaled that a devil had been spawned in the room — not the misshapen couch, the cheaply framed print of Dali’s Old Age, Adolescence, Infancy,a depressed spider plant hanging in the corner, or the cluttered array of candles and totems on her TV stand.

“We’re not going to press charges, but I wanted you to be aware of the situation.” Officer Aquino’s eyes finally met hers. “You might want to tell your daughter that you have to live here, you don’t want her messing with your neighbors.”

So. Casey had attempted to steal a package from the lobby. It wasn’t the gravest sin she had committed since the fiend took up residence in her body, not even close. Apparently, the sister of a woman who lived in the building had held open the door for Casey, unaware that tenants were under strict orders from the landlord to never let in people off the street. Casey’s depraved mien and shadowy movements as she slithered along the mailboxes caused the women to become suspicious. They called the landlord, who checked the security camera in time to see Casey hauling out a large box. Officer Aquino apprehended her two blocks away from the building.

He sequestered Casey in the patrol car before delivering the box to its intended recipient, a divorced dad in his thirties named Derek. When Officer Aquino filled him in, Derek said,Oh, Renea on 5’s drug-addled daughter? Nah, just tell her to get some help. Had Renea known this, she would have laughed. Derek’s limited imagination couldn’t fathom the hours she spent unearthing reputable exorcists, weary but determined to keep digging, tolerating their musky fresh-from-the-earth zeal and piling up nothing but debts and resentments.

The first exorcist was recommended by a nurse at the women’s clinic where Renea worked as Office Manager, whose niece suffered from the same affliction as Casey. He balked at the last minute, citing a conflict because he was romantically interested in Renea. He did not in fact want to date her, but believed Casey’s demon to be irrevocably entrenched and was loath to add another failure to his portfolio.

The second exorcist was a frizzy-haired baby boomer who wore her reading glasses on a chain and rubbed stockinged feet together under her desk. Her business card read Demon Management Specialist in an all-caps gothic font. She was more fixated on Renea than Casey, to the point where Renea left mid-session, grabbing her daughter and shouting, This is not a two-fer! We’re done here!

The third exorcism, conducted by a team of experts in a facility in Oakland, was too slow-moving. The preliminaries dragged on for weeks, as if one needs to become better acquainted with the soul-sucker that is squatting in one’s body before kicking it the hell out. And the jargon, my god. Incubus this, succubus that, because sex must be at the root of everything. Not that these people condemned primitive sexual desire; they worshipped it. In Casey’s case, dysfunctional sexual relationships were a red herring. Renea could have told them as much during the initial consultation. Reservations aside, Renea would have seen the treatment through since it was likely their last shot, but Casey was expelled after threatening to use the crucifixes on the exorcists in what they described as an obscene desecration of their process.

There was no need to tell Officer Aquino about all that. After he left, Renea prepared for bed. She pictured her daughter grappling with the package, hurrying down the street to wherever she was going. What was the plan? She imagined Casey sitting in the police car, worrying a hangnail or biting skin off her lower lip. What was in the box? The nature of the contents might render the petty crime either more pathetic or more forgivable. Consider Grandma’s binders containing decades of genealogy research versus five thousand pamphlets of fascist rhetoric. It was not inconceivable that Derek was a fascist. He smoked cigars sometimes on the roof. Maybe it was a humidor in the box. Useless.

An hour after falling asleep, Renea jerked awake, said aloud, Are you OK?to nobody, and gaped at the ceiling fan until she registered that it wasn’t Casey as a baby suspended in a swaddling blanket from the ceiling. Usually during these middle-of-the-night awakenings, Renea hallucinated spiders descending on indestructible threads from the ceiling. The immediate panic and protracted confusion were unsettling.

She couldn’t fall back asleep. The cool pressure of a gel mask she found in her drawer didn’t help. At the intersection of her roving mind and the pliable midnight hour, her third eye pushed play on a reverse age progression of her daughter. Starting with Casey now, at twenty-three, tall and thin, eyes too big to hold the absence of feeling, stringy dishwater hair. A limp ballerina doll that had been washed too many times with dark colors. One that on occasion was animated by demonic possession, during which her eyes became radiant and hungry and her manic smile would devour the hopes and memories of everyone in the room. As frightening as that could be, worse were the glimmers of self-awareness and contemplation in Casey’s expression. Those invariably turned out to be the work of the master manipulator, that tricky shitfuck thief that inhabited her.   

Renea rewound to see Casey as she was in middle school, the age when girls lose confidence and the lights behind their eyes dim intermittently. They are on the cusp of something wonderful or terrible, like being at the top of a gaping roller coaster. The adults in their lives are weirdly absent after so many years of being constantly present. Either that or they’re waving inanely from below, oblivious to the potential dangers of the impending plunge. Friends are on parallel but separate tracks. Some will crash, some will soar. There’s Casey, smiling nervously as the ride plummets, bright, anticipating.

That must be when the devil saw its opportunity. It knew that Casey would never be so vulnerable as she was then, alone and suspended between two worlds. Renea had tried unsuccessfully to pinpoint a time and place of entry, but one of the many things she’d learned about demonic possession was that it wasn’t necessarily a cinematic, violent overtaking. It could be an insidious creep with periods of latency. In fact, it took Renea longer than it should have to identify the demon as such, and only then because the imp had carelessly left some noxious paraphernalia lying around. Naming her adversary was half the battle, after which she drew up plans to wage war. No more pleading heart-to-hearts with a creature that has no love or empathy. The exorcists were supposed to bring the big guns, but they were not leading her out of this quagmire as hoped. Who would help save her threadbare baby?

Renea skipped back to the early days, when her daughter was solid and intact, not the flickering phantasm she’d become. Toddler Casey absorbed everything in her orbit, her gray eyes like puddles that reflected or concealed, depending on the light. Her fine hair curled at the ends. She’d been curious and affectionate, by turns silly and solemn, with a stubborn streak that had Renea biting her lip daily. During her first few years, Casey and Renea spent all of their time together. Renea could recall the moment she fully realized that they existed as two distinct people. Obviously she knew that, but she hadn’t feltit with atom-splitting physicality until one day after Casey had turned three and was setting up a picnic in her bedroom for Harry Elephante and Madeline and tiny glass pig. She was absorbed in the task of arranging, moving in accordance with her own desires, as opposed to being held or placed or guided by her mother. Renea stood watching from the hallway, struck by the thought that her daughter’s mind was becoming, and maybe always had been, unknown to her.

Renea tossed the sleep mask aside and got up to refill her water glass. In the night-light cast by the open refrigerator, her feet shone cadaver-like on the linoleum. She thought about the apartment they lived in with Casey’s dad and how she used to check on a sleeping Casey every night and how, as she quietly shut her daughter’s bedroom door, she would take her mind to the brink of the unthinkable before shutting it down with a final resolution, I would die. She would not want to live if she lost this girl, the center of her universe. Then, having indulged this darkness, this warped fantasy of abductors, viruses, freak accidents and men who never learned how to cry, she could go to bed knowing that Casey was tucked in, safe, at home.

When Casey was older, after the divorce but before the demon had a foothold, their favorite thing to do together on weekends was take the ferry to Angel Island to walk around the deserted barracks. There were no careless drivers to watch out for, no huddled reminders of how forgotten and unreachable a person can appear. Sometimes Casey confided in Renea, after they’d been walking awhile and each step on the insular loop made everything feel inevitable, including a renewed closeness between them. Renea could still feel the weight of Casey as she leaned into her on a bench overlooking the bay one clear January afternoon, their shimmery city winking at them from across the frigid water. Casey wiped away tears before they had a chance to fall and professed to never want to speak to her best friend again. Walking back to bed, Renea breathed in, remembering. The scent of Casey’s shampoo and skin mingled in her nostrils for a split second of reclamation.

She climbed back into bed and eyed the ceiling fan. Now that her pupils were adjusted to the darkness she could distinguish each blade and felt foolish that she’d been tricked earlier. Yet, the terrible feeling that she hadn’t been able to rescue her imperiled infant persisted. She wasn’t sure she had the mental fortitude to continue revisiting the past, but her traitorous insomniac brain chose to brand itself with image upon image upon image. Grimy bathroom walls airbrushed in blood. Crumbled pieces of tooth found on, not under, a pillow. Rainwater running like the river Lethe through warped streets where the demon sought oblivion.

Renea continued with the last time Casey had visited her, in the fall. Renea buzzed her up and greeted her guardedly across the anti-halo that darkened the space between them. Casey showered, ate a hamster-sized snack, and fell asleep on the couch in a sunspot. The light gave the illusion of restoring a healthy glow to a complexion that had begun to resemble potato skin. Her breathing was so shallow that Renea put her hand in front of her nose to make sure air was going in and out. She wondered for the hundredth time how to extract her foe while Casey slept. There weren’t any viable options. Coaxing was worse than ineffective, it seemed to rile up the demon. The use of implements risked harming the host, and anyway, Renea wasn’t sure where exactly it hunkered down. That’s why she’d expended so much effort on exorcists. It seemed to be the only way.

After the sun had slid off the couch and into the corner, Casey woke up asking in a voice still sticky with sleep where Sasha was. Sasha the cat had succumbed to kidney failure a few years before. In spite of herself, Renea wondered if Casey’s question was reason to hope, a tiny crack in the demon’s scabrous skin.

Renea had spent years treading over the same recriminations and fears, furrowing her brain with the question of how exactly she had failed Casey. It boiled down to two possibilities: she’d loved her daughter too much or too little. Now, on this night not unlike many that had come before, it became clear that her reasoning was flawed. She had fallen for another illusory choice. She loved Casey enough. It was impossible to love a child too much. The question was, how had she loved her? I would die. Three words skulking in the fog as she closed Casey’s bedroom door every night.

A cry caught in her throat. That was it, then. All along, Renea had stockpiled worry as a means of fortifying their castle, so they’d be ready for whatever calamity the world threw at them. But worry was corrosive. It was her fault their castle became porous, with thousands of tiny holes for the invader to seep through, and now it was crumbling.

She flew to the bathroom, rummaging through the standalone medicine cabinet she kept in a corner. Pepto Bismol, ibuprofen, band-aids, aloe vera, hydrocortisone cream, no, no, no. There were no potent pharmaceuticals, lest the possessed one was on the prowl. Cotton balls, hydrogen peroxide. Maybe? Keep looking. Syrup of ipecac! Disregarding the brittle warning label, she removed the cap from the brown glass bottle and drank until it was gone. Take that.

What to do for the next thirty minutes until the ipecac did its job? She thought about chasing away the bitter taste with a glass of wine, but wanted to savor her enemy’s demise. Besides, Pinot Noir might not be a good look once she started throwing up. She could get dressed, but it was 4 a.m. and what was appropriate attire for a self-induced exorcism, anyway? Wielding a symbolic instrument couldn’t hurt. No crosses, please, not that she owned one. She scanned her TV stand and decided upon Casey’s dusty glass pig.

She didn’t have to wait the full half hour. The expulsion started eight minutes after she downed the bottle and she spent the next fevered hour hunched over the toilet in a litany of rank purification. Renea gloated at the indignity of the demon’s exit — all of her tremblings, pits, and shivers, all the wrong what ifs, backward glances and aborted plans, sucked down into the literal gutter. Outside, the city sparkled. Sirens heralded ninth hour salvations. Tonight, there would be a winner and a loser. Her demon, that had been living in her bowels like undetected cancer, biding its time, feeding on her cynicism and fear, was about to be expunged forever. Only after fixing this could she help Casey. Christ, she thought, that Grandmama Addams exorcist actually knew what she was talking about.

Spent, Renea lay on the tiled bathroom floor, glass pig in hand. Desperate to remain undiscovered, knees pulled up to her chest and upper back rubbing against her grandpa’s scratchy coat, Renea heard a crescendo of sirens. Something terrible was happening to somebody right now and here she was, alone. How quickly her fervent desire to remain hidden had twisted into an urgent need to be found. She unfolded the accordion door and peered out. She expected her brother to be on the other side of it. Instead, she found him with their cousin playing jacks on the kitchen floor. They hadn’t even been looking for her.

Casey was somewhere nearby. She’d been in the building mere hours earlier. The demon slipped up by permitting her to get this close to Renea for the first time in months. Its hold on her is weakening. Renea’s own demon disgorged, her stomach felt sublimely vacant. Come back to me, sweetheart. I know what to do. You invite your friends and arrange the picnic and everything will be wonderful. We will learn how to be brave.

She slept. As the sun came up, the sparkling crown of the Bay Bridge and the halo of Coit Tower dissipated. Alcatraz materialized as a poignant chiaroscuro on the water. The green parrots of Russian Hill squawked their good mornings. The sound of the buzzer penetrated her sleep.


BIO

Sandra Yauch Benedetto is a Chicago-adjacent mom, sometime teacher of high school students, and perpetual seeker of sunshine. She adheres to science and her dog’s gaze. She likes to write short things.








Jupiter

by Jen Knox

Every dream a slip of a thing,
a sojourn into the ordinary, coveted past
until a deep quarantine sleep
pulled Jupiter toward our small Midwestern town.
Every step heavy, I trudged toward it.
The planetary pull, cartoon-like.
Its gravitational force
targeting a particular part of me,
leaving the rest enchanted but confused.
I rolled over to check the news, the charts,
the trends, and I stared out of my window.
As so many of us have. At 5 a.m., I saw Jupiter,
a slip of a thing with Saturn in its gaze.
Surrounded by stars in a sharp, dark morning sky.
And I felt hope.


Wait


The line for irregular, black shirts takes ten minutes. Forty-plus adults take single steps as stomachs hum. Necklines hang like hula-hoops.

At lunch, there is only a half-hour. A half-dozen ham and cheese. Now there’s just cheese. Thirty-plus adults with lettuce and cheese. Blankets are fibrous and prick the skin.

Warm lettuce means peeling wilted green bits off the tongue or swallowing slimy leaves whole. The tinfoil makes a perfect, silver ball. Silver balls are thrown, kicked.

Orange cheese and loose-necked shirts with twelve minutes to spare. Silver balls between blankets are reminiscent of Christmas tree bulbs.

For bus tickets, hands remain in pockets, eyes toward the street. There’s something slippery about mobility, so many remain. Those who stand take single steps. Patient steps.

Twenty-plus remain. Activities remain. Dance last week, art next, poetry this. A young teacher looks as though she is speaking to blind kittens. She closes her eyes and recites poems. She opens them and offers a writing prompt as pens and paper are handed out.

There is nothing to put the paper on. The concrete works best. The pen navigates tiny hills on the page. First come colors: purple, green, silver, and orange. The pen suggests the salty taste of ham that almost graced the tongue that was too many feet from the front of a line.

The pen moves beyond this. The pen moves much faster than the feet.


Imprint


Our shadows introduce themselves
& regulars grumble when a top set of teeth bared,
even though we all know to grab the back legs.

The dogs run in transient packs, as squirrels rustle tree leaves
& fall moves downward on a slow-moving swing.

We kiss the air when it’s time to go.

The world should know we were here, too, but our scents hug tight
& we are left to share words and walkways, to scratch the same furry heads.

The imprint of my shoe finds yours.


Canvas


I was dulled longer than you, so when I lost my sight, I wasn’t shaken.
Glass seals well, blurs lines and clarifies sight, so I wore
a glass dress & glass shoes, until you arrived with science and a string.

I felt the etching of sharp lines and gentle curves, the quiet power
beneath the watery surface & had reason to shatter beneath you. You,
with your collage of circumstance. A papier-mâché from elementary foretold.
A careful collection of porcelain shattered & glued created a map.

You described it all. You told me how, but I still struggled until I realized
the texture had to be rough to be felt, to be interpreted as anything at all.
My fleshy thumbs drag against surfaces, forever searching for the right word.


BIO

Jen Knox is an Ohio-born writer, meditation instructor, and the founder of Unleash Creatives. She is the author of Resolutions: A Family in Stories (AUX Media), After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press), which was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and The Glass City (Prize Americana for Prose winner). Her short work recently won the Flash Fiction Magazine‘s Editor’s Choice Award for 2020 and other writing can be found in The Best Small Fictions (edited by Amy Hempel), The Adirondack Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Little Fictions, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, Poor Claudia, Room Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Jen is currently working on her first novel.
Jenknox.com

Birthday Surprise, 2003

by Lourdes Dolores Follins

“Ma, whaddya wanna do fur yer birthday?” I nervously ask my mother. Her fifty-fourth birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks and I am calling to find out if I need to take the day off to spend time with her. She still lives in our hometown, Staten Island, N.Y., while I live in Brooklyn—only fourteen miles apart, but a world away. I’m half hoping Mom says I don’t need to miss work. I nervously play with my short, black two-strand twists and wait with bated breath as I walk into my bathroom. Glancing at my smooth brown skin in the chrome-rimmed medicine cabinet mirror, I adjust my nose ring.

“Oh, I dunno,” my mother comments. Somehow, she manages to make a two-syllable word (‘dunno’) have three syllables.

I’ve been asking Mom the same question every year for the past four years, and each time, she seems surprised by my question. Four years ago, when I turned thirty, I realized that if I wanted our strained relationship to improve, I had to be more accepting of her and be the one to make the effort to change it.

As a child, I was a satellite in my mother’s world, soundlessly orbiting her. Mom often worked overtime at her job as a psychiatric nurse so that she could send me to parochial school. That meant she was usually either sleeping or getting ready to go to work when I came home from school. The few times we were around each other, Mom rarely spoke to me. She raised me to speak when spoken to, so I learned to be silent. I interpreted Mom’s silence as disinterest in me and because she often complained about being tired, I studiously stayed out of her way. A voracious reader, I secretly wished that Mom was like those White, middle-class mothers I read about in the Judy Blume and Nancy Drew books she bought for me each month—warm, doting, and attentive. I assumed that she too, believed in the stories in those books and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. So, I worked harder at getting good grades.

Before I started contacting my mother for her birthday, I barely called her because we have nothing in common except being Black women and even that we experience differently. Mom is a Baby Boomer who never discussed race and racism with me, while I, her Generation X daughter, constantly fumed to friends about the racial microaggressions and systemic racism I faced at the historically White schools my mother worked so hard to pay for. As a result, I always think about race and racism. I imagine that we’ve both experienced racial discrimination and microaggressions, but Mom’s response is to ignore them and work harder, while mine is to call out people and fight back. An example of this was when I was called a nigger, the ten-year-old version of me cussed out that little White boy the best I could. When I told her about it, Mom simply shrugged her shoulders and said, “People are stupid.”

But the main reason I barely speak with my mother is because she rarely calls me. I’m not sure if it’s because Mom doesn’t want to talk to me, she forgets about me, or because she’s busy with work and other family members. However, when we do talk on the phone, the ‘conversations’ tend to be soliloquies for her. This is a continuation from my childhood—all of our conversations revolved around her: her work, her life, her thoughts. But I am working to change our relationship and making the effort to spend time with her for her birthday is part of that process.   

As a result of those books and 1970s television shows, I subscribed to the societal belief that every daughter should want a good relationship with her mother. But by the time I turned thirty, I’d accepted the fact that we would never be like those White TV families. As working-class Black people, we had more important things to focus on, like surviving in a borough that didn’t want us there and working twice as hard to get half as far in work and in school. I wanted our relationship to improve not out of obligation, but because it was the right thing to do. As a Black woman, I believed it was my duty to foster a relationship with Mom in a world where we are all we have. Also, I look like my mother: I have her almond-shaped eyes, oval-shaped face, and very expressive eyebrows. Even though she annoys the heck out of me, how could I not have her in my life when I am constantly reminded of her when I look in the mirror?

So, today I pace while Mom thinks.

“Whaddya mean, you don’ know?” All my life, I’ve worked hard to suppress my Staten Island accent because I think it sounds ugly and coarse. It reminds me of the anti-Blackness I experienced from White Staten Islanders. But when I’m speaking with my mother and I’m frustrated (these two things often go hand in hand), it slips out. Staten Island-ese sounds like a cross between Brooklyn-ese (think Saturday Night Fever, Do the Right Thing, or Just Another Girl on The IRT) and New Joisy-speak, but a little slow-a.

“I dun-no.”

“Ma-a-a-a-a-a-a!” Exasperated, I try another route. “Well, if you could do anything for yer birthday, what wouldja wanna do?” I’m still pacing.

“Oh, I dun-no…”

“Ma, yuh know we go through this every year, right?”

“And every year, I dunno what I wanna do for my birthday. I know what I want for my birthday, but I nevah know what I wanna do for my birthday.”

“Well, whaddya want?” I ask with trepidation, even though I know what’s coming next. I put my hand on my Gladys Knight forehead, as if it will ward off the impending headache.

“A million dollas!” With that, Mom cracks up. She has made herself laugh so hard that she doesn’t even notice that I’m not laughing at the same old, tired joke she’s been making for years. I roll my eyes, hold the phone away from me, and stare at it incredulously for a minute. Then, I sigh.

“If you could do any-thing for yer birthday, Ma, what wouldja wanna do?” I ask again, hoping this time will be the charm.

“Hmm. I nevah really gave it that much thawt.”

“Give it some thawt now, Ma. We can do whatever you wanna do. We can go wherever you wanna go, and you can have anybody you want present.” I plunk down on my futon and sit cross-legged. I glance over at my orisha altar and silently ask Obatala to give me strength and patience. Conversations with Mom are like walking with a toddler—slow-moving at times, wandering to whatever topic catches her attention.

“Oh…” she responds finally.

Mom has never considered the fact that she can choose who to spend her birthday with. I know this is foreign and radical to her. I give her this option because my mother is still angry with my dad for losing their rent-to-own home last year. My family had lived there for twenty-four years and, in keeping with their overall lack of communication about challenging topics, Dad didn’t tell Mom that he fell behind in the rent. As a result, they were evicted. I figure not being with Dad will make her birthday easier for all of us.  

I can hear the cogs of Mom’s mind turning through the telephone wires. At times, they creak as if they haven’t been oiled in years and at other times, they quickly glide against one another.

“I wanna go to a casino,” Mom says.  

I shake my head, astonished. In the process, my hair shakes a bit and my large silver hoop earrings gently slap the side of my face.

“A ca-seeno?! You wanna go to a casino fer yur birthday?” I stop myself from climbing on a soapbox about gambling and pissing away one’s money because I did say that if she wanted to do something, go somewhere new—besides going out to eat at her usual spots, Perkins and Charlie Brown’s—I would go with her.

“Okay, Mom. We’ll go to a casino. Who do yuh wanna to go with, besides me? It can be just the two of us or you can invite anyone else you like.” I half expect her to say that she wants Dad to join us because they go almost everywhere together.

“Nobody.”

“Hunh. Okay, do you want to invite any of your friends?”

“No.”

I am relieved. The prospect of spending the day with Mom and her girlfriends would drive me to drink. They’re nice enough, but my mother doesn’t seem to know any other reserved middle-aged women; her friends talk non-stop and they would talk at me. In her friend group, Mom is the quietest of them all. There’s Pat, a boisterous African American woman who laughs so loud that God covers their ears; there’s Beverly, a garrulous Jamaican woman who’s always got some rip-roaring tale about her family members, and then, there’s the other Pat, an Irish American woman who claims to be a witch. Of course, all of these women are psychiatric nurses like my mother.

“Is there any particular casino that you’d like to go to? One that you’ve visited before or have wanted to visit?”

“No. I mean, I’ve been to Atlantic City and that’s fine.”

My face involuntarily wrinkles in a disapproving frown. Hmpf. You can go there any time! If I’m going to schlep to a casino, it betta be someplace we can explore togetha, I think to myself. Because Mom lives in Staten Island, she can get to Atlantic City in two hours. Less, if she’s driving with her usual ‘lead foot.’ 

