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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.

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The Art of Stephanie Garber

 

Houses of the Holy

 

Wild Horses

 

Fate in Bloom

 

River’s Edge

 

Iguana

 

Puppet Master’s Dance

 

A Breezy Kind of Day

 

Hanging On the Moon

 

Days Gone By

 

 

 

ABOUT

Stephanie Garber is an intuitive abstract artist. Her prolific art is an expression of her life’s experiences. She uses gestures, texture, color and storytelling to relate to the viewer through common ground. She has worked in Watercolor, print making and currently is exploring the freedom of abstract painting. Stephanie is self taught and credits her mother’s life as an artist as her earliest influence in art.

Stephanie Garber on Instagram

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW

by Linda Leigh

 

 

In April 2013, I was awarded a scholarship to SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago). Unfortunately, I developed breast and lymph node cancer which I called The Blimp. School started in August, so I put off going until my treatments with chemo and radiation were complete. The school was very accommodating with this arrangement.

When 2014 rolled in I was ready to begin my life in the windy city of Chicago, and really excited about beginning a new and adventurous life. I started having large yard sales and sold most of my worldly goods and the rest went into storage. I said my goodbyes to apartment, family, friends and my cat Isabella, whom I raised from a kitten and thought was going to a good home (more about that later). After my train trip to Chicago I found a place to stay while I took care of my paper work at the school. Everything was verified that I was indeed ready to start the following week. Then a snag came the very next day. I was texted to come to the school immediately. It was discovered that my high school transcript did not have my graduation date on it and I was told without that document I could not attend. Unfortunately my high school in New York is now defunct, and the school now has an office for graduates to call and request their transcripts. At this time the school was closed and would not be open until September. Also the office would have to request info from the state to get that information for me.

Needless to say I am now homeless. Now I live in the elements. What does that mean when you don’t have immediate housing and may have to live on the streets? Actually, when I was asked by my granddaughter if I was homeless I looked at my daughter who was about to cry and said, no, I live in the elements. I then asked my daughter if this sounded better? She replied, yes. The journey will be memorable from how I got here to wherever it takes me.  Family and friends do not keep in touch nor have they come to visit. Lots to think about. But I am a very resourceful person and will definitely make the most of the situation I find myself in.  I will dance through these mirrors and windows and come through stronger and more informed.

•  •  •

A  Good Day

As I listen to a young girl’s poem or spoken word about how she got over her depression, and it being a good day, I thought back to a time that I rarely talk about — the moment I had a dark day.  Although I have never gone to the point of harming or killing myself, I do remember back in the fall of 2012 when I fell into a dark hole and could not climb out.  I actually sought help at a facility in downtown Los Angeles that a friend had recommended.  They had me do different tests and some talking and found that I was basically okay — nothing more, nothing less. But I knew it was something.

I remember it was a Tuesday in November I decided I would Love my depression, yes, I said love it like I did chocolate or a friend or a lover. When it descended upon me I told it, good to have you.  I love you, thank you for being here.  After taking a shower and getting dressed for class I walked to the door and could not open it to go out. I walked back into my room, got into bed and said, I love not having to go out, and I love you warm, cozy bed with my covers and sheets and pillows, thank you, I love being here.

I thanked my apartment and rejoiced in the fact I was in a dark hole loving it as much as I could. And finally one day after two months of this madness I realized it was gone almost as quickly as it came and that was a very Good Day.

•  •  •

Women in the Down Below settle their disputes by being overly aggressive, loud, and squabbling up in each other’s faces.  They put hands on one another.

In the Up Above angry bursts are not as confrontational but are settled by nippy, hurtful and sarcastic statements.

I listened to two young women while I was waiting for my train to arrive.  The women were both Asian and a Caucasian man.  They started talking about a co-worker who had cut and colored her hair.  Their conversation went like this “Did you see her new do?”  Asked one of the women.  The other replied,” Yes, and she was so proud of it.” First woman: “I know. I didn’t know what to say.  So I said, you got your hair cut.  I just couldn’t tell her how bad the color and cut was.” “I know,” replies second woman, “she was so enthused and happy about her hair.”  They giggled and seemed to be enjoying the moment in all its dishonesty.  I watched them and listened intently to them the whole time not caring if they noticed me watching them. I thought, what a sham.

In the Down Below, people are more intense, their anger is explosive but they are very honest in their opinions.  They may be quick to strike out at anyone at any time. At the same time there is so much more living than I’ve ever seen clothes, food, advice to get help and services.  Everyone seems to have a hustle; selling one cigarette for fifty cents, clothing they may have gotten for free goes for one dollar or more; candy and sunglasses even food … Cooking in covered and uncovered skillets. The side of buildings are used without thought for a bathroom while drugs are peddled freely on almost every corner and in front of buildings including the Police station. And trust me, no one does anything about it.

Everyone has a story, some are more horrifying than others. Like the women who’ve told me about their mothers and/or fathers that molested them as children, then put them on the street at eleven years of age for prostitution or the mother that gave her daughter up because she was too dark. All types of people live on Skid Row — educated college professors, business persons, chefs, lawyers, accountants, singers, actors, and of course the Vets, as well as the less educated or non-educated.

At the URM (Union Rescue Mission) where I now reside, I am treated with respect by the other women and the director. Actually, she did something for me she never did for anyone else. I had some boxes that needed to go into storage, and she let me leave them in her office and she personally put them in storage for me.  The women who ran the storage area also made sure my things were not rummaged through, and because my hair was starting to grow back from the chemo they would call me Mrs. Cosby (because of the color). I sleep on the fourth floor. It is like a large dormitory for women, about one hundred fifty, and you are assigned a bed which you get to sleep in every night if you follow the rules.  At night I had women who would ask to sit on my bed and tell me stories about how they were treated as children. Like the mothers and fathers who raped them at very young ages and then put them on the streets to sell themselves at eleven so their parents could have money for the Candy Man.  This revelation was shocking for me because I grew up in a very loving neighborhood where the children were monitored and loved. So this information was new and I began to look at black people in a different awareness always thinking we as a people would never treat our children with little or no respect or regard for their welfare. Another woman revealed to me that she was given up at birth because she was born too dark to a mother that was very fair and had three children before her that were the same color as her mother.  She told me how they were reunited when their mother was dying and asked her to help with the funeral cost and for her church to bury her mother.  And she did even though they, her siblings never communicated with her except at this time.

This is a humorous event that took place at URM, I think so anyway. A young woman comes in and announces she is going on a date with a gentleman she just met and who is really fine, well-mannered and dresses really nice. This young woman is getting ready for her big hot date. She puts on a beautiful frock (the women here have great taste and are very fashionable) and stilettos — yes, they do wear them in The Down below. Her face is made up to perfection, as well as her hair, set in long waves that cover her back, looking like a movie star. She adds one final touch, some bling earrings that dazzle and blind the eyes, then picks up her purse and exits the room. To our amazement, and it’s only been one hour, she is back at the URM taking her shoes off. A friend of hers asks what happened? The young woman starts to tell us that this guy gave her his address, and as she is walking by the tents on Skid Row, she finds it. A Tent, she exclaims, with an address and he is there waiting for her.  With a flourish, he flips open the flap and invites her in where to her amazement are two lawn chairs which she commences to sit on.  She notices that he has two coolers. He asks, “would you like something to drink?” She replies, “yes.”  He opens a cooler with drinks and offers her one which he opens and gives to her.  He then asks her ,“are you ready for dinner?” She hesitantly says yes again, and he opens the other cooler and offers her a sandwich (I don’t know what kind because she never says.) So she eats and drinks and thanks him for a lovely evening and leaves soon after.  After she has lamented about her tale of events she exclaims, at least he lives in a luxury tent and not a pup tent.

There is a white woman that lives on the streets and comes to the DWC called the Judge.  She is filthy and is foul smelling and even more foul with her mouth and manners.  When she enters the building the woman in charge of showers that day immediately takes her and allows her to have an emergency shower.  The shower monitor then rummages through the bins of clothing donations and finds her decent clothes to put on so she is ready to have breakfast.  This woman I am told was once a judge in New York and that someone had killed her whole family while she watched, and then they raped her and left.  I often wonder what she had done to make someone that crazy to do that to her.  I see her all the time now and she looks worse than when I first saw her, almost sickly.

Another white woman that comes in is from a very wealthy family. Being here is an eye opener to say the least, everything takes longer to get done, whether it is housing, medical, or transportation etc.

•  •  •

I am really tired today. I was up at four o’clock this morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but now it is five-thirty.  I take a shower, which I do every morning and evening, especially down here. The filth is so appalling that I feel grimy from walking in the streets of downtown. It’s like if I don’t get that energy off of me I will drown in it.

I am dressed and skipping out the door to the Downtown Women’s Center where I volunteer cooking for over one hundred and fifty women, and I can boil three hundred eggs perfectly with a golden yolk. Actually I went through their Set to Bake program. A group of us baked the goods that went into the DWC’s café.  The program got cancelled and Chef Carlos, told Miss Faye, the director of the day center, that he wanted Theresa, Briana and I to work with him.  When breakfast is over I will catch the bus to The Up Above, Alhambra is where I used to live before coming down here.  I will put some items in my storage so my room at the Russ won’t be overcrowded.  I try to keep things minimal, so far good job.

It is November the weather is still warm on my way home from the DWC.  I can’t believe how time has flown. There is a wedding taking place this evening at the San Julian Park. The cleaning crew has been here all day preparing the park for this momentous occasion.  I guess when you are in a community it can become your home.  My understanding is that the bride and groom met here on Skid Row.

It is seven o’clock at night, the festivities are about to start. I am watching out of the bathroom window of the second floor. A real minister is going to perform the ceremony and the guests are strutting into the park and take their seats at tables set up for this special day.  The groom has arrived with his best man, and the music has started playing. It is soft and mellow.  A songstress steps up to the stage to sing. She has a beautiful voice, full and rich.  The song ends and a pause is felt and walking music for the bridal party begins, six bridesmaids with escorts approach, very elegant.  I wish I had a camera, no one would believe this.  Oh, how sweet, two flower girls with a ring bearer come forward.  A long dramatic pause as the bride arrives and makes a spectacular entrance on the arm of a fine looking older gentleman. It could be her father, uncle, brother, or could be a friend.  Does not matter she is glowing and exquisite — yes exquisite.  It is nearing the end of the ceremony. Bride and groom exchange vows and kiss… The food is catered and smells delicious. The band is setting up, yes, a real band. The party is about to begin.  I whisper to the couple, may God bless you and may your marriage be strong especially in the Down Below. All I can say is this bride has marvelous taste.

•  •  •

This morning I got myself ready — went to the beach. While there I studied for the Food Handling test that was to take place later this week.  It is warmer than I thought it would be.  I saw a beach chair by itself and took it.  The owner, an older woman in her eighties, came back and claimed it. She was really miffed.  I laughed to myself. I knew it was wrong to take that chair.  Saw a sea lion and heard its cries.  Were the waves too harsh?

•  •  •

It is Saturday, February 28, 2015.  This is the last day of the month. This is my six month anniversary for being in the down below.  Still waiting for housing I was promised to move from the Russ to the Rosslyn Hotel.  Leslie, the SRO coordinator, told me that I am moving on January 23.  She informed me that my background check had been lost and they have to submit a new one.  I have waited three more weeks and now it is February 24. Finally, I have met with the  Housing Authority and I am told everything looks good.

I cannot believe that I have been living in the Down Below for two years, so much has happened in a short span of time. People come and go like soft waves, whispering as they touch the sand on the beach, or the touch of fingertips that barely meet.  Here in the Down Below life appears to be tenuous at best. I have my apartment at the Rosslyn Hotel. It was such a big deal to move in here and it turns out not so big.

Walking the downtown section of Los Angeles CA, from Fifth and Main streets to Fifth and San Pedro, can be an experience unto itself which I try to do very Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my trek to the L.A.M.P. On any given day the streets from San Julian to San Pedro can be clean or littered with garbage, urine and or excrement and the odor can knock you into space. Hell you might even see a person you thought was asleep but was really dead.  Sometimes the streets are overcrowded with tents with more women and families are moving in every day and Asians soon will be the new majority in the Down Below.

•  •  •

This morning my sister-in-law Nellie, died from a rare form of cancer, she was sixty-four years of age.  She leaves behind my brother, her husband Albert g. Leigh III, her son Albert G. Leigh IV, his wife Olga and their three children Dyanna, Albert G. Leigh V and Peter. Christina Leigh Rueckner her daughter, and her husband Franz their two children Karsten and Liezel and her youngest son Brian Leigh, his wife Charlotte and their two children Tatiana and Tyler

When my father Albert G. Leigh, Jr.  made his transion, his six children realized we were now the front line — meaning, the next to go.  We also speculated on what would happen if one of us made our transition.  And what it would feel like.  Never did Nellie cross our minds. She was not even on the radar.  She being always healthy and in control. it took all of us by surprise.  How appropriate (relevant) she left on Valentine’s Day with her loving family surrounding her.  Good bye Nellie you are much loved and in our hearts you remain.

My heart is sad.
I missed you before you even took flight.
I knew it was inevitable,
But I prayed for a miracle.
But the heavens wanted you more.
Your job for now was through maybe a lesson or two.
You have made me wake-up to the fact that
tomorrow is now.
Living in the moment and doing what is needed for
me right now—not then, not later.

•  •  •

                                          Nellie
My heart is sad
            I missed you, before you even took flight.
                        I
                                    Knew it was inevitable.
            I prayed for a
Miracle.
                        But the heavens wanted you
                                    more.
            Your job,  for now is through.
Maybe,
                        a lesson too.
            You
                        made me wake up to the
                                    fact
            that tomorrow is
                                    now.
                        Living in the moment
            doing
                        what is needed
                                    right now
and
            Certainly not later.

(poem done two different ways)

 

For the past three weeks I have been sick with a bladder infection. The first two weeks I had no idea what I had.  Week one could not get out of bed, and the mere energy of the television made me weak as if my energy was being pulled through it.  My favorite shows on PBS are the mysteries and they were a no go.  Very interesting those electrical currents from the television and what they can do to you.  The second week I thought I had contracted African trymarosamiasis.  I somehow mustered up all my strength and dragged myself to see the doctor and found out I had, a bladder and intestinal infection.  Antibiotics were prescribed and the infection cleared up.  I could not even visit the L.A.M.P. and work on my projects which is where I had my first attack of being sick.  The second attack occurred at the Star Apartments’ art show.  Interesting, in this condition I could not see anything surrounding me in this environment — not clutter, dirt, grime or the people piled up in their tents. They are all a blur on my lenses.

In my listless state of consciousness all I thought about was what is really important to me and realized I really wanted to teach meditation. o I proposed this idea to Hayk at the L.A.M.P. and to La Shalle at the Rosslyn where I live. Both classes are scheduled to start very soon. I have recovered from and have a clearer vision and more vitality to do this work.  I am encouraged to move forward and to perform the Forgiveness Meditations to the Earth at the beach.  I have schedule one for the 26th of June at nine o’clock in the morning. Posted it on Facebook. I’ll see what happens.  I am really looking forward to this event.

•  •  •

Another thing that has taken place in my coma-like-state is that I realize my family has never supported me in my endeavors, although I have been there for them.  I am the constant one that makes arrangements to go to everything, including things that their friends might be involved in.  Well, I vowed that I would not attend my sister’s birthday party since she has not come to visit me — not one time.

Saturday, June 18, has arrived. I’m going to the party dressed and heading out the door to catch the Gold Line to Pasadena.  It is somewhat overcast today but warm.  I arrive in Pasadena. It is sprinkling. I’m cheered up even more.  My sister sent Uber to pick me up. We make it to Altadena and it is raining. She lives next to the mountains.  I walk into her house and the setup is magnificent, and my niece has catered the event.  There are so many people I haven’t seen in twenty to thirty years, and they had their children and grandchildren with them.  I had the best time. I am glad I did not sit this one out being stubborn and missing this glorious day.  There were tents set up in case the sun was beaming on us.  It turned out very useful for all this rain.  A trio played music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. People danced while the children got in the pool on huge swans and flamingos floats.  Close to two hundred people came to wish Gloria a happy birthday.  It really shows how much love she has given over the years to so many people.  Thank you for a wonderful day and evening.

•  •  •

Another busy day.  Arrived at the doctors’ office at 7:35 this morning. I hope to be out of here by eleven I have a poetry class in the building next door.  It is now 8:30. I came early because if you don’t you may never be seen by the doctor.  So many people in the waiting room, which is too small for the amount that are here today.  Oh, God, kids are crying and cell phones blare their crazy obnoxious sounds.  There’s a sign that says, no cell phones — turn them off. Otherwise, you have loud and argumentative conversations clamoring all over the room, especially here in the Down below.

Finally, numbers are being called. Oh, yes, you are given a number in order to be checked in.  Of course someone will come and get you take your vitals.  Hoping my weight reflects how my clothes are fitting a lot looser.  It is nine o’clock and I am still sitting, waiting, hoping I am out by eleven. I will be fine. Cheeze they have only called one person’s number and I am number 13.

•  •  •

On July 4, 2016, I awaken several times during the night. Damn those folks with their fireworks. Wasn’t it enough that City Hall had a big splash?  I tried going back to sleep and awoke at 8:30am.  I am late. wanted to leave house at 7:00am to go to the beach.

Oh well, slow start should I go or should I stay?  That is the question. Go get ready open the door step into hallway.  Door closes and locks. That settles it. I make way to the elevator today. It is the express, no stops to other floors.  I have to get out of Down Below, it’s smothering. Up Above is cleaner and cooler.  I make my way to Metro 7th street station and find I have to wait twenty-two minutes for Santa Monica train, and this is not even the weekend. It is 10:00am, and wait, oh good, they are changing the Long Beach train and changing it to Santa Monica, now all those people have to leave the train. Too Bad.

How am I feeling? Not sure I am ready for this. Great, a young black man is arguing with his sister on his cell phone … who wants to hear this crap? Not me! Who cares? He doesn’t have a car and wants someone to watch his children, and man, is he giving this person hell.  Thank God, he and his girlfriend finally depart and it is QUIET!

Okay, here you are — end of the line — Santa Monica Pier. New question: Do I stay here, or catch the 534 bus to Will Rogers Beach? Okay, stay — experience something new in this part of the world. Found a spot to enjoy my time here.

Wow, it’s getting crowded already. Did I make the right choice?  I am finding I do not want to be around a lot of people today, and it seems they are all in this one space near me.  This is a big piece of seashore, why are they converging here?  I am trying to relax and enjoy this moment, but it is busy here. A Mexican woman, brightly dressed, shouts in a  sing song voice — Mango, Mango. Oh man, another vendor, this time it’s a man shouting buy his umbrellas and beach pails and small surfer boards.

What time is it — can I really stomach this?  Relax and breath, that is what I tell myself. At least you are not sitting in that heavy energy in the Down Below.  What’s going on with you? I have to ask. Reflect on what you are feeling. Do you feel like your space has been invaded? I chuckle. Okay, look at all the people arriving now.  Wow, the waves are bigger and people are having fun and enjoying the waves thundering over them, laughing.  The children’s laughter washes over me like the waves they gleefully jump into.

I notice this woman whom I saw earlier with her partner.  The toddler with her is tentative going into the water. She gently leads him in and smiles.  I watch. She is heavy in weight with many tattoos.  Earlier I think, did I judge her? I watch her now and feeling much emotion that the people here are just in the moment not caring about what the television or other media say they should look like or be.  Somewhere deep I feel a connection with humanity so profound it moves me to write, least I lose this ennui.  How beautiful we are when for a few precious moments on, one is thinking about how we are big booty and bust; at this time with the waves thundering against their wonderful bodies they are in the thrill of the moment. I need to get away from the Down Below more often. The reflection they generate is not full and complete. Ha ha, my imposed deadline to leave the beach at 12:00pm has now come and gone.  I am more relaxed now and not ready to leave.