“How about we go somewhere you haven’t been?” I ask.

As if on cue, the catchy jingle from the 1996 Mohegan Sun casino commercial pops into my head. “Moe-hee-gun Sunnnnn!” The first time I saw the commercial in the 90s, I thought, “Oh, cool!” But then I realized that it was land owned by the indigenous Mohegan people in Connecticut and I was ambivalent about the fact that an Indigenous tribe needed to make money through casino ownership. Questions about reparations for Indigenous people and the morality of facilitating gambling addiction, alongside images of busloads of barely ambulatory senior citizens clutching walkers with those greenish-yellow, Wilson tennis balls on the bottom, and smoke-filled rooms ringing with the cries of people losing their life savings danced in my head. Shaking these images out of my mind, I suggest we go to Mohegan Sun and Mom is game. She’s not usually an adventurous type, but if she’s driving, she’s down to go almost anywhere.

With that, it’s a done deal. Mom and I are going to spend the day together, at a casino! I’ve never been to a casino before because they’ve never appealed to me and even though it’s my idea, I’m nervous about spending the entire day alone with my mother. Did I mention that my mother doesn’t really talk with me, that she talks at me, without pausing or coming up for air? It’s as if she’s throwing pasta at a wall and seeing what sticks.

Most of the time when we’re on the phone, I take a break by gently laying down the receiver while she’s talking and walk away to tend to something more pressing (cooking, dusting, folding laundry, etc.). When I pick it up again, I’m sure Mom didn’t even notice that I was off the line (she never does). But driving together for almost three hours is daunting because I can’t remove or shut off my ears, jump out the car window, or anything subtle like that. No, I’m going to be stuck listening to my mother talk at me for almost three-long-Gawd-forsaken-hours. Alone. Did I mention that we’re going to be alone? I just want to make sure.

***

The day of Mom’s birthday, I call her soon after I awaken at around 6:45 am, because I’m fairly certain she’s awake.

“Heh-low?” Mom sounds groggy. I doubt she’s slept soundly. Mom sleeps with the TV on; she says she listens to it while sleeping.

“Hi, Ma! Happy birthday!!” A few years ago, I began what I think is a cute tradition where I call my mother twice a year—once for her birthday and once for mine—to wish her a happy birthday. Mom never seems to fully get it, but she always humors me, says, “Thank you” and then falls silent. In keeping with said tradition, that’s what happens this morning.

“Whaddya doin’?” I’m trying to be chipper. I’ve prepped and psyched myself up for this trip for the past two weeks. I talked to all the people in my support system (i.e., those to whom I have complained about Mom’s emotional coldness and seeming indifference about my life): my girlfriend; my closest friends; my spiritual godmother; and various people from my 12-Step fellowships. They all assured me that this would go well, or if it didn’t go well, it wouldn’t go too badly. Honestly, I expect the latter.

“Oh, just watchin’ the news,” Mom replies.

“Where’s Dad?”

“In the living room, I guess.” I imagine her shrugging as she says this. The living room is so close to my parents’ bedroom that she can hear if Dad is there. I decide not to probe about Mom’s lack of interest in Dad’s whereabouts. Since the eviction, Mom doesn’t have a kind word to say to or about Dad; it seems as if he can do nothing right in her eyes. This breaks my heart as Dad is the parent who taught me things (chess, using hand tools, cooking, gardening) and let me ask questions. Although Mom provided for my material needs, Dad nurtured me in his quiet, patient way.

“Okay, so are we still goin’?” I ask with crossed fingers.

“Yeah,” Mom affirms.

Drat! I think to myself.

Why? Did somethin’ come up?” Mom asks. She almost sounds like she’ll be disappointed if we don’t go.

“No, just checking. What time do you wanna meet up?”

“I’ll pick you up at eleven.” I know that really means eleven-thirty, noon.

“Okay! See you then, Mom.”

***

Like clockwork, Mom picks me up at noon. It’s just above seventy degrees, so I’m wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of navy-blue sneakers. I’ve got a tan, lightweight jacket, my Nikon camera, and a few toiletries in my forest green backpack. As my mother pulls up in her navy-blue car, she’s smiling a bit.

“Hi, Ma!”

“Hi,” she says weakly. She stiffens as I give her a peck on the cheek. For years, I thought Mom didn’t like it when I gave her a kiss. I’ve since realized that she freezes up and moves away when anyone (except young children) is physically affectionate with her.

“I printed up the directions, so we’re good to go!” And with that, we’re off! With WCBS-FM playing in the background, I direct my mother to the first leg of our journey.

“How’s Cassandra?” I ask. Mom’s relationship with my twenty-year-old sister has grown progressively worse over the years. There’s a fourteen-year age difference between my sister and I, so we’ve never been close. Although Dad and my sister had a great relationship, my parents only found out that Cassandra was expecting because my mother snooped in her things. By then, she was seven months pregnant with my niece, Kira.

“Oh, yuh know… she’s workin’ fifteen ‘ours a week at Sears. She’s makin’ signs and puttin’ them up around the store. She seems tuh like it.” Mom shrugs and frowns.

“Fif-teen? Why so few hours?” Since my sister isn’t paying rent and doesn’t have to buy anything for my niece, I figure she can save money so that she can move out of our parents’ home. In my mind, she’s taking advantage of them.

“Oh, I dunno. Yuh havta ask her. But she took Kira to see Gabriel and his family.” Gabriel is my four-year-old niece’s father, but he and Cassandra broke up soon after she became pregnant. My parents didn’t even know my sister was dating someone, let alone that she was having sex. “And, she’s been disappearin’ for ‘ours and then, comin’ back like nothin’s happened.” Mom sounds indignant.  

“Ohhh.” Glancing over at her, I notice Mom’s thick hands gripping the steering wheel a bit tighter. Her nails are freshly painted in Fire Engine Red, but her cuticles are dry and cracking. Her Jheri curl is as moist as a freshly baked, Betty Crocker Bundt cake. Two short, dark brown hairs sprout from her jawline and a few gray hairs insistently peek out from her dyed, ear-length bob. My eyes get wide and I gulp. The situation doesn’t sound good and I’ve avoided giving my parents advice on how they should handle it. I steer the conversation to neutral territory—the song playing on the radio. It’s Nelly Furtado’s, “I’m Like A Bird.”

“Hey! Didn’t this song win a Grammy last year?”

“Oh, yeah! It did.” Significant discomfort averted. For the next two and a half hours, Mom and I chat about her job, Kira’s capers in daycare, the latest thing Dad did to piss her off, my mother’s friends’ drama, and wherever else my mother’s mind goes. Much to my relief, it’s a relatively smooth conversation. Mom typically only sees her friends two or three times a year (even though they live in the same borough), so Dad ends up being the person she talks with the most. However, she’s still pissed at him, so she vacillates between berating him and chatting with him as if nothing happened. It occurs to me during the ride that talking with me provides Mom a much-needed outlet, so even though it’s draining for introverted me to be ‘on’ for this long, I oblige her. It is her birthday, after all.

When we finally reach the casino, Mom parks the car, and calls Dad to let him know that we’ve arrived. While she does this, I take out my little digital camera and start snapping pictures of her and the place so we can have something to commemorate the day. I’m twisting and turning like Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Gordon Parks, trying to capture the way the sun’s rays land on my mother’s nut-brown face. Mom rolls her eyes at my antics as she adjusts her oversized denim button-down shirt over her grey t-shirt. She hefts a navy-blue tote bag over her right shoulder as she holds her cellphone to her ear. Her gold-tone eyeglasses sit perched on the bridge of her angular nose. I never noticed until now, but Mom stands upright like a solider—with her feet about a foot apart.

“We’re heah! Everything okay? Whaddya doin’?” she inquires, rapid fire. I don’t know how Dad does it. The way Mom asks him questions, it’s like he’s completing an oral obstacle course.

“Oh. Okay,” she replies. I suspect Dad said something satisfactory to Mom, for there is a smile creeping across her face. I exhale a bit. It’s become difficult for me to spend time around them when they’re together, because it’s too brutal and painful to watch. Mom is harsh and scathing, while Dad says nothing in response. The rare moment he snaps back—like a snapping turtle awakened by a child’s prodding—seems futile in comparison to Mom’s vicious verbal attacks. It wasn’t like this when I was a child; Mom was civil then.

“Alright. Well, I’ll give you a cawl when we’re leavin’. Bye.”

My right eyebrow creeps up on its own accord. I’m surprised that there was no badgering, no snide comment about how “pitiful” my dad is. Mom seems…peaceful, placid, like the man-made lake alongside the casino. I seize the moment and ask, “You ready tuh go in?”

“Yeah,” Mom says eagerly, as she stretches and arches her back a bit. That slight smile remains on her face as she steps forward in her black leather Reeboks and her navy blue, polyester elastic waist pants. She looks as if she’s heading in to do a shift at the state psychiatric hospital where she’s worked for most of my life. Her house keys, car keys, and some keys from work all dangle and clank against one another from the royal blue fabric lanyard keychain around her neck. I smell the flammable Soft Sheen Care Free Curl Gold Instant Activator—even though I’m standing four feet away from her—and am trying not to gag. I am well acquainted with that smell, having had a Jheri curl when I was in high school in the 1980s. Twenty years later, Mom is still hooked and loves the look.

As we walk into the casino, I notice the stacked stone veneer on the walls and the lit metal sconces. All the colors in the casino are muted, as if we’re in the desert. That is, a desert that’s actually a resort, with hundreds of slot machines and table games, several poker tables, forty-seven bars and restaurants, multiple nightclubs, a hotel, a spa, a golf course, a planetarium dome, concert and sports venues, and thirty-four shops. There are lights everywhere—bright lights, flashing lights, dim lights, and for some odd reason, strobe lights.

“My gawd! I hope there aren’t any epileptics here, with all the strobe lights.” As a nurse, Mom always notices the medical aspect of things. Meanwhile, I’m agog by the never-ending line of boutiques chock-full of gorgeous things. I’m a sucker for jewelry and nice clothes; I suspect it’s because Mom was never into those things. Both my grandmothers are clotheshorses; Mom is a workhorse. I’m a cross between the two, a workhorse trying to be a clotheshorse, but never quite succeeding. As I flit from store to store, oohing and ahhing, Mom chuckles with her hands folded behind her. After about two minutes, I realize she’s not even remotely interested in any of these things, so I flit back to my mother’s side like Black Tinkerbell and steer her towards what we came here for: the casino.

Once we enter the first casino room, Mom is in her element and I’m getting whiplash, looking from side to side, up and down. I quickly notice that almost all of the people here are middle-aged or senior citizens. There’s an East Asian posse of seniors with canes and large, colorful twenty-ounce plastic cups filled with something that’s making them guffaw and smile broadly. Just past them is an equally large group of Black senior citizens channeling the 1970s, wearing matching t-shirts, baseball caps, berets, and jeans, giggling with glee as one of their own has just struck it big. On the other side is a gaggle of White senior citizens in velour lounge suits chattering to each other, as they pull down their slot machine levers in sync. The only people under forty-five are Indigenous workers and me.

“Whoa!” I exclaim. “I had no idea…!”

“Whaat?” Mom asks. It’s also really loud in here. I make a mental note to check my hearing when I get back home.

“I had no idea so many…older people come to these places!” I’m not sure what the lingo is these days—‘old people’, ‘older people’, ‘senior citizens’, ‘elders’, or something else—and am trying to be respectful.

“Oh, yeah! They spend hours, even days heah. They come by bus!”

Just as I suspected, I think, pursing my lips in disapproval. “Hunh.” I eye the elders, looking them up and down, trying to figure out their deal. Where on earth did they get the money to be here? And what happens if they lose it all? I wonder. But it’s too loud for me to think clearly and too dimly lit for me to see much.

As I ponder the politics of the place and grimace at the intermittent mournful cries, Mom finds a slot machine at the end of an endless row of them and whips out a little black Le Sportsac bag. I inch closer, peer over her right shoulder, and realize the bag is filled with quarters.

“Ma! Ma!! Ma-a-a-a!!!” I shout until my mother hears me over the din.

“Whaaat?” Mom barely gives me a sidelong glance, transfixed on her mission.

“Can I have some?” I meekly point to the bulging bag.

“There’s a change machine ovah there,” Mom gestures over her left shoulder. This is the same woman who’s never given either of her children a sip from her cup or a forkful from her plate. Why on earth did I think she would spare some change?

“Okay.” I trundle off glumly to the change machine. I warily gawk at everyone I see seated in front of hundreds of slot machines that fill a room that has the size and acoustics of an auditorium. “Cling-ca-ching! Ding-ca-ching! Clunk-a-dunk!” These sounds bounce off the walls in supersonic stereo.

After getting thirty dollars’ worth of quarters, I wander back to where my mother is seated. Serendipitously, there’s an empty machine right next to her. It’s obvious that Mom’s done this before: her eyes barely leave the screen as her hand dips into the bag of quarters, picks up a quarter, drops it into the slot, grabs the lever, and pulls it down. A broad, toothy smile fills the bottom half of her face, as the light from the machine emits an eerie glow onto Mom’s face, making her look like a zombie. I don’t know whether to be horrified or awed, so I silently mimic her actions. Unlike Mom, I’m not numb to each successive loss of a quarter. It feels as if pieces of me are dying each time. I grimace, groan, and barely manage to stop myself from falling onto the floor, bawling in the fetal position. This goes on for two solid hours. Mom and I seated side by side, both losing money—I am the first to call ‘uncle’.

“Ma? You hungry?” I plead to God that she is; I’m not sure if I can take much more of the overwhelming sights, sounds, and loss of money.

“Not really… but I do havta go tuh the bath-room.”

“Hunh. Well, I’m hungry and tired. This place is wearing me out, Mom.”

Mom chuckles and flashes a smile. “Shucks! Just when I was about to start winnin’ again.”

I blanch at the thought that I took my mother away from a winning streak on her birthday, so I ask her if I am taking her away at a bad time.

“Kinda… I lose some, then I win some, then I lose some, and I keep playin’ ‘til I win it back. I was just beginning the part where I play to win it back.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mom!”

“It’s okay.” Mom glances at her gold-tone, stretch wristwatch. “We should be heading back soon anyway. It’ll be dark soon and I wanna avoid traffic.” And with that, Mom gathers her things, meticulously and unhurriedly. As she turns to me, I notice she walks like a grizzly bear—slow and heavy.

We leave and grab something at a McDonald’s on the way home because it’s her favorite restaurant. The car ride back to New York is smooth and easy, as I ask Mom questions about her previous experience at casinos. As she talks, there is a light in her eyes, and she looks free. I’ve never seen Mom look free before and I am taken aback by both the image and the realization. At some point, she mentions Dad and something he recently did that pissed her off. Feeling emboldened by the ease and levity of our conversation, I take a chance and ask Mom something we’ve never discussed before.

“Ma, do you love Dad?” My breath catches, for this is a question that I don’t know the answer to and I don’t know what possessed me to ask this. A pregnant pause follows as Mom’s mind registers the question.

“Yeah?” she replies as if she is half-asking herself.

“You do?” I’ve never seen my parents show any verbal or physical affection towards each other or talk about one another in even remotely loving ways in the twenty-eight years they’ve been together. I’m beyond shocked.

“Yeah….” Mom shrugs her shoulders as if to say, ‘I can’t explain it, but I do.’

“Hunh.” I’m not sure what to say now since we don’t discuss feelings in my family. But another question tumbles out of my lips before I can stop it. “Did you love my father?” I’m referring to my biological father, the man who co-created me. “Dad” is my stepfather, the man who raised me.

“Oh, yeah! Even afta he made me have an abortion.”

My head jerks involuntarily so that I’m staring at Mom’s profile with the sun setting behind her. “What?”

“He made me have an abortion after I had you.” Mom says this off-handedly, as if she’s talking about what she had for breakfast this morning.

Another question forcefully pushes past my lips. “How many have you had?”

“Two. One with your father, and the other with Harold before Cassandra was born.” Harold is Dad’s name.

Feeling as if I’ve been punched in my stomach and all the air has been sucked out of the car, I lean back in my seat and quietly hyperventilate. I didn’t know that my mother had any abortions, let alone two. As someone who’s never had an abortion or seriously considered giving birth, I can’t imagine Mom as a young woman making such a life-changing decision, nor can I imagine what it was like for her to undergo this procedure as many times as she’d given birth—twice. I catch my breath and stare out the window, barely noticing the lights from the storefronts and strip malls we pass on I-395.

As I collect myself, I recall that in my sophomore year of high school, Mom woke up early one weekend morning and quietly rushed around before leaving the house.

“Where you goin’? It’s seven o’clock in the morning!” I asked. I was reading the Sunday comics in the living room. Mom isn’t a morning person, so seeing her moving around so quickly and so early in the morning was unusual.

“To Washington. There’s a march,” she replied, as she grabbed a tote bag and her jacket. Mom only walks to and from her car, so I couldn’t imagine her marching anywhere, with anyone, for any reason. Sixteen-year-old me stood with my mouth agape, watching Mom brim with excitement. Mom’s pretty impassive most times and hardly ever looks excited about anything. It was odd.

Bringing myself back to the present, I ask, “Hey, didn’t you go to some march when I was in high school?”

“Yeah, the March fer Women’s Lives in ’86. It was organized by NOW.” Mom responds, as she looks at the road. The lights on the highway are all we have to guide us now.

“Wow! You marched?” I gaze at my mother in awe.

Mom chuckles. “Yeah, for a bit. But then I got tired, so I stood on the sidelines and listened to the speakers. It was thrilling!”

“Wow. I had no idea.” I murmur, turning back to look out the window. “You are full of surprises, Mom.”

Mom laughs and says, “I don’t know about that….”

I do.”

I’d learned more about my mother in one day then I’d ever learned in the thirty-plus years that I’d known her. All this time, I’d only seen her as someone who loved her job more than she loved her children. I never considered Mom’s inner life or what her life was like before she had my sister and me. Clearly, I really didn’t know my mother. The word ‘love’ was never spoken in my parents’ home. So to hear Mom say that she loved the two men she’d only ever been with is both jarring and oddly reassuring. Weary from the day, I lean back in my seat and ponder what to do with this new information and more importantly, how it will change how I see Mom from now on. 


BIO

Lourdes Dolores Follins is a Black queer woman who comes from a long line of intrepid women and working-class strivers. She’s been published in Rigorous, Watermelanin, What Are Birds, HerStry, Feminine Collective, Writing in A Woman’s Voice, Writing Disorder, and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she works as a psychotherapist with QTIPOC and kinky people. Check her out at www.lourdesdfollins.com





Sainte Chapelle

by Joanna Milstein

“It has to be breakfast,” I told Laila, although this was categorical and unfair, since it was Sunday and it was nine pm, and we were on the Upper West Side, generally understood to be a culinary wasteland. The navy-black December air chomped away at any exposed patches of our skin not shrouded by nylon feather-filled coats. My orange jacket kept my core warm, but the extra layers of downy lumps made me feel like a bloated, artificial bird.

“My mom also recommended this great Italian.” Laila said. “We should try it. I read the review and it sounded—”

“Breakfast. I want pancakes with maple syrup and American coffee and a glass of orange juice. With pulp,” I said.

We settled for a tiny French bistro. Laila and I had studied in France together, a happy time in both of our lives, so it made sense. I ordered coq au vin and Laila had branzino en papillot. Because sometimes you had to make compromises. I ordered a glass of the cheapest red wine on the menu.

“Do you remember that restaurant in Paris where I had the branzino?” Laila asked when our food arrived. “The restaurant was a tiny box, and there were murals on the walls? That was the best branzino I ever ate.” I didn’t remember, and anyway branzino wasn’t a French dish, but it didn’t seem like the right time to mention that.

“Don’t remember,” I said, looking down at my chicken thigh swimming in thick red-wine reduction with glassy onions and fat, round mushrooms.

“What would your father say, if he were here? I wonder what he would say.” Laila’s father was dead. I had loved him. I still blamed myself for not calling enough. It had been two years but Laila and I were always only three seconds from tears at any given moment.

“Can I have a sip of your wine?”

“You know you shouldn’t,” I said. Laila was three months pregnant. A few months ago she’d had a miscarriage.

Laila took a deep breath and held it as long as she could. It wasn’t easy for her. She’d gone to a New York private school and then a fancy college and graduate school where she’d won prizes. She’d been an acclaimed photographer, whose photographs had been exhibited in prestigious art galleries. Now she was pregnant and uninterested in taking pictures. She reminded me of an injured angel, ethereal, out of place in our modern, terrible world. Recently she had moved to LA with her husband, although she missed New York. Even the winters. Earlier that night she had told me, “I miss hibernating. I miss overhearing casual conversations about politics and literature. In LA, all the conversations I overhear are some variation of ‘Where did I park my car?’” I disagreed with Laila, although I didn’t tell her. I thought if I could only move somewhere warm I would buy a couple of sundresses and spend the weekends sitting by some anonymous, plastic pool and never miss winter again.

I had helped Laila get dressed on her wedding day, on a bright and sunny summer afternoon, over a year ago. Her mother had been shouting at her all day and her older sister, Fran, was upset that Laila was getting married. Every time Fran started to speak, she would start crying. “I’m just so happy for La-a-a-ila,” she would sob. So it was up to me, matron of honor, to tuck Laila into her white ballgown dress, covered in cupcakes of tulle and lace. Once the dress was on, she asked me to rub this water-soluble concealer cream all over her back to cover up her acne. (“It’s backne,” said Laila. “Get it?”) I was in a hurry and did a messy job and then tried to blot the flesh color off of the white gown, but that only made things worse. I hoped the stains could be photoshopped away.  

Laila had chattered on. “The concealer hides everything. It’s the stuff they use on porn stars,” she’d said to me. “Little known fact.” I had zipped then buttoned up the back of the dress. All of this had transpired in a small room near Laila’s mother’s bedroom that had been Laila’s father’s study in their house on a small stretch of beach that overlooked the Long Island Sound. Laila had pointed to a velvet pouch sitting on a ledge in the corner across from us. “Dad’s ashes, in an urn in there,” she said. “We’re burying, or perhaps I should say we’re dispersing him, later tonight, or maybe tomorrow. On the beach. Next to his favorite view. He’ll have it forever.” The wedding was beautiful. Laila kissed the groom before the ceremony even started, and she cried the whole time, when she said her vows and after that. Later that evening I gave a soppy speech about the first time I had met Laila (we were 9, we knew at first sight that we were destined to be best friends, we didn’t see each other for eight years after that, but as soon as we saw each other again it was the same as before, as it had always been, not unlike true love). I drank a bottle of tequila, I danced until my feet hurt with the tall best man, who had a Ph.D. in psychology. We talked academia through dinner.   

“Are you okay?” he asked me, when he saw me swallowing another shot of Patrón. I thought I was being discreet.

“Fine. Just fine,” I said.

“It’s worse to watch your friends get married,” Laila told me, as the evening pulled to a close, around 3 am. I was dancing with her Uncle Fred at that point, because he reminded me of her dad. “More traumatic, I mean. Why do you think I scaled that lighthouse on my own the night before yours?” She asked. I frowned. I still hadn’t forgiven her for that.

“My dad? My dad would be horrified. I’m glad he’s not here,” Laila said, soaking up the last drop of the red branzino sauce with a hardening piece of sourdough. “To see it, I mean. To see that man. Our president. To think.”

“I don’t want to think. I prefer not to think,” I said.

“Let’s talk about Paris,” she said.