I walk on the sand, happy that the sun is not bearing down and scorching the earth. I walk-on.  Actually, feels kind of cool.  On the train ride back I watch my thoughts and I really don’t want anyone sitting next to me, so I scoot my bag over just enough to make it uncomfortable for someone to sit. Space issue again?  Finally arrive at 7th street. Why am I rushing almost like? (Need to find word).

Trying to get home out of the streets of the Down Below.  Hush, hush, your minds take your time breath.  I noticed the streets are cleaner; what, no urine smell? I glide, taking in my environment.  Today is a good day.  There is peace inside of me.  Lunch is calling what should I eat.

 

Children run to
Thundering waves
Their laughter and the sound of the surf
Are One

•  •  •

Children rush to the water
            Thundering
         Waves washes over their
            Bodies
         Resounding laughter mingles
            Laughter
         Rushing sounds of the waves
         children’s voices become one
            and
         there is tranquility
         inside of me

 

 

 

BIO

Linda Leigh was born in Queens, New York. She enjoys creative writing and poetry. Ms. Leigh now resides in Los Angeles and is an accomplished artist, her works are displayed throughout California. She is also very involved in Social Justice in her community.

 

 

 

 

 

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NEW SERIES FROM

The Skid Row Zine Writing Group

Ivy Pochoda Introduction

 

In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.

Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.

One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.

We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.

 

Our first piece from the Skid Row Zine writers group:

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh

 

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The Carousel

by Maggie Herlocker

 

 

I stared at the wall behind his head, examining the yellowing spots on the once white wall with great intensity. I think I wanted to find shapes, images, anything to distract me from the conversation I knew was coming. I could hear the whir of the air conditioner, but it did nothing to temper the dry, triple digit July air. That whir was the only thing I could hear in the deafening silence.

My father leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his hands folded. I thought of how my mother always scolded me for having my elbows on the table.

“I’m so happy you came.”

I looked at his face, light from the window cutting his face into two. He looked tired, the lines in his face deep with age and weariness. I wondered if he hadn’t slept well, nervous for our meeting today. This was our fourth meeting in the last couple months. He had contacted me back in May. He was going to be doing some business in the Sacramento area and wondered if I wanted to meet up. We got coffee the first time, awkwardly recounted our lives over the past decade.

“I know that I wasn’t really there for you much growing up, and I want you to know how much I’ve regretted that.”

He fiddled with his straw wrapper, rolling it between his fingers. The sound of silence was all that was between us anymore. The screeching of a chair being scooted against the linoleum floor broke our silent battle.

“Samantha?”

“Dad?”

He dropped the straw wrapper and folded his hands again. He sighed. Eyes cast down, he looked almost childlike, a child who knew they’ve done something wrong and are about to be reprimanded.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

⠂⠂⠂

“Come on Samantha, you can do it!”

I thought about this day often, the day at the pool. Pictures from that day show a three-year-old me standing on the edge of the pool, my inflated floaties around my small arms, my red, white, and blue striped bathing suit already giving me a wedgie. It was a hot August day in Roseville, and my mom and dad took me to the community pool to get out of the house and cool off. The pool was crowded. It appeared that many families had the same idea. Other children were splashing around in the pool, many mothers sitting around fanning themselves, tanning, gossiping with each other. My mother was among them, sipping a cold Coca-Cola she had gotten from the snack bar, like she did every time we went to the pool.

I had been to the pool before, but usually stayed in the kiddie pool. My dad had decided that this time I would go in the regular pool with him.

I was scared. That is one thing I distinctly remember.

The water looked so deep, my dad looked so far away. How could I, a very small child, jump far enough to be caught in his outstretched arms? I questioned the buoyancy of my floaties, could they actually save me from drowning?

“Samantha, don’t worry about it, I’m right here. I’m going to catch you, it’ll be okay!” my dad called over the yells of the children playing in the water. He always called me Samantha, never Sammie like my mom did, and definitely never Sam. He was grinning, his tanned arms stretched out to me, his curls of hair sparkling with water. Finally, the three-year-old me took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped.

The water was cold and all around me, but only for a quick second. The floaties did their job and stopped me from going under, and my dad did his job and caught me. My hero.

“See, it’s just fine!” he laughed and I couldn’t’t help but squeal with delight and splash my arms in the water.

At that point, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that my father, the one who should have always be there to catch me, would disappoint me the most.

⠂⠂⠂

I didn’t know what to say. I knew my dad was sorry. I could tell he was genuinely upset with himself for all that he had missed in my life. Since the first time we met for coffee, I wondered if and when he might try and apologize. He’d been trying so hard, asking all the right questions about my schooling, if I had any boyfriends, what my plans after graduation were. But it’s not like one apology and lunch at a burger place was going to fix it.

I knew he had picked this place on purpose. It was our little secret spot. I’d only been here one other time since I was a kid.

It was right before I was leaving college, moving to southern California, going to UCLA on a full scholarship. My dad had sent me a card, congratulating me on graduation, the check inside showing just how much he cared. Part of me wanted to tear up the check and never deposit it. But I didn’t. Instead I deposited all five-hundred dollars into my special savings account that I couldn’t touch until after my college graduation.

I almost turned around that summer day and didn’t go in, but I was compelled to move forward, pushed by some force determined to dredge up old feelings. The food was exactly the same as I remembered it: good but not that special, kept in business because of people like me, desperate for feelings of nostalgia and the past.

Finally, I spoke. “Do you remember the carousel?”

⠂⠂⠂

The California State Fair. We went every year, driving from our home in Roseville to the fairground in Sacramento for the event. But this year was different, I was nine years old, and it would be a day I would remember clearer than any other. My mom stayed home with a headache, I later found was faked. It was just me and my dad and I was so excited. My dad had been away a lot lately, I was told on business, so I hadn’t spent as much time with him as I had become accustomed to.

I was too young at that point to see the subtle changes in the way my parents acted around each other. The walking on eggshells, the fighting coming from another room, the days my dad didn’t come home until much later than work would have kept him, if at all. He didn’t want to be at home. At that point in a child’s life, our parents are our whole world, our example of what a happy couple are, what we should aspire to become, to meet someone and fall in love just like your parents. But no one is perfect, especially not your parents.

On that day, at the fair, it had all seemed perfect. We headed out mid-day, blasting the AC in my dad’s car, the temperatures already in the 90s. We listened to a classic rock station on the radio, my dad beaming with pride as I belted out the lyrics with him.

When we got to the fair, it was obvious my dad was spoiling me, but I wasn’t about to complain.  He bought me whatever fried foods I wanted, sharing in the plethora of goodies laid out in front of us that I would have never been able to eat on my own. Corn dogs, fried crispy and perfectly browned, funnel cakes covered in powdered sugar, my fingers sticky from the many times I licked them to relish every last bit of sweet. We shared a large lemonade, the freshly squeezed juice with just the perfect amount of sweet and tart, quenching our thirst.

It was getting late and the hot day turned into a warm evening. Summer in the San Joaquin Valley was always this way, hot and then warm, begging children to keep playing outside, past when the street lights had turned on. My dad and I were both sweating buckets but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. The sun was setting, a beautiful orange sunset. There were a few clouds in the sky, turned pink, looking like the cotton candy I had consumed earlier in the day.

Stars began to pop up, demanding to be noticed through the electric lights of the fair. They provided a natural magic to the night.

“Alright Samantha,” my dad said, looking at me from across the picnic table, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “We have time for one more ride. What’s it going to be?”

I sat there thinking long and hard. It’d be another whole year before I’d get to do this again, so I had to pick just the right ride.

“The carousel,” I decided finally.

He grinned. “Carousel it is then.”

We walked across the field, my sticky hand in his, to the carousel.

It wasn’t the nicest carousel in the world, the paint was chipped on most of the horses, the brass poles tarnished. But I thought it was beautiful. I’d always had a love for old, broken things.

We waited in line behind other fair goers, ages varying from newborn babies to grandparents. Everyone loves a good carousel ride, though no one can really express why. The feeling of being a child, just in the moment. When we finally got to the front of the line, I tried to pick out which horse I would choose to ride. There were many options, but the one that caught my eye the most was one of the more beat up horses. No one was riding it this go around.

The girl operating the ride asked my father how many would be riding and he replied that there were two of us. I was so excited. Something about riding this with just my dad made me feel giddy. Finally, the gate was opened.

I rushed in, making a beeline for my horse.

“Walk, Samantha,” I heard my dad call from behind me, a laugh in his voice.

I approached my horse and got up on the platform. She looked quite disheveled, the paint falling away to reveal the wood underneath. I felt bad for her, this inanimate horse, I’m sure she wasn’t chosen as much as the others. I was relatively tall for a nine-year-old, so I was able to climb up on the horse without assistance from my dad.

He had caught up to me and was getting on the horse next to mine.

“Guess you don’t need your old man’s help anymore.”

He was smiling, but I should have seen then, he was sad. But how could I have noticed in the magic of the fair?

Once everyone else had mounted their horses, the ride began with the classic ring of a bell. As the speed increased and the horses began to rise and fall, I was transfixed by the joy of this, the joy of pure childhood. I looked over at my dad, he was watching me, a smile across his face. I tipped my head back and laughed, the world turning upside down and sideways. I watched the world spin by, the lights of the fair smearing together. The song that was playing was the perfect mix of circus and delight, the old organ music ringing out of crackling speakers. Some of the bulb lights were out but it didn’t matter to me. I was so happy in that moment.

The horses began to slow to a trot and then stopped. My father dismounted first, then helped me down, even though I didn’t need the help. We walked towards the exit with the rest of the elation filled equestrians. Outside the gate, my father took me over to the side. I looked at his face in the light of the carousel. Something in the way his eyes looked at the ground told me something was wrong.

⠂⠂⠂

I looked my dad dead in the face, his eyes looking the same way they had the night of the fair. I knew he remembered it. “The carousel at the fair when I was nine,” I reminded him. “It was the last time I remember being happy with you.” I dropped my eyes then. It was too much to look into his deep brown eyes in that moment, they were so full of memory and regret.

He was quiet. I wanted so desperately to know what he was thinking, to know if he realized that I would never feel as joyous as I did that night on the carousel. I still wish I could have stayed on it forever, spinning through life, laughing at the world as it changed but I stayed the same, forever a child and her father.

Finally, he spoke. “I remember that so differently.”

I looked up, surprised. He was staring at me with his sad, brown eyes.

“That night, the carousel, you and I together, I remember that as one of the saddest nights of my life. I knew I was going to break your heart.”

⠂⠂⠂

“Samantha, I need to tell you something important.”

I looked up at him expectantly. He kneeled down in the grass to get on my level, to look me in the eyes. A random, cool breeze blew past me and made me shiver.

“Your mother and I, well, we’re not getting along anymore. She wants me to leave. She wants a divorce.”

I was quiet. What was I supposed to say?

“You understand this doesn’t change how much either of us care about you right?”

“Can I go with you?”

My dad looked surprised by my question, but then his eyes softened, his brows coming together, sad and concerned. “No, honey. You have to stay with your mom. I’m moving to Ohio, and I’m going to be on the road a lot for work. You have your school here.”

That’s when the tears came. My world was spinning, the carousel next to me becoming something else, showing my confusion and devastation as a swirl of light and sound, unable to focus and separate my thoughts. Of course. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to go with him. It made sense, but it didn’t make it easier.

“I’ll still be around as much as I possibly can!” Lies. “I’ll call and see you when I’m in town and I’ll take you to the fair next year if you want.” More lies.

I couldn’t stop crying. I remember not being able to breathe, my sobs racking my entire body. Eventually my dad picked me up, even though I was much too big to be carried, and he took me out to the parking lot, to his car, holding onto me tightly the whole time.

⠂⠂⠂

Nothing was the same after that. He was gone in the morning when I woke up, gone without a trace.

“Honey, you need to come out of your room, you can’t stay in there all summer.” My mother’s voice came in through my bedroom door. I didn’t want to talk, but I was glad she respected me enough not to come in. It had been a few years since my dad left. I was thirteen now, already an angsty teenager, a stereotypical child of divorce. Over the years, I’d retreated more and more into myself, barely even talking to my mother. School was the only thing that mattered to me. I knew the only way to get out of this place was college and I wanted a scholarship. I didn’t want to owe my parents anything.

“Sammie, please,” I heard a new pleading in her voice. “At least come with me to take the dog on a walk. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but you need to come out of your room.”

I sighed, but lifted myself off of my bed. “Fine, I’ll come,” I called to my mom, still from inside my room.

“Okay!” I heard a new joy in my mom’s voice. “I’ll meet you downstairs in five!”

I lethargically put on my tennis shoes. I wanted to make my mom happy. Maybe she was still hurting too.

I met her downstairs, she already had our dog Timmy on his leash. She was dressed in her trendiest workout clothes, even though we wouldn’t really be exercising that hard.

“Ready to go?” she asked, smiling.

“Yeah, sure.”

We headed out, going down our block to the park that Timmy loved. My mom handed me the leash.

“You’re really much better at walking him.” My mom had never been a huge Timmy fan, she hated how big he was, how much of a nuisance he was. When my dad had first brought him home from the pound she was horrified. Not only was she worried about his size, I was just starting to walk at the time, but of course his fur and drool got all over her pristine house. The real offense. But I loved him so she gave in and let him stay. I realized as I was walking him that my dad easily could’ve taken Timmy with him, but he must have left him behind for me.

“You okay, sweetie?” my mom asked, noticing that I was deep in thought. “Sorry, that was probably a dumb question.”

I didn’t really answer, just kept walking.

“I know things have been hard for you, things that you don’t quite understand. I know I’ve never really explained the divorce to you, but your father and I just could not be under the same roof anymore. And with his job, there’s no way you could’ve gone with him. Plus, I wanted you to stay, even though I know how close you two were.” She looked at me sideways, a small smile on her perfect pink lips. I tried smiling back, but I’m sure I failed.

My mom stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to look at me. “Samantha, I need you to listen to me.”

I stopped, Timmy sniffed some of the bushes nearby as I turned to face my mom.

“I don’t want you to be mad at me or your dad, this isn’t something that either of us wanted. Besides honey, it’s been a few years now, I thought things would be better between you and I.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Don’t you look at me like that. I know this has been especially hard for you, but I need you to stop being angry.” Like that was so easy to do. “It took a lot for me to ask him to leave, it was not an easy decision.”

“You asked him to leave?”

“Yes Samantha, I asked him. It was just not working, I needed him to go.”

“I still don’t understand, what wasn’t working?”

Now it was her turn to roll her eyes at me. “It’s hard to explain, you’re too young to understand.”

“Try me,” I said crossing my arms across my chest.

My mom let out a sound of frustration, but then took a breath with her eyes closed. “He just wasn’t around enough, with his job, his insane amount of travel was just never what I wanted. I wanted someone who would stay and be a part of the family. And I just couldn’t take it anymore and he wouldn’t budge. This was my only option.”

I listened to what she said, unsure if it really was her only option, and it didn’t stop me from being angry, at her and my dad. Neither of them seemed like they wanted to fight for each other, to fight for me.

When we got back to the house, the phone was ringing. It was my dad, but I didn’t want to talk to him. I was still devastated and now I was angry too. When I did talk to him, it was awkward and sad, neither of us knowing what to say to the other. He stopped calling as frequently after a while and I never called him on my own. All I wanted was to get back on the carousel. I wish I had never gotten off.

⠂⠂⠂

I didn’t break eye contact with him as I felt my own brown eyes, identical to his, fill with tears.

“I remember how much you cried, knowing that I was leaving your mother, leaving you. I knew you didn’t understand it, how could you? It must have seemed like it came out of nowhere.”

Now it was my turn to sit quietly.

“I already said I was sorry for not being in your life more. It wasn’t what I wanted.”

“Was it what she wanted?” I said, glowering, my pain turning to anger.

“Who? Your mom?”

“Nancy.” I spit out her name like venom.

My dad looked taken aback. “No, of course not,” he said quickly. “My job is why I moved to Loveland all those years ago. Nancy was just why I stayed.”

I looked at the wedding band on his finger. It was foreign, nicer than the one he had with my mom.

He met Nancy in Ohio and moved in with her only a few months later. I felt betrayed. But he sounded happier than I had heard in so long that I kept those feelings to myself. I was invited to the wedding, but I refused to go. Also, it was in Loveland in October, so I had school, but he didn’t seem to think about that. He seemed hurt that I couldn’t go but I didn’t care. It was my own little act of betrayal.

But that wasn’t even his biggest betrayal, not by a long shot. I could handle Nancy, I got over it, I even met her over Skype once, an awkward affair, all of us strangers. No, it wasn’t Nancy. It was Charlotte. The other daughter.

“Why did you miss my graduation?” I demanded, desperate to make him feel some of my hurt.

“Charlie was in the hospital with pneumonia that weekend, you know that. I couldn’t leave her or Nancy then, she was only five. I thought I had explained all that?”

Charlie. I almost laughed. Of course, she could have a boy nickname from my dad, but I could never be Sam. Over the years I tried the name out, seeing if it would catch on in high school or anything, but I never responded to it when people called out at me. Samantha was my name and there was nothing I could do about it.

I didn’t laugh at him, but I did allow myself to roll my eyes. “Of course,” I said dramatically, “the other daughter needed to be taken care of.”

“Come on Samantha, that’s not fair. You didn’t come to mine and Nancy’s wedding.”

“Yeah but I was twelve and in school. I couldn’t leave to go out of state during the school year, not when school was the only thing I really cared about.”

He was quiet then. “I know. It’s not fair for me to be hurt by that, not after all I’ve done.”

I didn’t answer, unsure what to say at that point.

“Look,” my dad began, “I can’t change what I did or didn’t do, but we can change how we move forward. I want to be back in your life, I’ve already missed so much. But you have to let me.”

I sat there wondering what it was that I wanted. Did I want him in my life? It had been kind of nice seeing him recently, even though we were both shy and closed off. I thought about what it might look like.  He had covered me in so many silly little wounds that I often wondered if they may ever heal. Was he worth opening all of those up again?

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yes, okay. I’ll give this a try. Just know some days will be easier than others.”

My dad grinned. “Of course! We can take all the time you need!”

I gave him a small smile back.

“Would you be interested in meeting Charlie?”

My smile wavered.

“I think you would get along really well, if you’d give it a chance.”

“I– I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.”

My dad’s smile dropped. “I get it. No, that makes sense. I was getting too ahead of myself.”

“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “I just think we need to work on what’s going to happen between us first, before I can do that.”

My dad’s smile returned, smaller this time. “Of course, honey.”

“You should come visit me in San Francisco sometime, see my apartment.”

My dad grinned. “I’d love that. I always had a soft spot for that city.”

“Who doesn’t?” I said, grinning back at him. Something felt so right in that moment, us agreeing on something so easy.

A waitress came up to the table. “I’ve got two cheeseburgers, two chocolate chip shakes, and an order of onion rings?”

“That’s us,” my dad said, and she placed the tray on the table and walked away. My dad divided up the food and placed the onion rings in the middle. It was what we always got when we came here.

Watching him, tasting the food, being there, I couldn’t help but smile.

 

 

BIO

Maggie Herlocker is a first-year fiction writer at the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop, on her way to a Master of Fine Arts. Maggie moved from her home state of California to New Orleans in the summer of 2017 and is still suffering from In-N-Out withdrawals. A young woman who never quite grew out of her goth phase, Maggie’s work tends to have a darker side, often disguised in humor. Her short story, The Carousel, won first place in Chico State’s yearly creative writing contest in 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

35

(for Emily)

by Susan Richardson

 

She is arriving at her age with graceful
brushstrokes that follow the curve of
mended wings and resilient backbone.
The years that wore her down are diminished
by a new love that soothes her aches
with the fragrance of safety.
She peels away layers of a cloak,
stitched from threads of self-preservation
to hide the vibrancy of abandon.
Diving into the center of her quickening pulse,
she glories in the textures of feeling alive again.
Paint and ink saturate her fingertips,
offering up images on parchment and flesh,
a spark of rapture alight on storied skin.
Sharpening the robust tones of her voice,
she reclaims the fabric of her words and opens
her eyes to delight in the awakening
contours of the landscape.

 

 

 

Travertine

 

She blunders toward me, wearing
her topiary face and a trench coat she stole
from the coat check of an upscale bar.
Searching for Irises and Haystacks,
she slurs her opinion of Impressionism
against echoing marble, her voice
rising with a cadence commanded by tequila.
She stumbles, biting into red parchment,
grunts and crashes into travertine walls.
She can’t feel through the bitterness and the booze.
Her imprint stains my day.

 

 

 

Where Sound Disappears

 

She has the graceful hands of a dancer
and fingers that clutch her fountain pen
as if it were a weapon, razor sharp
and lethal to the weak minded.
Veiled beneath the heavy cloth of madness,
her language scalds my lips with
maniacal rhythm, sensibilities smoldering
in the wake of her incendiary heartbeat.
She offers me the gift of her wounds and
moves into a world where sound disappears.
She believes she made me up along the way.

 

 

 

Breath

 

The dangerous nectar of brandy dulls
the gaps in my vision, turning
me into something whole and beautiful.
I swim in the smooth burn of baptismal waters.
Fingers, thick from intoxication, glide
across sultry water, linger in anticipation.
I melt into amber and sweltering tiles,
caught beneath the breath of a liquid center.

 

 

 

Legs

 

Mad women and
sane women
all cross their legs.
They long to be touched
in secret places,
kissed hard on the
mouth and adored.
One glance from a pair
of scorching eyes will have
your bones shaking,
inviting the rough
crack of leather.
Obediently, you will
drop to the concrete floor
and lick salt from
behind hot knees.
They will borrow your soul
for just a little while,
and return it intact.
They promise.

 

 

 

BIO

Susan Richardson is living, writing and going blind in Los Angeles. She shares a home with an Irishman, 2 pugs and 2 cats. She was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa in 2002, and in addition to poetry, she writes a blog called Stories from the Edge of Blindness. Her work has been published in Stepping Stones Magazine, Wildflower Muse, The Furious Gazelle, The Hungry Chimera, Sheila-Na-Gig, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Foxglove Journal, Literary Juice, Sick Lit Magazine, Amaryllis, The Anapest Journal, and Eunoia Review, with pieces forthcoming in Ink Sweat & Tears.  She was also awarded the Sheila-Na-Gig 2017 Winter Poetry Prize and was featured in the Literary Juice 2018 Q&A Series.

 

 

 

 

0

The Swamp Witch

by Megan Parker

 

 

It began with a question, a deal, a wish.

A child’s barter—a promise of acorns, of berries, of stolen coin.

It ended, as we never thought, with a sacrifice squeezed of words.

#

On the hem of town, where dirt married water and clung clay-thick to our bare feet— where years of toes and heels stitched paths through swamp grass atwitch with creatures unseen, and zephyrs green with gas slipped through our hair greasy from unwash, where roots unfurled in secret knots, and fawns flicked their velvet ears against our cheeks—there would we find the swamp witch.

She is magic made flesh, a crone of gator skin and boar resolve, who, long ago, was as human as the rest of us. Her magic shaped destinies, her lips spelled fortune and downfall alike. She was fox-clever, and for generations the town sought her guidance, her destinies of scattered salt and painted cards, until her hair wrung silver.

But time is a giving thief. It cut her tongue sharper, and her spells lost their soft edges. She peered into soul-kept secrets and offered the town truths only guilt would nourish. She became devil-kissed, our parents said, and so the town cast her out to the coniferous muck.

Her bones turned to alder branches, her fingers calcified to cloven hooves. She broke teeth on pebbles in her bread, and animal hide furred over memory too human to preserve. She grew into whispers personified, into bedtime stories told to us by mothers who dried their tears with faded Tarot cards, by fathers whose futures were lost in mirrors of moon and gun smoke and blood.

To our parents, she was as ghost.

To us, she was as real as the wishes we carried.

For that is what we brought her. Our wishes, plucked and braided into wreaths of juniper brambles, into quilts woven with anhinga feathers. These offerings we would present to her in exchange for answers, for truths and salvations only magic could have wrought.

On winter solstice nights, we trekked the forested wetlands to find her lair. Each year, her hollowed tree would move to a spot yet discovered. We used to tie ribbons around pin oaks to guide us between seasons, hoping to see her in spring or fall. When they unraveled on a breeze, the youngest of us would drop painted stones from their pockets to mark the path. These too were lost, consumed by hungry water lizards. The stones rattled in their swollen bellies as they darted through the bog like otters.

The swamp witch had made this covenant with us. Only on winter solstices could she re-form as human and ripple the water for our futures. Only on these nights could we pay her in gifts cast from our own hands, in wishes shaped from children’s dreams. If we were worthy, the swamp would lead us to her and home again.

We safeguarded her secret from our parents, who hung nets of sticklewort across our windows and splashed angelica oil on our door lintels to ward away her ghost-spirit. Devilry, they said of her. She’ll trick your soul from your body. She’ll stitch her lies into your tongue.

Each season our numbers dwindled as the oldest of us stepped into adulthood, and magic was snuffed from memories. Superstition then took root in them, a ghost-chill pimpling grown skin. For that, said the witch, was the cost of adulthood.

The grown were blinded to what they did not want to see.

But we knew better.

We have huddled with the swamp witch around fires dug into silt and clay, flames of blue and green leaping skyward from burning, brackish roots. We have rubbed our fingers over the fleshy undersides of skinned raccoons and rabbits, circling oil with our thumbs to preserve the pelts. We have split the fans of gator tails with stone knives to feast on spines of meat. We have mixed moonbeams with swamp water, have drunk the sky of stars.

We could never tell of these moments.

At dawn, the swamp witch would whisper our wishes against the flat of her hooves and cast them into the vermillion glow. We would follow the rising sun through muck and grass, past trunks of dappled maple and calloused blackgum, until our town shed its foggy cloak. And we slipped between the anointed planks of our homes and into bed, our parents still adrift in dreamscapes.

When breakfast hearths blazed heat for salted pork and porridge, we would hear her on a sigh of wind and knew it was done. Our wishes answered in dried stacks of firewood in wet winter, in fathers returned home in summer from the war, in grandparents’ painless dips into the eternal. In bodies free of bruised beatings when magic slips from our lips.

For years, it had been so, the oldest of us raising the youngest of us in stories of the swamp witch, teaching the tots to seal their lips. And we would have kept our promise always, had the swamp witch not broken bond instead.

#

On our final swamp solstice, the winter night stretched long as a cat against its bones, and we took turns leading each other by lantern light through the rot-ripe mire. We trailed our palms against the prickled skin of black ash, let beards of moss tickle our shoulders, listened to the hiss of wind-washed grass. The littlest among us sang in nervous whispers behind cupped hands:

Thither flies the chickadee

With a wish for you and a wish for me . . .

Around our necks and within our pockets we carried our gifts for her, little treasures made with hope. We listened for her voice in the rattle of branches, in the reedy clack of cattails against our cottoned thighs.

Suddenly, a fox appeared on the path ahead, brown as dried blood in moonlight. He tilted his head as one does to hear a question. His bright eyes, swollen yellow, never blinked from our faces as he spoke his greeting:

Riddles three answer me,

And I will show you in.

Riddle poor, go forth no more,

Else tricks you’ll find herein.

It always went like this. The swamp witch loved her tests, for how else might she trust us? How else might we prove we were not yet grown, had not swayed in our belief? That we were worthy of her gifts?

The cleverest of us had never failed to solve the fox’s riddles. The first two questions we answered true. But the fox showed us his sharp smile on the last.

I walk afore you every day, but you cannot see me. What am I?

We hunched our backs to him, loomed together our fingers as though we could share our thoughts through touch.

Dreams? we wondered. The wind? Might it be the witch herself?

You are the stars, we said at last, triumphant, who are yet unseen in daylight.

Incorrect, replied the fox. His teeth lengthened like knives. But since you answered the first riddles in truth, I will claim but one of you, and still I will show you the way. Otherwise, return home now without spent wishes. Do you accept my bargain?

The smallest girls and boys, still young enough to feel afraid, shed tears in silent drips, but we nodded our heads. This was the way of things. This was sacrifice. The fox walked up to a girl who had not yet grown into her dress. Her hair, bowed with blue ribbon, curled in a red tail down her back, and when the fox nipped her palm, she didn’t startle.

Wide-eyed, we watched her transform in the shadows of the cypress. Her ears shot past her head in twin points. Her muzzle lengthened, her lips drew thin and black. She shrank until her dress belled like a lily around her, until she pulled herself from the seersucker bodice with four paws. Together with the fox, she trotted the path ahead, and we followed the brush of her tail through inky shadows.

Noises collected within the swamp like fat on milk, thickest on that, the longest night in winter, for the swamp never saw a cold December, and all living things rejoiced in its warmth.

When we came upon a tunnel of trees, the foxes stopped and sat back on their haunches.

This is as far as we can lead you, said the he-fox. Do not tarry within this stretch of wood. Do not let the thorns prick you. And whatever you do, do not eat of the fruit. And he and the she-fox darted into the bristly brush.

Let us link hands, we said, to withstand temptation.

We walked single file on our toe-tips through the soft squish of earth, arms stretched taut as bow strings. The night-creatures’ sounds extinguished as the tunnel folded around us. Nameless trees coiled over our heads, twisting their spiked iron boughs toward our faces. Pricked on their spindly fingers were orbs of fruit, glowing gold and bronze in the shadows of the trees. Punctured on spikes, they dribbled honeyed juice in our hair, slicked our joined fingers.

We are nearly there, we whispered to each other. Steady.

But for the hungriest of us, for him whose father came home from hunts empty-handed, this test proved the most difficult. My wish, he had told us earlier that eve, is for a belly full year-round.

From last in line, he stretched out his unheld hand and captured a palmful of golden juice. We turned to warn him, to remind him of the meat the witch would grant to slake his hunger—but his lips were already aglitter, and we could do nothing as a tree bent toward him. It wrapped him so completely in iron limbs as to make him invisible.

It was not until a strange light burst between the branches that the tree showed us the boy, transformed into a glob of fruit, bronzed and shimmering and too dangerous to touch. Trembling, we left him captured on the bough and slipped from the mouth of the forest onto the lip of swamp.

Whoops and chitters of nocturnal creatures exploded around us once more, and in between their night howls, we heard her speak. Now, for courage. Consume but one, and all may enter.

On a log green with ferns, we found three items with our lantern’s glow: a toadstool of slime, a flower of barbs, and a vial of glass.

We gathered our heads together. Our tongues withered as we deliberated, curling away from taste of slime and prick of barb. We debated so long that the moon slipped in the sky.

Surely, we said, we must choose between the toadstool and flower, for what bravery lies in an empty vial? Besides, what if death pours clear and we make it visible?

Ah, spoke the most audacious, but what better way to test our mettle than with mystery? For what courage can be found in reluctance? And despite our protests, she pressed the glass vial to her lips.

Hands over mouths, we waited for her to wilt like a rose or disappear into nothing. But she bloomed instead, beautiful and unscathed.

A tide of wind gushed through our ears and hair and noses in a torrent, bearing the carrion smell of rotting plants and rodents, the sweet laugh of the witch rising above.

Beside the quiet lap of swamp water, where shadow bent solid and moonlight painted all to bone, we found a massive hollowed tree. And before it stooped the swamp witch.

She had wrapped herself in the quilts and sashes we’d sewn for her from wool and feathers. Her cloven feet churned the muck, and her skin overlapped in iridescent black scales like plates of oiled armor, rippling between patches of silver fur. Horns spiraled from her matted skull, and her hair fell in coarse braids to her feet. As we approached, she watched with eyes elliptical, pupils splitting the blue irises like arrows.

My darlings, my darlings, she crooned through jagged, mossy teeth, Worthy of the world’s wishes.

We slipped our acorn beads over her head, tucked sprigs of lavender behind her tufted ears, and placed rocks of sugar beneath her dry tongue. Two coins of gold the richest of us dropped into the folds of her sash, a request she had whispered to us on yesterday’s wind. She kissed our brows each in turn, her humid lips smearing stardust.

I am afraid, my dears, that this is the end of us, she said, bowing her head. My magic is far too aged. My bones are breaking, my lungs are emptying. I use these coins soon to seal my eyes as I journey to lands unknown.

All of us wept and clung to the folds of her feathers and scales. Do not leave us, we begged. Never leave this world. For what is this world without the magic of you?

I must go, she said, stoppering our tears with her hoof tips. I was never meant to live forever. Your offerings have sustained my magic these years past, but no longer. You must understand.

The swamp lamented with us—the wind a serrated screech through our limbs, creatures keening as we sobbed. She embraced us each in turn, inquiring as to our wishes. But we no longer had wishes to offer. Even she could not undo our misery.

Please, we begged. Is there no magic that can spare you? Is there no wish we might make?

The witch paused, and something unfamiliar flickered in her eyes. There is one way, she said, drawing out each word as we drew breath. One way that your wishes might yet be preserved. And then, as if to herself, But how could I ask this of you?

She gave herself a little shake and halted last before the bravest of us, the lovely girl who drank of mystery. The witch lifted her chin delicately with a cloven toe. An exchange.

The girl frowned. Of what?

We all stood in silence, hearts thrumming like wings in bone cages. Beating, beating with trepidation, with fear that felt like hope—

To preserve magic, the witch said, marking us each with her stare, we must nourish it. Dress it in pure belief, in brazen courage. She looked to the brave girl once more. As I once was called to do, and many before me.

And what part do I play? asked the girl, jaw tight but eyes wide. Willing.

The witch offered a sad smile. The worthy sacrifice.

#

In winters past, we trapped rabbits for the swamp witch. Sliced the delicate membrane between hide and meat, thumbed gore onto each other’s faces as we laughed. We stretched their hides between branches, watched blades of fur bend like grass in wind.

We had never skinned a fur-less thing.

We had never seen the hidden side of human flesh.

It stretched in the most unexpected way, the skin, at once supple and delicate. We didn’t watch what the swamp witch did with the rest, a ritual of bone and veins and muscle. The swamp erupted in a chorus of howls and hisses, and we squeezed together like fingers around a knife, cutting our pain against each other’s shoulder blades, watching dawn rise like a bloody fist.

Sheaves of light poured over the murky water at our feet, the gold rippling past knee-bent cypresses, floating pads of lilies, the graceful leaps of frogs. When the light shimmered over the horizon and night’s wild threnody died on a breath, we turned around.

The swamp witch stood as beautiful and terrifying as she always had, yet something seemed to stir the air around her. Her scales and feathers glistened with an incandescence we had never seen. We looked at her and felt magic rise like bread in our stomachs, warm and full and sweet. She smiled. Her teeth dripped red.

With purpose comes sacrifice, she said. For youth is but a dying ember, its warmth a temporary balm. But magic— She hesitated, meeting our gazes one by one. Magic ignites. It is the lifeblood of the world, the heartbeat that orchestrates our every breath. It is the dream that soothes nightmare, the hope that launches a thousand wishes. Without it, we drown in mundanity, in hopelessness.

She ran a hoof over her newest hide, sunbeams highlighting its tiny hairs. We felt our skin prickle in response. Do no grieve for what is freely given.

And what of our wishes? we asked, trying to summon bravery. We had never felt fear in her swamp, and now our lungs were wet with it. Might we wish for her return?

Magic may never undo a wish, said the witch. And a sacrifice rejected is an insult to truth.

Her words hummed the air around us like a spell. The witch plucked the golden coins from her sash and returned them to the giver. Your wishes have gone stale, she said. Return home. My creatures will guide you safely from the swamp.

As if summoned by her words, the he-fox appeared at the tree line. He sat in silence, his eyes full of ghosts.

She turned toward her hollow tree, looking once more at us over her shoulder. Remember what was lost tonight in pursuit of desire, and likewise what you have gained. Remember that wishes can destroy as equally as they can save, that to find joy we must be willing to bleed. This shall be our new covenant.

And she vanished on a breeze of fur and claws and feathers. A moment later, the hollowed tree winked out of sight.

We traipsed to the edge of the clearing toward the fox, hand in hand and tongues sour with unspoken words. When we turned around, we saw that the brave girl’s skin was gone too. We tried to ignore the way our shadows stretched with lanky fingers and longer legs as we walked beneath dappled boughs.

We tried to ignore the feast of sorrow that gnawed on our spines, the bodies we stepped out of and abandoned to the moss.

Our last refuge of permanence.

 

 

BIO

Megan Parker is a mom and freelance editor by day and a devourer of worlds by night. She loves weird stories, especially those spiced with dark and creepy twists, but she’s always amenable to happy endings. Her fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Harpur Palate, The Sonder Review, FLARE, and Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulism, among others, and her story “A Good Thing” was the tertiary winner of SNHU’s 2016 Fall Fiction Contest. Currently, she resides in San Angelo, TX, with her husband and daughters, where almost nothing of note occurs. You can find her exploring the world via twitter @MegsMcSparren.

 

 

 

 

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Blythe Smith Artwork

 

New Dawn

 

Blue Bird

 

Ex-Smoker’s Dream

 

Recess

 

Collector’s Pride

 

The Girl with the Red Shoes

 

Feeling Christmassy

 

Saintan

 

 

 

ARTIST STATEMENT

My art starts from the private but often ends up being generally applicable. It starts from small, seemingly unimportant incidents and often ends up being political.

My themes are (megalo)maniac: power, gender, addiction. I see meanings related to these themes everywhere.

I am interested in studying what meaning is, how meanings change, merge, and dissolve.

I think it is useless for an artist to declare truths, since they are scarce. In the best possible case, the meanings of the author and the experiencer enter into a dialogue with each other and nurture each other. Although art can never convey the truth, I hope that, when experienced, my art becomes true and that its meanings turn meaningful. That my art can influence and, whilst influencing, generate new art.

My art is multimodal, it is meant to appeal to all senses: I make use of language, puns, humour, irony, moving images, sounds, paintings, installations that you can touch, taste, hear, and smell.

I’m currently studying in Art Education in the Masters Programme at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in Finland.

www.blythesmith.com

 

BIO

blythesmith1Blythe Smith is a Finnish visual artist with a strong background in linguistics and literature. In her work, she explores meanings: how meanings emerge and merge, how they change and dissolve in human interaction.

Blythe Smith’s work ranges from drawings and watercolor paintings to experimental video art. She is a graduate of Art School MAA and holds an MA in English and Romance philology.

 

 

 

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In the Kelp Forest

by Rosemary Harp

 

 

 

Tess Chen is in high demand as a pet sitter around Arriba Circle. She can be trusted with feeding schedules and keys. She does not snoop or help herself to popsicles. Since summer vacation began, she has looked after a middle-aged cat, a clutch of frantic and incestuous hamsters, and Jorie Wexler’s black and yellow ball python. The python job was the easiest and the hardest: the snake only needed to be fed once a week but it ate frozen mice the Wexlers kept in a Ziploc bag in the spare freezer in their garage. One week Tess dropped a frozen mouse and the tail broke off the rigid body when the corpse bounced on the concrete floor. Tess didn’t mind picking up the mouse so much—after all, she’d just plucked it from the freezer bag—but touching the lone, fleshy tail filled her with dread, as if the tail might somehow reanimate and begin wriggling between her thumb and forefinger.