“Do you remember when you gave the tour of the Cathedral of Saint Denis to those French tourists? When they thought you were their tour guide?”

“But they never paid me. I can’t remember why.”

“Maybe they paid online beforehand? Anyway, no one describes medieval tombs quite like you do. Remember our afternoon at the Musée D’Orsay? I finally saw the Luncheon on the Grass. And all those heavenly Monets. And Van Gogh’s Self Portrait. There must have been so much promise in 1900 when it was built, before the First World War. Before the world fell apart. Then they put it back together, so—”

“That’s not how it was. I only agreed to go because you begged me on your hands and knees. You claimed the D’Orsay was your favorite historical site in Paris and then had that panic attack and we had to leave after twenty minutes. And the museum, for your information, opened in 1986. It was a train station to before that.”

“There were so many people I couldn’t breathe. I never told you the D’Orsay was my favorite. I said Sainte Chapelle was my favorite place in Paris. I knew the original function of the building for the D’Orsay had been a train station. You never came to Sainte Chapelle with me, the royal chapel. Those high vaulted ceilings and the kaleidoscope of stained glass. Did you know there are over a thousand stained-glass windows? Did you, with all your knowledge, know that? I don’t understand why you never visited Sainte Chapelle with me.”

I did, of course, know about the stained-glass windows. I could have given a lecture about Sainte Chapelle in my sleep. And I remembered seeing the pictures Laila had taken of both the exterior and the interior, majestic images that had featured prominently in her 2012 solo exhibition at an art gallery. But as to why we had never gone together, I couldn’t recall.

Some years earlier, I had gone to Paris for the summer to conduct research in architectural history. Laila, who’d had a few free months before she had to start art school, accompanied me. She had planned to take French classes at the Alliance Française while I worked in the archives but most days she slept in. Anyway, her French professor was obsessed with moral philosophy and the criminal justice system. The fifth day of class, she had asked the students: If they were in a sinking boat and had to save only one of their classmates, which one it would be? This hadn’t helped class camaraderie. The seventh day of class, the professor took the group on a field trip to a local courthouse and they watched a multi-hour murder trial. Laila described making eye contact with one of the defendants, his expression of crystallized fear. She dropped out shortly afterwards. Laila didn’t feel like the class was helping her French, but I disagreed. She had acquired an unusual vocabulary. One day she asked me who, out of our mutual friends, I would save from a sinking boat.

I said I didn’t know. “You? Of course you. What do you want me to say? Being trapped on a boat on the open sea is one of my only true fears. Especially at night. Absolute nightmare material.” It didn’t make sense to Laila. She had gone sailing every summer since she was five.  

Without a class to go to, Laila walked around the city taking photographs infused with her habitual sensitivity and elegance, while I spent my time shut up in several Parisian archives and libraries, those magnificent gilded cage-temples of higher learning with lifetimes worth of unpublished and unlimited primary sources. Intense intellectual work increased my lust for life, which occasionally spilled over into lust for people. The more arduous the labor, the worse it got. While waiting to see documents or books, I sometimes fantasized about dragging someone, possibly one of the librarians, with me into one of the deserted carrels.

A musician I knew was teaching in Paris over the summer. We had dated a few months earlier when we had both been in New York, but had just as quickly given up. Our temperaments were similar. Selfish. Stubborn. But as we were both in Paris, fooling around seemed obvious and convenient. The musician had rented a fifth-floor walk-up similar to mine, and only a fast metro ride away. I liked to show up and ring his buzzer, unannounced, after the libraries closed, and then after we had finished I would have the rest of the evening free. It was July so unless he left the windows open, the apartment turned into a sauna. I was loud, partly for the release and partly for the performance-aspect. He said I had a voice like a soprano but I’m pretty sure that was just a line. I still cringe when I imagine him telling all this to his friends, and what the neighbors must have thought.

“When you came home at night your hair and makeup were always a mess, but you looked happy and relaxed.” Laila said.   

One weekend Laila and I took a trip to the countryside and I gave her detailed and exceedingly enthusiastic tours of the castles in the Loire Valley. She filmed the tours and asked me a lot of questions, acting as the narrator. As we stood on a balcony at the Castle of Chenonceau overlooking the arches, which extended out into the picturesque River Cher below, I explained that French courts in the early modern period had been peripatetic because the court routinely tossed their refuse in the moats, and therefore they had to move often, especially in warm weather. At the Château de Blois, I showed Laila the Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medici’s bedroom.

“Catherine was a skilled stateswoman, but her great passion in life was architecture,” I said on camera. “In a different era she might have been an architect. The construction of the Pont Neuf, the oldest, and in my opinion most beautiful, bridge in Paris across the river Seine began during her lifetime, and it is said she supervised its creation.”

“I remember the Pont Neuf—I crossed it on my way to the Île de la Cité, on the day I went to see Sainte Chapelle for the first time. Gorgeous bridge. I took more than a few pictures there. I had no idea a queen was involved in building it.”

“In addition to her architectural endeavors, Catherine was a wife and widow, and mother to 10 children, all of whom tragically predeceased her, save one, who was assassinated 7 months after she died. She died in this very room,” I said.

“Getting goosebumps,” said Laila. “Sorry. I meant to say, can you please tell our viewers at home the story of Catherine de’ Medici’s final hours?”

“It was strange.” I said, taking a step back. “The Queen Mother had heard years before from an astrologer that she would die beside Saint-Germain, so for years she avoided her castle of Saint-Germain-En-Laye and the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, any place with the name Saint-Germain. In 1589, as she lay ill her confessor walked into this bedroom. It wasn’t, however, her usual confessor. It was a much younger man whom she had never seen before.

‘What is your name, son?’ the Queen Mother had asked.

‘Saint-Germain, Madame. My name is Julien de Saint-Germain,’ he had answered.”

Laila filmed all of this, but has since lost the footage, and it’s a shame, because I’ve forgotten so much of what I used to know.

On Bastille Day, July 14, the anniversary of the French Revolution, the archives and libraries in France are closed. Laila and I had interrupted our shooting and studying and gone out to dinner in an outdoor garden in Pigalle where rats scurried back and forth between courses. We ignored them. After dinner we’d met up with an old French friend of mine, Charles, whom I hadn’t seen in years before I had randomly bumped into him on the escalator of the Centre Pompidou a few days earlier and we had made Bastille Day plans. He brought another friend, Étienne, with him. Open air parties were held all over the city and there were fireworks. The four of us went to one of the parties, which featured semi-undressed firefighters for no apparent reason, and spent the night dancing and drinking cheap champagne. I never admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, but I had been hot for Charles those years ago, although we were never friends like that.

We’d watched the fireworks and Charles had suggested we play truth or dare, also known as action ou vérité in French. When it came to the truth question, Charles and Étienne had wanted to know what Laila and I had done together, sexually speaking, and when the answer turned out to be ‘nothing,’ they had dared us to kiss. It all felt fun and familiar. Then we’d made the guys make out with each other, then we had made out with each of the guys. Charles had reached his hand under Laila’s shirt and I noticed.

Charles had invited us back to their apartment but we had declined. We haven’t spoken to those two guys since. All four of us are married, now, and married people try not to remember these kinds of things. Charles and his wife just had a baby, or so I’ve seen on Facebook.  

The night before we left Paris, Laila and I treated ourselves to overpriced ice cream sundaes at the famous Café de Flore, where the round, green café tables, the white awning with the green letters, the grumpy waiters with white aprons, were the same as they’d been since Hemingway used to drink there in 1921. We sat outside. An older woman with bleached hair and thick black circles traced around her feline eyes appeared wearing a black cocktail dress, slightly shrugged off her shoulders. “Just wait. She’s going to do her Edith Piaf impression,” I whispered to Laila. And within a minute the woman took a small gray stereo and speakers out of her bag and put it on the floor in front of her. She began to croon La Vie en Rose.

“Wow,” said Laila.

“Told you,” I said.

“Our Parisian swan song,” Laila said. And so it was. Her father first became ill while we were away that summer, and he never fully recovered. But he loved to hear our stories. The ones we told him. His own father had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and Laila used to go there, sometimes, when she was feeling low, in an effort to reach out a hand to the past. On his deathbed, her father had asked Laila to tell him, once again, about our summer in Paris, so she had told him a few last anecdotes. Les autres sont reléguées au passée.

“Let’s write a script,” said Laila, “and perform it out one night at dinner in a crowded restaurant. And then people will hear us. It’ll be an experiment. An artistic experiment.”

“But Lai.” I said.

“Yeah?”

“We’d be performing without an audience. No one else cares.”

“So what?” she asked. “It’ll be for us anyway. It’s always is.”

“Lai,” I said, moving my fork to the edge of the plate. “It’s no use.”

“No use?”

“We’ve been adults for a long time now.”

I finished my wine and Laila finished her water, staring into our phones, the void, other patrons but we didn’t look at each other, not for a few minutes. I looked at the cracked wall, patched up with band-aid posters of Nouvelle Vague films. I used to collect such posters to decorate my college dorm room. I liked to think of myself as being worldly and avant-garde back then, when I’d only been to Paris once.

“I should take you home, L. Your mom will start to worry. We can split a cab.”

In the cab Laila clutched her stomach. “Look how fat I am. I can’t fit into those Paris clothes anymore, and I can’t afford to buy new ones.”

“You’re not fat, L.”

“You’re not pregnant. Lucky you,” she said, and clutched a roll on her swollen stomach.

When we got home Laila’s mother was waiting at the door. She threw her arms around me.

“I gotta pack,” said Laila. “Leaving tomorrow at 7.”           

Laila’s mother, Randy took my coat and draped it on the couch. “Let me give you a tour,” she said. She had moved to a smaller apartment at the tip of the Island of Manhattan, Battery Park. Laila had taken photographs of the neighborhood after 9-11, one of her earliest projects. “There’s my old building,” she said, pointing out one of the windows. It was dark, but I could see the lights over the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty, and Randy and Laila’s old apartment building. She brought me into her bedroom, where I saw the pictures of Laila’s dad, Thomas.

Laila came in and interrupted us. She was wearing only a bra. Her stomach wasn’t so swollen.

“Look at me, I’m a triple D!” she said, cupping her breasts with her hands. I remembered how she used to stare at herself in the mirror in Paris, how she used to say “Aren’t I pretty? I feel pretty.”

“Your boobs are enormous,” I said.  

“You would know, you saw them every day in Paris.”

In her bedroom Laila told me that Randy had started dating again. “Look after my mom, will you, when I’m back in LA,” she said. I said I would.

We stayed up all night waiting for the sunrise, to see the Hudson and the

buildings that surrounded it on all sides. Randy and I walked Laila down to the lobby and Randy gave her money for a cab. Randy asked if I wanted to come back up for a drink.

We sat upstairs looking out at the glowing city, and Randy poured us each a glass of wine. “There was a time when Laila asked me if she should marry some rich guy and have babies, and I said no. She had won awards in grad school, and her show of Paris photographs had just premiered. Laila was, is, such a gifted artist. She could’ve been a big name in New York right now. If she’d stayed. Now she’s pregnant and her husband wants her to stay at home, and definitely not lug all that heavy equipment around town in the heat. Maybe I was wrong, Randy. Was I wrong?”

“All I can say is I’ve never seen her as happy as she is now. She’s going to be a wonderful mother. It’s what she’s always wanted, in her heart. Did she tell you what’s she’s been doing out in LA? She’s a social worker. An unpaid social worker. She could’ve been a saint in another life, she has this talent for dealing with sick and needy people. A talent I don’t have.”

“I don’t have it either,” I said.

“You have other talents. I just hope you’re as fulfilled as Laila is, or that you will be, someday,” Randy said, and although she meant it nicely, I think, it made me feel wistful. In a way she was right, I was still searching for something Laila had found. She was grounded, satisfied, but I hadn’t changed. She was the artist, so why was I still the restless, rootless one?

“Laila’s got such a big heart,” I said, simply. “How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?”

Randy looked out towards the Statue of Liberty and I did, too. If we had made eye contact we would’ve both started crying. “The hardest thing might be the finality of death. You know, I haven’t given up on the idea that he’s going to walk through the door one day. I keep waiting,” she said.

I had no reply. We shared memories for the next hour, and then I said goodbye, promising I would call her soon, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t.

“Thanks for being such a good friend to Laila,” she said. “Paris changed her life, you know. She’ll never forget the time she spent there together with you. That solo exhibition, it was one of our proudest moments as parents, and I’m so glad Thomas was alive to see it. He was very grateful, he told me. He wanted you to know.”

“Laila’s my best friend,” I said. It was cold and windy, but I walked home. I undressed and got into bed.

Lying down with the curtains drawn, I thought of Laila standing in front of Sainte Chapelle, the only place we hadn’t gone together in Paris, even though it had been her favorite.

Laila, alone, staring up at that regal façade, her black hair illuminated under a halo of a thousand glass rainbows.

BIO

Joanna Milstein is a New York-based writer and historian. In 2019, she received her MFA in Fiction from NYU, and was awarded a scholarship to the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She holds a PhD in History from the University of St Andrews. Her thesis, “The Gondi: Family Strategy and Survival in Early Modern France,” was published by Ashgate in 2014. She is currently working on her first novel. 




Tricky Friend

by Natthinee Khot-asa Jones and Hardy Jones

When I started kindergarten, Father bought me a new school uniform: a navy-blue skirt and a white dress shirt. All of the girls in my school wore this uniform and all of the girls had the same haircut: short bangs in the front and a bowl-cut on the sides and back. Also, the boys had the same haircut—a crewcut—and uniform: brown short pants and a white dress shirt.

The female teachers had an official uniform that they wore on certain days such as when they had parent conferences or a government leader visited. But on regular days they wore their own clothes, usually a skirt with a split in the front or the back. I was impressed with how beautiful the teachers’ skirts were and wondered if I could ever dress like them.

One day after school, I didn’t change out of my school uniform and played with my best friend Na. We played in our homemade playhouse under a tamarind tree. Na asked me: “Do you want to have a beautiful skirt like our teachers with a split?”

Na’s question reignited my dream to dress beautifully.

I immediately told her: “Yes, I want to have a dress like our teachers.”

“I can make a split for you.” Na said and took me to her house.

She went inside the house and returned with small black scissors that her mother used to cut her hair.

I was excited to have a split in my skirt; it would make me feel beautiful and grown up.

“Would you like to have the split in the front or the back?” Na asked and smiled.

“May I have one in the front and one in the back, please?” 

Na bent down and used the scissors to slowly cut the bottom of my skirt. “How about two inches?”

“Good. I like it.”

“Do you still want to have one in the back?” Na asked.

“Definitely!”  I turned around.

“Beautiful. This looks like our teacher’s skirt,” Na proudly proclaimed.

I was happy with what Na did for me. We played a few more hours, and then I went home to see Father.

When I entered the house, Father immediately looked at my school uniform.

“Come here, baby girl.”

I stood in front of him and smiled.

“What happened to your skirt?” Father asked and bent down to inspect my skirt. 

“I wanted my skirt to have a split like the teacher’s skirt. So Na helped me. Isn’t it beautiful, Father?”

“Na cut it for you or you cut it yourself?” Father’s tone was harsh.

“Why are you so angry at me?”

“Just answer my question. Did you cut your skirt or did your friend cut it?”

“Na cut my skirt.”

My answer saddened Father’s eyes. He looked down and took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure if he was disappointed because my skirt had a split or if he was disappointed because I allowed another person to cut my skirt.

Father straightened up and looked in my eyes.

“Your school uniform should never be cut like the teacher’s skirt. You are not a teacher or an adult. You can’t wear a skirt with a split. This is not right.”

I realized that I had done something stupid again and made Father sad. I lowered my head and was afraid to look him in the face.

“I’m so sorry, Father.”

“Your skirt is cut. How can you wear it to school? No student in your school has a skirt split like a teacher, and you should not cut your skirt for any reason.”

I didn’t answer but kept my head bowed. I felt so guilty.

“Did Na cut her skirt too?” Father asked.

“She cut mine only,” I said quietly.

Father’s face turned red and his tone grew harsher.

“Your friend tricked you, don’t you know? A few weeks ago she tricked you to eat her boogers, and today she tricked you to cut your school uniform. You should know what’s right and what’s wrong!”

I could tell that Father wanted badly to spank me, but he knew that I was naïve enough to be tricked.

Whatever happened to me, good or bad, Father always blamed himself. He never spanked me but only talked loudly to me when I did something wrong. Father knew that he didn’t have time to raise me like families with two parents did their children. Father tried his best to work and support all of us and teach us to grow and become good people.

Father went to the market and bought me a new skirt. He asked my oldest sister to patch up an old dress for me to wear around the house. I didn’t get to play with Na for a few days, and when I did ask Father if I could play with Na, he told me: “Don’t let your friend trick you. Do you understand?”

“Yes. I will protect myself.”

Those were Father’s final words about Na and her tricky ways.

Later, when I was thirteen-years old and in my first year of junior high school, Na was in her second year at the same school. After her father passed away, she quit school and worked full-time with her family, taking care of her family’s water buffaloes. One weekend I went to take care of my family’s water buffaloes on the south side of the village and saw Na.

“Do you like school?” Na asked.

“It’s ok. Not too bad.”

“If you don’t like school, why don’t you quit like me? It’s more fun to take care of water buffaloes than to go to school.”

I thought about her advice. It sounded good for a person who didn’t like school, but for a student like me who loved school (after my rough start, I became fluent in Thai, made many friends, and enjoyed learning), it didn’t sound good.

“No,” I said. “Taking care of our water buffaloes is fun on the weekend, but I want to get an education so I can have a good job. I don’t know how to work in the rice fields like my brothers and sisters. Education will help me get a good job.”

Even though I went to the rice fields with my family, my job was to cook delicious food for them and take care of the water buffaloes, a job Father and my siblings didn’t like. That’s why Father assigned this job to me along with cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These might be hard chores for other adolescent girls, but for me they were the best jobs ever.

“Silly, girl,” Na said. “A junior high school diploma won’t help you get a good job. You need to get a college degree.”

“Well, first I have to finish junior high school, graduate high school, and later go to college,” I said.

“I don’t think you can do it. You don’t have any money. Poor country girls like you and me, we will never get degrees. Sometimes you need to accept who you are,” Na said.

“I accept that I am a country girl and that I am poor, but it is free to dream, and I dream to have a college degree. Don’t you have a dream?”

“Nope, I don’t dream of anything. Just live day to day.”

That was the last day I talked to Na in our village. I didn’t see her for more than two years. I found out that she went to work at a plastic factory with her oldest brother in Prapadeang, a city near Bangkok. After I graduated from junior high school, I too worked in Bangkok, and even ended up working with Na at the plastic factory. I was only 15 years old: too young to get a good job. Our time at this factory was fun but it held no future.

Our job was to cut the plastic into smaller sizes to be shipped. We worked 12 hours per day, 5 days per week. We were paid 100 Baht per day (about $3.15 per day) and if we worked on Sunday, we were paid double. The job’s only benefits were that it provided you with a room that included utilities—electricity and water. We bought our own food. Early on, I liked the job, but when I thought about my future, I knew this job was not good. I needed to work where they provided benefits like healthcare, life insurance, and a retirement.

Today we hear a lot about the exploitation of child labor, and that was what this job did to Na, me, and thousands of other Thai teenagers. As time went on, I kept telling Na that I didn’t want to work weekends. Instead, on the weekends I wanted to go to school to get an off-campus high school diploma (GED). Na didn’t like my idea. She repeated constantly how much she hated school.

I only worked with Na one year and then I got a job with an American company (Seagate Thailand). This company was good; they provided great benefits and were ranked as a top 50 company to work for in Thailand. An important element at Seagate Thailand was that they would assist you with your education. When an employee took GED classes, the company paid for a teacher to come to our company and conduct classes. I earned my high school diploma in less than two years.

After I graduated, Father passed away. I resigned my job and went to a Business college in southern Thailand for two years, receiving my Associate’s degree in Accounting. After graduation, I returned to Bangkok to work with a Japanese company. I had a good job with great benefits, and I appreciated how education helped me move up economically and professionally.

One weekend, my sister wanted Na to join us in her Bangkok apartment to cook and hangout. I was happy to see Na again. She worked in a different factory and earned a set salary with no overtime or benefits. I tried to convince Na to go back to school, but she wouldn’t listen. Same old Na: live day to day.

After lunch, Na and I agreed that we would take turns pulling each other’s under-arm hair—we never shaved our armpits like farang (Western) women. I pulled her under-arm hair first, and when I lay down for her to pull mine, she said, “I’m tired. I don’t feel good.”

“Are you ok? Or you just don’t want to do your turn?”

“I just don’t feel good. I’ll do it for you later.”

Same old Na: tricky ways.

Although she tricked me, as a friend I forgave her; but I would never let her trick me again.

After that day, I didn’t see Na for more than five years. I considered Na my friend, but I categorized her as only my childhood friend. As adults, she didn’t seem like a friend; I couldn’t trust her with all of my heart. I just hope she does not treat others the way she treated me.

Tricky ways create bad karma.


BIOS

Natthinee Khot-asa Jones is a memoirist, novelist, and short story writer publishing in Thai and English. She is a country girl from the Thai side of the Thai-Cambodian border who grew up speaking Cambodian, Thai, and Laotian. In 2001, she graduated from Sophon Business School in Thailand, and later attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Auburn University, and the University of New Orleans. Her English publications include the memoirs Wal-Mart Girl, When I Was a Child, A True Story of Child Labor. She is the co-author of the story collection Coconuts and Crawfish, and the novel International Love Supreme. Please check out her books at https://www.amazon.com/Natthinee-Jones/e/B089G9GH8R/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_1.

In addition to being a writer, Natthinee is a photographer, and one of her photos was used for the cover image of the “Family Secrets” (Issue #44) Sugar Mule Online Magazine. In 2006-2007, she was a Laotian translator and interpreter for Louisiana’s Folklife “New Populations Project.” For this project, her husband Hardy Jones received a research grant to write about Songkran, the Buddhist New Year’s celebration in the Laotian community of Lanxang outside of Lafayette, Louisiana. The essay and photographs from their research are on the Louisiana Folklife website. Natthinee loves cooking Thai and Cajun food, and in 2006 her Phad-Thai recipe was featured in the Wal-Mart Family Cookbook. Organic gardening is her newest passion, building on her childhood experiences on her family’s farm in Thailand. Her website is www.natthineeandhardy.com.  She is the co-founder and the Webmaster of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com).

Hardy Jones is a Creole/Cajun educator and author in New Orleans. He is a two-time Pushcart Nominee, the author of the novels Every Bitter Thing, International Love Supreme, the memoirs People of the Good God, Resurrection of Childhood, and the story collection Coconuts and Crawfish. He is the co-author of the memoirs Wal-Mart Girl, When I was a Child,and A True Story of Child Labor. Please check out his books at this link https://www.amazon.com/Hardy-Jones/e/B00494EAS6/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_2. His creative nonfiction won two grants. His stories were anthologized in the 2009 Dogzplot Flash Fiction Anthology, The Best of Clapboard House Literary Journal, Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, and Summer Shorts II. He is the co-founder and Executive Editor of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com). Hardy holds a Ph, D. in American Literature from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis, and a M.A.T. in Secondary English Education from the University of New Orleans. He taught in universities for 18 years and is a certified teacher. His website is www.hardyjoneswriting.com and he is on Twitter @HardyJonesWrite. Hardy splits his time between New Orleans, Louisiana and Si Sa Ket Province Thailand.



He Left Early

by Emily Newsome

“This is where we’ll anchor.” 

She looked toward Jay as he killed the houseboat’s engine. “Here?” 

“Yeah, it’s perfect. Right between the mountains, no one around for miles…”

Her heart thundered as he trailed off. The spot he’d chosen on the lake was secluded indeed. An inlet pooled between white-clay, sandstone mountains surrounding them on all sides, stood stark against the clear black water. Like a canyon turned lake, in the middle of nowhere.   

“I bet we’ll get a perfect view of the sunset, right here.” He held up his hands, making a square with his fingers.  

She nodded, allowing a tight smile to splay across her lips. “Can’t wait.” 

“What is it?” He frowned, his dark brows knitting together. 

“Nothing, I’ll go get the girls.” 

“Sophie, Mia!” Her voice rang through the tiny houseboat. The soft patter of running feet followed. “We’re anchored.” 

“Can we go swimming?” Sophie asked, bouncing from foot to foot. 

“I already told you, it’s too cold for swimming,” said Mia, her older sister. 

“But I want to swim!”

Kristy looked down into Sophie’s young, hopeful face. “It’s too cold for swimming, sweet. But there are plenty of other things to do.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like play board games or… tag!” She gently tapped her daughter’s arm, dramatically turning to run outside onto the deck. Mia followed suit as Sophie whined, “Hey! That’s not fair!” 

Jay watched his wife and children run around the deck, playing chase.

“Play with us dad!” 

“Yeah, play with us!” 

He shook his head. “Not right now girls.” 

Kristy slowed her steps to glance over at Jay. “Come on, play with the girls for a little.”

He looked at her from across the deck where he was seated. “Not right now, I’m enjoying the lake view.” 

“Well, maybe I want to sit and enjoy the view too. But I’m playing with the girls, before I have to get dinner ready, unpack, and make sure everyone has what they need for bedtime.”  

Jay rolled his tired eyes, sliding a hand through his hair. “You really wanna do this right now?” 

“The whole point of this vacation was to spend time as a family.”  

“We just got here.” 

“Yeah, and already I’m the one having to take care of everything. While you sit there.”

“What have you had to take care of? I drove the boat, I anchored us! I mapped out the whole trip—” 

“This trip was your idea!” 

Sophie and Mia stopped playing.  

“Mom, it’s ok. We don’t need four people to play.”

Mia’s light, tiny hand grasped her own, pulling her back toward the game. Letting out a sigh, she turned back toward her daughters. Plastering on a smile, going through the motions. Pretending to be content, to be happy. 

She lay beside Jay that night, waiting for sleep. Her eyes began to flutter close, the desire for sleep pulling her down.

“Come here,” Jay said, sliding his hands over her body. “I’m sorry about early today.”

Silently, she turned into him, the warmth of his body suffocating. 

“You know playing with the girls is hard for me. My dad never did those things.” 

“I know.”

“You know?” 

“It’s fine,” she corrected.  

The tension tightened in the room. But after a moment, she felt his mouth press down on hers, hard. He didn’t ask permission. He never did. Even if he had, she’d likely given in anyway to save herself the trouble.

As he rove his hands through her hair in the darkness and over her body, she focused on the holes in the wood paneling of the ceiling, her mind numb. She thought about the icy black water they floated on while he thrust faster, his breath quickening. The whites of his eyes glistened in the darkness. She arched into him just the way he liked. Her urge for it to be over mistaken for pleasure. She let him flip her over, reveling the brief moment he pressed her face into the mattress and she couldn’t breathe. Mia and Sophie’s faces flashed in her mind. Delicate and slack with sleep in their bunks. She held on to them, a reminder of something good that had come from Jay. From them. From this.

When he finished, he peeled himself off her. 

“Night,” he said. 

She held the tears in her eyes and swallowed back the tightness closing around her chest. “Night.” 

~ ~ ~

She took another sip from the glass, the smooth wine gliding down her throat. She looked across the table at Jay. After two days of walking on eggshells around each other, she could see it in his eyes. Tonight was going to be one of those nights. The girls knew it too, as they anxiously chewed their food, swallowing loud. She set the wine glass back down. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said. 

“Then how did you mean it?”

“I just meant, maybe you’re overreacting.”

Jay slammed the fork down on the table sending the dishes clattering. She jumped in her seat. Sophie started crying.

“Stop crying!” Jay yelled. “All you do is cry!”

Sophie cried louder. 

Kristy reached across the table to comfort her daughter. “Do you want to finish dinner in your room?”

Sophie nodded through her tears. Mia too.

“Ok, go ahead.” She glanced sideways at Jay, watching the girls grab their plates and head to their room on the boat. She shook her head. “Every vacation.”

“What was that?” Anger laced his voice.

“I said, do you have to ruin every vacation?”

His eyes widened, his face red with rage. “Nothing has been ruined.” He locked eyes with her. “We’ve been having a fine time.”

Casting her eyes down, she knew it was pointless. She finished the glass of wine, the silence thick and heavy between them, then rose to start the dishes. Her hands shook as she gathered up the unfinished food and plates, the boat tipping slightly back and forth as she walked. Her cheeks flushed from the wine she knew she shouldn’t have had. Just a few more nights on this boat, and they could go their separate ways.

She turned the sink on, listening to the water hit the metal basin. Gripping the counter to not stumble.

“I’m sorry.”

She looked over her shoulder at Jay, her mouth in a firm line.

“Just,” he brushed a hand through his hair, “don’t talk about my father.”

“I wasn’t talking about your father.” Or she hadn’t meant to. But in that moment, she couldn’t look past the similarities.   

“Can you ever just apologize?” 

“For what?”

“You say you hate fighting, especially in front of the kids, but then you do this shit.”

She turned the water in the sink on, hotter and hotter, then plunged her hands into the scalding heat, her eyes tearing up.

Jay shoved his chair back and stalked over to her. “Just apologize, I’ll forgive you, and we can forget about it. Continue having a nice vacation.”

“I’m sick of apologizing for nothing.”

His eyes widened at the sink. He grabbed her wrists, ripping them out of the steaming water. “What is wrong with you?”

She ripped her arms out of his grasp. “Don’t touch me.”

“Don’t touch you?”

“Don’t touch me!”

“You’re my wife!” 

She felt his hands tighten around her wrists, pinning them against her chest. He forced her back against the wall. “As unfortunate as that is.”            

“Stop.” 

She let her eyes lock with his. How had she ever loved this broken shell of a man? “Let go of me and I’ll stop.”

“That’s not how this works.”

“Let go of me,” she spat.

Anger flared across his face, every muscle in his body tightening. He grabbed her under the chin, forcing her to look at him. “You are making me angry.”

“Oh good, you’re trying what the therapist recommended.”

“At least I am trying.”

“I’m not the one who needs therapy.”

“Will you just stop!”

She felt her head ricochet off the wall as he shook her. Felt herself disconnecting from her body, her voice turning low and cold. “I’ll stop when you let go of me.”

“Mom?”

All the air went out of the room. Jay released his grip enough for her to rip away.

“What is it?” 

“I want to go home.” Tears threatened to spill from Mia’s eyes as she hid halfway behind the corner of the wall.

“We—”

“We’re not going home,” Jay said.

She ignored him. “Everything’s alright sweetie. We can leave tomorrow morning.”

“We are not going home,” Jay walked over to Mia. “We are spending the week on the lake as planned, and everyone is going to have a good time.”

Mia looked between her parents, confused and scared.

“Why don’t you go start packing up your things and getting ready for bed?” 

“Do not pack your things,” Jay seethed. “Your mother had a little too much wine tonight and is confused. We are all just going to get ready for bed, and then start a new day tomorrow. On. The. Lake.”

Mia shied away from Jay as he knelt down to brush a stray hair from her forehead.

His eyes ripped to his wife’s ashen face. “Now you’ve taught them to be scared of me?”

“You did that all on your own.”

“So I’m not allowed to touch my wife or my children?”

“Mia, just go get ready for bed with Sophie.”

Mia hesitated, looking into her mother’s eyes. 

“Now.” She jerked her head. 

Mia turned quickly, back into the safety of the small bedroom.

She tried to ignore the look on Jay’s face, the sympathy that threatened to bloom inside her chest for him.

“I’m going to bed.” Was all he said, as he turned away, defeated, retreating toward their tiny bedroom on the boat.

Her feet remained planted.

“Are you coming?” 

“I need to finish the dishes.”

~ ~ ~

The wind was cold as it brushed ripples across the dark water. Undistinguishable, was the separation between horizon and water in the blackness that engulfed everything.

She sagged against the railing.

She could jump over. What would it feel like to plunge into the frigid water? To have her body found a week later? If it was found? Lapping against the shore. Bloated and discolored.

She could almost feel the frigid, black waves and icy water rushing down her throat. Filling her lungs.

“You’re still up?”

She started at the sound of his voice. 

“Didn’t mean to scare you.”

She turned back out toward the water. “We need to talk.”

“I know. I’m sorry—”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I thought you said you wanted to talk.”

She let out a long sigh. “I want a divorce.”     

“Look, I know we’ve been having issues. I know I’ve been going through a lot lately and it’s not easy being with me. But I’ve been working really hard on my anger and the issues with my dad—”

“I want a divorce.” 

There was a long silence that wrapped around them. She could feel his eyes boring into her back, hear his breathing hitch as he battled with himself to remain in control. 

“We’re not getting a divorce,” he said. 

She turned to leave, wanting to be anywhere he wasn’t.

He grabbed her, threatening to bend her over the railing into the deep water below. “You think this is something only you get to decide?”

“Let go of me!”

“We are not getting a divorce!”            

She refused to let any fear seep into her eyes, keeping her expression blank as she shoved him back. He was so much stronger than her though, so much bigger. 

“Yes Jay, we are.”

~ ~ ~

Kristy struggled to stand, pulling herself up with the railing of the balcony. The world swayed around her as she stood and touched her forehead. Her fingers came away slick with blood.

Jay. Where was Jay? 

She leaned over the railing, searching the water below. There was only darkness. It had happened so quickly, she almost couldn’t be sure he’d really— but he had. She stumbled across the deck, reaching for the life-ring and struggling to untangle the rope, when she heard him somewhere in the distance.

“Help, help me!” he choked, the freezing water taking his breath away.

She imagined him fighting against the numbness and tingling, the tightening of his lungs desperate for air. Would he be able to see the vague figure of the boat, visible against the night? There was a ladder on the back deck. He could swim to it. But would he remember it? She knew his body would be slowing, the water chilling him inside and out. 

“Come on, come on,” she begged. Her shaking fingers ripped frantically at the ropes holding the raft to the railing. Knowing how cold the water was; there wasn’t much time. 

Finally, she got it free, falling back from the force. She tried to stand but failed. Her head pounded, her vision fading in and out. 

“Kristy, please!” he called, “I’m sorry!”

She imagined he was sorry as she crawled her way over to the other side of the deck where he’d fallen. Regret and fear were probably racing through his mind, knowing he had come outside to apologize but instead, had let the words die on his tongue. Their last moments together spent fighting, him hurting her—

Had he even kissed Sophie or Mia goodnight?

“Where are you?” she yelled.

She waited but heard no response. The night grew eerily quiet beside the pounding pulse in her ears.

“Jay!” she called.

“Kristy!” 

She couldn’t tell where his voice was coming from so she threw the raft overboard, praying it’d find him.

Waiting for a tug on the rope, or a sign of movement, she called again. “Jay!”

There was no response.

She reeled in the raft and threw it over again in a different direction. And again, farther than before. How long had it been since he fell? She should jump in, find him. Save him. She raced down the deck stairs around to the back of the boat, but a wave of nausea ripped through her. She covered her hand over her mouth, the world spinning, as she lowered herself to the ground. Leaning against the railing, she gasped for air. 

Then it dawned on her. He’d almost killed her. She’d probably be dead if he hadn’t fallen into the water. And the water—it was too cold. It had already been too long, and she knew. The chances of finding him in the darkness…

As the wave of nausea subsided, she slowed her breathing, shaking away the adrenaline coursing through her veins. She looked up into the night sky scattered with twinkling stars. 

The sky was beautiful. Her breath echoed in her ears, sending puffs of mist into the cool night.

She didn’t know how long she’d sat there. Didn’t remember when she’d started to shiver, or when her cracked lips had faded to blue. When she’d slowly made her way to her feet, her body groaning in pain as she walked over the deck, the boards creaking beneath her feet. She didn’t remember slipping through the sliding door into the warmth of the boat’s interior. Then washing up in the bathroom and bandaging the gash on her head the best she could, knowing it probably needed stitches. 

What she also didn’t remember, or maybe what she chose not to remember, was the feeling of relief that flooded through her as she lay down in bed that night, the side where Jay should be, empty.

~ ~ ~

Sun crept in behind the closed blinds of the small bedroom window the next morning. Kristy opened her eyes. Her head throbbed as she listened to the faint sound of water lapping against the boat.

She brushed her fingers over her bandaged forehead. It was tender. She knew the girls would ask about it, about Jay. But she would not cry. She knew her story, had gone over it a million times last night before she’d fallen asleep. 

Taking her time, she got up, reveling in the silence and peace. She knew it might not last for long, but stepping out into the living area of the boat, she didn’t care. 

Mia and Sophia were waiting at the table.

“Morning girls,” she said. She bent down to kiss them each on the forehead. 

“Are we going home?” Sophia asked. 

“Yes, sweet. We are.” 

“Today?” 

“Mmhm,” She shook her head yes and grabbed three bowls for them, filling each with cereal and milk. 

“W-where’s dad?” Mia asked. 

“He had to leave early,” she said, quietly humming to herself. “He left early.” 

Kristy looked out across the water through the kitchen window of the boat. The sandstone mountains, that had seemed like a cage before, glittered in the sunlight. Their vibrant hues of clay splashed across the inky, black water, covering the darkness with light.


BIO

Emily Newsome is an emerging writer living in Upstate New York, currently pursuing an Associate Degree in Creative Writing at Monroe Community College. Following this, she plans to obtain her Bachelor’s degree. Her work has been published in MCC’s literary magazine: Cabbages and Kings, and she was a winner of The Sixth Act’s Annual Student Playwriting Competition in 2020. She loves reading and writing in all forms and genres, and cannot wait to share her work with the world.

a homesick poem

by John Sweet

sunlight and crows

a sacrifice

a clenched fist
dripping blood

these are not options,
this is the
proper sequence

we are believers in
the wisdom of ghosts

of fairy tales

we are believers in
a void of
our own making

wealth and
self-righteousness

power from the
end of a barrel

who are you to
criticize
until you’ve taken
your first life?



between defeat and despair


first week of april all brown lawns and
grey sky, threat of snow that
never quite arrives and
what i miss are
leonora’s pale breasts in the mexican sunlight

do you remember 1937?

are we still killing for the
same reasons we were then?

seems like it was all pretty funny until
we realized that everyone
who’d died was someone we’d known



let all sounds be the sound of freedom


these houses and
the spaces between them

these streets all heavy with silence
in the early afternoon

trees and the shadows of trees
and the ghost of de chirico

a kingdom of dust
for the lucky few

can’t be god these days unless you’re
willing to bleed and
maybe that’s how it always was

not every cripple is a prophet

not every prophet understands
the necessity of hope

picture yourself as the desert
and your life
finally starts to make sense



upstate; a surrender


in a fog of numbed-out pain and
                              creeping cold

in a collapsing city in
a dying kingdom

a future built on ruins,
and what is there to say about it?

you’ve wasted your whole life here

taste of guilt mixed with
the texture of ashes, right?

the dead among the living and
                          all of us blind

all of us halfway down the
road to being forgotten

anonymous houses & abandoned factories and
each day shaped by dull light without color

each moment meaningless on its own
and then when added to all the others,
                                     and so breathe

                                       don’t breathe

gotta make a choice
either way

gotta stand up and be counted or
lie down in whatever
shallow grave you’ve dug for yourself

there will always be a despair
greater than your own



this kingdom of rain, these corpses on fire


crows outside the suicide factory,
first light of a dull grey morning

screams and whispers

echoes

there is no future in being holy,
you understand

there is no future at all

the present is always with us, the
past never remembered clearly and when i
tell you i love you it
sounds like an admission of defeat

when i get out of my car, the parking lot
is littered with the bones of angels

the machinery has just begun
to grind into motion

each day starts at zero, and then they
all move backwards from there



everyone i hate, and the reasons why


man with the gun says
there need to be changes,
but he’s just as dead the rest of us

he’s high on the fumes
of burning children

he’s trapped in the shadows
of his father’s fists

a slave and a whore,
but fuck it

no one comes to this town to
live up to their fullest potential

no one talks about better days
until there’s no hope of
them ever arriving

you learn this early, and then
it just seems like something
you’ve always known



st. nicole, lost in the labyrinth


the suicide season again,
and all your fucked up lovers say
it’s the sunlight that ties this noose so tight

they say it’s the fading warmth of
a half-remembered past
that blurs the future to a dirty grey, and
what can you do but agree?

your father never liked you, sure

left nothing but the gift of self-hatred
when he walked away from the burning house

and how many years did you wait
before you went looking for him?

how easy do you think it was
for him to forget your name?

opened the door to his shithole apartment
with shaking hands, with a blank stare,
and told you he’d never had any kids

told you his wife disappeared
back before the war

made you start to doubt you’d
                                     ever been born




BIO

John Sweet sends greetings from the rural wastelands of upstate NY. He is a firm believer in writing as catharsis, and in the continuous search for an unattainable and constantly evolving absolute truth. His latest poetry collections include A DEAD MAN EITHER WAY (2020 Kung Fu Treachery) and No ONE STARVES IN A NATION OF CORPSES (2020 Analog Submission Press).

Sixty Days in the Hole

by L.D. Zane

            “9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

            “We need the police and an ambulance now to the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road in Riverton.”

            “What’s the nature of your emergency, sir?”

Rachael Bensinger walked up to the cashier—a Hispanic woman in her early forties—at the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road, and stated, “I’m here for an interview with Mr. Patterson.”

            “And your name, sweetheart?”

            “Rachael. Rachael Bensinger.”

            “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Bensinger.” She extended her hand to shake Rachael’s. Rachael returned the courtesy. The cashier pointed to her name badge and said, “My name is Serena. I’m the store manager here.” Then she reached under the counter and handed Rachael a clipboard with an application and pen attached.

            “You can sit over there at the table and complete this. When you’re done, come find me and I’ll get Mr. Patterson.”

            “I actually completed one online and printed it out, along with my resume.” Rachael held them up. “See?”

            Serena gave a broad smile and said, “Then I’ll call Mr. Patterson now. He’ll like that you came prepared. He always likes it when someone is prepared.”   

            Yeah. Like I had a choice, Rachael thought.

            A fit man wearing a navy polo shirt, sporting the store name, tan khakis, and Nike sneakers walked up. Holding out his hand, he said, “Hi. I’m Dylan Patterson, the General Manager. I’ll be conducting the interview. And you are Rachael Bensinger. Right?”

            “Yes, sir,” she answered, shaking his hand.

            “Dylan or Mr. Patterson is good. I haven’t been addressed as ‘Sir’ since I left the Army. Okay?”

            He noticed her slight-of-build stature and long auburn pony tail.

            “Absolutely, sir… I mean, Mr. Patterson. Please call me Rachael.” She paused, then added, “Actually I prefer Rach.” What the hell am I doing being so chatty? Christ, Rachael, shut up.

            “Then Rach it is. Please follow me back to my office.”

            They walked to the back of the store, through two swinging doors, into the warehouse. Dylan made a left turn, stood to the right of his office door frame and, with his left hand, motioned for Rachael to enter. “Please, take a seat.”

            Not much of an office, Rachael observed. Looks like a converted storage space. Plastic chairs, and a cheap-ass desk, with the same type of plastic chair behind it. And they’re orange! This guy doesn’t stand on ceremony, that’s for sure. Apparently, he’s not trying to impress anyone. Then again, maybe he doesn’t have to.

            Rachael picked the chair to the left. Dylan noticed she waited until he sat before she followed suit.

            He looked at her application and resume for a few moments, put them aside, and said, “I’ll be straight with you, Rach. I’m seeing you as a favor to your PO.”

            Rachael sat up straighter in her chair, and said, “I wasn’t aware of that Mr. Patterson, but I thank you.” She then mustered up the courage to ask, “How do you know my Parole Officer, Rebecca Olson?”

            “A couple of years ago she was making visits to small retailers like us, asking if we would be willing to hire non-violent parolees or those on probation. I told her I would, if I saw the right candidate. We kind of hit it off, and still see each other on occasion. Our lifestyles aren’t conducive to a long-term relationship. Did I answer your question…Rach?”

            “Yes. And I’m sorry for that. It really was none of my business,” she said, squirming a bit in her seat.

            Dylan noticed. “Relax,” he said. “No harm. No foul. I opened the door, and you walked in. I like that attitude, for what it’s worth.” Without hesitation, he said, “I have a few questions of my own. I see you’re from Columbus, Ohio. Graduated high school and have an Associates Degree in accounting.”

            “Yes. And I also took a few more courses in business.”

            “Excellent. So what brought you here to Riverton?”

            “In my last year at community college, I met a guy who was taking a course in welding. We started dating, and eventually moved in together. We both finished our courses at the same time. The college had a placement service and found me the position doing accounts payables at All States Trucking.”

            “Good company. I know it well,” said Dylan. “They handle a fair amount of our freight. So how come you’re no longer there?”

            “I believe you already know the answer to that, Mr. Patterson.”

            “Ya know…you’re right. I do know the answer. Please forget that I asked that question. You’re not required to tell me about your personal past.”

            “No, I want to tell you, Mr. Patterson. I have nothing to hide.”

            “Okay. As you wish. Please continue.”

            “They also found Billy—that’s his name, Billy McKenzie—a job as a welder in this area. So we came east, found an apartment, and moved in together.

            “We were good for about a year and a half, but then Billy started hanging out with some real stoners from work. We both did a little weed from time to time; it never got crazy. But I could see Billy change. He was stoned almost every night. He had trouble getting up for work. After a few months, the company cut him for bad attendance. Billy promised he would get off the weed, but he didn’t.

            “He bounced from job to job, and eventually he stopped looking. During that time, I was promoted to assistant supervisor of the accounts payable department. With Billy not working, the money was getting tight, but I was doing well enough to keep up with my car and the apartment. Billy’s car got repo’d. We argued daily about the money. But it never got violent. Never.

            “Finally, one day the shit hit the fan. He came home totally blown out of his mind—drunk and stoned. He offered me a joint, and I took it, thinking that if I got a little high with him, we wouldn’t argue. I also had a couple of beers. Looking back on it, I don’t really know what the hell I was thinking.” She glanced down, and then said quietly, “Guess I wasn’t thinking.

            “I told Billy that he either needed to get and keep a job—any job—pronto, or we were through. That sent him into a rage. He trashed the apartment. When I tried to stop him, he slugged me in my left eye.” Rachael reflexively brushed her bangs to cover her left eye.

            “How long ago did this happen?”

            “About three weeks ago.”

            “He must have really laid one on you, because I can still see the remnants of it. I didn’t want to ask before, but now it makes sense.”

            “They x-rayed my eye at the ER after I was arrested. There were some slight fractures, but the orbit was still intact. I have blurry vision in that eye, but it’s getting better every day. I can drive okay.”

            “So what happened with the police? The report said you were charged with assaulting a police officer.”

            “Before we knew it, the police were at the door and demanded we open it. Billy opened it and asked the one cop, ‘What the fuck do you want?’ The officer pushed Billy aside and told him to sit down. He refused and took a swing at the cop. That was it. They threw him face down on the floor and cuffed him. He was screaming that the cuffs were too tight and cursing up a storm when they lifted him to his feet.