Her current job watching Cricket, the arthritic spaniel across the street, is her best yet. At ten dollars a day for three days it’s the most lucrative, and she really needs the money: if she earns $100 by August, she can enroll in the junior scuba course at Sacramento State. She has $60 so far. Tess is going to be a marine biologist. Underwater everything is softly muffled and diffuse; on land, under the pitiless sun, life feels to Tess jarring and amped up. When she can’t sleep at night, she imagines herself swimming through a kelp forest. Scuba lessons are the first step to a refuge among the gently waving kelp and glimmering schools of yellowtail.

Plus, taking care of Cricket gives Tess a legitimate reason to walk past Sven Ragnarsson’s house three times a day. Three times a day she crosses the tarry asphalt in an agony of wondering. Will Sven be standing in his front yard swinging a tennis racquet at nothing? Swimming quiet laps in the backyard? Practicing? When she hears the reedy strains of his oboe seeping out his closed bedroom window over the diligent hum of a hundred neighborhood air conditioners, she knows she will not see him and goes about her business with Cricket more quickly, while still being careful to follow Mrs. Kipps’ instructions.

Stacey Kipps, in Tess’ class at Sutter Middle School, is a cheerleader, but not the kind who shakes a couple perky pompoms and chants, “Be aggressive! Be, be aggressive!” in the direction of a twelve-year-old quarterback. Stacey competes throughout California doing harrowing routines where she tops human pyramids and gets tossed skyward by other tiny but startlingly powerful girls. Tess has seen the cheer team perform on the local public access cable channel.

For years Tess and Stacey scrambled across Arriba Circle, drank lemonade from each other’s refrigerators without asking, whispered urgent secrets into each other’s ears, and once whipped each other into such a fit of hilarity Stacey peed her pants and they were asked to leave the public library, which they did without a trace of shame, still laughing and clutching each other, a faintly swampy scent coming from Stacey’s damp Guess jeans.

Stacey doesn’t invite Tess over anymore. There was no falling out, just a slow attrition Tess had no control over that lasted all of sixth grade. Stacey declined most, then all, invitations from Tess, but for a while returned about half of Tess’s phone calls—a maddening pattern Tess could not decode. After each of these infrequent conversations, Tess lay on the floor in her bedroom trying to identify what she’d said that was stupid or objectionable. When she finally worked up the courage to ask Stacey if she’d done something wrong, Stacey replied in a bright, hard voice that, no, she’d just been really, really busy. Then came the day in seventh grade when the two girls passed each other in the halls of Sutter Middle and Stacey looked away. It was around that time Tess started thinking about the kelp forests with their dappled light.

 

Stacey cried when she said goodbye to Cricket: apparently this parting was hard on her. She did not acknowledge Tess’s presence in her kitchen.

“You be good while I’m gone, Crickety-crick,” Stacey said and buried her face in the old dog’s liver colored neck while Tess reviewed the details of Cricket’s care one last time with Mrs. Kipps.

Tess wants to be the kind of girl who likes dogs, but she isn’t. Girls who like dogs, Tess believes, hug their friends whenever they meet, even when they just saw each other a couple hours ago. They make colorful bracelets of complexly knotted string, exchange them with each other, and wear them on their bare ankles. They play soccer and have matching shin guards. Tess does not make or exchange—she can hardly bear to call them by name—friendship bracelets. Tess likes making odd little sculptures out of feathers and glue and glossy hard candies. She likes Trivial Pursuit. Tess reads the game cards to herself at the kitchen counter. She is careful to slide the cards she has read into the back of the box so they will not appear during a real game, which would pose an ethical problem.

The air shimmers above Arriba Circle’s asphalt surface. Tess can feel the heat through the thin rubber soles of her sneakers. No Sven. She keys into the Kipps’s house, which is an exact copy of her own and Sven’s and every other house on Arriba Circle: three bedrooms, a combined kitchen-dining room, and a living room, all one on floor. And every house has its own small pool. If you were to fly high above the neighborhood, it would look like that monster from Greek mythology, the one with a hundred watery blue eyes.

Cricket lifts herself one shuddering leg at a time to a standing position, trembles with pleasure, and limps over to Tess. When Cricket approaches Tess with her eager tail and dripping smile, Tess’s limbs go stiff, but not with fear. In the syncopated rhythm of panting and wagging, she hears, “I want, I want, I want.” It is for this open, exposed wanting that Tess cannot forgive dogs.

Tess refills Cricket’s water, places four ice cubes in the bowl, and portions out exactly half a cup of dry food. The dog eats and drinks gratefully. Tess removes Cricket’s leash from the hook by the kitchen door, but does not take Cricket out right away. Instead she walks through the Kipps’s living room and down the long, thickly carpeted hallway to Stacey’s room.

Stacey’s room is pristine. Tess’s room, though architecturally identical to Stacey’s, is always a disaster of shifting piles of books and half-filled diaries to which she has lost the key. Stacey’s Cabbage Patch Dolls and stuffed Care Bears are gone, Tess sees. So is Stacey’s rainbow bedspread, which has been replaced by a grown-up looking mauve one. Lying on the bedspread is one of Stacey’s green and gold cheer team uniforms. Tess holds up the sleeveless pleated dress and for an instant has a wild, un-Tess-like urge to try it on in front of Stacy’s gold-framed full-length mirror. But no, the dress will be far too small. Not for the first time Tess feels the genetic injustice here: she is Asian (half), but it is Stacey (“we might be Irish, maybe?”) who is tiny and lithe.

As she lays the dress back on the bed, Tess sees a matching mauve telephone on the nightstand.  A roaring whirlpool of white noise fills her head as she wonders if the telephone has its own line. The idea that Stacey has her own phone number, one she has never shared with Tess, provokes her to a rage that gets its power from grief.  She lifts the receiver and dials the Kipps family’s number, which she knows as well as her own. She can hear her breath amplified back to her. Sure enough, all the other telephones in the empty house cry out. Tess places the telephone back on its cradle slowly. The urge to destroy something, maybe the phone itself, rolls over her in waves, but as always she swallows her rage, forces it down, down, down until it sits like a sick animal in her stomach.

But then the Ragnarssons’ back door swings open and Sven stalks outside barefoot, wearing white shorts and a t-shirt that says FILA. For the moment, Tess forgets the private phone. Half-hidden behind gauzy curtains, she watches Sven sit on the edge of the pool with his legs dangling in the shallow end. His back is rounded over something. When he shifts position slightly, what Tess sees makes her breath trip in her lungs: the telltale, oblong blue box of Trivial Pursuit game cards. Sven pulls one. Reads. Flips the card. Reads. Flips it back. Here is method—ritual, even. Clearly he has done this before. The sickly weight in Tess’s stomach eases then morphs into a mad flutter.

“Cricket!” Tess calls. “Cricket, come!” She runs down the hall and back into the kitchen where Cricket snores raggedly on the tile.

“Let’s go out!” Tess jerks open the drawer under the microwave and there is Cricket’s supply of chewed-up tennis balls, same as ever.  She shows Cricket a greenish-gray specimen.

“Look! Ball!” she says. “Do you want to play?”

Cricket gazes up at the ball, and at Tess, with a love that is limitless. She thumps her tail twice then stands.

“Good girl!” she trills. She sounds a bit crazed even to herself.

The Kipps’s back yard is shadeless and mostly devoted to cement pool deck, but a strip of grass runs alongside the chain-link fence that borders the Ragnarssons’ yard.

Tess tosses the ball. Cricket hobbles after it and plops it at Tess’s feet.  After a few runs, Cricket warms up and moves more nimbly, like she’s tapping into reserves of youthful zest. When she drops the ball at Tess’s feet, Cricket tosses her head to request another round of the game. Tess looks over at Sven with each toss.  He cannot ignore her forever.  Or maybe he can. He reads and flips more Trivial Pursuit cards.

After fifteen tosses she calls, “That’s cheating, you know.”

Because Tess Chen is innately unable to flirt these words come out sounding less like cute teasing than the scolding of a disappointed librarian.

Sven looks up. He is not a kind boy, exactly, or a warm one, but he is honorable, and any questioning of his honor angers him.

“It is not. I put the cards in the back after I test myself. It’s no different than playing a real game.”

Tess tosses; Cricket runs.

“It is different,” she says. “In a real game you only see one question per card. You’re seeing all of them.” This has just occurred to her and she knows she’s in pot-kettle territory.

Toss. Retrieve. Cricket pants harder.

Sven stands. He crosses his arms over his chest and his legs drip on the patio. The water evaporates so fast it’s as if the dark circles on the pale cement were never there. Almost everything makes him mad, Tess thinks. It’s fascinating to her that such a quiet person should also be so stormy.

“Come play me, then, if you’re such an expert,” he says.

“Ok,” she says, as though this isn’t the single most amazing thing she could conceive of. She walks around to the gate.

Here are the things Tess loves about Sven Ragnarsson: everything. To be more specific, she loves his blonde curls. When they loop down around his ears he will get them shorn off and start all over again. She can predict within thirty-six hours when the haircut will happen. She loves that he wears shorts even on the coldest days in January. She loves that he is descended from Vikings. She loves that he can build or fix absolutely anything. She loves his oboe. She even loves, or maybe she especially loves, that he isn’t very nice to her. Although, and she treasures this memory, when Trevor Dixon called her “half-breed,” Sven clenched his fists and said, “shut up!” with a fury that surprised everyone on the school bus—Tess most of all.

Sven’s parents are a matched set of large, blonde, NPR-listening Minnesotan transplants, the only other people in the neighborhood, besides the Chens, who compost. Her parents privately poke fun at the Ragnarssons for being such square, solid, Midwestern-type citizens.  The Chens pride themselves on being old Berkeley hippies. Like her parents, the Ragnarssons are Democrats, rare in their Sacramento exurb, and this gives Tess a safe feeling of solidarity in this Orwellian election year. Whenever Tess sees Mrs. Ragnarsson she feels a shy, semi-hysterical compulsion to confess: I love your son, have loved him my whole life.

Sven sets up the board on the table by the pool.

“What color do you want to be?”

“Blue,” she says. Sven pauses like he’s about to object, like he wants to be blue or maybe just wants to fight her for it on principle, but then closes his lips over his braces. He selects yellow for himself and they begin.

“What is the capital of Yugoslavia?”

“Who sang ‘My Way’?”

“Who was executed by burning on May 30, 1431?”

“Who created the character Tom Sawyer?”

They move their little pie pan-shaped game pieces around the board. When Sven thinks a question is too easy, an affront to them both, he clutches his stomach and rocks forward groaning. Tess is so charmed by this gesture she considers making up questions like “what color do you get when you mix yellow and blue?” or “what country fought in the American Civil War?” so he’ll do it again.

Sven pushes play on a portable cassette deck and Tess recognizes one of her favorite albums. Tess believes only obscure bands from England with gloomy young frontmen and a heavy dependency on synthesizers are valid. It’s interesting to think that maybe Sven shares this view.

“You’re dogsitting Cricket?” he asks.

“Yeah, they’re away at one of Stacey’s cheer competitions.”

Tess realizes as the words leave her mouth that it was a tactical error to put Sven in mind of Stacey and cheerleaders.

But with a noise like “Mhhh” Sven dismisses all cheer-related activities, rolls the die, and counts out spaces.

“Ha, I can get the green wedge,” he says. But he doesn’t know the name of Jacques Cousteau’s boat and the game goes on. When Tess rests her forearms on the surface of the table, she has to pull them away quickly because the metal is so hot. The needle on the Ragnarssons’ big, round-faced thermometer claims it’s 137 degrees, but the thermometer sits in the direct sunlight and can’t be correct.

“Hang on. My brain is overheating. Ozone layer depletion,” Sven says. He slides out from the table, kneels by the pool, and dunks his head. He rises and gives his curls a doggish shake, intentionally spraying needles of water at Tess, who does not give him the satisfaction of squealing.

She decides to dunk her head, too. She sets her glasses by the pool’s edge and submerges her entire head into that womb-warm, chlorine-blue world. She used to swim here with Sven when they both needed inflatable water wings and he still had an older brother. Tess remembers Mats Ragnarsson only hazily:  a bigger, darker, sweeter version of Sven.  In her memory, he stands on his hands underwater and his long, upturned legs wave in the harsh sun.

“Let’s go,” Sven calls. Tess hears him above the soothing hum of the filter and yanks herself back into the blinding world. In the Kipps’ backyard, Cricket wheezes. Tess sticks her head over the fence. Cricket lifts her head then lets it sink again. Her ribcage rises and falls.

“Come on,” says Sven. Tess turns from Cricket back to Sven.

Three to three, they play on.

In her newfound ease, Tess sings along with Sven’s music, which is also, amazingly, her music.

“You like Echo and the Bunnymen?” he asks her. She detects an incredulous note in his voice. Maybe some grudging respect, too.

Tess nods.

“Most people only know their one hit,” He says.

Tess rolls her eyes to signal her disdain for hits and the people who like them. She is not a habitual eye roller and the operation makes the tricksy little muscles around her eyes ache briefly.

“Who directed the classic thriller ‘The Birds’?”

“What is the chief export of Nicaragua?”

“Who is known as The Belle of Amherst?”

With the Emily Dickinson question, on which Tess doesn’t skip the merest beat, she earns the brown wedge and pulls into the lead.

“Ugh!” Sven says.

In frustration real or playful—he is not a gracious loser—Sven reaches over and yanks her ponytail as he often did five years ago or more. First there is pain and then her body lights up with a million pricks of electricity that surge from her scalp down her spine then fizz like a Fourth of July sparkler in her toes. The pain is like the sudden, flooding memory of an old dream.

Hurting her, she somehow understands, has always been his excuse to touch her. To touch her gently would be against unnamable rules, but to pinch her, pull her hair, shove her is allowed. And to be touched by him is to know why she has skin.

“You have a lot of general knowledge,” he says.

“Thanks.”

“How old are you now?”

“Twelve,” she says. “but my birthday is in three weeks.”

He should know this, she thinks, because his birthday is exactly two years and ten days before hers and he attended her first eight birthday parties. Sven was born the day of the first moon landing, which seems to Tess cosmically apt—his birth a starry phenomenon, a giant leap for mankind. She wonders why he is asking her age and wonders if maybe he is doing the math on how soon they can get married. If they got married, they could play Trivial Pursuit every day.

“What are you going to do with the money? From all your pet sitting?” he asks.

So he has noticed her, she realizes, going around the neighborhood, unlocking doors, punching in alarm codes, steeling herself for frozen mice. She wants to tell him about the scuba course, maybe even the kelp forest, but also wants to keep it safe and private in case it’s contemptible. But Sven shrugged at the mention of cheerleading, said Tess knew a lot, and asked her age for mysterious reasons of his own. She has known him her entire life. So she goes ahead and tells him.

He rearranges the colored wedges in his game piece.

“Wait, but, are you good at math?”

Tess is not.

“I thought you were more like, I don’t know, creative,” he continues. “You need to be really excellent at math to be any kind of scientist.”

Tess is sinking now; the roaring white noise from Stacy’s bedroom is whirlpooling back into her head. Marine biologists are biologists. She knows that, of course, but at some point the image of herself suspended in the perfect peace of the kelp forest overrode the reality of science, with its calculations and data. Would she really want to study kelp? Or even marine animals?  She’s not that interested in animals.

Then she thinks: Cricket.

She runs to the gate in the side yard that adjoins the Kipps’s yard, where Cricket is lying on the cement a foot from the pool. Tess recognizes the heaviness of Cricket, the way gravity is working on her, and knows the truth. Panic hits, then guilt, then more panic. She wants to call for Sven, but to address him by name, urgently and in need, is impossible.

Without being called, he comes over the fence. A hand flies up to cover the lower half of his face exactly the way her hand is covering the lower half of her face. They stand side by side.

“It’s not your fault. Cricket’s older than me, even. That’s almost a hundred in dog years,” he says.

But Tess is thinking about Cricket’s position by the pool and knows Sven sees what she sees: Cricket died trying to get to water.

“When do they get home?” he asks.

“Late tonight.”

“We have to move her.”

Cricket is not heavy between the two of them, but there is the problem of limbs, the problem of tail. They find their stride. Cricket’s fur is warm against Tess’s bare arms. She remembers the pallbearers at Mats Ragnarsson’s funeral.

“We’ll go through the garage,” Sven says. But the garage door is locked. They shift Cricket’s weight and start again, this time for the back door. Tess slides an arm out from under Cricket’s midsection and tries the knob.  It too is locked. In her excitement to get outside to Sven earlier, Tess locked herself and Cricket out of the Kipps’ house.

Sven swears. Tess has never heard him curse before and it’s a terrible and violent thing, a man’s anger rather than a boy’s. They set Cricket down.

“I can break in through the laundry room window,” Sven says. “I do it at home when I lock myself out. These houses are all the same.” He says the last part in disgust, like the sameness of their houses is a moral and aesthetic insult to him personally. Tess finds that sameness comforting.

He goes to the laundry room’s exterior wall and Tess follows. Sven rattles the window in a series of small, swift jerks until they hear a click. Sven slides the window open horizontally and pops out the screen.

“Cup your hands and boost me.”

Tess does. The weight of him, concentrated in one calloused and dusty bare foot, tugs at her hard. Then the weight disappears; Sven is up and through. He replaces and locks the breached window and reemerges from the kitchen door. They take Cricket once again.

“She usually stays in the kitchen, right?”

“Yeah.”

They lay Cricket on the cool tile by the refrigerator and survey. There is a crime scene grimness to the whole scenario.

“Maybe you should put some food in her bowl so it doesn’t look like you forgot to feed her,” Sven suggests. “No, don’t.  It should look like she ate well. Stacey will freak out if she thinks Cricket died hungry.”

The mention of Stacey sends all of Tess’s blood to her feet. Dizzy, she plays out the scene where the Kipps family returns home, sleepy but happy, balancing multiple cheer trophies, to find Cricket inert on the kitchen floor. Stacey will gasp then sob. Blame will be promptly assigned. Stacey will never, ever phone her from the private line.

Sven interrupts.

“I won’t tell,” he says.

“I know.”

She does know. That is the sort of boy he is. But she also knows that they won’t ever play Trivial Pursuit again.

“If they don’t pay you I can loan you money for your scuba course.”

“Thanks, but that’s ok,” Tess says. She is genuinely moved by this offer, but the scuba plan feels like something a stranger, or a much younger child, dreamed up.

Sven stares down at Cricket with his fists clenched.

“It’s their own fault for leaving the dog with a little girl,” he says to no one.

Tess wants only to get out of that kitchen, out of that house, but at the same time she knows that once she leaves there is no going back, ever. Sven goes first and Tess locks the door behind them. By the time she pockets the key, Sven is beyond the fence, in his own yard. He disappears through the door, identical to the open door Tess is standing in, identical to the back door to her own house. It’s like he was never there.

 

 

 

BIO

Rosemary Harp is a Chicago-based writer of fiction and essays. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from The University of Michigan and an M.A. in English Lit from the University of Virginia. Her writing has appeared in Mid-American Review, Motherwell, and other journals. She is working on her first novel.

 

 

 

0

The Table

by Robert Klose

 

 

I first saw the table about ten years ago, while driving in my pickup through Wiscasset, Maine, along the coastal route.  It was autumn, the air aflutter with falling leaves, and I spotted it at a yard sale, off to the side, suggesting it might have been spoken for.  Nevertheless, I stopped.  The table was simple but elegant, its round top made of laminated oak and fastened to a slim, four-sided stem.  The stem itself was supported at its base by a pedestal consisting of four curved buttresses, one attached to each face of the stem.  (Three of these buttresses were in excellent condition; but the fourth was damaged, as if a portion had been chewed off by a dog.)

As it turned out, the table was still available.  The seller was a husky, middle-aged man who blurted, “One hundred dollars.”

“That’s a lot for a yard sale item.”

“It’s hand-crafted,” he said, more in afterthought than an attempt to sweeten the deal.