            “The one officer saw my eye bleeding, came over to me, and wanted to look at it. I told him to take his hands off of me, and to loosen Billy’s cuffs. One thing led to another, and apparently I grabbed a beer bottle and hit the officer in the head. I say apparently, because I don’t remember much about that night, and that’s the truth.”

            “Then what happened?”

            “We were arrested, charged, booked, and spent the night in jail. They arraigned us the next day and we were given Public Defenders. Billy and I appeared before a judge a few days later, and that’s when he sentenced us to six months’ probation because it was our first offense. He said we couldn’t leave the county, had to take random piss tests, pay a ton of money, and find gainful employment within two weeks. The judge said if we tested positive, didn’t find a job, or got so much as a parking ticket, we would be spending six months in the county prison. He also said Billy had to move out, being the apartment was in my name. We even got different PO’s.

            “All States wasn’t too happy when they learned of this. They put me on ‘Extended Suspension.’ HR said if I was clean after six months, they would consider hiring me back.”

            “Well, Rach, I hope you’re not holding your breath about being rehired. That was a nice way of them covering their collective asses. They’re not going to rehire you. Period!”

            “I know that, Mr. Patterson. I’m not that naïve. Rebecca—I mean Ms. Olson—said she believed I could straighten out my life and deserved a second chance. A few days later she told me about this job and that she’d set up an interview. Ms. Olson even helped me put together my resume.”

            “What happened to Billy?”

            “Since he didn’t have a job or a place to stay, they transferred his case to a PO in Columbus so he could stay with his folks, under the same conditions. I don’t know what he’s doing, and I don’t care. I haven’t heard from him since the night we were arrested.   Good riddance.”

            Dylan could see a twinge of sadness in Rachael’s eyes when she spoke of Billy.  “I appreciate you sharing your story, Rach. Seems to be in line with what I’ve been told by Ms. Olson. What other questions do you have for me?”  

            “Well, the first question I have is, how did you become the General Manager?”

            “Good question. Believe it or not, no one’s ever asked me that before. After college, I went through Army basic training, Officer Candidate School, and completed Ranger training. I did two tours in Afghanistan during my seven years in the Army, and came out as a Captain. I got married while in my fifth year in the Army. That lasted two years. I was discharged from the marriage just before I was discharged from the Army.” Dylan shrugged his shoulders and said pensively, “That life wasn’t conducive to a long-term relationship either.

            “I tried a few jobs, but nothing caught. A friend of mine said that he had heard about a guy who was looking for someone who knew logistics and had leadership skills, for a General Manager position. My friend didn’t know the guy’s name, but knew he owned a few Just-a-Buck stores. So I went to a Just-a-Buck store—this one in fact—and filled out an application and handed them my resume. A day later I got a call from Ross Wells, the owner. We met, and the rest is history.”

            “How long have you been here?” asked Rachael.

            Dylan looked up, and then said, “Hard to believe, but going on five years. We started with two stores, and now have six between here and Polltown.”

            I was spot on. Knew he was in his mid-thirties. “You said ‘we.’ If I may ask, are you an owner as well?”

            “Not yet. Nonetheless, I treat the stores as if they were mine. I like to believe I had a hand in the growth of the company. I think Mr. Wells believes that as well. He’s told me, more than once, that ownership is in the offing…and soon.”

            “And you believe him?” Rachael asked with a smirk.

            Dylan stiffened. His expression turned hard and cold. He responded, “Yes. Yes, I do. I have no trust issues, Rachael. Do you?”

            Rachael looked down and fidgeted with her hands. Why the fuck would I ask that? That was really stupid. I might as well apologize and leave. I’m not getting this job. I guess it’s prison for me.

            Dylan stood up suddenly. He looked down at his desk and shuffled some papers.

            Then both Dylan and Rachael started to apologize at the same time, their voices stepping over each other. Dylan broke the tie and said, “My comment was out of line, Rach, and a cheap shot. I’m sorry.” He sat down.

            “I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine,” said Rachael.

            “Deal,” said Dylan.

            “Any…other…questions?” Dylan asked with a hesitant smile.

            “Just a few.”

            “Okay. Go.”

            “What’s my position, how much does it pay, and when do I start?”

            Dylan folded his hands on the table and leaned in. “What makes you think I would offer you a job?”

            Rachael didn’t hesitate. “Well, for starters, I think you liked what you heard from Ms. Olson or I wouldn’t be here. You had every reason to blow off someone with a record—especially assaulting a police officer.

            “Second, I’m still here. You didn’t ask me to leave, even though I asked a few totally stupid questions.

            “Third, I think you and I have a few things in common.”

            “Such as?” asked Dylan.

            “We both have faced some tough situations—although I won’t compare mine to your military service—and we kept going. We’re not quitters. I’m not a quitter, Mr. Patterson. Stupid? Yeah. A quitter? No way.”

            “You’re not stupid, Rach. That’s obvious by your employment record and how you’ve conducted yourself with me.”

            “So when do I start?”

            Looking squarely at Rachael, Dylan answered, “Today is Friday. Be here Monday at 8 a.m.”

            “I’m assuming the usual retail work, like stocking and the register?”

            “Nope. Actually, I have something more challenging in mind, and have since I first heard about your accounting skills.”

            Rachael asked with some reservation, “What would that be?”

            “Well, I only have two full-time employees in each store—a manager and an assistant manager. Depending on the size of the store and its traffic, we also have two to three part-timers averaging twenty-five hours per week. My assistant manager here just quit after two months.” He shrugged again. “Such is the retail industry. So Serena and I need an assistant manager. Serena’s one of the main reasons this store has been so profitable. But she can’t do it alone.

            “I like to believe I’m pretty squared away with most aspects of this business, except one—which Mr. Wells brings to my attention, unfortunately, often.”

            “And that would be?”

            “Putting all the numbers together in a way that makes sense to both Mr. Wells and me. Yes, we have a great accountant, but we need someone who is in the trenches—so to speak—every day. We need real-time information if we are to really grow this business. But up to now, we haven’t found the right person.” He stopped, studied Rachael’s face for any sign of hesitation. Seeing none, he asked, “Think you could be that person—both an assistant manager and help me with my numbers for all of the stores?”

            “So I would kind of be your assistant, in addition to being the assistant manager here. Is that right?”

            Dylan smiled, and said, “I never thought of it that way…but yes. What do you think? Are you up to the challenge?”

            I’m in no position to be choosy, but I just don’t want to be taken advantage of and treated like some tool because of my situation. I was making excellent money before this shit happened, and I need to get back to that level as soon as possible. I need to go for it. Rachael responded coolly, “Depends.”

            Dylan’s eyes widened and he raised his eyebrows. Still smiling, he leaned forward and asked, “On what?”

            “On the amount of hours and the pay. I want to work as many hours as I can get. I’m not afraid of long hours, Mr. Patterson, as long as I’m being paid the right amount for the work I’m doing.”

            “We’re talking forty hours. And I won’t abuse the privilege, I promise. As far as pay goes… ” Dylan leaned back, put his hands behind his head, and looked at the ceiling. He then placed his hands back on the table and said, “Thirteen-fifty an hour. I know it isn’t what you were used to making, but it’s about a dollar more than I would start an assistant manager.”

            “Fourteen.”

            “What?” his voice raising an octave.

            “Fourteen an hour. I have no idea what you’re really going to need as far as reports for you and Mr. Wells, and experience has taught me that you don’t know either. I’ve been in this spot before. The more I do, the more you’ll want. I’m just building in some cushion for what I know will happen.” She paused, and then asked, “Are we still on for Monday at 8 a.m.?”

            Dylan stood and said, “We are. Welcome aboard.” He stuck out his hand.

            “Looks like we have a deal, Mr. Patterson,” she said, shaking his hand. “Do you inform Ms. Olson, or do I?”

            “I’ll take care of it. She said she wanted a call from me immediately after the interview. I’ll take you out front and formally introduce you to Serena and make her aware of your duties. She’ll be thrilled to know that she’s getting some reliable help.”

            He stopped for a moment, dropped his smile, and then said with the commanding tone of an infantry officer, “I, too, believe in second chances, Rach. Lord knows I’ve had a few do-overs. We’re all counting on reliability. If you start having attendance issues, or you come in here high or fail your piss test just once, you’re history. Are we clear?”

            “Absolutely clear, Mr. Patterson.”

            “Excellent. Then I’m positive we’ll have a great working relationship. And I really would appreciate if you would just call me Dylan. Okay?”

            “Okay…Dylan. What do I wear to work?”

            “Same outfit as mine. We start you off with two sets. If you are still here after thirty days, there’s no charge. If you leave before then, we dock the one check we hold back. We pay weekly, so you won’t get a check until the second week. Will you be able to manage until then?”

            “Yes. I still have some savings. But what if I need more than two sets of uniforms? How much is each set?”

            “They’re somewhere around thirty bucks.” Dylan looked away for a moment, then turned toward Rachael. “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll spot you the additional three sets. After thirty days, I’ll recover the cost of the three sets over three pay periods. Does that work?”

            “Yes, yes it does. Thank you so much, Dylan. What do I wear until I get the first two sets?”

            “Serena always carries enough sizes on hand. But if she doesn’t have your size, she’ll call me. I’ll get them from another store and bring them in this Saturday.”

            “Thank you!” 

            “Great. Let’s talk to Serena, and then I have to jump. I have a lot on my plate today.”

The next thirty days went faster than anyone had anticipated—especially for Rachael and Dylan. They were now into their first full month of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown. It was customary for Dylan to hold a team meeting with each store, once a week, and prior to opening for the day. The Perrytown Road store’s day was Friday.

            After going through some mundane issues, Dylan got to the pandemic. “This last month has been different, to say the least. I know we’re in short supply of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, everything made of paper, and stuff I never thought most people would think of as essential. I mean, we’re just about sold out of dish racks. Go figure!”

            Dylan paused for a moment to make sure he had the right tone of voice. He continued. “I do have another matter which I need to address. We’ve been gradually scaling back our hours. We’re now going to be open from nine to five, for two reasons. First, limiting our hours does mean fewer customers, but it also means there will be less demand for our products—especially the items we don’t have anyway. Hopefully, we just might be able to keep some of those high-demand items in stock.

            “Second, our employees have less time to be exposed to the crazies out there. Thanks to Rach running some numbers, we found that the highest amount of negative incidents at our stores happened after five. For those of you who are part-time—don’t worry, your hours won’t be cut. I will, however, need to see Serena and Rach after the meeting to discuss this further.”

            That’s a polite way of saying your hours are getting cut, thought Rachael. But hey, at least I’ll still have a job.

            “I know I didn’t bring much in the way of good news today, but we have to play the hand we’re dealt the best we can. This store was the first store Mr. Wells started, and all of you continue to make this the number one store in all the areas where it counts. I’m proud to work with each and every one of you. Are there any questions?”

            Teresa, a part-timer in her early twenties, raised her hand. “I’d like a few minutes of your time, in private, Dylan.”

            “No problem, let’s go to my office. Everyone else—keep up the great work. See you next week. Have a good weekend, and stay safe.”

            In less than fifteen minutes, Dylan came to the front of the store, backpack slung over his right shoulder, and asked Serena and Rachael to step outside.

            “Smoke ’em if you got ’em, ladies. I know I am.”

            “What’s up, Mr. Dylan?” asked Serena.

            “Well, for starters, your hours won’t be cut. Our original intention, as much as Mr. Wells and I didn’t want to do so, was to cut managers and assistant managers’ hours to thirty-five hours per week. But that won’t be necessary now…at least here.”

            “Why’s that?” asked Rachael.

            “Because Teresa just quit.”

            Serena’s eyes widened and she lifted her eyebrows. “Why? I thought she was happy here.”

            “She just said she had some family issues. I didn’t press her. But instead of allowing her to quit, I told her I would lay her off so she could collect. Between the state and the feds, she’ll do okay. I also told her if she wanted to come back, and we had an opening, I would rehire her.”

            “You’re a good man, Mr. Dylan.”

            “Uh…it was the least I could do, Serena. The question I have for the two of you is—can you handle the load with one less person?”

            “I’m sure we can,” said Serena, “especially with the reduced store hours.”

            “What do you think, Rach?”

            “Serena and I will talk with Terry and Gina to work it out. You won’t notice any change in our performance, Dylan.”

            Dylan smiled, and said, “I don’t doubt it. I can’t thank the two of you enough for holding down the fort, especially with all the shit that’s been happening. Before I get going, could I have a word with you, Rach? Alone?”

            Serena took the cue. “I should be getting back in. Have a good weekend, Mr. Dylan.”

            “You, too, Serena.”

            Here it comes. “You’ve done a great job, Rach, but we have to cut you loose being a convict and all. So sad. Too bad. Shit!

            Dylan got right to the point. “Drop the worried look. It’s all good.”

            “Just a natural reflex. Sorry.”

            “Yeah. I get it. But it really is all good. You’ve done an outstanding job helping out Mr. Wells and me. And you were right… We had no freakin’ clue as to what we wanted or needed. That negative incident report was brilliant. And we never even asked you to do that. Impressive work with us, and here at the store. Just know that Serena loves you. This brings me to the first order of business.”

            “Yes?”

            “Your pay. Because of the outstanding work you’ve done, and your initiative, I wanted to bring you up to fifteen an hour, but Mr. Wells overrode that idea. He said…” Dylan purposely hesitated, to keep Rachael in suspense, “‘Don’t be so fucking cheap, Dylan. Good employees are hard to find, and harder to keep. Give her sixteen-fifty.’ That pay raise starts Monday. Think you can manage on that?”

            Rachael had a blank stare. Her mouth fell open.

            “Wow! This is a first. Rachael Bensinger not commenting. I could get used to this. I’m going to continue, while you collect your thoughts. Okay?”

            Rachael just nodded.

            Dylan put his backpack on the sidewalk, pulled out an iPhone from a side pocket, and handed it to Rachael.

            “What’s this?” asked Rachael.

            “It’s called an iPhone.”

            “I know what it is, Dylan. I already have an iPhone.”

            “Mr. Wells and I felt badly about clogging up your personal phone with voicemails, texts and emails. Now—”

            Rachael cut him off, and said with a smile, “You get to clog up this phone. Right?”

            Dylan took a drag on his cigarette, pointed it at Rachael, and said, “Exactly. You always were a fast learner, Rach. We’ve already loaded it with all the apps you’ll need. If you need a new app—that’s business related, of course—just ask me and I’ll make it happen. I also loaded all the contacts you’ll need. You’ll find your phone number under your name. I’d appreciate if you keep it on you, and always on. I promise I won’t abuse that privilege either. And, of course, we pay the bill. You’ll never see it. You good with this?”

            Rachael turned melancholy, and Dylan saw tears form in the corners of her eyes. “Why so glum, Rach? I thought you would be happy with the raise and the phone. What the hell am I missing here?”

            “Guys just don’t get it.”

            “Not sure what you mean. Enlighten me.”

            “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because I’m overwhelmed…overwhelmed by the whole situation. I’m thrilled and happy.”

            “You’re right. I don’t get it.”

            “What I mean, Dylan, is that a little over seven weeks ago, my life was in the crapper. Now, I’m just about at the same pay level I was before this whole shitty mess started. I have a good position, I have bosses who actually care about the people they employ, and—most importantly—” Rachael started to cry openly, “My work is appreciated. I’m appreciated.”

            Rachael collected herself. “I’m sorry, Dylan,” she said between sniffles. She wiped away the tears with the palm of her hands. “I guess it all came to a head. I’ve been holding all of this shit in. It won’t happen again. I promise. And I thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”

            “Hey… I didn’t do anything for you. I showed you a door. You opened it and walked through it. You made it happen. You’ve earned everything that you have. No charity here, believe me.

            “Now, if it’s okay with you, I need to motor or I’ll be late.” Dylan picked up his backpack, looked at his watch, and muttered, “Shit. I already am. Oh well. Savor the moment, Rach. Have a great weekend, but remember…”

            Rachael interrupted again, and said, “I know… Keep it tight and together. No worries, Dylan.”

            Dylan allowed himself an ear-to-ear smile. Before he headed to the car, he said, “By the way, and I hope this doesn’t make you cry again, but remember those three sets of uniforms you were supposed to pay for starting this month?”

            “Yeah. I can more than afford to pay it back.”

            “No need. You’ve more than paid for them for what you’ve done for this company. Debt is cancelled.”

            “Was that your decision, or Mr. Wells’?”

            “All mine. Mr. Wells allows, and expects, me to make executive-level decisions, Ms. Bensinger. Besides, he didn’t know I did it in the first place.”

            Before Rachael could respond, Dylan turned and sprinted to his car.

The next month was a blur. Businesses started to reopen; people were getting back to work, products which were once scarce appeared on the shelves—and stayed there— because the hoarding had diminished. Customers were actually behaving like customers, instead of hungry, cornered animals.

            At the end of his last Friday team meeting of the month, Dylan thanked everyone for their efforts in an extraordinarily difficult time. He also mentioned that he and Mr. Wells were planning on opening at least three new stores in the next year.

            At the conclusion of the meeting, Dylan said to Rachael, “I need some time with you. And don’t worry, it’s all good. Let’s grab a smoke.”

            Once outside, Rachael asked, “So what’s up?”         

            “First, I have some good news about me.”

            “Go on.”

            “Mr. Wells has agreed to let me buy in on twenty percent of the existing stores, and I’ll get thirty percent of the new stores, up front. Pretty slick, huh?” he said patting his back over his left shoulder with his right hand.

            “Forty.”

            “What?”

            “Forty percent. You know you’re going to be working your ass off on opening three new stores, and you should get forty percent.”

            “Okay. I don’t disagree, but what if he doesn’t agree?”

            “Then you negotiate. Get real, Dylan. He’s not going to cut you loose. You’re too valuable. He’ll probably wind up giving you thirty-five percent. I mean, what do you have to lose? The worst that happens is that he stays at thirty, and maybe gives you an option for more down the road. I know you’re not a wimp, so don’t start acting like one now. The guy loves you. He’s already said as much to me.”

            “He has?”

            “Yes. He has. He said you’re almost like a son to him—which I don’t understand, being that he has a son.”

            “His son is a fucking idiot, which is why Mr. Wells doesn’t allow him near the business. If you ever have the unfortunate opportunity to meet him, you’ll understand. Believe me.”

            Dylan remained silent for a minute. Rachael saw him nodding his head as if he was talking to someone. Then Dylan said, emphatically, “You’re right, as usual. I’ll ask him for forty. I meet with him today to iron out some of the details. I promise you, I won’t wimp out.”

            “That’s the Dylan I know. Charge that hill!” Rachael paused before she asked, “Is that it, or is there more good news?”

            “There’s more.”

            “Go on.”

            “Well, you’ve done a great job, Rach, which is why I might need to replace you as assistant manager.”

            “What? Why?” Rachael said raising her voice in both disbelief and anger.

            “Because Mr. Wells and I were hoping you would accept a promotion to the position of Assistant General Manager.”

            “I wasn’t aware we even had an Assistant General Manager.”

            “We don’t…yet. That’s why we were counting on you accepting it. And if you do, I need to replace you here.”

            “You know, Dylan, maybe you should have led with that. Sometimes you have the tact of a hand grenade.” Rachael crossed her arms tightly across the front of her body.

            “I suppose I could have broached the subject differently.”

            “Ya think?” Rachael said while rolling her eyes. She started tapping her right foot. “So who will be the assistant manager here?”

            “We have someone in mind from another store. It would be ideal for her.”

            “So, did you offer her the position?”

            “Nope. I wanted to see if you accepted the promotion first. It wouldn’t have been fair to offer her a position that wasn’t available.”

            “Does she even know that the position here might be open?”

            “Again, no, for the same reason as I just mentioned.”

            “Who would train her?”

            “Serena would. She said she wants to train the assistant her way, like she did with you, and I agree. And please stop that incessant foot tapping and chill the hell out! Christ, Rach, you’re always so fuckin’ defensive.”

            Rachael stopped the foot tapping, but kept her arms crossed. “Maybe I have good reasons for it.”

            “Maybe you do, but I shouldn’t be one of them. Quit making me pay for how other people have treated you. Okay?”

            Rachael dropped her arms, lit another cigarette, and shuffled her feet. She said, sheepishly, “I agree with Serena. Who wants the old assistant hanging around while you’re training a new one? So, tell me about this new position.”

            Dylan carried on as if nothing had happened. As far as he was concerned, nothing did happen. “Doing exactly what you’ve been doing with the numbers, except doing it full time. You’d be meeting with Mr. Wells and me more often, as well as visiting the stores more frequently. It’s come to my attention that the managers and assistant managers prefer hearing the numbers from you, because—and I quote—‘She’s one of us.’ You will be busy, Rach. But having you in this position is more important now than it ever was.”

             “Would I work from one of the stores, or from home?”

            “That’s your call. What do you prefer?”

            “I prefer to work out of this store, actually. I believe I’d be more productive. May I use your office when you’re not here?”

            “I have a better idea. If you accept the position, I can have a contractor build out another office next to mine—here. This is the only place I have an office, by the way.”

            “Would I be able to have a plywood desk and orange plastic chairs like you?” Rachael grinned.

            “Why, Ms. Bensinger, I am deeply hurt. I always thought my furniture had charm. It gives off a certain ambiance.”

            “It does. It says this guy is either incredibly cheap, or has very bad taste in furniture.”

            Both laughed out loud.

            Dylan relaxed his stance and lit another cigarette. “In reality, Rach, you’re not going to be spending that much time in the office. Nonetheless, Mr. Wells gave us a budget for new furniture. We can look together and pick out nicer stuff. I’ll defer to your judgment.”

            He’s finally learning, Rachael thought.

            “And speaking about shopping for stuff, part of your package of perks is a leased car. We can go shopping for one this week, since I would have to sign for it.”

            “What do I do with my car?”

            “Keep it. The leased car is for business purposes so you don’t rack up the miles on your car.”

            “Can I get a fancy SUV like yours?”

            “Uh, no. But I promise you yours will be safe, comfortable, new, and appropriate for your position. You won’t be embarrassed driving it.”

            “It all sounds great, Dylan. I’m flattered that Mr. Wells and you think that much of me. When would I start?”

            “This Monday would be great.” Dylan paused, and then said to Rachael, “I’m surprised you didn’t ask about the money.”

            “I just figured all the other perks would be my increase in compensation.”

            “Not even close, Rach. We’re putting you on a salary of forty thousand a year, plus profit sharing at the end of the year. That’s a six-thousand-dollar increase. So…do I make the call to the new assistant manager offering the job, or what?”

            “What if she refuses?”

            “She won’t. Quit stalling. What’s your decision, and don’t play hard to get.”

            “Absolutely, Dylan. Absolutely! Thank you, thank you. Please thank Mr. Wells for me, please. And I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you earlier. You didn’t deserve it.”

            “You can tell Mr. Wells in person when the three of us meet this week to design a strategy for opening these new stores. And I did deserve it. I thought I was being clever. Guess not!

            “I have a few calls to make before I head out. Have another smoke. You’ve made a number of people very happy by accepting this position, especially me. And, by the way, today marks the end of your sixty-day probation period with us. Congrats. You’ve come a long way in these last two months. Very impressive. For what it’s worth—Ms. Olson, Mr. Wells, and I are extremely proud of you. Well done.”

Yes! Yes! I know I haven’t said this lately, but thank you, Jesus. No, really, thank you. I can’t believe this is happening. Rachael threw a fist bump in the air. She flicked her cigarette onto the parking lot, and turned to go back into the store.

            “Nice dance, Rachael.”

            Rachael’s breathing became fast and heavy. “What the fuck are you doing here, Billy? I thought you were in Ohio.”

            “Is that any way to talk to your boyfriend?”

            “You’re not my boyfriend.”

            “I kind of figured that, since I haven’t heard from you in almost three months. I called your cell, but the number went to a different person. What happened with us?”

            “What happened? Are you fuckin’ kidding me? You hauling off and clocking me in my face. You damn near cost me my eyesight in one eye. We got arrested and all the other shit that came with it. That’s what happened! And there is no ‘us.’ Now get the hell out of my way. I need to get back to work.”

            Billy blocked her path. “Rachael, I know I fucked up, and I’m sorry. Can we at least try to work it out?”

            “No. Now move out of my way.” As Rachael strode toward the door, Billy grabbed her right arm with his left. His hand completely engulfed her slender wrist. “Let go, Billy. You’re hurting me.”

            “I figured you were going to reject me, so how about spotting me a hundred bucks. I’m staying with this guy and I need it for expenses.”

            “Bullshit! You’re stoned, and you’re going to use the money to buy weed, or whatever. I’m not giving you a fucking dime. Now, LET GO.”

            Rachael heard a firm, calm voice from behind her. “Let her go, Billy.”

            She turned and saw Dylan in the doorway with his backpack slung over his right shoulder. I’ve never seen Dylan’s face and demeanor look like that. That’s the face of a Ranger in combat. If I were the enemy, I’d be scared shitless.

            “Who the fuck are you?” asked Billy.

            “It doesn’t matter who I am, and you don’t want to find out. You just need to let go of Rach.”

            “I’m not leaving without her, or some money.”

            Dylan locked his eyes on Billy, allowed his backpack to slide off his shoulder, slowly reached into his left pocket, and pulled out a neatly folded wad of cash. “There’s over two hundred dollars here, Billy. Let go of Rach, take the cash, leave, and I’ll pretend this never happened. Okay?”

            “Fuck you,” Billy shot back. He turned to Rachael and asked, “Are you doing this douche bag, Rachael?”

            Dylan answered before Rachael had a chance. “No one’s doing anyone, Billy. Let go of her, take the cash, and split—now!”

            “And what if I don’t?”

            “That would be your first, and probably, last mistake.”

            Rachael shouted, “I’ve had enough of your shit, Billy. You’re never going to hurt me again.” She spun to her right, breaking his hold and, with both of her hands, pushed Billy.

            As he stumbled backward, he shouted, “You bitch,” and reached under his hoodie.

            Rachael felt as if she was hit twice in the gut by a sledgehammer. She slammed up against the store’s pane glass window, and slid down onto the concrete walkway. This pavement is cold, she thought.

            Dylan seethed under his breath, “No, no, no. I thought all of this shit was behind me.” Then his instincts took over. He put his backpack under her head, took off his jacket, stripped off his shirt and pressed it tightly against Rachael’s abdomen. “Christ. I can’t stop the bleeding.”

            Serena came to the doorway, gasped, and put her hands to her mouth. Choking back tears, she asked, “What happened to Rachael, Mr. Dylan?”

            Dylan remained calm, and said, “Get me a shitload of towels, Serena.”

            “What kind?”

            “Any fucking kind. Move it, Serena.”

            Dylan grabbed his cell phone with his free hand, and made yet another call.

“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?” inquired the male operator in a controlled voice.

            “We need the police and an ambulance now to the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road in Riverton. Please hurry,” responded Dylan.
            “What’s the nature of your emergency, sir?”

            “I have a female employee who’s been shot twice in the abdomen.”

            “Is the assailant still there?”

            “No. He dropped his gun and fled on foot. Now get me some help, please.”

            “Stay on the line, sir, while I make the call. Your name?”      

            “What?”

            “Your name. What’s your name, sir?”

            “Dylan. Dylan Patterson.”

            Serena returned with an armful of towels. “Just put ’em next to Rach, Serena.”

            “Is she going to be okay, Mr. Dylan?”

            “Hand me three of those towels.”

            “They’re turning red as soon as you put them on,” cried Serena.

            Dylan now talked to Rachael. “Rach, listen to my voice. Just focus on my voice. You’re going to be okay. Help is on the way. I need you to help me pick out furniture, Rach. Listen to my voice.”

            The faintest of smiles crossed Rachael’s face. I hear you, Dylan, but I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open. My eyelids are so heavy. I feel so tired. Why do I feel so tired?

            The operator returned. “The police and EMT’s should be there in a few minutes. Keep pressure on the wound.”

            “I know what to do. I was in combat.”

            “Understood, sir. I’ll stay on the line until the police arrive.”

            Within a few minutes two city police and a county sheriff’s car rolled up at the same time as the EMT’s. “I’m going off the line, sir. God speed,” said the 9-1-1 operator.

            Two medics knelt beside Rachael. The police pulled Dylan aside. “Let the EMT’s do their job, sir. Perhaps you could help us with some details.”

            “What’s her first name?” asked the EMT at her feet, while the other EMT put an oxygen mask on Rachael.

            “Rachael. Rachael Bensinger,” responded Dylan. She’s about twenty-three.”

            “Thanks.” Then the EMT spoke to Rachael. “Rachael, my name is Ryan. My partner’s name is Nilda. We’re with the fire department. You’re going to be okay, Rachael, but I need you to focus as hard as you can on my voice. Blink if you understand.”

            Rachael managed one blink, and then her eyelids slammed shut.

            “Rachael, we need to roll you on your side. This may hurt, but it’s necessary.”

            As Ryan rolled her onto her left side, Rachael let out an anguished cry. “Nilda, look for exit wounds.” Nilda looked and shook her head.

            “Shit,” said Ryan. “That means the slugs are still in there. I can’t stop the bleeding, Nilda.”

            “Her bp is falling off a cliff, and she barely has a pulse, Ryan. We have to move her, now.”

            A moment later, Nilda yelled, “No pulse, Ryan. It’s gone. I’m starting CPR.”

            As Rachael felt the chest compressions, she thought she heard Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Human Touch’ being played over the store’s music system. What a strange song to play now. And why am I thinking about volcanoes?

            At that very moment, a geyser of blood violently erupted from Rachael’s mouth, filling her mask. Nilda ripped it off. Dylan broke from the police, cradled Rachael’s head from behind, and turned it to the side so she wouldn’t choke. Nilda continued with the CPR.

            “Don’t you quit on me, Rach!” yelled Dylan. “Start fighting, damn it. Be fierce. Fight!” A torrent of tears from Dylan pelted Rachael’s forehead like a hard rain against a window.

            Ryan looked at Nilda and said, “Nilda, there’s still no pulse. It’s over.”

            “It ain’t over until I say it’s over. Give me another minute, Ryan.”

            Ryan gave it thirty seconds, then grabbed Nilda’s arm. “It’s over, partner. Time to let it go.”

            Nilda slammed her fist into her medical bag three times, shouting, “Shit! Shit! Shit!”

            From some deep recess of Rachael’s mind, which she couldn’t quite pinpoint, she heard a calm voice. Congratulations for getting through your sixty days in the hole. Good job. In her mind, she smiled.

            A moment later, from a different corner of her mind, she heard a desperate, panic-stricken voice cry out, Awww shit, Rachael.


BIO

L.D. Zane served in the Navy from 1968 to 1975. Five of those years were aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. He lives with his wife in a small city in southeastern Pennsylvania, and is a member of The Bold Writers group.

L.D.’s short stories have been published in over two dozen literary journals. His first anthology, It’s Always My Fault & Other Short Stories, has recently been published by Pretzel City Press.

L.D.’s website is: ldzaneauthor.com



Do less

by Joy Williams


No one knows how
We got here.

Time lost focus –
A whole day’s worth.

Still, perhaps it’s okay
Sometimes. In fact,

Sometimes we must
Look to the ocean

Nestled comfortably,
Dwelling deep

Even under these constraints.



Poetry is not a luxury

            for Audre Lorde


The quality of light
Has direct bearing
Upon this form

This illumination
Nameless and formless
Births dark within

Hidden and growing
Your beautiful nightmare
Of places within

These places are dark
Are ancient
Have survived

Within each of us
It is dark
It is ancient

We come as
A desperate wish
We come cobbled

By daily lives
Not idle fantasy
The skeleton of lives

The foundation
Of what has been
Neither forever nor instant



Astrology


Who cares if it isn’t
Real. You were born.
You took your first

Breath. No longer
Existing inside
The future, but

Distinct, astrologically
Speaking. The uses
Are vast and varied.

As a mirror offers
Reassurance and
Alchemy, serious

And vaguely silly,
The reality of the sky
Seems its own kind

Of magic. A chance
To see mirrors
Inextricably linked

To other mirrors,
All looking up. But
The sky isn’t enough

If you want to know,
Ultimately, why
Oceans rise, forests burn.



Ritual


If you hate your job.
If you have a job you dislike.
If you have an unpleasant job.
Please consider building a ritual.
You are free to create one
Anywhere, any time.
There is no place and no time
Not possible.

Keep it simple at the start:
Go to the refrigerator.
The possibilities are endless.
Reach for the milk,
The leftovers,
The hovering moth.
Outrun patterns,
Inhale coffee beans.
If the coffee does not work,
Stare straight ahead.
This always works.

Note: It is essential to do this
Sitting. Feet flat, back straight.
Close your eyes fast as you can.
Repeat. When finished,
Repeat once more.




BIO

Since the pandemic struck, Joy Williams has been holed up in her apartment writing and wishing she had a dog.




A Weed in the Canyon

by Susan E. Lloy

Clementine just purchased a small two-story house on Willow Glen Rd in Laurel Canyon with a lush side garden teeming with lemon, lime and orange trees. It’s absolutely lovely and completely renovated. She scrimped and saved her entire life and, with the help of an inheritance from an uncle, purchased it for one buck shy of a million, which is a steal for this area. The move isn’t at all practical. For one thing she isn’t American and will have to leave the country every six months in order not to be labeled an illegal alien. Nonetheless, she’s here.

Clementine had visited California and many of its counties numerous times wishing she could move to the Golden State. She doesn’t know a soul; yet an undeniable lure has brought her here. It’s the mystique of it all that played a significant slice of her decision. Much has happened here, the music scene that changed a generation, but that history is spent. Even so, there is an aura about this place. Maybe it’s only the warmer weather. It certainly puts a smile on a face instead of freezing one’s ass off as the northern neighbor where polar winds bite at a face, freeze toes and every single bone aches and cries out for comfort.

She has no clue of what to expect from relocating. Change. Something. No matter how insignificant. It felt as if days have remained stagnant the last twenty years and now that’s she’s left the life of the worker bees, she wishes to venture somewhere unknown. Taking in the scents of all unchartered.

It’s the first time in her life that she will live in a detached home since her childhood. For her entire adult life she has lived in apartment buildings hearing the continuous slamming of doors. Haunted by noise and smells of cooking not to her liking. This house is open and airy with an ultra-modern kitchen, dining and living room all in one breadth. Glass pilot doors open to a patio area and upstairs there is an additional living space with a fireplace for cool evenings, a closed bedroom, a courtyard off the second level and a roof garden. It’s sleek and sexy. What more could she wish for?

In all her years Clementine never really learned to drive. When she was young she had been in a serious car accident and two of her cousins had died. She never got over her nervousness of vehicles even if it hasn’t been constructive for her life. She does maintain a driver’s license, though never drives. She forced herself to acquire one to overcome her fear. Still, she has only been behind the wheel three times in sixteen years.

Her home is situated on a bend high up in the canyon and the closest store is more than an hours’ walk. Still, it will help with her weight. She has let herself go the last years. Hiding under think layers of clothes, which is required most of the year, with only a sliver of warmer weather allotted for thinner attire. Here lifestyle is paramount. Fitness. Clean habits. She never gave up smoking. It’s not a heavy addiction, nevertheless she can’t say no when having a drink that has become more of a problem of late. Hell, can’t I have something? It’s her go to for when she’s overdone it.

She sold everything, keeping only a few photographs inside her three large suitcases. Got rid of all her heavy attire. A fresh start – that’s what’s needed. Her kin are all gone and she is childless. What was there to keep her there – nothing. She looks at a photograph of her five-year old self, standing beside a snowman proudly pointing at her creation. It feels so different here with the ocean off in the distance and palm trees erect and alien.

There isn’t a thing to eat. Only a can of espresso she brought in one of her bags. Not even a drop of milk, but makes a stovetop brew. She’ll need the energy to traipse down the hill to the Canyon Country Store and back up again. She grabs a few bags and begins her descent down the winding road. The heat is intense and it scorches her exposed skin. Humidity attacks her hair making her gray locks look like a deviant scrub brush. Often cars pass. Some with surfboards, yet no one offers a lift.

She’s happy to be back in the land of Anglophones after leaving the French province, where she had become one of those people who swore she never would be. One that had lived there for decades, but whose French had remained shabby at best. She did try, but she was always lousy with languages and only had English acquaintances. French was not required for her job with an international import/export company and now she relishes in the thought that if she needs directions or whatever, she can easily converse in her mother tongue. Instead of doing her French best and getting a “Hein-quoi??” Which is the Québécois equivalent of “what the fuck did you say?”

She finally reaches the Canyon Country Store and takes a seat outside before venturing inside to purchase some provisions. They say, sometimes, you can see famous people here, although today there are only loud-mouthed, skimpily-dressed millennials wearing Lululemon and baseball caps taking selfies.

After having a meal and buying all the food items she can easily carry, she begins her amble up the road. By the time she reaches her house she is drenched in sweat and thirsty beyond belief. How she wishes for a frosty Margarita, but she doesn’t have any Tequila in the house. Beer was too heavy to lug up the hill, so she settles for a warm rosé with ice.

As Clementine sits on her garden terrace she feels a tinge of happiness. She does not believe in this state-of-mind. She simply isn’t wired this way. She remembers hints of such a feeling when playing with childhood friends, having a laugh when tripping or in the first bloom of love, but not in the day-to-day and all the therapy in the world won’t change that. When folks say, “I’m great” she believes they are total phonies and liars. Even so, her mood is lighter today.

The city is beautiful lying beneath her feet, especially at night when it is aglow and brimming with life. She ventured into downtown LA a few times to lunch watching the many young fit bodes stroll along the sidewalks, but felt consciously exposed in the sizzling sunlight with all of her abundance displayed in plain sight. She wished herself back up north enshrouded in heavy clothing – a tuque and winter coat and winding scarf partially concealing her face and neck. Here, there is no escaping. No snow gusts or freezing rain or a thousand brown-red turned maple leaves encircling one’s sphere.

It becomes more and more unusual for her to venture down into the city even though it awaits a few minutes from her doorstep. And although she loves the sea and went to the beach a few times, she was too scared to swim. The strong temperamental currents frightened her. She imagined them sucking her far out into the blue with hungry sharks lurking under the swell, ravenous for her generous form. She did enjoy the surfers though, admiring their courage and their highly developed art of riding the waves.

Even though it’s preferable to have her food and liquor delivered from favorite downtown shops, she still sets off every other day down to the Canyon Store. One afternoon after leaving the store she is offered a lift. A yellow, vintage Volkswagen van with a white top slows down along side of her.

“Hey there, you’re lugging a load. Can I offer you a ride?”

He looks friendly enough, with a smiling dog panting out the window; nevertheless he could be the local loony, but she accepts. The van grinds into gear and makes a series of wheezing sounds that reminds her of the van in, Little Miss Sunshine, trying to stay the course with all of its troubles.

“Where ya heading?

“Willow Glen Rd.”

“No problem, we’ll be up there in a jiff. It would be a shame to let a lady trudge up this road with all that gear you’re toting.”

“What’s your name?”

“Clementine.”

“And you?”

She somehow expected him to say Jax or Zane. Something vernacular Californian.

“I’m Bernie. And this is Chili Pepper.”

“Well, this is very kind of you Bernie.”

The dog quietly wags her tail revealing several patches of heavily matted fur.

When they reach her house he beams.

“Maybe we’ll run into each other again.”

She returns his smile watching as he turns the rig around with its groans and spurts of pain. He waves out of the side window and drives and slowly makes his way down the hill. After he is out of sight, she thinks that was kinda nice. She has become somewhat fatigued with herself. Solitude has a shelf life.

When moving in, her next-door neighbors came to welcome her, promising hello to invite her over once they returned, but they were heading to Sicily for five months. The only contact she has with folk here is the staff at the Canyon Store.

Clementine’s used to it. She’s more of a loner, although she can be quite social when she needs to be. The older she’s become people have become less significant to her. She prefers the company of birds or hearing the distant barks of coyotes that howl throughout the canyon every evening. Often they compete with hoot owls serenading everyone within earshot.

A hummingbird feeder hangs from one of the lemon trees and sometimes they come close to her like tiny fairies. One morning a coyote was standing on her patio with three of her cubs. Clementine threw some sliced meat cuts, which they gobbled up like there was no tomorrow. Afterwards, she thought perhaps she had made a mistake. One shouldn’t tamper with wildlife. Imagining them moving in, awaiting grub every day, yet that was their only visit.

Bernie settles in for the evening on an empty lot further down the canyon featuring remnants of an old foundation. His van is camouflaged amongst hearty overgrowth. He knows this locale is only temporary. Soon enough, the builders will arrive to construct a new home.

He is accustomed to this upheaval and has been homeless for years now. At first, he had aspirations of becoming a singer and drifted to Los Angeles in the early eighties. Initially he got gigs as backup vocals and playing acoustic guitar in clubs on the Strip, though in the end it never amounted to anything. He ended up doing odd jobs, mostly in restaurants. He gave it up completely following a motorcycle accident, which left him lame and in constant pain. Forcing him to walk with a cane carved from a tree branch.

Sometimes he busks for money downtown. The tourists are the most generous. Thinking he’s some old throwback from the music scene way back when. He eats a lot in soup kitchens and wanders the hills inquiring about yard work and handyman jobs and often he can earn a few bucks.

Clementine’s out of the loop as far as scoops go. The last time she read the news she saw a photograph of a wild elephant lying dead in a river somewhere in India. Someone had given it explosive fruit. It disgusted her and she vowed to stay clear of what’s going on in the world. It’s only shit.

The house is absent of a television or stereo. She wasted so much time staring at the screen and withdrew from music years ago. Compressed with neighbors and paper-thin walls. Sometimes, though, she twirls around her open space like some excited Dervish. Especially when she hears a tune from the B-52’s or the Ramones or something else to her liking from a car’s open window. She thinks a party would be amusing, but there’s no one to invite.

One evening while sipping a cocktail on her patio she hears a familiar sound. The voice of the van. It seems to be conking to a stop in front of her house and lets out a long series of grunts. She heads to the door and sees Bernie with a bouquet of wildflowers. Chili Pepper sits obediently at his feet.

“Bernie. This is unexpected.”

“Thought I’d take a chance.”

Handing her a mix of locally grown blossoms.

“Well, come in.”

She isn’t at all certain why she invites him in. Though truth be told she is bored with hardly a soul to chat with and celibacy has become too close a companion.

“Would you like a cocktail?”

“That would be nice.”

Clementine goes to the kitchen and Chili Pepper follows close behind. She prepares icy Margaritas in the blender and brings them out to the patio.

He sits across from her taking a deep, long swallow.

“This is really tasty.”

“Want another?”

“Sure. Can’t say no to that.”

She produces two additional delicious dripping glasses and returns with a plate of assorted cheese, crackers, seedless grapes, and a bowl of cold water for Chili Pepper, which the dog gulps down as if it is her last moment on earth. She is offered a few bits of cheese and following her treat, gazes back at Clementine with a grateful smile.

“So Bernie are you still working?”

She does not find this intrusive for they are of similar age.

“I do landscaping from time to time. Keeps me active.”

After the second drink Bernie asks Clementine if he can take a shower.

“I never had the chance before dropping by. I was in the neighborhood you see.”

Although she finds this odd and feels put on the spot, she agrees providing him with a fresh towel. She feels it would be unkind of her to refuse him. A considerable amount of time passes before he emerges cleaner with bits of water lingering in his full, longish hair.

There’s no denying he’s a good-looking man, reminiscent in a certain angle of light of a young Sam Shepard. Inviting, in a definite, raffish way.

“I feel like a new man! Thanks, I really needed that.”

Bernie has started to come over more frequently, but she wonders why he never invites her out to dinner, a movie or anything for that matter. She just assumes he’s stingy, an attribute she doesn’t respect in a man. Still, overall she likes him. He told her about his past. How he grew up on a farm in the Midwest. How he hated it. Forced to do chores upon chores day in day out. How his mother died from an accident when he was four. How his father was mean and beat him and the minute he was old enough to leave he headed here.

By the end of the month he is practically living with her. She even buys steep-priced chow for Chili Pepper from a vet. Chili has taken a shining to Clementine and often Bernie will have to limp over just to rub her head and get a wagging tail. His pained hip doesn’t hinder his sexual performance though, which has proved to be an extra benefit to the friendship.

One afternoon down at the Canyon store one of the guys, Wyatt, whom she’s gotten to know well, shines the spotlight on Bernie.

“Clementine. I realize this is hardly my business, however I’ve seen you from time to time with Bernie. You are a nice lady and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

“What do you mean exactly?”

“Don’t get me wrong. Bernie is a cool dude and all, but he’s sort of a predator.”

“Predator!” You mean sexually perverse?”

“No. No, not that. A player. A sort of douche. It’s just that I’ve seen it again and again throughout the years. A single lady comes to the Canyon and he swoops in like a bird of prey. Ya know, gets chummy, and then makes his move to gain entrée so to speak. Get me? He’s homeless. Bet he didn’t tell you that one. He lives in his van.”

As she eats her lunch on the terrace the story of him being in the area, dropping in, and the ceaseless requests to use the shower start to sink in.

A few nights after following a carefully executed meal, Clementine puts the gears to Bernie.

“So Bernie. Why don’t you ever invite me to your place? Truthfully I get fed up with all the cooking. You know I do –  you once in awhile do, would be nice.”

“Oh, I will. Eventually. I’m ashamed, actually. It’s a mess. You know with the bum leg and all. I’m not much of a housekeeper.”

“M-m-m-m. That’s funny because someone told me, someone whom I trust, that you live in your van and that you make a habit out of befriending single women and moving yourself in. Trust me, I hate liars and I’ve met plenty throughout the years.”

“Man. If I had told you the truth would you have given me a second thought?”

“I dunno know. Maybe I’d feel less disappointed if you’d been upfront from the get-go. But, you never gave me the chance. I don’t judge most folk.

Everyone has had hard times. In spite of that I’d like you to get the hell out. I’ll find a way to contact you if I change my mind. I feel totally deceived and ripped off.”

“Clementine, please believe this wasn’t my intention. I would have told you sooner or later.”

Bernie gathers up his few belongings and his guitar and calls for Chili Pepper who knows a good thing and hides herself where no one can find her.

“Chili Pepper… come on girl. Chili…”

But before he can sniff her out Clementine pushes him out the door. Cane and all. An old tattered duffle bag just misses his head.

Several weeks have passed and no sign of Bernie. She feels bad about keeping Chili and is certain Bernie pines for his dog. Clementine puts a note on the message board of the Canyon Store alerting Bernie that Chili Pepper is happy and misses him since he doesn’t answer his phone. She asks Wyatt to tell him to stop by if he runs into him, but it is as if he has dropped off the planet. Or abducted for that matter.