“Still…”

“Yes?”

“I’ll give you seventy-five.”

He was aghast.  “I’d rather burn it than sell it for that price.”

“In that case, I’ll take it.”  After paying the man I threw the table into my pickup and headed north again, ahead of a threatening rain.

I brought the table to my still-almost-empty house and set it down in the middle of my empty kitchen, under a circular fluorescent ceiling light from the fifties.  (The realtor had touted the house as having “charming mid-century touches.”)  Then I surrounded it with what I had for seats — an aluminum lawn chair, a windsor chair, a metal folding chair, and a lobster crate.

I sat down in the lawn chair, looked out over the table — now the only piece of quality furniture in the house — and said, “There.”  I felt that in delivering the table to its appointed place, I was, in a way, inaugurating my new home.

As time went on, the inevitable accumulation of “things” progressed.  Beds, more chairs, night stands, book cases, end tables, dressers and a sofa.  The table, though, remained my home’s stillpoint — a neutron star whose gravity gathered everything unto itself.  In the morning I ate breakfast there; in the evening I opened my mail and paid my bills upon it; when I had guests, we sat around the table; and when I found a baby robin in the backyard, I put it in a shoe box and set it upon the table, where I could observe its return to health under the steady glow of the overhead fluorescent, which bathed the table in a continuous, soft light, like a museum piece.  Finally, in a delicate balancing act, I made love to a now erstwhile girlfriend upon the table, calling out to her in my moment of ecstasy, “My flower!”

In short, I loved the table and sensed that, no matter how my station in life might progress and improve, I would never part with it.

 

 

Winter came.  Waterways froze, icicles descended from the eaves, and chimneys puffed peaceably along.  That’s when I saw her.  The Russian woman.  I was driving along the main road through town.  The snow was flying about in periodic gusts, and had been coming down since early morning.  Enough had fallen so that the plows had rumbled it into long, high ridges on both sides of the road.

She was hobbling through the drifts, hunched over old-womanishly, clutching a large paper bag of groceries against the front of her gray wool coat.  She was wearing only flats, and every so often one flew off, so that she had to pause, backstep, work it back onto her foot (along with a dollop of slush), and then press forward again.

I pulled over and rolled down the window.  “Do you want a ride?”

I had startled her.  She threw me a desperate look and barked, “What!”

“A ride?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, matter-of-factly, as if she had been expecting me.  She got into the truck and I could feel the cold emanating from her body.

“Where to?”

“What!”

“Where can I take you?”

“Home.”

I knew the accent.  “You know…”

“What!”  (It came out as “Vaht!”.)

“We have a growing Russian community here.”

“I know,” she said with something resembling disgust.  “I am part of it.”  And then she asked, crossly, “How did you know I was Russian?”

“Your accent.”

She examined my face, as if I were joking.  “I have no accent,” she said in broad Slavic vowels.

I followed her directions, down poorly plowed side streets and around corners banked with snow.  She revealed herself in snippets.  St. Petersburg.  A research chemist.  A husband, Oleg.  America.  Two sons, Sasha and Timur.  Then no Oleg.  Lost to a designing American woman.  Oleg took Timur.  Now she cannot leave America.  She is here.  She is stuck.  She has Sasha, but other than him, nothing.  Nothing!  “My name is Ada,” she said after taking a breath, as if to punctuate her tale of woe, giving each syllable desperate weight.  Ahduh.

“Here,” she commanded, and I stopped the truck in front of a three-story, peelpaint apartment house.  It must have been frigid inside, because the windows were frosted over, icicles hanging in front of them like bars.  In a second floor window there was a clear patch, framing a pale face, round and searching.  “Sashinka,” said Ada, softly.  Then she turned to me and ordered, “You will come in for tea.”

Having time on my hands, and hounded by curiosity, I followed Ada up the icy front steps and into a dim vestibule which smelled like old blankets.  The wallpaper was from a distant era, scaling off in broad swatches.  I watched as she stepped out of her flats and planted a wet foot upon the first step.  I followed.

Halfway up the stairs there was a thundering from above.  Sasha made a raucous descent, jabbering in an insistent ragtime of Russian.  “Da, da,” said his mother.  “Da.”  They embraced as if the boy had just arrived from a distant journey.

Sasha looked me over, and I him.  He was ten or eleven, blond, with a broad forehead and wide-set, light blue eyes, a narrow chin.  He was, in other words, a Russian.  He put out his hand and I shook it.

Ada shed her coat and threw it over the wooden railing.  Her figure confirmed that she was younger than I had at first thought.  Perhaps forty.  When she took off her knit hat her light brown hair fell forward, plain and straight.

Their apartment was spartan, and cold.  A shoddy card table its centerpiece.  Two wooden folding chairs.  A foam chair/bed occupied one corner, and a canvas cot stretched along a wall, its only gloss a neatly folded, red and yellow afghan.  Between these was a small, overladen bookcase.  The whole scene was austere, Soviet.  Sasha, in anticipation of his mother’s arrival, had already set out tea and a platter of small, plain cakes.  Ada and I sat in the two chairs with Sasha squatting between us on a stool.  She watched as I took my first tentative sip.  “Do you like the tea?” she asked.

“Superb,” I said, my breath visible.

She hauled out the box it had come in.  “Five hundred bags,” she proclaimed.  “And only two dollars!”

More snippets.  She walked everywhere.  No car.  Little money.  Tutored Russian and cleaned the public library at night.  Sasha got straight A’s.  Spoke English like a native.  No, better.  If only Timur…

“Are you cold?” she asked.  This was Sasha’s cue to jump to his feet and scrape an image in a pane with his fingernail.  “It’s colder inside than out,” he announced with a smile, as if to show that they could take it.

“Oil is expensive,” remarked Ada as she cupped the tea in her hands.  Sasha ran back to the table and bumped it with his knee.  A leg collapsed.

“Jesus!’

I was on my feet, dancing to dispel the pain.  Ada rushed to my assistance while Sasha tried to right the table.  “Go in bathroom and put cold water on it,” she commanded.

“The tea…”

What!

“The teapot,” I managed, still fanning my lap.  “It’s still pouring out.  On the floor.”

Sasha was already there, mopping and straightening while trying to hold the table up with his shoulder.

“Some day,” said Ada to my back as I hobbled to the bathroom, “I will have a real table.”

 

 

The first day of spring.  Maine looked as if it had the potential for warmth once again, its ice and snow having been cashiered into rushing rivers and streams, its front yards and fields awash in mud.

Galina Sergeivna called.  She was the linchpin of the local Russian community.  Eighty years old, she had the broad, nesting doll expanse of the older Russian woman, but, having survived the siege of Leningrad and then a trek west with her family into Nazi arms, she also had a broad expanse of will.

Her voice was insistent, urgent.  But this was normal.  Even when she was proffering borscht, her voice was insistent, urgent, as if the fate of the world depended on my lifting a small, red, shriveled beet to my mouth.

“Listen,” she told me, breathlessly.  “Ada…”  The news took wing from there.  Ada’s situation was desperate.  As if I didn’t know.  I had spent the better part of the winter chauffeuring her about and leaving anonymous packages of groceries at her door, which, one day, brought the rhetorical cry:  “If I knew who it was, I would kill him.”

Pride.

Now her poor situation had worsened.  As a foreigner, she was not entitled to public assistance.  Her tutoring brought her pin money, and the cleaning job in the public library was enough to pay the rent and insure that Sasha always had clean underwear.  But that job had been a risk.  Even in a small Maine town, one can get away with paying someone under the table for only so long.  The director of the library, having visited and fallen in love wth Russia, was willing to do this.  But the new town manager — an old cold warrior — was not.

Galina recited refrain after refrain.  “She doesn’t even have…  She doesn’t even have…”  And then, like a bolt from the blue, it came at me:  “…a table.”

I swallowed hard for the two of us.  “Yes, she does,” I countered, lamely.  “She has a card table.”

“No,” said Galina Sergeivna, rushing to Ada’s defense.  “It broke.  One of the legs bent.”  I could feel her leaning into the phone.  “It broke off.  Gone.”

Did Galina Sergeivna think I had a table to spare?  Did she know that I was the one who had left all those groceries at Ada’s door?  If so, was she now trying to coerce me?  Impossible.  She was the soul of altruism and honest intent.

“I don’t have a table,” I told her by way of preemption.

“You don’t have a table?” she echoed, astonished.

“Well, I do have a table, but…”

“Oh, so you do have a table.  Well, maybe you could give it to poor Ada.  I would give her mine, but one of the legs is bent.  It is only a matter of time before it…”

“Breaks off.”

“Yes.”

I didn’t know what to say, yet I knew that any pause with Galina Sergeivna was pregnant with the chance of her inserting a paragraph of design.  This she immediately did.

“Listen,” she said.  “I have an idea.  My son Misha is going on sabbatical.  He’s going away.  In his garage he has a table that his mother-in-law gave him.  He can’t bring it inside yet because he has to get rid of his own table first.”  Galina Sergeivna breathed hard for a moment, considering.  “Well, I could see in my mind’s eye that neither table would fit into Ada’s apartment.  By the way, it’s solid bitch…”

“You mean beech.”

“Yes.  What did I say?”

“You said ‘bitch’.”

“Did I?  Impossible.  Why would I say that?  Anyway, you could take this table and maybe let Ada have your table for a little while.  I was at her apartment the other day and thought that a small round table would be perfect there.”

“Well…”

“Yes?”

“Is it really made of beech?”

“What?”

“Bitch.”

“Yes, go to Misha and have a look.  The garage is open.  This could work for everybody.”

I went to Misha’s.  The garage was open.  The table was beautiful — a broad, finely finished surface of immaculate bitch.  It would look perfect in my kitchen.  And who knows?  The way these things work, Misha just might learn to live without it.  I made the necessary arrangements with Misha and within the hour the table was standing in my dooryard, waiting.  Fifteen minutes later I was hauling my round oak table up Ada’s creaky, winding staircase.  Five minutes after that, she had adorned it with a lace tablecloth and was filling my cup with steaming black Russian tea.  It was curious that she resented the gifts of groceries but welcomed the table without so much as a thank you, as if she had been expecting it.

“I’m happy to lend this table to you until you can get a decent one of your own,” I said, staking my right to reclamation should it become necessary.

“Oh, yes, yes,” she said, nodding.  “We will take good care of it.”  As she said this, Sasha clapped the remaining three legs of the card table together and brought the shabby thing down to the curb.

That evening I ate supper alone, seated at Misha’s lovely table.

 

 

In time Ada’s situation improved.  In a desperate maneuver to remain in the States, close to Timur, she registered as an undergraduate at the university, majoring in political science.  This secured her a student visa and also granted her the privilege of sitting in a classroom with forty American eighteen-year-olds wondering what on earth the course had to do with sex.  By virtue of her Russian Ph.D., she was also awarded a tuition waiver and a stipend of four hundred dollars per month.   In addition, she had five private Russian language students.  On the weekends she and Sasha collected bottles and cans.  During one of my visits she opened a closet packed with plastic bags of returnables.  “Forty-three dollars!” she sang.

“In Michigan it would be eighty-six,” I remarked

“What!”

“In Michigan they pay ten cents per bottle or can.  So you would get double the money.”

“What a country!” she said, slapping her forehead.

I visited Ada and Sasha often.  Every time I did, Ada waxed poetic about the table.  One day she told me to close my eyes when I came through the door.  “Now open them,” she said, and I beheld my table, but it looked somehow different.  If it were a living thing, I would say that it had been rejuvenated.

“I refinished it,” said Ada, clasping her hands.

“Oh.”  In truth, it looked wonderful.  She had removed the old finish and restained it.  Darker.  Fresher.

Sasha threw himself over the table and draped it with both his arms.  “I love this table,” he said.  “Do you know how to say that in Russian?”

“I had only a year of Russian in college,” I told him.

“That should be enough,” he said, chastising me.  “Try.  Try to say, ‘I love this table.'”

“I can’t.”

Ada chimed in.  “Then say, ‘Sasha loves this table.'”

“It’s no easier.”

“Start by saying ‘Sasha.’  You can say that, can’t you?  It’s the same in English.”

“Sasha,” I said, blankly.

“Now say ‘lyoo-bit.'”

I repeated the word.

“Now ‘etot stoll’.”

I repeated it.

“Now the whole thing.  ‘Sasha lyoo-bit etot stoll.'”

I did as I was told.

Sasha applauded while his mother went to fetch the tea and I sat down at the table, which was redolent with the aroma of fruitwood stain.  As Ada set the tea down, I accessed my dormant Russian.  “Ada, ” I volunteered.  “I think I can say, ‘I love this table too.'”

“Good,” said Ada.  “But first tell me if you want sugar or honey.  And drink the tea before it gets cold.  How are things where you work?”

 

 * * *

 

I stayed late into the evening.  When I finally left, toward ten, it was dark.  A solitary streetlamp shed a paltry light.  As I approached my car I caught sight of a moving shadow off to my right.  Who was this? A mugger?  In Maine?  Alarmed, I quickened my steps, but too late.  It was upon me.  I turned and cowered.  “Get away!” was all I managed to cry before a hand grabbed my arm.

“It’s all right,” counseled a man’s voice, heavily accented.  “It’s me.  Oleg.”

I lifted my eyes and squinted at him.  “I don’t know you,” I said.

“Yes you do, although we haven’t met.”

This, then, was Ada’s ex-husband.  As my eyes adjusted I could make him out.  His youngish, boyish face and thick, brown, blow-dried hair brushed straight back.  Like Stalin.  He even had Stalin’s tiger eyes.  “What do you want?”

“I’ll be brief.  I see you’re spending time with Ada.”

“Not the way you think,” I was quick to answer.

“No matter,” said Oleg.  “Things take on a life of their own, even when you think you have control.  I know you gave her a table.”

I relaxed a bit, calmed by his quiet manner, although I remained on my guard.  “How would you know that?”

Oleg shrugged.  “How did I know you were here this evening?”

“Good question.  How did you know?”

He shrugged again.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll bet she told you that I am some sort of monster.  If not a monster, then maybe a Bukhara from Brighton Beach.”

“She didn’t tell me anything.  And anyway, it’s none of my business.”

Oleg smiled.  “That’s a very American thing to say.  In Russia, everything is everybody’s business.  Don’t you want to know why I left her?”

“I’m not the least bit interested.”

Oleg narrowed his eyes.  “That’s a lie.  You’re really dying to know, so I’ll tell you.  We came here with Sashinka and Timurka — our boys — two years ago.  I found that I wanted to stay.  For a man like me, there are more possibilities here.  But Ada longed for St. Petersburg.  What could I do?  We separated and I found an American woman.”

“For the green card,” I said, and immediately regretted it.

“Don’t worry,” said Oleg, sensing my alarm.  “I’m not going to kill you for speaking the truth.  Of course, for the green card.  I don’t love this woman.  She’s too old for me.  And now Ada feels trapped here, because of Timurka.”

A silence settled over both of us.  “All right,” I finally said.  “Now I know more than I knew before, but I don’t see why you had to tell me this.  It doesn’t change anything.”

“I love her,” said Oleg matter-of-factly.  “I just want you to know that.  If I knew she needed a table, I would have given her one.  I build houses, you know, so I could have made her one.  From cherry.  Very expensive.  So then, your table is harmless, but please remember what I said about things taking on lives of their own.”

Having said that, he turned and disappeared into the night.

The next morning, while reading the paper, I was stunned to see Oleg’s name in the police blotter.  He had been summoned.  For assault in a local bar.  Only an hour after approaching me in front of Ada’s house.  He was free on bail.

 

 

I didn’t tell Ada about my meeting with Oleg.  Instead, life went on as usual.  I visited her on a regular basis and began to get close to Sasha, who became interested in me when he learned I was a biologist.  I took him on field trips to the coast and found him to be a quick learner with a keen eye for detail.  Between my normal visits for tea and my relationship with Sasha, I found myself at their apartment more and more.  As the weeks and months passed I made fewer references to the table being mine, that concern having been supplanted by a subtle but persistent fear that Oleg was lurking in the bushes.

Still, I felt at ease with Ada and Sasha.  The simplicity and quiet of their small apartment made it seem like some distant place divorced from both Ada’s and my preoccupations.  Now and then, as we drank our tea, I caught her peeping at me.  When I did, she blushed.  Her manner of serving tea was usually brisk and antiseptic, but on one occasion, as I took the cup from her, her hand brushed mine and I caught a flash of heat from her.  She quickly left the table, scurried to the kitchen, and gazed out the window.  For my part, I continued to sip my tea and nibble at my cookie.

One day, Galina Sergeivna called.  As usual, her message was urgent.  Misha had returned from his sabbatical and wanted his bitch table back.  Could I bring it to him that evening?  I asked for a little time to arrange things so that I would not be without a table, but I could hear Misha in the background, whispering to his mother, “Tell him tonight.  I must have it tonight!”

What could I do?  I agreed and delivered the table to him, trucking it over in my pickup.  I returned home to a void in my  kitchen.  Girding myself, I called Ada.  “Do you remember the table I loaned you?” I asked.

“Remember?  What do you mean?  I eat on it every day.  I work on it.  Sasha does his homework on it.  It is the center of our lives.”

“Yes, but do you recall that it was a loan?  The time has come when I need to have it back.”

“What!”

“Not right away,” I said, wincing, as I did not feel comfortable making the same unconditional demand as Misha.  “Please keep it while you look for a new one.  I’ll even help you.”

I could sense her panic at the other end of the line.  “Oh,” she moaned.  And then, “I’ll give you anything you ask for the table.  We have gotten used to it.  Two hundred dollars!”

“Ada,” I pleaded.  “I’m not looking to sell it.  It…it has sentimental value.”

“Three hundred!”

“Ada!’

She slammed the receiver down.  What did that mean?  Was I getting my table back or not?  I called her.  After five rings she picked up.  “I’m comforting Sasha,” she said.  “He loves that table.  He’s used to it.  He’s devastated.”

“Ada,” I insisted.  “Put Sasha on the phone.”

She hung up again.  I decided to go to bed in the interest of letting tempers cool.

In the morning the phone rang.  I steeled myself for Ada’s next assault, but it was Galina Sergeivna.  “Listen,” she said, “we know about the table.”

“We?”

“All of us,” she said, cryptically.  “And we want you to know that we’re on your side.”  After a pause she added, “You did tell her it was only a loan, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, then you have every right to ask for it back.  I mean, if this were Moscow…”

“What do you mean?  What if this were Moscow?”

“Well, in Russia we help each other like this.  It’s not unusual to give someone furniture.”

“But I didn’t give it to her.”

“Yes, I know.  But you went there from time to time and had tea on the table, and you reminded her that it was yours?”

“Yes,” I said.  “But were those things I had to do?  Ada says it’s killing Sasha.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “He’s a big boy.  What is he, eleven?”

“Twelve now.”

“Twelve then.  Children that age recover quickly.  Well, I just want you to know that we’re on your side.  I had friends here last night and they’re all from Moscow and they all agree that this isn’t St. Petersburg.”

“Ada’s from St. Petersburg.  Maybe your friends could talk to her.”

“No,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “They won’t.”

“But why?”

“Because she’s from St. Petersburg.”

I hesitated to call Ada.  If I followed through and took the table, I would be thought of as cold and uncaring, at least by Ada and probably the other St. Petersburgers in the community.  Perhaps it was best to just let her keep the table.  Could she live with that?

By evening I was still mired in indecision.  I decided to go over and speak to her personally.  I got into my truck and pulled up in front of her apartment, but didn’t get out.  As the vehicle idled I once again considered simply not mentioning the table again, and perhaps the situation would resolve itself over time.  Suddenly I was startled by a tapping on the window.  Oleg.

“You scared me half to death!” I said as I rolled down the window.  “What do you want?”  Then I noticed his bruised forehead and a gash across his left cheek.