Truth be told, Berne has already hooked up with another lady. A new addition to the Canyon, a newbie from London named Arabella. He left his van on the entrance driveway to the vacant lot, partially concealed by heavily laden foliage and high-tailed it down Mexico-way with his new squeeze. Not giving Clementine a second thought and a mere nano-second for Chili Pepper. Thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have to stash her somewhere while he’s off gallivanting down South with Arabella, whom he met when he helped her with car trouble and charmed her on the spot right then and there.

Rain has been falling heavily the last week keeping Clementine housebound, preventing her from going down to the Canyon Country Store. Instead, she watches the worrisome stream of brown earth running down the road in front of her house. Chili Pepper has never been happier since her groom and shampoo down at the doggy salon. If Bernie were to appear now she’d give him the cold stare, ignore him and exit the room retreating to one of her many hiding places.

The downpour continues without pause and unbeknownst to Clementine the earth has started to shift. First, she hears a rumbling like an oncoming train. When she looks outside she sees that part of the road has caved in and her next-door neighbors’ house has collapsed like an accordion from the swiftly, accelerating mudslide. She picks up Chili Pepper and speedily walks down the road stepping over fallen trees, boulders and structural debris.

After walking for some time she sees the back of the yellow van lurking from under a palm branch. She opens the door and gently puts Chili in the back on the worn sleeping bag before rummaging around for the keys that are soon discovered taped to the roof of the glove compartment. To her amazement it starts without hesitation, although a little surly and stubborn. She turns the yellow van around, which sighs in disapproval, heading down the Canyon with one wonky wiper clearing her way.


BIO

Susan E. Lloy is the author of two short story collections, But When We Look Closer (2017) and Vita (2019). Susan likes to write about unconventional characters who exist on the edges of ordinary life and is hoping to finish her third collection by spring 2021. She lives in Montreal.




The Blizzard of ‘47

by Anita G. Gorman

In 1947 few cars were parked on our street in Elmhurst, Queens. Those who had cars kept them hidden in garages behind their homes. Rarely did a neighbor drive a car to work; most took the bus on Queens Boulevard or the subway at the Grand Avenue station. An occasional car might travel up or down 55th Road, on its way to the excitement of Manhattan, perhaps, or in the opposite direction toward residential neighborhoods in the more hilly part of Elmhurst. In the summer I would ride my bike up and down the street, and when I was a teen I would venture as far as the World’s Fairgrounds in Flushing or the congested areas of Long Island City. But in 1947 I was only eight and not allowed to venture far from home. Our street and the nearby streets, filled with two-storey houses and narrow driveways, sidewalks and elm trees, would have to provide the entertainment I craved.

On summer days we kids would play potsie—the New York version of hopscotch—or I Declare War, a game that involved a ball and a large chalk circle drawn in the middle of the street and divided into countries we had heard of but never visited. And when winter came, we looked forward to sledding down 55th Road, which boasted a small hill at its top.

As Christmas approached, we hoped for snow, knowing full well that snow and Christmas went together, along with presents and Christmas cookies, and Christmas trees with ornaments and tinsel. In our house Christmas also meant my Swedish mother’s endless toil in the kitchen, making korv (sausage) and head cheese (pressylta) constructed from unknown parts of the pig, jellied veal (kalvsylta), and rice pudding (risgröt) with an almond hidden inside, promising to its lucky recipient good luck in the near future.

How excited we were as we imagined the presents we would receive on Christmas Eve and the second batch of presents on Christmas Day when my mother’s cousins, Ethel and Mabel, would arrive for dinner carrying a suitcase filled with delights for me and my little brother. How excited we were as we imagined the snow that just had to arrive in time for Santa Claus and his sleigh, and for the neighborhood kids and their sleds.

Yet in the midst of all the excitement and happiness, fear loomed, fear that we would be thwarted in our attempts to glide down our little hill on our American Flyers, thwarted by a lonely woman who lived in a basement apartment at the top of the hill. The apartment was part of a two-family house that fronted onto Van Horn Street, and the rear of the basement was exposed so Mrs. Hume did not have to walk down steps to get home. She was tall and thin and had white, curly hair. She lived by herself, and we had no idea what had happened to Mr. Hume. Did she ever have any children? She certainly did not like children. We did not seem to bother her too much in the summertime, since our games were held outside of my house on the more level part of the street. It was during wintertime that we played near her apartment, because she lived right by the little hill, and we needed that little hill. When it snowed, we would pull our sleds up the street to the top of the hill and begin our descent with a flying start at the summit, hoping our sleds would run fast, faster, as fast as possible. Our sledding enraged Mrs. Hume.

At first she would look out the window and peer into the street, scowling at our red and laughing faces. Then she would appear at her door and yell at us, telling us that this was her part of the street and we were not allowed there. I knew that Mrs. Hume did not own the street, that we had a right to go sledding and that she could not stop us. Ah, but she could, and she did.

Snow had already fallen that December in 1947, and we had played boisterously in spite of Mrs. Hume. Then about a week before our Christmas vacation was to start, snow started to fall again. I was in my fourth-grade classroom at Public School 102 at the top of our little hill. Our teacher was employing her usual method of dealing with my naughty classmates: she was yelling at the top of her lungs. That day the yelling didn’t bother me so much, since the snow was falling and once school was over we could take to the little hill and fly down 55th Road until our sleds stopped somewhere in the middle of the street when it became more level.

The snow kept falling, and I was so happy, happy that I would be able to hop on my sled that afternoon and fly down the hill. Finally the bell rang, the snow had stopped, and we were out the door. Our house was a minute from the school, and I was soon in the door, gulping my glass of milk and stuffing a cookie in my mouth. Then I put on my snow pants, my hooded jacket, and my boots. My mother opened the garage door for me, and soon I and my sled were walking up the street. Other kids, I knew, would soon be joining me.

Suddenly I stopped short. Something was wrong. A black line had appeared across the little hill on top of the newly fallen snow. I went up to it, wondering what it could be. I approached slowly. Then I saw what had happened: a path of ashes was now wending its way from one side of the street to the other. Where were the ashes from? They had to be from Mrs. Hume’s coal furnace. Who else would have sprinkled ashes across the street? She had to be the guilty person. Mean Mrs. Hume! There would be no sledding on the hill that day. I turned around and went home.

But that is not the end of my story. Christmas came, and so did my presents and Christmas cookies and the long-awaited visit from my mother’s cousins. Then Christmas dinner was over, and vacation days stretched out in front of us. We longed for more snow. We longed for so much snow that Mrs. Hume would not be able to put ashes on the road. The snow would fall and fall, and no matter how she tried she would not be able to prevent more lovely snowflakes from covering her awful ashes. I was going to get my wish.

The snow started falling on Christmas Day. It did not stop until the next day. I was jubilant. We—Mother Nature and I—had thwarted Mrs. Hume. She would never be able to compete with the Blizzard of ’47. By the time the snow ended, more than twenty-six inches had fallen, and drifts much higher appeared throughout New York City. Mrs. Hume could not leave her apartment to toss ashes on the street. There was one problem: we could not leave our houses either. There was too much snow. Mother Nature had thwarted all of us.

BIO

Anita G. Gorman grew up in Queens and now lives in northeast Ohio. Since 2014 she has had 71 short stories and 19 essays accepted for publication. Her one-act play, Astrid: or, My Swedish Mama, produced at Youngstown Ohio’s Hopewell Theatre in March 2018, starred Anita and her daughter Ingrid.

Overcast

by Gavriel Ross

The generative project forms
Rings, perfect inside
And out. This is where light
Becomes retrospective.
These days propose themselves; body,
Dust, breath. Blue body’s bridge and
The endless setting of things spoken or
Seen near the edge and not abstract
Enough couldn’t make me feel better.
Circle the best selection, omit nothing.



the little things


because little things are so

they wish what they wish

like a button, a grain of
sand, a needle’s eye. they
mention less than a
shadow or a speck of dust

i will wait until later. later

is what there is to do.



Run in Circles, Walk in Lines


Silently slipping from holding
The sun, you stay in river
Islands darker than the clear
Talk that opens mountains,
A string of lumbered ivy.
It’s been forever since I thought of startled light.
Through these thousand heavens, you let down long
Nights of jade wine, and I cannot contain
The concrete favor between our broken line.
September becomes an elegy, crow perched
In pine, on the staircase braids of lace.
The world becomes labored. I let myself out.



Delilah Against the World


More than enough for one
We are goldfish
                         She says a collection
With a strange distance and wants
A confession
                         A commission contained
In prize winning fabric
Her man           The first and only
In English         Is deliverance
And the first prodigal light
Of a son



BIO

Gavriel Ross is poet based in Michigan. He began studying poetry as a teenager and has contributed poems to Ditch Poetry. He was a paramedic for 10 years until he was injured while on duty. He finds that poetry is the most honest and creative way of expressing himself.






A Hasid in the Park

by Akiva Rube

I took a seat under the 40 foot stained glass windows of the Bobover synagogue. My father was sitting to my right, rolling his wet sidelocks around his finger. When the rabbi entered, the man at the front pounded once on the lectern signaling that services would soon begin. We prayed for half an hour and then I stepped out for a short break between the early and late evening prayers. Up the street the sun was setting and all around the shops had their metal gates pulled down and locked for Shabbos.

Standing outside on the curb I noticed Meir Miller and his younger brother Zalman by another synagogue across the street. I went over to say hi and we gathered around a low brick wall that surrounded a brownstone’s front yard. I sat on the wall and Zalman teetered on it with his arms out by his side.

“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked. Meir, who was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, suggested we stay home and play Risk. Zalman waved a hand dismissively, “Let’s get drunk and go to the park.”

Zalman was excited because we had gone to Gravesend Park — the newly renovated playground on 18th avenue– the previous Friday night, and found a group of teenage Hasidim, like ourselves, smoking on Shabbos. To top it off they were a mixture of boys and girls. Zalman grabbed his crotch and clutching it said, “Maybe I’ll get my dick sucked.”

“I’m down,” I said and Meir said he was too.

The side door of their synagogue creaked open and their father stepped out. Mr. Miller looked around and told his sons to come back inside. I wished him Good Shabbos and crossed the street back to Bobov.

When prayer ended my father stuck around to catch up with a few friends. I walked home ahead of him. Children playing tag ran in and out of the empty streets while their mothers and older sisters sat on their stoops and waited for the men to return.

At home, my mother was sitting at the table praying and my younger sister Chavi, all showered and dressed for Shabbos, was reading to the rest of the kids on the carpeted dining room floor.

“Can you see George peeking from under the yellow hat? Can you see him, Shloimy?” She asked. Shloimy nodded. My mother’s glasses rested near the tip of her nose and she looked over the lenses to Chavi. Then she turned to me and asked, “How was it tonight?”

“Good,” I said. I’m so zonked and hungry, what did you make?”

“The usual, gefilte fish, soup, salad, and chicken.” She pointed to each on the counter and gently rocked a bassinet with her foot. I gave Shloimy a little pinch on the cheek but he turned his face and put his arms around Chavi. We sat quietly then, listening, as Chavi read on.

After a few minutes, we turned to the sound of my father’s footsteps coming up the stairs and then his voice, he began to sing, welcoming the Shabbos angels in a short hymn. Chavi closed the book and my father came in bellowing, “Good Shabbos.” Shloimy stood up and ran into his legs yelling “Good Shabbos, Tati.” 

*** 

The Miller house was the next one over and as familiar to me as my own. Our parents had been friends and neighbors before any of the kids were born, and my earliest memories featured Meir and Zalman, the two oldest of the family. As kids, the three of us would ride our bikes up and around every block in Borough Park. And when we got bored, we climbed the garage that was behind their house and jumped along those annexed to every subsequent house on the street.

After my Friday night meal, I walked to the Miller house, as I did every week. I turned the knob to their apartment, which, like ours, was always unlocked. Mr. Miller sat with his back to the door at the head of their long dining table, beneath a crystal chandelier. As soon as I entered, Zalman, who was sitting at the other end and facing me, shouted in Yiddish, “Ah, Good Shabbos Reb Pinchus, how are you?” and I shouted back, “Thank God Reb Zalman, and you?” The little girls and boys started giggling and then imitating, screaming to each other, “Good Shabbos Reb so and so or “Good Shabbos Rebitzin” so and so. Mr. Miller turned to me with a smile and wished me Good Shabbos.

“Good Shabbos Pinchus,” Mrs. Miller said as she walked from the kitchen with a bowl of soup that she set down in front of Mr. Miller.

“Good Shabbos,” I said and stepped over all the Yiddish childrens books spilled from capsized storage containers. I sat down near Zalman. I turned around and Shifra, who’d just come in from the kitchen, was behind me, also carrying soup.

“Good Shabbos,” she said to me. She was the third child and only a year younger than Zalman. She wore a white, long sleeve shirt under a sleeveless, blue-belted dress, and a studded headband that puffed her hair in the front. She rounded the table and handed Meir his bowl with two bobbing knaidlach.

“Good Shabbos.” I said.

“What are you doing tonight?” she whispered. We’d told her last week about the people in the park.

“Not sure yet” I said smiling.

“You want soup?” she asked.

“No, thanks.”

Mr. Miller began a song about the beauty of Shabbos and all the boys joined in. When we were done, Meir and Mr. Miller began to argue about the meaning of a verse in that week’s Torah reading. Occasionally, I turned to see Meir stroking his hairless chin and furrowing his brow.

By the wall near Zalman and I there was a small table with a mix of silver and earthenware candlesticks, one for each family member. The wax had burned down and over. On the same wall there was a picture of a rabbi over a book with candles by his side.

***

There was a synagogue with an open liquor cabinet in its basement just a few blocks down. When we arrived we sat on padded folding chairs among stacked bookcases and drank from Styrofoam cups. Zalman found some orange juice in the fridge and added it to his cup.

“Screwdrivers all around,” he said. I smiled. Zalman had just learned this word and was now apt to say at any time. “Ah, I could really go for a screwdriver. You know?”

Within an hour we finished the bottle. Meir was rolling on the cold marble floor with his hand down his pants, and Zalman waved the bottle in triumph.

*** 

Even before entering the park we heard teenagers speaking in English and Yiddish, and pretty soon we were among them.

Clouds of smoke rose from the groups scattered around the playground, and coming up I could see a teenage boy with gelled black hair. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and had a cigarette in his hand. He and another guy stood beside a girl. She wore a sweetheart top that revealed a five-inch tattoo of the sun on her upper back. I asked the smoking guy for a cigarette. He stuck his hand in his pocket and opened a pack of Newports toward me. I removed one and placed it between my lips; he pressed on his lighter and I inhaled.

He turned to the girl and continued “So, which is it?”

Sukkis” she said.

He had asked what Jewish holiday she most missed celebrating. She went on to describe how decorating the Sukkah had meant a lot to her. Yes, it was her father and older brother who lugged the wood panels and bamboo sticks from the garage, laid them out in the driveway and built the structure that they would sleep, eat and sing in for a week. But she was the one who went to the arts and crafts store and bought paint, string, glue, and paper and designed much of the interior.

Then she looked at me and said “Hi, I’m Esty, and this” she said pointing to the boy who gave me the cigarette “is Baruch.” The other one who was slouching and had shoulder length curly hair was Yoni.

“My name is Pinchus” I said. “What do you all do?”

“I’m studying psychology at Hunter College,” she said. “I want to be a therapist.” Baruch was an EMT and Yoni was an English major at Brooklyn College. I told them what I did, which was go to high school. And even though not one of them was a day over 20 they went on about how much younger I was, and about how fast time passes.

“To tell you the truth, I think that as soon as you’re born you start missing opportunities,” Yoni said.

“Why stop there?” Esty asked. “Some opportunities might be lost in utero, no?”

“Exactly!” and he clapped his hands together.

Yoni’s favorite holiday was Shavuous. He still celebrated, he added proudly. Every year he and his “buddies” stayed up all night reading, instead of the Talmud, whatever books they’d read and appreciated that year.

They had a certain pride in the way they sounded and even lapsed back into Yiddish if they felt a point could be better made by its use. For two hours we talked and almost finished Baruch’s cigarettes, who, by the way, smoked them not like some inexperienced teenager, but like the Marlboro Man himself.

Later I found Zalman, who told me that Meir was lying passed out near the swings. Zalman poked Meir, “Hello, wake up.” But Meir was out. We got under his arms and carried him home.

Standing outside the Miller house, I was scared that a neighbor would come out and see us, maybe walk too close and smell the cigarettes. But we got in quickly enough and took Meir through the dining room where we had been earlier and into the room that Zalman and Meir shared. Zalman put Meir down on his bed and said to me “he owes me at least one cigarette.” He sat down near Meir and asked, “Who the hell were these people? They’re from here?” He put his hand on the window sill and opened the window. Then we heard a noise in the hallway. Zalman opened the door and it was Shifra. She was in pajamas, my view of her mostly obscured but I could see her briefly in a formless white robe, her hair undone.

“Go to sleep” he told her. She argued for a moment but then she was gone.

Zalman sat down again on the bed. “What’s up with these guys?” he said to me, his voice lower now.

“Some are in college.”

“Really?”

“Yup, Hunter and Brooklyn.”

“What I don’t understand, is where they go the first day.” He said.

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s say some guy decides ‘I’m going off,’ you know, ‘I’m leaving.’”

“Yeah.”

“Where does he go? Where does he sleep that night?” he emphasized ‘that’ by pressing his finger on the bed.

Meir rolled in the bed to face us and muttered, “It’s silly.”

“Oh welcome back.” Zalman said.

“What’s the point in ‘going off’?”  Meir said. “Just to smoke a couple cigarettes on Shabbos? Big deal.”

“It’s not about that.” I said.

“What is it then, sex? You think the whole world is going to line up to have sex with you?”

“Why not?” Zalman said.

 “It’s not about that either,” I said. “The question is whether it’s true. Do you believe it?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Meir asked.

“Why should you, is the question, not, why shouldn’t you.”

“I believe in God.” Zalman said.

“Then how can you smoke on Shabbos?” I asked.

“I don’t know; I just want to.”

“I don’t understand that.” I said.

“You know, you’re talking all the time about the truth,” Meir said. “’Is it true? Do I believe it?’ But this has nothing to do with the truth. This is about two things,” he held two fingers in the air, “freedom and happiness. You go to the park and see people dressing how they want to dress and you think to yourself, I want to have the freedom of controlling how I look, which is really the freedom to control how other people see you. And I understand that, they are definitely more free in that and many other ways, but are they really any happier? I’m not so sure. Now ask me if I’m happy.”

“What?”

“Ask me. ‘Are you happy?’”

“Ok, Are you happy?” I asked.

“Yes, very.” he said. “Are you?”

I leaned back in my chair and looked at Zalman. Out the window I could see the yeshiva the three of us had gone to. Not far beyond that is where my grandparents lived. The nest to which I and my many cousins from across New York and New Jersey would flock for endless holiday and family celebrations, Sukkis among them. I like pulling wood from the shed and building the sukkah, I thought. And I like staying up all night on Shavuous learning with Zalman and Meir. I also like looking for bread crumbs by candlelight and unabashedly dancing with Torah scrolls.

“I am.” I said.

Zalman climbed the bunk bed and threw his pants over. I lay down on the floor but couldn’t sleep. After a while I walked home.

***

The next morning a cone of light shone into my room, the clock read 11:00 AM. I dressed quickly and masked the smell of cigarettes with Old Spice. When my father arrived I was waiting for him at the dining room table. The meal passed, as it usually did, with singing, discussion, and questions and answers. Exiting my house, I decided not to visit the Millers but to take a walk near the outskirts of our community. As I approached the implicit boundary between our neighborhood and the Italian one on 18th Avenue, the sound of running cars became more frequent.

I noticed Shifra on the opposite side of the avenue in much the same clothing she’d worn at last night’s meal. She looked both ways before crossing. 

Good Shabbos, we said to each other. We walked for a minute and then she said, “Let’s go to Manhattan.” When I looked at her, she showed me a Metro Card, cupped in her hand.

“I have enough on here for both” she said “to come back too.”

“What will we do?”

“Nothing, just walk around.”

“Where?

“I don’t know yet but we have to go soon.”

“Have you done this before?”

“Yes, are you coming?”

“Yes” I said and I followed her to the Fort Hamilton station where, out of view, we darted down the stairs and ran to the end of the platform.


BIO

Akiva Rube is a chemistry research assistant and laboratory instructor at Yeshiva University. He enjoys writing, cycling, and being involved in collaborative projects. 




Let He Who Is Without Sin Hurl The First Haggis

By James W. Morris

Like most fiction writers, I spend a significant portion of my time alone, obsessively and intensively fretting about the personal problems of people who don’t exist. Whether an inborn proclivity for solitude leads a person to accepting a calling to write fiction, or whether a fervid desire to write fiction forces an otherwise normal person to develop a tolerance for being on his own is a controversy on which I take no stance. I’m not worried about it either way.

Neither am I concerned about the fact that I talk to myself when I’m alone. I often compose sentences aloud, voicing possible dialog, or sounding out hard-wrought descriptive passages, listening ardently for the music I want them to make.

What I am worried about is that lately when I talk to myself I’ve been doing so with a Scottish accent.

My first thought upon making this realization was just what anyone else’s would be: “Hey, I’m suddenly speaking with a Scottish accent! I must have had a stroke!” But then I remembered that having a stroke makes speakers of English produce a French accent, not a Scottish one, and I felt a bit better.

But the question remains: why Scottish? I have had some minor contact with that culture over the years, but enjoy no direct ancestry from that country that I know of, and even if I did, my family on both sides have been in America for centuries. It’s true that my grandmother’s second husband was a Scottish immigrant, and I liked him and occasionally emulated the interesting way he talked, but he was no blood relative, so I can’t imagine how any previously-dormant, burr-inducing gene or revenant race memory could cause my new way of speaking.

Of course, as a writer, I have found much to admire over the years about the literary culture of Scotland. A number of great authors hail from there—Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Burns, the nation’s premier poet, who in the 18th century wrote these memorable lines:

                        Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

                        Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

These thoughtfully constructed, sincerely admiring lines were part of a lengthy (eight stanza) love poem addressed to—you guessed it—a haggis. How very Scottish.

Speaking of haggis, I experienced some hands-on contact with that moderately-disgusting feature of Scottish culture in 1998, when I attended a local festival and managed second place in a haggis-hurling contest. A haggis, by the way, is a traditional Scottish pudding made from a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, chopped up and mixed with oatmeal and suet, and slow-cooked in the animal’s stomach. (If you don’t know what suet is, be glad.) Creating a contest in which the (surprisingly dense and heavy) haggis is tossed for distance might seem an arbitrary exercise, but to me it makes perfect sense: the first thing any sane person should want to do when faced with a haggis is throw it as far away as possible.

Maybe I’m just bored with my normal way of talking. I’m from Philadelphia, and we have a distinct, if not entirely charming accent, being fairly well-known by linguistic types for pronouncing the word “water” as “wood-er.” Also, try to stop us from substituting an “f” sound for some our word-ending “th”s, and inserting an arbitrary “h” between any “s” and a “tr” we come across. Thus, we might say:

                        “Yo, go wiff me up Fiff Shtreet to get some wooder ice.”

Let’s face it: you can get tired of this sort of thing after a while. So is it entirely unreasonable to imagine I might make an unconscious decision to employ a more enjoyable accent—one with trilling “r”s and rising inflections on sentences that aren’t even questions—as long as no one else is there to hear it?

But writers are as superstitious as ballplayers, and we worry about little things affecting our individual prose style the way a batter worries about his swing. Could talking to myself, composing sentences in an accent other than my traditional one, infect my precious prose? Might it, in some indefinable manner, add a deadly taint of falsity? A P.G. Wodehouse story read in a Jamaican or Transylvanian accent would still be quite amusing, yet ridiculous in a wholly unintended way. An author can be always be silly but should never be ridiculous.