“I was in the neighborhood and I saw you sitting here,” he said.

“I’m thinking about taking the table back.”

“Yes,” he said.  “I heard.  The arrogant Muscovites are all on your side, except for Ludmila in the bakery, who remembers the old days and feels that a loan is as good as a gift.  Russian and American cultures are very different.  This is what happens when you get mixed up with a Russian woman.”

“Look,” I said.  “This whole thing is crazy.  I’m not mixed up with Ada.  But now I’m thinking that maybe it’s best if I let her keep the table.”

Oleg grabbed my arm with alarming force.  “No.  You can’t,” he said.  “Then you’ll give her an opportunity to play the martyr.  You must take the table back.”  I tried to avert my eyes, but they became stuck on a black object shoved into his belt.  My God.  A pistol.  I began to stammer.

Oleg smiled, then pulled his jacket front together.  His expression dropped and he glared at me for one, long moment, as if to say, “Now you get the message.”  And with that, he went on his way.  I didn’t go in to see Ada.  I drove home and ate a TV dinner while sitting on the floor.

That night, as I lay in bed, I thought of Anna Karenina.  What was it about these Russians?  In America, people got splinters, hit their thumbs with hammers, and stubbed their toes.  In Russia they rolled under locomotives.  Could an entire country have such an insatiable appetite for drama?  And why were they always at each other’s throats?  Why couldn’t the Muscovites talk to the St. Petersburgers?  Why did both these groups hate the Russians of Brighton Beach?  I could only surmise that, as a result of historical deprivations, they always perceived the pie of opportunity as being too small, even in a land of excess like America.  This made them suspicious of each other.

This led to more questions.  Why did they treat ulcers with vodka?  Why did they curse the lives they left behind, yet weep at the thought of their country?  I was reminded of something Paul Theroux wrote about riding the Siberian Railway.  He reported the grinding monotony of day after day of a featureless, snowbound landscape as the train crawled westward toward Moscow.  And then, after an eternity of unbroken whiteness, the passengers saw a wisp of black smoke on the horizon, emanating from one of Russia’s industrial cities.  At which point a man, a peasant, stood up and recited a poem that went something like, “Even the smell of our industry calls us home to Mother Russia.”

I suddenly felt that I understood why the table meant so much to Ada, as it would to most any Russian.  In a life which offered little variety, much grayness, and little hope of improvement, any gloss whatsoever was a pearl of great price.  As I dozed off I felt that I had reached my decision:  I would let her keep the table, even if she crucified herself as a result.

That night I dreamed.  The image was stark, threatening — Ada with the table slung over her back, Christlike, stumbling along the main road in a driving rain, determined to throw it down at my doorstep, but not until she had fallen three times.  Or was it two?

I awoke in a sweat.  And then I laughed.  Was I becoming Russian?  I rolled over and went back to sleep.

The next day, after work, I stopped at Galina Sergeivna’s house to drop off the quart of milk she had asked me to pick up for her.  I pulled into her gravel driveway and regarded the small, rundown abode which still managed to look fanciful, like a dacha.  It was painted brown and yellow, with a low peaked roof and filigrees about the eves.  Flower boxes brimmed with marigolds.  The shutters had cutouts of daffodils.  As I went up the steps, Glinka, her porch cat, meowed and ran through my legs.

“Oh, come in,” she said with the hint of insouciance that belied, I was convinced, some intent.

I had long since grown accustomed to Galina’s flame red hair and the prominent mole, as big as a marble, that sprouted in the middle of her forehead.  Her fruity perfume wafted in her wake as she moved to the sofa in her tiny living room and motioned for me to take the easy chair opposite her.  It was the perfect old person’s home:  four small rooms, all on the same floor, yet with space for a piano.  Knickknacks abounded, a lifetime of work for a dust rag.

Galina Sergeivna, normally composed and cheerful, seemed uncharacteristically nervous and preoccupied.  “So,” she said, “have you decided?”

“Yes.  I’m going to forget about the table and let her keep it.”

Galina Sergeivna laid a hand across her neck and sat bolt upright.  “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”

“No, I’m not.  But when I considered all the options, this one made me feel the best.  And it will preserve the peace.”

“Yes,” she said, looking first at the floor, and then heavenward.  “Russians prefer peace above everything.  Even freedom.”  Then an almost beatific smile broke across her lined face as she turned to me.  “But maybe not more than love.”

I thought that an odd comment.  But I disregarded it and continued.  “I think I know how to handle this in a way that will allow Ada to accept the table.”

“Oh?”

But I said nothing else, and Galina Sergeivna suppressed her curiosity.  I nodded and got up to leave.  As I opened the door she said, “Please come by tomorrow evening around seven.  There’s someone I’d like you to meet.  It’s very important.  We’ll have tea.”  She would not let me leave until I had promised.

From Galina Sergeivna’s house I went to the florist and bought a lush bouquet, which I brought to Ada’s apartment.  I knocked on the door and it swung open.  When I called out there was no answer.  But there, before me, was the table.  It had been taken apart, its top standing on its side against the pedestal.  Using a coin from my pocket, I screwed it together again and laid the flowers upon it, my peace offering.  Then I scribbled a note:  “I’ve found a table that’s better for my house.  Please enjoy this one in good health.”  Then I left the apartment.

As I came onto the street it occurred to me that Oleg, if he was still lurking, may have seen me.  My God, what would he think now?  And what about that pistol?  But when I went outside all was clear.

The afternoon turned to evening, and still no call from Ada.  And no one answered when I tried to call.  Curious.  The silence persisted into the next day.  When evening came I went to Galina Sergeivna, who was waiting in the doorway, kneading her hands in her house dress.  “I thought you’d never come,” she said.

Galina Sergeivna introduced me to an older Russian woman named Zinaida, who looked to be straight out of the days before glasnost:  her thick, salt-and-pepper hair was held back with bobbie pins; her stockings were as thick as cloth, with a visible seam; she wore a plain beige blouse topping a brown wool skirt.  All of this was in contrast to her brilliant, welcoming smile as she took my hand and rolled it in both of hers.  She spoke no English.

We sat around a card table and had tea and pound cake, Galina Sergeivna translating my every word for her friend.  When the subject of the table came up, Zinaida’s eyes flashed with intense interest.  She asked many questions.  Did I give the table or lend it?  Did I show continuing concern for it during the course of its absence?  Was Ada from St. Petersburg?  Finally, Galina Sergeivna threw me an imploring look.

When I told her about the flowers she put her tea down and swallowed audibly.  Then, clearing her throat, she translated this conclusion for Zinaida, who immediately clucked and then emitted a dense paragraph of rapid-fire Russian as Galina Sergeivna repeatedly chirped, “Da, da, da.”  Then she turned to me and said, “Then you do understand.”

I looked blankly at the two women.  “Understand what?”

“That Ada is in love with you.”

I was speechless.  Of course, I had suspected something, but I was sure I had done nothing to encourage Ada.

Zinaida took a tissue from her bosom and blew her nose.  Her eyes were brimming with tears.  “Zinaida is happy for you,” said Galina Sergeivna.  Then she leaned across the table, not translating, leaving poor Zinaida to fend for herself.

“It was the table,” said Galina Sergeivna.  “Ada told me, very early on, that it was the greatest act of kindness anyone had ever done for her, especially since enduring the hell she has known here in America.  Oleg, Timur, food, money,” she enumerated on her fingers.  “And all the attention you paid to little Sasha.  Now you see why she couldn’t give it up.”

“To guarantee my visits?”

Galina Sergeivna nodded.  Zinaida honked.

“I’ve been trying to call Ada for several days, but there’s been no answer.”

Silence.  Galina Sergeivna’s eyes grew soulful.  “Are you saying that you love her?”

“No,” I clipped.  “I don’t.”

There was a cry like a wounded animal, from another room.

“It’s her,” said Galina Sergeivna, searching the pockets of her house dress for a tissue of her own.  “Ada.  She told me everything.  She came here to seek refuge.”

“From whom?”

“Who do you think?”

“Oleg?”

Galina Sergeivna nodded.  Then she turned to Zinaida and assaulted her with a tidal wave of Russian to bring her up to date on all that had transpired since the last translation.  Zinaida wept anew into her sopping tissue.  After confirming that her friend would survive, Galina Sergeivna turned back to me.  “Ada told him everything too,” she said.  “Finally.  Just the other day.  He exploded.  Did you know that he has a gun?  He threatened to take Sasha, so that she would be left with nothing!”

I swallowed.  “Where is Sasha?” I managed in a bare whisper, while Ada’s howling continued on the other side of the door.

Galina Sergeivna steeled herself and leveled her gaze at me.  “He took him.”

I splayed my hands out on the table and regarded both weeping women while, in the next room, Ada continued to vent her grief.  “Did she go to the police?” I asked.

Ada looked at me as if I were a moron.  “Police?  What police?  What rights does she have?  Oleg has a green card, a job, an American wife, a big house.  Ada has nothing.  If this was Brighton Beach she would be sitting on a subway grate with her hand out.”

Ada’s cries had become deafening.  I could hear her pacing the floor.  “My heart is bleeding for her,” I whispered to Galina Sergeivna.  “But I just don’t love her.”

“Ach,” she said, sniffing and looking off into the distance.  “Ach.”

“Let me talk to her,” I volunteered.  “I can’t leave her like that.”

Galina Sergeivna waved me off with her tissue.  “No,” she said.  “She has to understand that this is America now and things are different here.  It’s a woman’s job to talk to her, and I will do it.”

“Then I have to go,” I said, excusing myself.  I reached out for Zinaida’s hand, but she was using both of them to clutch the tissue to her nose.  I left the house feeling as if I had committed a murder.  As I descended the steps, I caught sight of a distant figure, a man, coming down the street at a rapid pace.  He was carrying — or rather, swinging — a bouquet of flowers, while inside, the women were squawking like hens.

 

 

 

BIO

Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta.  He is a regular contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor.  His work has also appeared in NewsweekThe Boston GlobeExquisite CorpseConfrontation and elsewhere.  His books include “Adopting Alyosha — A Single Man Finds a Son in Russia,” “Small Worlds — Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas and Other Mortal Concerns,” “The Three-Legged Woman & Other Excursions in Teaching” and a novel, “Long Live Grover Cleveland,” which won a 2016 Ben Franklin Literary Award and a USA BookNews Award.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Tenth Nerve v1

by Deborah Saltman

 

 

Three nerves control my eyes
My pupils shrink
In the lightness of your skin
And grow in the darkness of our nites
Take a look if you dare
No need to question the colour of my eyes
They are filled with the calling cards of the seasons
Or does the blue-eyed octopus want to hide behind her ink?

One nerve relays the soupçon of smells
That cross the tendrils of my trunk
Still it is the magnolia that moans a scent
As ephemeral as its Messenger Hermes
Five nerves form the movement of my lips, tongue, words
Yet only one controls the index finger
That types to you

Is that not risky?

But is the vague Vagus – the perfect ten
That can move the four chambers
To heartstop
And now sits behind the drawbridges
We helped each other raise

There are only twelve nerves in the cranium
The last two can make my shoulders shrug
And help me swallow pain

That is why I want to stop at ten


 

Stop and search

 

Stop and search my emotions
I gave you reasonable grounds to explore my interior
Do not suspect my engaging in the crime of love or even liking you
Remains
Place your hard metal heart against my scarred chest
Hood my lips, cuff my arms, restrain my legs
My spittal is distinctive
You will taste the perfumed bile for centuries

I’m grateful

Wherever you go
My mistress of the inquisition
Will you always remember
Searching the bag of my body
Never asking for my consent
Travelling eternally and internally
On the passport you renewed
After I ran out of time

Handcuffs, leg restraints, batons, pepper taints
Little more than glorified sacks, racks and nick knacks

After all she says
You doctors don’t apologise
When the short sharp needle
Filled with measles enters my buttocks.


 

The underground

 

After decades
I think I hear her familiar breathing again
That click of her rusty diaphragm
Wrestling under the diseased heart
Air always struggling to draw in and out
Beyond the cardiac space
No explorer would dare to enter
Or was it just
The conductor’s raspish call
Express stop to exit only?

Pretending to put on the lipstick I never wear
I took a selfie
Just to get a glance of her
There sitting behind me
In the disabled seat

I long for her caved chest to rise up and lay down
Next to me
Deep with laboured inhaling
The rhythm section of her tired ribcage freed
From our past hiccupping
Could we ever breathe the same air again?

My station calls
Now in the long corridor exit to fresh air
Walking over the top of her departing carriage
My tunnelled vision unfolds
If she was the one
I’m glad she didn’t look up

 

 

 

BIO

Deborah Saltman is a physician and re-emerging poet living across the hemispheres and the Atlantic currently enjoying her London landing. She has had 6 poems published in reviewed US publications in the last year (one in Poetica, one in Off the Coast, and four in BLAZEVOX. After twenty years of scientific writing, she is enjoying her return to her calling.

 

 

 

 

Ghost Girl

by Emmie Barron

 

 

Do you ever have those moments when you wish you could freeze time, if only for a little while? Moments when you just feel so completely happy and secure and whole? These moments come and go for me; what comes in between are raging storms, storms with a numbing chill that destroy me from within.

There are days I can’t get out of bed. I’m irritable and empty. My dirty laundry sits in a heap on the floor, and my garbage reeks from the takeout that’s been sitting in it for days. My body has no energy, no purpose. In my moments of clarity, however, I finish my homework, clean my room, update my family on my life–all things I should be doing everyday, or, at least, more often than I do.

My family doctor first diagnosed me with major depressive disorder around December of my sophomore year of high school, the year I lost thirty pounds in the span of a month. Busy with their own lives, my friends didn’t notice I only ate two carrots for lunch. They also didn’t notice when I left the lunch table early, without a word, and sat in the bathroom for twenty minutes. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

“I want you to take ten milligrams of Lexapro every night before going to bed,” my doctor had told me, putting me on my first antidepressant. “You may experience some side effects, such as increased tiredness, dizziness, or headaches. This is just your body adjusting to the medication. If it doesn’t go away, please give me a call.”

In March of my sophomore year, I told my mom I wanted to kill myself. That was only the beginning of a downward spiral.

“Oh, Sweetie,” my mom said, frowning, looking up at me from her iPad that probably had Facebook pulled up on it. “Don’t say that.”

My family didn’t understand. They tried to, though. My dad had a lot of social anxiety as a kid, and he always told me stories about how he wasn’t one to go to parties and would rather be alone in his room, listening to music. He tried to relate his own experiences to mine, which I always appreciated, but it’s impossible to understand what depression feels like unless the person has firsthand experience.

Sometimes I’d get into a depressive episode and remain in bed all day, not even getting up to eat. My room always looked like a tornado came through–dirty clothes littered the floor because I couldn’t even muster the energy to throw them down the laundry chute. I didn’t even bother making a path out of my clothes, electronics, and art supplies to get to my bed; I just stepped on my belongings in the hopes that I wouldn’t break anything.

My walls were covered top to bottom in random shit I’d collected since middle school, including posters of different bands, drawings I’d done, and a giant tapestry of New York City. I stared at the tapestry often, imagining what it’d be like to live there. I’d wanted to write books ever since I became an avid reader in fourth grade, and my dream had always been to be a famous, successful author. Writing was an escape of mine, along with art and skating.

When I was motivated, I occasionally worked on my artwork or writing. I had too many works-in-progresses to possibly choose one to finish, so I usually just started new stories and drawings. I’d done watercolor paintings since I was ten, but lately I was getting into pencil-drawing portraits. The few that I actually finished and didn’t hate were randomly pinned to the walls of my bedroom; the rest were scattered across my floor. My writing stayed on my laptop–I didn’t even let my closest friends see any of the stories I’d start to write and then abandon.

Sometimes during my depressive episodes, my brother, Ethan, would peek his head into my room, saying, “Gem. Dinner’s ready” or “Gem. Wanna watch a movie?” Sometimes, he would just come in, fart, and leave. I drew little caricatures of him, with giant fart clouds coming from his butt.

My mom and Ethan were similar in the sense that, to them, depression was this daunting presence far off in the distance. It was something they knew existed, but that was about it. It was scary and alien to them. They were the type to always be cheerful, and when they got in a bad mood, they could just snap out of it. It was rare to see my mom crabby.

My dad and I, however, seemed to be constantly battling our inner demons, though mine were much different from his. I never really understood what inner turmoil plagued my dad; I only knew it wasn’t quite depression.

I tried to explain how I felt to my family, but it was difficult. How could I explain feeling everything and nothing at the same time? It felt as though no one could ever possibly understand. I needed someone to know how much I was hurting, though, because I couldn’t describe it, or maybe I kind of didn’t want to. I thought I was a burden, as if my problems weren’t significant enough. My parents didn’t help when they’d condescendingly say, “Oh, Gemma, your life isn’t bad. There’re people that have it much worse.”

Contrary to popular belief, people with depression aren’t constantly depressed and don’t walk around with our symptoms on display. We laugh. We perform well in school. We crack jokes. We participate in extracurriculars.

We’re coping.

Going into my senior year of high school, I felt secure. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but enough, and I got involved in clubs and activities. Being one of the only graduating students on my figure skating team, I got more ice time at competitions. There was something about being out on the ice alone that helped me forget about everything else. It made me feel alive. Skating was one of my solaces, and I was happy enough.

“One more year,” my parents would say, because they knew I needed to get out of Gladstone, a town of 5,000 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was pretty sure most people who lived there were delusional. It was the only explanation as to why so many adults in their twenties, thirties, and even forties cared so much about high school football. Plus, Gladstone seemed to produce a lot of racists. It was a town that praised Donald Trump and called gay people “faggots” as if they didn’t realize people who aren’t straight and white still deserve basic human rights. Most people who grew up in Gladstone never left, or if they did, they ended up coming right back.

On my first day of senior year, I curled my long, black hair to frame my apple-shaped face. I played with makeup a lot over the summer, having finally gotten my horrible acne under control. My eyebrows were filled in and my wings were pointed to perfection. My skinny 5’2 frame that had been recovering from my eating disorder was now filled out more. I could almost properly fit into cute dresses that desperately clung to my small but actually existent boobs.

It was a tradition in my family to get a photo of my brother and me on our way out of the front door on our first day of school, but this year it was only me; my brother, Ethan, who looked absolutely nothing like me, with his short blond hair, husky build, and long, straight nose, was sleeping in; his community college classes didn’t start until later. As we got older, our pictures changed along with our physical similarities: we went from hugging, to holding hands, to smiling and standing apart, to not even smiling.

That day, I smiled, while my mom cooed, “Gemma, you look so cute! Is it okay if I post this one to Facebook? Your aunt would love to see it. You’re gonna have such a good year. I just know it.”

My mom and I looked very similar, save for her bobbed brown hair. Our personalities were starkly different, however; I was quiet, reserved, and overthought everything, while my mom was loud and confident.

I thought I was doing okay. Getting out of bed wasn’t a huge challenge; I was eating full meals and hanging out with my friends and feeling whole. I thought this was my moment of clarity.

On Friday, October fifth, a shift occurred. It was silent but heavy and unexpected.

I went to the homecoming dance, the only one in my group without a date. My hairdresser gave me an intricate updo she claimed made me look like “a college girl,” and I did my makeup more dramatic than usual. My thighs and butt were strong from figure skating, so I wore a tight, black two-piece dress that revealed my belly button piercing.

“Hurry up,” my brother said through a fake smile as my mom snapped pictures of us together. My mom said it’d be nice to get some pictures of the two of us before I went off to college, although I hadn’t even applied anywhere yet. She and my dad had high expectations for me.

I drove myself to dinner. My friends and I ate at a small family restaurant.

“Gem, you look so good!” my friend, Jane, cried when I walked inside.

“Thanks. So do you,” I responded with a smile.

Jane was there with her boyfriend, Logan. Jane had been my friend since before I was in preschool. She was a small thing with flawless, pale skin, a tiny bird-like nose, and huge brown eyes that made it seem like she was constantly looking into your soul. Her brown hair was cut in a pixie-style, and she wore a vintage-looking lace dress. Jane was smarter than most people at our school, and she knew it. Logan was a small yet muscular guy with shaggy brown hair and bad acne. We were all in the same calculus class.

My other friend, Amanda, was also there with her boyfriend, Josh. Amanda and I went way back, too. She was the heaviest of the three of our small group, but arguably perhaps the prettiest, having long, blonde hair and striking blue eyes. She bounced from boy to boy, each one shittier than the last. I’d advise her not to talk to a guy, that he was only going to hurt her, but she’d ignore me, and I’d wait with an available shoulder for her to cry on when her relationship with the jerk would inevitably implode. It was a familiar cycle. In secret, Jane and I talked about how neither of us liked Amanda’s current boyfriend.

My friends were safe. They weren’t anyone I needed in my life, especially not at that time, but I got comfortable. Making friends wasn’t something I was good at.

When the waitress came to take our order, I said, “I’ll have the grilled chicken salad with Italian dressing on the side.”

“You need to order a burger, Gem. Put some skin on those bones!” Amanda joked. “You’re so skinny.”

“I don’t wanna be bloated later.” I forced a laugh, pointing to my exposed belly. To be fair, my friends didn’t know that I was in recovery from anorexia. Whenever someone joked about my weight, I just laughed. What else could I do?

“Gem, remember that time…” Jane started, but had to stop because she was laughing too hard to get her words out. “Remember…when we went to the buildings and you painted ‘ass juice’ all over?”

“Yes! Wow.” I started laughing.

“The buildings” were what we referred to as these abandoned buildings in Gladstone that overlooked Lake Michigan. They used to be offices for an insurance company or something boring like that and had been abandoned since the fifties. Jane, Amanda, and I would go there together in the summer to spray paint profanities in pretty purples and pinks. A lot of the locals would go there to smoke weed or get drunk. A fire pit had actually been moved inside one of the buildings. It was technically trespassing, but the cops never seemed to give a shit. It was amazing the things kids found to do in their free time in a town with no shopping mall and three McDonald’s.

“Remember when I spelled my name wrong?” Amanda said, giggling. Amanda often joked about not being smart. She felt that since Jane and I always got straight A’s and she didn’t, it automatically made her stupid.

“At least you didn’t forget your name one time during roll call,” Logan said. Jane laughed so hard she snorted.

We reminisced about the past summer, ate, chatted about classes, and stressed about college applications. I watched them talk to their boyfriends. The only time Josh acknowledged my presence was when he laughed at my joke about wanting to take shots of bleach instead of going to calc on Monday.

After we finished, I drove myself to the dance. It was held in the small cafeteria of our high school, which consisted of about 500 students. I walked in, paid $10, and immediately smelled B.O. and felt the vibrations of the speakers that blared out overplayed pop music. Uptown Funk, possibly the most annoying song ever created, started playing as I sat down at a table, waiting for my friends and their boyfriends. If you freaky, then own it. Don’t brag about it. Come show me.

I watched bodies gyrate against one another on the makeshift dance floor. Our school wasn’t known for throwing classy dances.

Jane and Logan eventually arrived, sitting across from me.

“Gem, come dance with us!” Jane insisted, trying to pull me up from the table.

Looking out onto the dance floor, I saw Amanda and her notoriously douchey boyfriend grinding against each other. She was screaming along to the song, while Josh’s face was expressionless as he held her ass and danced slightly offbeat. I remained sitting.

During the slow songs (“Bad Day,” “Sorry,” “She Will Be Loved,”) I didn’t get asked to dance despite desperately wanting some rando to come up and awkwardly ask, “Hey, uh, you wanna maybe…dance with me?” and him grabbing my hips too low, swaying to the music as though we actually liked whatever terrible song came on next.

I wanted to be noticed.

It was some weird, perhaps Midwestern, tradition to end every dance with the song “Cotton-Eye Joe.” So, as soon as I heard “If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe” blast through the speakers, I headed straight for the door. My friends were nowhere to be seen–Jane and Logan had presumably left to have romantic car sex, while Amanda and Josh were probably off somewhere breaking up again.

I grabbed my jacket off the coat rack near the entrance. As I was walking outside, the person in front of me let the door slam in my face. Whatever. While zipping my jacket to protect my bare stomach from the chilly U.P. fall air, someone’s shoulder slammed into me. I caught my balance, but my phone slipped out of my pocket and landed face-down on the cement.

The guy who walked right into me didn’t say a word; he kept walking, hand-in-hand with some chick. I didn’t recognize either of them; they were probably underclassmen.

“Great,” I muttered, picking up my phone with a new large crack across the screen. Was I fucking invisible?

Walking to my junky red Pontiac Grand Prix, I blinked back tears. I sat in my car with the radio off for about twenty minutes, staring at nothing, thinking one of my friends would come find me or text me. Nobody did.

The parking lot had mostly cleared out, except for those underclassmen who were still waiting for their parents to come pick them up. I drove off feeling numb. I imagined what it’d be like if I wasn’t me, if I were one of the pretty girls who always got asked to dance and whose friends cared enough about her to send a text, letting her know what they were doing or to see if she was even okay.

I wondered what it’d feel like to be an actual whole human being, not some ghost everyone could walk right through.

When I got home, my parents were already in bed; my brother was probably out somewhere getting trashed with his girlfriend.

I grabbed a Bud Light from Ethan’s secret stash–my first beer–and any pill bottles I owned. It felt weird–I wasn’t hysterical or anything. My eyes were dry; my mind was clear. It was a moment of clarity, a moment when I saw everything as it was. Rather, how I thought it was.

Who needed to learn calculus? Who needed to go to college to get some pointless degree? I didn’t want to get stuck in this cycle of constantly doing what I thought I should be doing, or what my parents wanted me to be doing instead of what I actually wanted to do. How would I ever make it to New York? I was just some Nobody from a town that produced a bunch of other Nobodies. And we all say we’re gonna go on to do great things, but you know what happens four, five years down the road? We end up right back where we started.

I opened the first pill bottle, pouring the contents out onto my bed. Lexipro, ten milligrams. Doing the same with the other bottles, I then counted out all the pills I had: seven Xanax, twelve Lexipro, six Nyquil, and three Vicodin.

My hand trembled as I reached first for the Xanax. I popped one into my mouth, chasing it with the beer. I grimaced at the taste. I swallowed another. Another. I started to swallow a few pills at once until I realized there were no more on my bed.

I wish I knew exactly what I was feeling at this point. Mostly lonely. But, honestly, being alone and feeling alone are two very different things; the only thing worse than being alone is being surrounded by a bunch of people and feeling alone. In a fucked up way, I felt at peace.

Crawling into bed, I pulled my comforter up tight to my neck and stared at the blue ceiling. The intro to Cotton-Eye Joe was still stuck in my head from hearing it at the dance, a strange contrast from I’d just done.

I stared at my New York tapestry for a while, my last thought being, I’ll never make it there, before I eventually drifted off into unconsciousness.

***

I couldn’t open my eyes. I tried, but I was trapped. My mind was fuzzy. Finally my eyes cracked open slightly. Everything was blurry. I couldn’t move, so I just fell back into a sleep-like state.

At about 2:00 P.M. that Saturday I was finally able to get out of bed. My dad was at the papermill because he was on call for work that weekend, and my mom had gone grocery shopping. I didn’t know where my brother was. My vision was still blurry. I stumbled down the stairs and into the living room like a drunk.

Flopping onto the couch, I tried to figure out whether what I was experiencing was real or a dream. My entire body seemed to be shaking. The gravity of what I’d tried to do hadn’t hit me yet.

When my mom came home, she saw me passed out on the couch. “Gem, what do you want me to make for dinner?” she asked, gently nudging me awake.

Seeing the look in my eyes, my mom immediately asked me what was wrong. “Don’t be mad,” I started in a small voice, “but I did something really bad.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I … I took some pills,” I said quietly.

“Your … Lexipro?”

“All of them.”

“What?” My mom was in denial for a little while, but deep down I knew that she knew exactly what I meant.

“And my Xanax.” Seeing the look of horror on her face, I paused. Then, I said in an even smaller voice, “The Vicodin, too. And Nyquil.”

My mom cried a lot that day, but my eyes remained dry.

“You could’ve died,” she half-sobbed, half-scolded me.

“I know.”

By seven o’clock that night, my body had made a relatively full recovery. I still felt numb, but I could see and walk properly. It was as though nothing had even happened.

My dad got home a little while later, and immediately sensed something was wrong. From the living room, where I stared at the TV without actually watching whichever HGTV program was on, I heard my parents whispering about me.

“Are you serious?” my dad yell-whispered to my mom. “Jesus Christ.”

My dad came into the living room a moment later and sat next to me on our squishy leather couch. “Gem…” He sighed and ran a hand through his thin, graying hair. “Gem, why’d you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I’m talking about.” My dad looked much older than fifty in that moment. His worry lines seemed to be accentuated.

“I … I don’t know.”

“Did you want to kill yourself, Gemma?” he asked.

“Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

I paused before saying, “I mean, yeah. Yes.”

“Gemma, I want you to know how much we love and care about you. I wish you would’ve told us you were feeling bad again.”

“I’m sorry.” I wished I would’ve felt more sorry.

“We’re gonna get in touch with your therapist again,” my dad told me. I hadn’t been to therapy since sophomore year.

“Okay.”

My mom made spaghetti for dinner because she knew that was my favorite. I made an effort to eat to please my mom, but it was as though I couldn’t taste anything.

Ethan got home at around nine. I figured he’d want to play his Xbox on the TV in the living room, so I got up and went downstairs. Our basement was arguably the creepiest place in the house because of the seven mounted deer heads that stared at you with lifeless eyes. I sat on the couch in front of the TV, looking at my reflection in the black screen. My eyes looked almost as lifeless as the deer.

About five minutes later, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs.

“Gem, what’re you watching?” Ethan appeared at the bottom of the stairs. He walked over to me and frowned when he saw that I hadn’t even turned the TV on. “Wanna watch a movie?” It’d been awhile since my brother and I hung out. He was almost always with his girlfriend.

I hesitated before saying, “No, that’s okay.”

“Okay, well, Mom doesn’t want you to be alone so I’m either gonna sit here and watch you stare at nothing, or we can watch a movie.” Of course Mom had already told him.

I sighed. “What movie?”

“Star Wars.” He knew I hated those movies.

I laughed for the first time that day. “I’d rather die.”

Ethan looked like I slapped him. “Gem, don’t say that.”

“You always laughed at my jokes about wanting to die before!” I protested.

“It was funny because I thought you had your shit under control,” he said, exasperated. “Now every time you joke about wanting to drink bleach, all we’re gonna think is, ‘Shit, is she actually gonna do it?’ Do you know what it’d do to the family if you killed yourself?”

Stunned, I didn’t respond. Tears welled up in my eyes. It was the closest I’d come to actually feeling something like regret.

Ethan sighed and sat down next to me. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

We both stared silently at our reflections in the black screen. Finally, Ethan broke the silence by asking, “Did you write a note?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “It said, ‘I’m doing this because I hate how many people like Star Wars even though it’s objectively terrible.’”

Ethan laughed and shook his head. “You’re fucked up.”

“Thank you.”

That night we watched stupid comedies on Netflix (Napoleon Dynamite, Superbad, Step Brothers) until about 3:30 A.M.

The next day I slept until noon. After quite a bit of mental motivation, I finally got up and changed into stretchy workout pants and a sweatshirt–my typical practice gear for skating. I grabbed my skates and headed for the door.

“Where’re you going?” my mom asked, stopping me.

“What do you mean? I have practice.”

“Are you sure you don’t wanna text your coach? Tell her you’re not feeling well?” she suggested, furrowing her brow. “I can make you lunch.”

“I feel fine.”

“Gemma.”

Physically fine.” I grabbed my car keys. “Beth said she’s gonna put me on the harness today to practice my axel.” Beth had been my coach for about five years.

My mom sighed. “We need to talk about this later.”

“Talk about my axel?”

“This isn’t funny, Gemma.”

“I’m sorry.” I gave my mom a kiss on the cheek. “Bye.”

Everyone at skating greeted me as though nothing was different, but I’d changed. I smiled half-assedly at my skating friends as I headed for the locker room to put my skates on. Sitting on the wooden bench, I breathed in the stench of sweaty feet and found it oddly comforting, the familiarity of the shitty locker room in our rink that didn’t get nearly enough funding. I wiggled my feet into my skates and laced them up tight.

When I stepped out onto the ice, I could tell the Zamboni must not have been functioning properly again because of all the grooves left from an earlier hockey practice.

Beth skated up to me and said, “Go warm up. I’ll take you after Janel.”

In no mood to form coherent sentences, I nodded and skated off. I warmed up by doing a slow lap around the small rink, the cold air making my eyes water. I gradually picked up speed until other skaters around me were indistinguishable blurs I had to dodge. Tears streamed down my face from the cold that hit me like a slap to the face, but it woke me up.

I sped up, trying to not think about anything and just focus on the burn in my thighs and the air on my face. But as I went faster, the storm did, too, chasing me until all of my shit started to catch up with me. Faster.

I thought about the guys who ignored me at the dance, and instead of being apathetic and empty, I felt a pang in my chest. Faster. I dodged another skater. Faster. The storm finally unleashed its wrath, pouring down over me: My friends who didn’t really care about me that much and my family who just didn’t understand. Faster. And then the fact that I tried to fucking kill myself just to make all of it stop.

I was gasping for breath when I finally came to an abrupt stop, grabbing the edge of the boards to support myself.

I stared at my reflection in the glass; my cheeks were bright red and my hair stuck up all over. My nose was dripping. The tears were no longer just from the cold air hitting them.

I felt guilty and sad and lonely and a million other things, but all that mattered was that I felt alive.

 

 

 

BIO

Emmie Barron is currently a sophomore studying English at the University of Michigan. She has written many fictional short stories, and this is her first publication. She plans to pursue a career in writing. In her free time, she teaches creative writing to children in Detroit through a program called Seven Mile Arts.

 

 

 

 

0

The Bridge

by Trish Perrault

 

 

From his apartment above Butler’s Clothing Store, Lloyd had a good view of Main Street. On the sidewalk below his window, mothers and fathers protectively clutched the hands of their children as they hurried across the bridge that led to the brick schoolhouse. As a boy, Lloyd had attended the elementary school, but he didn’t remember his foster mother, Edna, ever holding his hand. Through the closed window, he heard the children’s voices drifting across the river. He watched as they smiled and waved goodbye. Lloyd wondered what it would be like to have someone smile at him again.

Using a hand towel, he patted the thin brown hair that still clung to his scalp and peered down the street at the C&L Market. His mouth opened in surprise when Mable Hastings’s bright pink hair appeared in the early morning sunshine. He’d been expecting Clara Donovan, the owner of the market. Sadie, Mable’s six-year-old daughter, wore bright yellow mittens with a matching hat and rubber boots. Lloyd chewed the soft skin of his cheek as he thought. He did not stock bright colors in his store. Edna had told him solid colors like navy, brown, and gray lasted longer because they didn’t stain.

Lloyd watched as Sadie and Mable started across the cement bridge built as part of FDR’s New Deal back in the thirties. Chunks of ice bobbed in the river below. Mable walked stiffly beside her daughter. Clara had told him that Mable’s ex-boyfriend had shoved her down a flight of stairs a few weeks earlier.

Sadie skipped gleefully into a puddle, splashing her boots. Lloyd’s throat felt tight. He’d never been one for sentimentality, but Sadie’s innocent laughter floating skyward made his chest ache.

Checking the clock, he calculated how long it would take Mable to walk to the school and then to the market to open up the shop. Every morning, Lloyd walked to the market. While Mable assembled his sandwich, she would tell him about her daughter. Lloyd knew that Sadie’s favorite color was yellow, she had a book about kittens in her backpack, and she was afraid of men. What Mable didn’t say he heard through the town of Emery’s grapevine. He knew that the once purple bruises at the base of her neck were put there by her ex-boyfriend, Buck, and that Clara Donovan had driven her to the hospital last week. He’d also heard that Mable and Sadie were living, temporarily, in a one-room studio over the C&L Market.

Mable pointed at something in the water below the narrow bridge. The little girl stood on the toes of her yellow boots so she could see over the railing. Lloyd pressed his cheek against the cold windowpane. A gnarled pine tree, at least a hundred years old, with sharp branches, had fallen across the river. He had seen the dead tree when he’d gone for his morning swim earlier. As a little boy, Edna used to drag him down to the river every morning to swim. Even in the winter. She’d read that ice-cold water helped the immune system and decided the cold water would fix Lloyd, who she complained was too quiet and motionless for a boy. At first, he feared the water. He worried about the slimy fish and river snakes that hid in the rocks, but Edna had made him go into the water, watching him from the riverbank. As he grew, he came to like his time alone in the river. The sound of the nearby rapids had drowned out Edna’s incessant chatter.

Below his window, a red truck pulled up and parked in the middle of the bridge beside Mable and Sadie. Lloyd recognized Buck Tucker as the man swung out of the driver’s side door. He stood well over six feet, much taller than Lloyd and a lot heavier. Buck held open his arms and said something to Sadie. The little girl cowered from him, burying her face in Mable’s jacket.

Unsure of what to do, Lloyd opened the window and bent towards the screen so that he could hear what was being said. He knew that it would take him two minutes to get downstairs – but he was only wearing a towel. His fingers gripped the windowsill.

“Don’t come near us!” Mable screeched as she faced Buck. Mable pulled her daughter behind her.

“What’s your problem? I didn’t do nothing except stop and say hello!” Buck said, stepping in front of the young woman.

Lloyd looked down the sidewalks, but they were empty.

“Stay away!” A green car turned down Main Street and slowed down as it drew past Buck’s truck. Lloyd recognized the four-door sedan as belonging to the Mr. Wilke, the former mayor. Buck swore then stomped over to his truck and opening the door. The truck’s tires screeching as exhaust poured out of the rusted tailpipe. Mable picked up her daughter, cradled her against her chest, and hurried across the bridge in the direction of the elementary school.

Lloyd stayed frozen and unblinking as he stared at the spot where Buck had been yelling at Mable. He wondered if he should call the police, but knew the chief was a distant uncle of Buck’s.

Across the bridge, the schoolhouse door opened, and Mabel came out. Lloyd watched as she crossed back over the river. She hurried down the sidewalk to the C&L Market and disappeared inside.

Lloyd turned away from the window and scanned his cramped apartment. There wasn’t much to see. On his nightstand sat a white alarm clock, a pair of wire-framed reading glasses, and a paperback. Several math and science books were stacked on the table beside a brown recliner. The red light on his answering machine remained unblinking.

Lloyd’s elementary school teachers had told Edna he could learn to be more social; after all, he earned high marks in school. Over time, though, they’d started to see him the way Edna saw him. Lloyd had pretended not to notice their rubbernecking and whispers. As a young man, he’d ignored Edna when she insisted he read self-help books. Most out-of-towners who stopped by the clothing store hadn’t noticed he was quiet. In fact, most outsiders were preoccupied with trying to figure out if Edna was a man or a woman. She used to cut her hair butch-short and had worn the same chinos and button-front oxford shirts that Lloyd wore.

Twice, Lloyd had asked Edna about his birth parents, but Edna hadn’t thought there was much to tell. The last time he’d asked, she took his hand, took her last breath, and died.