Sometimes the best way to consider a proposition is to reverse-engineer it: can I picture Robert Burns amusing himself by speaking in a Philadelphia accent while penning paeans to haggis? Well, no. He was true to himself and his culture, and I should probably just shut up and be true to mine. As one of the great philosophers (Popeye) once said: I yam what I yam. Besides, I’ve realized there is a locally-made foodstuff I could write about which is the gastronomic and moral equivalent of haggis—scrapple. This product is the equivalent of haggis because anyone contemplating eating some should be equally afraid to know what is in it. A cement-colored thick meat paste, scrapple is molded into a brick shape, then sliced and fried. According to admittedly unverified rumors I heard as a kid, it contains mostly ground-up pigs’ guts, blood, eyes, lips, bones, gristle, snouts, hoofs, and tails, as well as whatever was swept up from the floor of the slaughterhouse at the end of the night—including sawdust. As a vegetarian, I’m going to find it a quite a writing challenge to compose an eight-stanza love poem about scrapple—but at least whatever I produce will have a genuinely Philadelphian accent.     


BIO

James W. Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, essays, and poems in various literary magazines, including PHILADELPHIA STORIES and ZAHIR. He has also written one play, RUDE BABY, which was recently produced, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno.


Winter fell like a hammer.
Days cut off at the knees.
Was this house always so dark?
Was that tree always so menacing?

The moon is swollen and seeps
into the clouds. A baby howls,
then a dog. Songbirds all gone silent.
What is that rustling in your chest?




It was Thursday when the doors closed
for good. I went home but couldn’t
sleep. Body accustomed to living
by starlight – rising at dusk, sleeping
at dawn. The cats and I keep
the same schedule. Nocturnal,
not lonely. I name the foxes
that shuffle through the garden.




I miss the sound of glasses clinking
in hands, dishwashers. Miss
the steamy windows. The jostling
for space. The smell of old beer
in hair, clothes. Miss
Friday nights and your hands
rolling cigarettes, waiting
for my break.

Now it’s always Monday, always
noon. Now my hands are
the only hands and
everything is already broken. No
cigarettes, just these few
empty rooms and a pair
of ceramic wrens silent
on the bookcase.


BIO

Kate Porter is a full-time bartender and part-time poet. She has been writing for years but has only recently begun submitting work for publication. This is her first publication outside her local paper.

The Costume Party

by K.D. Alter

My Uncle Bobby likes to say if you live long enough you’ll see everything, but I never thought I’d live long enough to see a 60-year-old man, ex-military at that, yelling “Go f— yourself!” to his wife’s folks who’re in their eighties or nineties maybe who stood there trembling like kittens. Duke was mad as hell on account the folks were asking him and Charlene to move off the ranch and he’d gotten into telling himself this was his place and not theirs. When they told Charlene (who the folks call Charm, and not sarcastic) she began hollering and storming about the place knocking things over, including some relics Grandpappy brought from Korea when he was in the service. When they walked out, Duke cornered them and stood about a foot away cussing their faces off. Grandpappy is still half a head taller than Duke but that doesn’t make a difference when you’re like 90.

Duke’s not his real name but Jean, but that name doesn’t fit his hat, boots, or 4 x 4 Ram 2500 Laramie with the jacked-up suspension which he bought off Ray Santos for a thousand bucks because Ray’s old lady left the windows down when they went away for a week and it rained every day and the truck got molded out. Duke spent all summer stripping and changing out the inside. He didn’t lower it down though, even though he’s always saying only a moron would jack it up that high. That and the driver’s door is jammed so you have to climb in from the other side. But Duke seems to like sitting up there. Maybe also he keeps it that way to keep Charlene from driving it because she has a hard time climbing up into it. I offered Charlene to fix it once and when Duke heard he took me out behind the barn and said, “You ever do that again and I’ll rip off your head and shit down your neck.”

I personally think the folks might’ve had better sense than to lay the news right to their face but could’ve called from Reno where they live most of the time. Right now, they were stuck out by the redwoods Grandpappy planted when he was a kid and I heard Grandma’s words choking in the wind, “I can’t take this, Henry.” Grandpappy was standing looking like he was trying to solve an arithmetic problem but Grandma was pink in the face, scared and angry and sorry all at the same time. The wind was blowing like mad and Grandma’s cape was flapping around like a tarp. Even Admiral, which is Duke and Charlene’s Newfie, was steering clear. He’s old and wise and can sense a bad situation.

Now I’m just the hired man and I’ve been told it’s not my place to butt in, but when I saw the folks standing so pitiful and Duke stomping around, I picked up a fitting I was working on and jammed it in the wrong way and went up to Duke to ask if he could help me set it right. I knew he’d yell at me, so I made myself goofy and I walked right up and held out the fitting and I go, “I know you’re busy but could you undo this thing because otherwise my whole hour’s ruined.” There’s nothing in this world Duke hates more than a wasted hour. It’s the folks’ money but he still can’t help himself. Sure thing he fell for it, his goatee getting right in the grease because his jaw does this funny back and forth on account of his Parkinson’s. The folks turned around and ran back in the house.

Duke and Charlene’ve been living up here since their house got foreclosed down in Orange County. From what I heard, they lived for two years rent free even though they could afford to pay, but the house got under water so they just stayed until the sheriff came and hauled them out. I’d sooner live under a bridge than in a house with a foreclosure sign on it, it’s a kind of disrespect to yourself. But Duke’s a skinflint and never misses an opportunity to get something for nothing. Charlene goes to the food pantry every week for groceries. When she pulls up in her 2010 5.7 liter Sequoia when everyone else is in some pathetic beater truck, she tells them it’s not for her. But she just brings it all home and then ends up throwing half of it out. Sometimes she offers some to me and Cherry, but we never take any.

After they got chucked out of Orange County Charlene begged the folks to let her stay up here. The folks agreed to it and moved out of the ranch house where they lived 22 years and they set up to stay down in the bunkhouse which was never really a bunkhouse but a single-wide that they busted out with an extra room and faced with old lumber so that it looked like a regular house and pretty nice at that. The ranch house is sweet but apart from the extra bedroom the folks added it’s just an old shotgun and it’s always a question about whether it’s better to put lipstick on the pig or tear it down and start over. The place holds lots of memories so they poured money into it over the years and it was pretty generous of them to move out to let Charm and Duke and Chatamoise (pronounced Shamwah), their daughter, move in. Grandpappy worked as a radar engineer for the military in LA until they retired up here full time. Grandpappy kept his souvenirs and photography stuff down at the bunkhouse and figured that’s where he’d work on them so they might as well move down there. That’s the same time they bought a second place in Reno so they could be near doctors.

Charlene’s main hobby in Orange County was going to estate sales and they never throwed anything out so they had literally a ton of dead people’s shit. The military moved it all up here for free. There’s lots of free things you get being ex-military people don’t know about. All I ever hear is vets bitching about their medical benefits, but in my opinion they’ve got it pretty sweet. Duke and Charlene are always running to the VA in Yuba. Charlene stockpiles all the medicine they give her. When me and Cherry go to the clinic we wait all day and only get a nurse who looks at us for like a minute and then ends up giving us antibiotics or painkillers no matter what we come in for. Anyway, when they came up here they didn’t have place for their stuff so they sold every stick of the folks’ furnitures in the ranch house, took down the pictures, filled it with their stuff and settled in like it was theirs all along.

Grandpappy’ folks were dust bowlers who came to California back in the day and though their furnitures weren’t fancy I could see why they’d be sentimental over seeing it all sold off for pretty much nothing. When they found out they went over to Jenna Ruth’s in town to try to buy it all back but most of it was gone already. I wouldn’t of blamed them for being mad as hell but Charm’s their only kid, or the only living one anyway since there was a brother who died young. The folks just sucked it up. They started spending most of their time in Reno.

Around that same time their old hand Devin died of hepatitis and they hired me to look after the place. Duke and Charm could’ve done it, but they don’t like to work. I heard them say to the folks lots of times, “You’re not gonna turn us into Devin.” Other times they call Devin a drunk and a bum. That’s not right because it’s Duke and Charm who’re lazy, watching TV and complaining how they don’t have any place for their stuff. Devin drank too much maybe but he did good work and they’re not half the man he was.

I bring lots of ideas to Duke and Charm about how to make money, sure-fire things like selling firewood, which’d also help against forest fires, or growing garlic—I know a guy up here makes 17 thousand an acre on garlic. I’d do all the work because I can cut trees, run cattle or farm in my sleep. But every time I bring something up they keep saying, “Oh no! That’d be too much work.” My theory is they got plenty of money because the folks pay for every lick up here and they’ve got pension and disability besides. Every time I pick up the mail there’s a check in it.

What changed was last summer when Grandma’s cousin came up from LA and set looking through the books and telling the folks they can’t afford to keep supporting “the kids”. I only know what I picked up from conversation here and there when I was walking around and the windows were open because it was summer, but something I heard the cousin saying is why can’t Charlene ever get a job because she never worked a day in her life and Duke’s been retired since he’s 39 when he finished his twenty in the navy.

It made perfect sense to me but Grandma especially kept crying how it was her fault and how they couldn’t just throw her Charmy off. They worried about where would Chatamois go. Chatamois’s twenty-one. She quit school when her folks came to live up here and she’s hardly ever off the hill. She doesn’t even know anyone, except for maybe me and a couple of the hippies who moved up here to grow weed. She hardly leaves the place except to go to the Red Bear to pick up smokes. She and her mom pretty much live in front of the TV. It’s a bone of contention between Duke and Charlene, him saying it’s no good for a girl to be stuck on her mom that way. I’m with him on this one, even though I also feel bad for Charlene. Chatamois’s her only friend in the world and Charlene won’t let her go.

I don’t mind talking to Chatamois, sometimes we go to the outdoor kitchen to smoke a J. She’s smart and sorta pretty too, but after a while she makes me feel uncomfortable because no matter who or what she’s always getting sexual. I got my old lady and I’m not interested in the least but I’ve seen Chatamois pull her shorts over her crotch right in front of Grandpappy, making like she was getting out an itch, but I could see she was enjoying his uncomfort and she was smiling and licking her teeth at me the whole time. I don’t want to look either but when I get fascinated by something I can’t help myself and the look she had on her face seeing Pappy fidget and look off like he was trying to solve a science problem in another universe is a sight my mind won’t let go of soon.

Anyway, after a fight at Christmas over the popovers when Grandma asked Duke to quit eating all the popovers before the meal and he and Charlene stormed out over it, I guess something clicked and the folks decided after all to ask Duke and Charlene to move out. They told them they had a year to do it, which in my opinion was as good as not asking them at all, but that’s what they did. I already told you about what happened on the day they told them. After the folks packed off I left too so I wouldn’t get interrogated by Duke about what the folks were saying in the house because he’s always asking me who said what about them and then making me swear not to repeat anything they say or do.

Charlene told Duke to quit worrying because the folks would change their mind. Eventually the ranch would come to them. Not that that would guarantee Duke’s security because Charm’s always threatening that as soon as she has the deed she’s going to find a new husband who doesn’t piss off the porch and have Parkinson’s. Charm’s a real piece of work all right. Grandma told me that when Charm was a baby she used to spread her poop all over the sofa. She also said, and she made me promise never to repeat it, that their son Eric, the one that died in high school, was really their favorite. It made me tear up to hear her say it, especially because the chances are Charlene knows it too, but that’s how families go on, I suppose.

Soon enough they all went back to drinking cocktails together, plastered and forgetting each other’s sins. No one ever mentioned Duke and Charm leaving again.

Until Halloween. I remember the day exactly because the folks invited me and Cherry for dinner down at the bunkhouse to celebrate. Halloween must be the family’s favorite holiday, because even though there’s nobody else to see it they decorate the bejesus out of the place. This year they went crazier than ever. Everywhere outside was blow-up monsters with lights and witch’s laughs coming out of them, skulls and bones, tombstones and a hanging mummy that really could scare you. Everything was even scarier because the wind was blowing like mad and the ghouls were straining at their ropes, leaping at us on our way to the door. Admiral wouldn’t even come near the place but stood about fifty feet out barking his brains out and looking like he couldn’t figure out why we weren’t out there with him. Inside you had to walk through cotton spider webs, rats with red eyes lit up and jerking all over the floor, and hanging from the chandelier was a canvas sack with a foot sticking out of it that twitched. I swear they must’ve spent a thousand bucks on decorations.

Grandma told me and Cherry to dress up. “Make sure you bring the right costume,” she said. I was too embarrassed to ask what she meant because Cherry and me’d never been to a costume party before. Cherry’s good at the sewing machine though and she fixed us up, me as a lumberjack, which isn’t that much of a costume once you think about it, and she dug up some of her gramma’s clothes and came as a country maid like from the 1980s. I brought an old axe I’d dug up the head to on a job over in Rackerby and I carved a handle for it.

Duke came as a Viking with a fur coat that went all the way to the ground and a plastic helmet with two horns. He also carried a shield and instead of an axe he brought a chainsaw. Me and him kidded around that we should trade tools but then we didn’t. Charlene came as a Mother Superior, with a habit, only with a joke crucifix that was about a foot long and jelly bean prayer beads. Cherry’s Catholic and whispered to me she was offended but I told her it’s all pretend and she should just make believe it’s funny but she said she couldn’t.

Grandpappy’ outfit was wild. He was the headless horseman, with a bloody stump made from a real pork chop at the top and holding his own head at an angle in front of his chest. He was about seven feet tall. I still can’t figure out how he got his head to stay at that angle. When he wasn’t using his hands he kept them around his head like it was someone else holding it. Cherry got pictures of it on her phone. Grandma came in wearing a homemade spider skirt that might’ve looked better on someone fifty years younger but she was kinda cute anyway once you got out of the habit of accidentally looking at her legs. She had cotton candy webs that she’d pick off with her fingers and eat.

Pappy is in his favorite mood when he’s fixing cocktails and even Charlene was helping in the kitchen. Me and Cherry were in a good mood too on account we had amazing news. I know Cherry didn’t want me to jinx it by telling too early but after one of those Moscow Mules Grandpappy makes I blurted out to everyone that Cherry and me were going to be parents. Everyone started clapping and laughing and I felt all warm toward the whole family, even to Charlene who hugged me and I could smell how loaded she was. She’s a happy drunk, which isn’t that much of a surprise because people usually become their own opposites when they’ve had a few. Duke shook my hand and said being a Dad was the best thing you could be in this world and he hoped for me it was a boy because looking after a girl was a full-time job. Chatamois, who acourse was dressed like a prostitute, went “Oh Daddy!” while pushing her tits up real flirtatious and everyone laughed the way you’re supposed to in a family and everything felt happy, if also a little weird.

Just when everything was cheery and I was hoping the family was finally healed, everything went to hell. I’ll tell it like I experienced it and then you’ll know how it happened.

Grandma made a cake for her birthday because it’s on November 2nd. Everyone was so merry she said why don’t we have dessert first for a change and she took the cake out and everyone sang Happy Birthday. Then outta nowhere Charlene started screaming at her mom that all this waiting was making Duke sick because he needed to eat on time on account of his Parkinson’s. Sure enough, Duke was sitting in one of the easy chairs staring off like he was a Viking who died with his eyes open, though I swear that two minutes before he was singing Happy Birthday with the best of them. He still had the chainsaw on his lap.

Well, Grandma told Charm that she could’ve just gone anytime and fed her husband because it was her job to. Charm narrowed her eyes in a way that always chills my spine when I see it and said, “You don’t give a rat’s ass about Jean or me but only yourself.”

Grandma said, “Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” and then something like “You wanna blame me but the truth is you never feed that poor man when he needs it so you’ve got nerve coming to my house blaming me.”

The way she said my house told the whole story.

Charm looked like she was deciding whether to walk out or not. I was standing there waiting to see what would happen next but Cherry’s smarter than me, at least when it comes to people, and she said, “This has been really nice but I think we’d better be going,” and she took my arm.

Now Grandpappy was standing in the kitchen the whole time nursing his drink and trying not to get killed like an innocent bystander. “No one’s going anywhere. This is a celebration and it’s not getting ruined by anybody’s bad temper!” he said, and he was staring right at Charlene when he said it. Charm looked like she might cry because Pappy is usually sweet on her. “Everyone sit down!” he went on, and then he turned to Cherry saying he and Grandma had a gift for her and for our new baby and he wanted us to turn around so he could get it and it’d be a happy surprise.

Charlene forgot all about Duke who seemed to be wearing his so-called Parkinson’s mask for real this time, but Chatamois was in the kitchen fixing a pile of gravy ham for her dad and told him to hang in there. That perked him up a bit and he started drinking his Mule again. I leaned over and said maybe he ought to wait for the food because drinking on an empty stomach can make you sick and a lot of times when you’re taking medicine for your brain you’re not supposed to drink alcohol in the first place. Duke just said “Jackass” through his teeth. I joined my wife and turned around toward the kitchen with our backs to the bookcase like Grandpappy asked us to. I was feeling uncomfortable, I don’t like accepting gifts in the first place, but Cherry took my arm and I waited and smiled at Grandma who was sitting in the other big chair with her feet up cradling her drink on her round spider belly, breathing deep and not really smiling.

Cherry asked Grandma if she was okay and Grandma gave a weak smile and said, “Don’t look, Sweetheart.”

Now I know the folks keep a lot of cash hidden in a fake book they have which is a good hiding place because they have more books than a library and you’d have to spend all day finding the one that’s got the money in it, and that’s if you knew money was in one of them in the first place. I knew it was the cash they were going for when Cherry and me turned around.

We stayed turned around smiling until I heard a giant “What??!!” from Grandpappy. Grandma bugged her eyes out and her drink fell off her lap. Cherry bent down to clean up the mess. She reached to take Grandma’s hand, saying “Grandma, are you okay?” but Grandma took back her hand and didn’t say anything.

I figured it was okay to turn around and what I saw was Grandpappy holding the fake book with the flap hanging down at the same angle as his head and he said, all sober, like in a kind of church voice, “There was nearly forty thousand dollars in here.”

The whole place was like a bomb had gone off and no one could move. Everyone was looking at everyone else but more at me than anyone.

All I could think about was how when the well stopped working a couple of months ago and it was an emergency and Duke called Grandpappy in Reno saying they needed cash right away to pay the guy from the pump company, the two of us were in the bunkhouse and Duke went to the money book and he saw that I saw. I made like I wasn’t looking but he told me right then and there that if there was ever money missing he’d know who stole it. I told him to hide it somewhere else because I didn’t want to get accused and he just said he would and I never thought about it again until Halloween when the money was gone and I could see from where Grandpappy was standing and the empty place in the shelf that it never did move. Duke said, “Well, Carl, where’s the money?”

Now I’m the first to understand that blood’s thicker than water even when the blood is bad, and as soon as he said that I knew the folks weren’t going to be blaming Duke but me and I just stood there and went, “No way! Nobody’s pinning this on me.”

Grandpappy said, “No one’s blaming anybody—yet. Now’s just about figuring out where it is and putting it back because that’s a lifetime of savings and no one here wants to bring Grandma and me that kind of suffering.”

“Maybe you took it to Reno?” Charlene said.

I think maybe Grandma could’ve thought a little harder before she yelled back, “Why are you always treating us like we’re a buncha doddering old fools?” And then there was another long fight I won’t repeat because it gets boring after a while everyone saying the same stupid stuff. But I’ll say it was pretty hurtful because Charm accused her mom of never letting go of her dead brother and that after forty years she still loved him more than her. Grandma and Pappy both cried for a while and Grandma even said she wished she was dead. It was heartbreaking just to be there and I’m not even part of the family. Everyone except maybe me and Cherry seemed to forget about the money. But even though I’d of rather been anywhere else but there, I knew there was no way I could just say, “All right everyone, Happy Halloween, Cherry and me are leaving.”

It was a real brainteaser about the money because I knew I didn’t take it but to be perfectly honest I didn’t think Duke or Charm did either. Not that they don’t steal all the time but their routine is to do it only a little at a time so you can never pin it on them. And almost for sure Chatamois didn’t take it because she loves her gramma and grampa too much. When Charlene was making Grandma cry, Chatamois climbed into her lap to make her feel better and that stopped the fight. Charlene growled at her like a bear but Chatamois just dug her face into Grandma’s shoulder and she had to quit. Right now Chatamois was back in the kitchen poking the ice in her drink with her finger, looking bored like she’d been through all this before.

Grandpappy said we’d all better go looking for the money.

Acourse everyone knew there wasn’t much point looking for it in the house. No one would take it all out and put it somewhere else in the same house by accident. But we all went looking anyway because if we didn’t then all there’d be left to do was stand around pointing fingers at each other and not even Charlene seemed in the mood for it though she kept looking daggers at me.

Grandma didn’t get up but just stared like she was in the front seat of the firetruck watching her own house burn down. She kept saying “We’re ruined.” And Grandpappy also said like five times, “We’ll have to sell the ranch.”

It wasn’t maybe ten minutes again before Charlene yelled out, her face red and her arms stiff like she was filling her diaper, “This is bullshit! It’s obvious Carl took the money so why’re we putting on this charade? That imbecile’s always snooping around and he knows damn well where the money is.”

Then Duke got up like he was going to punch me or something (which is of course a laugh) and said that’s it he was coming over to my place right now to look for the money.

I knew I had to keep my cool because even though I never took the money, if I got all angry it would look like I was getting defensive. So I go, “You can come over and search my place for as long and hard as you like. But in my opinion,” I said to the folks, “I think you took the money to Reno and forgot. I’m going home now. Duke’s welcome to follow me home and spend all night looking to his heart’s content. If he finds any more than fifty bucks he can keep it. You people are crazy and I quit.”

Neither Grandma or Pappy said a word as me and Cherry were getting our coats. Duke wasn’t going to follow me home. Even if I did steal the money he’d never know where to look for it, and it wouldn’t of been my fault if my dogs tore his nuts off either.

Well now I’ll tell you a happy ending because that’s what you’d need to hear right around now.

Grandma and Pappy went back to Reno the next morning and sure enough they found not forty but forty-two thousand in a paper bag. Grandma remembered when she saw it that she took it last time they went to Reno. They felt bad about not trusting me and called to ask if I’d come back and work for them and how did a pay raise to twelve bucks sound. I said I’d never work for Duke and Charlene because they were plain nasty and I know they’d never move off the place and the folks would never make them.

I don’t usually say everything I’m thinking but that time I did. Grandma said I had every right to be mad but Charm was their only daughter. Every time they crossed her she didn’t speak to them for a year. Now when they weren’t long for this world, they couldn’t afford it. They weren’t going to sell the ranch because it was too much trouble and also Grandpappy wanted to be buried on the ranch near his folks and Eric. They still needed me and hoped I’d come back. They even said they’d give me thirteen an hour as a bonus for having to deal with Duke and Charlene.

I thanked them but said they’d have to find someone else because not even fifty bucks an hour would be enough to work for those people. I said I’m sure they could find someone because everyone is looking for work in these parts and I was planning on thinking of leaving the area anyway. Grandma told me she’d recommend me to anyone who asked. And you know what? About a week later I got a card from them in the mail with a money order for two hundred fifty hundred dollars for our baby’s college fund. I knew I never wanted to work for the family again, but like my Uncle Bobby also says, everything’s good that ends good, and I’m glad because as long as I live I never want to hold a grudge.


BIO

K.D. Alter lives in the United States. He can be contacted at kda2433@yahoo.com






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