This had been six months ago. After the funeral, Clara Donovan had started coming by on Saturday evenings with a casserole and salad that they would share. Sometimes she’d bring a bottle of wine. He supposed she’d felt bad for him since he had no family. Clara helped him clean Edna’s apartment and restock items in the store. He remembered how embarrassed he had been when an order of women’s undergarments came in. Clara had held the pieces of colored silk against her chest for him to admire—slips, pajamas, lace underwear, a selection of brassieres, and stockings with garter belts. He flushed as he remembered Clara buying one of the slips. A peach-colored one with small bits of ivory lace that had felt light as air. His hands had shaken as he folded the silky garment and placed it in a small paper bag. Not wanting her to know he felt uncomfortable, he’d started to dust the shelf beside the register. Clara left the store and didn’t answer him when he said goodbye, slamming the door so hard the windows rattle. After that, she stopped coming by on Saturdays. He sometimes thought about the slip and wondered if she was dating someone, but he never asked.

Shaking off the memory, Lloyd flung open his bedroom closet. Seven carefully ironed white oxford shirts hung on wooden hangers next to seven pairs of pressed, putty-brown pants. He thought of Mable’s pink hair, Sadie’s yellow mittens, and Clara’s peach-colored slip. He decided that today he’d take out the catalog and order more colorful clothing. Maybe light blue.

On his way out of his apartment, Lloyd paused on the stair landing. He’d bought the building fifteen years earlier and made two apartments above the store. Lloyd crossed the hall and opened the door to Edna’s old apartment. The heat from the radiator made the air dry and stale. The one-bedroom apartment was almost identical to Lloyd’s. A white Formica table stood with two chairs next to the kitchen counter. A plaid loveseat sat near the fireplace, a brown recliner near the window. A small black-and-white television with rabbit ears stood in the corner. The only personal item in the room was a set of three framed pictures of some famous actress from the forties that Edna had admired.

Lloyd grabbed an umbrella as he left. He decided to write up an advertisement for the apartment. Tightening his fingers on the handle of the black umbrella, he tried to brush off his discomfort at the thought of a stranger living so close to him.

 

Twenty-five-year-old Mable Hastings stood at the meat slicer, her arm moving mechanically back and forth as she quickly sliced ten thin pieces of boiled ham. She wondered why Lloyd ate the same thing every day. Since he owned the only clothing store in town, she knew he could afford to eat something different every day of the week. When she said as much to Clara, her boss, the older woman told her to mind her own business.

Mable didn’t want to think about her own business. A lump formed in her throat as she remembered Buck confronting her on the bridge. Her fingers started to reach up to touch the healing bruises at the base of her neck, but instead she grabbed a poppy seed hard roll, picked up a knife, and sliced the bread in half.

“Would you like to try Swiss cheese on your sandwich?” Mable asked. The older man was standing near the candy bar rack, reading the cork bulletin board, which was littered with business cards and flyers. She wondered if he felt lonely living above the store all by himself. Looking at his brown pants and gray overcoat, she remembered that his mother used to wear the same drab clothing.

Lloyd spun in her direction. “No, thank you.” His eyes flickered to a spot over her right shoulder.

“I tell my daughter it’s good to try things when you’re young. That way you won’t stop trying when you get old.”

“Edna used to s-say that.” He looked back at Mable and smiled a little.

Mable stopped slicing a tomato and gave Lloyd a hard look. He usually only spoke in one- or two-word sentences. “My mother died when I was five,” she said matter-of-factly, wondering if he would continue the conversation.

The half-smile slipped from his face. “I’m sorry.”

Lloyd didn’t ask about her father, but she figured he’d heard the gossip. Her father left town the day after she was born.

“Did you see the flyer with the kittens?” she asked. “Sadie and I like the marmalade one.” Lloyd stepped closer to the flyers. “You have a cat?”

He shook his head. “Edna’s allergies.”

Mable said softly, “Maybe now that she’s gone, you can get one.” She placed the sandwich on a piece of plastic wrap.

Lloyd leaned his umbrella against the counter. “Ah…Mable…” She watched his mouth move up and down, but no words came out. Lloyd’s blue eyes met hers, and then he blushed and turned his head. He cleared his throat often. She realized he was eyeing the telephone and wondered if he wanted to use it. “Ah…Mable…”

“Yes?” Mable said, leaning forward.

He inched closer but kept a foot between them. She noticed his eyes were a lovely shade of blue. “The bridge—”

The bell rang frantically at the front of the store.

“Good morning, beautiful.” Clifford Tucker’s voice filled the small store as he entered. Mable anxiously watched Buck’s father, Clifford, stomp towards her in his heavy work boots. She knew Buck, her ex, would be close behind.

Clifford’s face was bloated and red from years of drinking. “Clara around this morning?”

“She’s at the post office,” Mable said. The bell rang a second time, and she saw Buck’s head over his father’s shoulder. The bottles on the shelves clinked against one another as he stomped past them. Mable glanced at the phone on the wall. The last time she’d called the police, Buck’s uncle, the police chief, had threatened to arrest her because she scratched Buck’s face. Clifford had calmed the chief and Buck down, saying it was a lover’s quarrel. That wasn’t the first time Buck had hit her, but that time he’d gone too far. Sadie had seen him hurt her.

“I’m almost done with your sandwich, Lloyd,” Mable said, ducking her head. Buck’s bloodshot eyes glared at her just a few feet away.

“Where’s the aspirin?” Buck asked, rubbing his thick forehead where it met the bridge of his nose.

Mable looked at the shelf and was about to reach for a box of Bayer when Lloyd said, “Above your head.” He swung his umbrella, the tip passing by Buck’s ear, towards the yellow and brown boxes.

Buck turned, his mouth curled in an ugly sneer. “Oh, Butt-ler, I didn’t see you standing there.”

Lloyd lowered his umbrella.

“You still jumping in the river every morning?” Clifford asked. He tapped a greasy white lighter against the counter.

“Yes,” said Lloyd. He leaned his umbrella against the deli case and carefully poured coffee into a paper cup.

“Crazy,” said Clifford, adjusting his belt around his distended belly. “You have to have a screw loose to jump in that water.”

Mable saw Lloyd’s face turn red as he pretended to read the flyer with the week’s sandwich specials. Compared to Buck and his father, Lloyd looked small; he was only a few inches shorter but lean, whereas Buck was already getting soft in the middle.

“Swimming isn’t crazy,” she said, her voice almost lost in the Tucker men’s laughter. She wished she had learned to swim as a child. There had never been time, moving around from one foster home to another.

“You wouldn’t catch me going in there,” said Buck. He slapped the counter with a flat hand.

Mable flinched. Her hand hit the side of a jar of pickles and knocked it over. Buck snickered. She threw the spilled pickle slices away and wiped up the juice. “That’ll be three dollars even,” she said to Lloyd.

Buck leaned a hip against the counter and stayed there. Lloyd reached around him to hand Mable a five-dollar Billy. “Thank you, Mable.”

Mable opened the register and held out the change, but Lloyd shook his head. She tucked the extra cash into her pocket. Lloyd was one of the few customers who tipped.

Lloyd’s footsteps on the wooden plank floor were quiet as he walked away. She noticed he wore old-fashioned rubber galoshes. She wished he wouldn’t leave. She opened her mouth but didn’t know what to say to keep him in the store.

“Bye, Butt-ler,” Buck called as he waved a limp hand in the other man’s back.

“That’s mean,” she said, lowering her voice.

“If you’re weak, you get what you deserve,” Buck said, stepping closer to her. Mable shifted so that her hip pressed against the box freezer.

“Calm down, Buck,” Clifford said, gripping his son’s wrist.

Buck jerked his arm, pulling Clifford off balance. His angry eyes met Mable’s. She turned away and grabbed a broom leaning against the wall.

“I always thought Butt-ler was a pathetic little turtle.” Buck stuck his head out and opened his mouth in a half-smile.

Clifford’s unlit cigarette fell out of his mouth and rolled onto the floor as he laughed. “A turtle—that’s a good one!” he said.

Mable’s heart pounded in her chest. “He doesn’t look like a turtle,” she said, her voice thin. Buck leaned over the counter and winked. Dark stubble covered his face. At one time, she’d thought he was handsome.

“A freak,” said Buck. He grabbed an apple and took a single bite before flinging it into the wastebasket near Mabel.

She stepped closer to the phone, wondering when Clara would be back from the post office.

“His mother got pretty crazy at the end. Not shaving her legs and letting her armpits go…I nearly got sick every time I saw her.” Clifford coughed.

The bell over the door jingled, but Buck was blocking Mable’s view of the door. She remembered Mrs. Butler giving Sadie a cherry lollipop whenever they went into the clothing store. “She seemed nice to me.”

“Edna probably liked you,” Clifford sang. He grabbed a can of soda out of the cooler and walked to the front of the store. “Buck will pay.”

Mable watched Clifford’s wide back on the other side of the glass door, and wished he had stayed. The older man was rough, but he only let Buck go so far. Her fingers shook as she pressed the keys on the register, ringing up Clifford’s soda and the large coffee that Buck was drinking.

“I’ll have something sweet too,” Buck said, leaning close. Mable could smell the sweet apple on his breath. Buck playfully grabbed her hand and yanked her arm.

“Look at me.”

Mable shook her head. “Leave me alone.”

“Look at me,” his voice louder.

The bell over the door rang, and Mable felt a moment of relief, thinking Clifford had returned.

“Pardon me, Mable.”

Mable’s head jerked up. She saw Lloyd standing near the sugar and boxes of cake mix. “I came in to retrieve my umbrella.”

She saw the umbrella leaning against the side of the deli case.

“Here you go, Lloyd.” She lifted the umbrella towards him handle first.

“Thank you.” His face and ears were tinged with red. He stepped closer to the rack with the candy bars and read the notices on the bulletin board.

Buck turned to face Lloyd. Lloyd looked at Buck’s hand on her arm.

“Aren’t you supposed to open the store?” asked Buck, his hand releasing Mable’s.

“In a few minutes.” Lloyd gave a slight nod then took out a pair of slim reading glasses and put them on his nose. She rubbed her arm as she noticed he was studying the flyer with the picture of the kittens.

“Then what do you want?” asked Buck, his voice and body tense.

“Nothing,” Lloyd said, easily.

“Everything all right, Lloyd?” Mable asked, her eyes going from Buck to Lloyd. She looked at the door hoping someone would come in to help her.

“I thought”—he cleared his throat and tapped the tip of the umbrella against the wooden floor—“I thought you might like some company, Mable.”

Lloyd’s light blue eyes met Mable’s a second time. Mable read the uncertainty in Lloyd’s lined face. She blinked, her eyes felt suddenly damp. Then she picked up the broom again and slowly swept the space behind the counter. Her chest hurt as she tried to breathe, but a faint smile had of relief formed on her lips.

“She doesn’t need your company,” Buck said.

“I’ll stay anyway,” said Lloyd. Lifting his cooling coffee to his lips, he watched the other man.

“Thank you, Lloyd,” Mable said, matter-of-fact.

Buck finally left the store. Lloyd stayed, reading cat food labels and browsing the shelves until Clara returned from the post office. Mable saw him return to the bulletin board and take down a flyer and stuff it into his overcoat pocket. When he left, Mable told Clara about Buck and Clifford.

“I am going to ban those two from coming into my store,” Clara said, turning away from the window. She pulled the bag of trash out of the bucket and tied the plastic in a knot.

“You don’t need to do that,” Mable said. Through the tall glass windows in the front of the store, she watched Lloyd walking down the sidewalk in the direction of his store. “It was nice of Lloyd to stay, don’t you think?”

The trash bin’s lid banged shut. Instead of answering Mable’s question, Clara picked up the bag. Her high heels made a marching sound as she swept past her and out the backdoor. Mable knew Clara was angry, but she wasn’t sure why.

 

Lloyd stepped around the puddles that littered the cracked sidewalks. He walked past Edna’s old house; a young couple lived there now. The Gonzalezes. They had painted the siding a bright yellow, and there was a pink swing set in the side yard. Most people in town didn’t like the couple. Some thought they were odd for boiling bananas; others were annoyed when they spoke Spanish in public. Lloyd decided the house looked better yellow.

Turning back towards the C&L Market, Lloyd saw Clara Donovan step out of the store. She carried a bucket of sand, which she spread across the sidewalk. She was fifty. Seven years older than Lloyd. The sun glistened on her still brown hair. She’d been married once, but her husband had died of a sudden heart attack. Edna told Lloyd it was a blessing, Clara’s husband dying so quickly, but sometimes Lloyd wondered if Clara wished she’d said goodbye.

Inside the clothing store, Lloyd put his umbrella next to the cash register and stowed his sandwich in a small icebox beneath the counter. He brushed a feather duster across the stacks of neatly folded shirts and pants that covered the shelves that ran along the back of the store.

The wooden floorboards were broad and long. Dust clung to the crevices even though Lloyd swept every day. He pulled out the flyer for the kittens and admired the creature’s golden colored fur. Surveying the store, he pulled out a box and wondered if it was the right size for a kitten to sleep in. He glanced at the box off and on throughout the morning as he tried to imagine whether he’d like a cat living with him.

The store smelled of leather boots and the steam that leaked from the radiators. He turned the knob on the radio to a talk program about cars and opened his ledger to calculate the sales for the previous month. The morning passed quickly; the afternoon passed more slowly. He ate his ham sandwich and waited on the customers who came in to buy sturdy flannel shirts, suspenders, handkerchiefs, and cargo pants. Only one woman stopped in front of the cabinet of women’s undergarments. A few regulars stopped in to gossip and talk about their misfortunes while Lloyd nodded and sipped his tea. Because he said little and didn’t tell everyone how to live their lives, people seemed to like to tell him their troubles. Lloyd felt relieved that he’d been spared all their difficult troubles.

 

After he had closed the store, Lloyd spent an hour at the small library next to the elementary school. He picked up three paperback Westerns and placed them in a cloth tote bag. Down the aisle, he noticed Clara Donovan hunched over a stack of books. She was wearing a slim-fitting coat. Lloyd noted with surprise that on the cover of one book was a picture of a near-naked woman being embraced by a man dressed like a ship’s captain. Lloyd hesitated, unsure if Clara would appreciate him seeing her reading a romance book. His fingers tightened on his book bag. Stepping behind another shelf, he watched Clara pick out several books, quickly slip them into her book bag, and then stop at the librarian’s desk to check them out. In the dim library light, her brown hair seemed darker against her cranberry raincoat.

After she had left the aisle, he passed the table where Clara had been sitting. A light scent of flowery perfume lingered in the air. His gaze followed Clara. She stood at the reference desk talking to the librarian, Mrs. Brogle. For the second time that day, he wondered why Clara had stopped coming by his apartment on Saturday nights. Lloyd smoothed a hand over his thin hair. He needed a new hairstyle. Maybe a blow dryer.

After checking out his books, Lloyd stepped outside. Donald Wilke, the town’s former mayor, struggled to pull a cigarette from the pack in his hand.

“Wish they let us smoke in there like they used to,” Mr. Wilke said, sticking a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it. “The building’s made of brick.”

Lloyd said, “The b-books…”

“They’re just making these rules to get my goat and drive me crazy,” said Mr. Wilke.

Mrs. Brogle came out and lit a cigarette. Clare stepped around the older woman.

“Well, look who’s over there,” Mr. Wilke said, pointing his cane over Lloyd’s shoulder.

Lloyd recognized the dark-haired teenager sitting on the stone retaining wall that curved around the white protestant church. Carter Payne. The boy waved. Only Clara and Lloyd waved back.

“Those teenagers hang out over there and smoke and drink all day instead of getting jobs,” Mrs. Brogle said, taking a drag on her cigarette.

Lloyd saw no cigarette or bottle in the boy’s hands.

“What jobs?” said Clara.

“Speaking of jobs,” Mr. Wilke said, “I saw that girl you hired fighting with Buck Tucker on the bridge this morning.”

“What happened?” Mrs. Brogle asked, her birdlike eyes bright in her tired face.

“She’s going to get herself killed if she goes back to him,” said Mr. Wilke.

“She’ll go back,” the older woman predicted.

“Mable is not going back,” said Clara, touching the heart-shaped pin on her lapel.

“They always do.” A thin stream of smoke pouring from Mrs. Brogle’ sharp nasal passages. “They can’t break the cycle.”

Clara’s hand went to her throat; she reached for a pair of sunglasses and put them on her nose. “Not if I can help her,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Lloyd thoughtfully regarded the sunglasses. He recalled a time when Clara had had a black eye. She had been married then.

Mr. Wilke sniffed. “Bleeding heart,” he said, trying to lighten the tension that had descended over the group.

Lloyd reached out hesitantly as if to brush the fabric of Clara’s sleeve but she stepped around him and his hand fell back to his side. Mrs. Brogle’s head whipped back and forth. Her dull eyes suddenly alert as they bounced back and forth between Clara to Lloyd. Lloyd’s cheeks redden.

 

Lloyd waited at the crosswalk, he saw Clara drive by in her burgundy car with old Mr. Wilke in the passenger seat.

Lloyd looked both ways before he crossed the street in front of the library. There was no traffic. Down Main Street, he noticed Mable’s pink hair as she walked across the bridge. Her daughter rode a few feet ahead of her on a pink bicycle with training wheels.

Lloyd said hello to Carter Payne as he passed. Suddenly, Lloyd heard the loud, high-pitched whine of a truck’s engine and saw Buck Tucker’s truck barreling directly at him. A hand grabbed Lloyd’s jacket, jerking him away from the edge of the road.

“You okay, Mr. Butler?” Carter asked. His face was filled with angry pimples. Lloyd nodded, unable to speak. Horrified, they watched as the red truck veered across Main Street. Sadie stopped pedaling her pink bike, frozen on the side of the bridge.

Lloyd’s mouth opened. His shout joined Mable’s. He dropped his book bag and umbrella and ran to the bridge.

The truck swung wide, skidding on the ice as it headed directly towards Mable. The wheels spun in the opposite direction, wildly careening across the road. Then, the vehicle crashed, catching the front tire of Sadie’s bike and jerking the girl so hard that her small body was thrown into the air.

Lloyd watched in horror as the little girl disappeared over the side of the bridge.

The bike lay mangled on the bridge’s sidewalk. Mable ran to the side where Sadie went over, gripping the bridge’s railing as she screamed and pointed at the water. Lloyd’s lungs hurt as he ran in the cold air. He searched for the little girl in the dark water flowing around the ice blocks. He prayed she wouldn’t get caught in an ice drift. His legs pumped faster and faster as he neared the bridge.

Twenty feet below the bridge, he saw Sadie clinging to a downed tree in the middle of the river.

“Save her! Please save her.” Mable pleaded, her arms waving wildly. “I don’t know how to swim.”

Buck staggered towards her. Blood ran down the side of his face from a large gash in his forehead. Buck stumbled and reached towards Mable.

“Get away!” Mable screamed, pulling away and turning back to the river. “Sadie. Sadie.”

Lloyd ran to the side of the bridge and started down the riverbank. His shoes slid against the ice and mud. As he neared the edge of the water, he saw that the girl was settled in the middle of the tree. Her mittens clutched the wet bark. If he moved quickly, he decided, he could reach Sadie in time. Lloyd kicked off his shoes and threw his overcoat onto the ground as he flung himself into the frigid water.

His eyes stayed on Sadie, measuring each slip and dip of her body in the fast moving current. A massive sheet of thick ice covered the river behind her. Lloyd knew he’d never find her if she slipped under. He was twenty yards away when Sadie’s fingers slipped; she fell lower into the water. Only her head was now visible. Lloyd remembered how panicked he felt as a boy when he started swimming. Edna had called out to him, telling him to keep kicking, until, finally, he’d pulled himself to shore.

Ten yards away, he made sure Sadie was still hanging onto the tree. The tip of her chin touched the water as she anxiously searched the top of the bridge for her mother. If she made a sound, he couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t tell if she was crying, but he knew she must have been freezing.

“Don’t let go. Hang on,” he shouted as he pushed his body forward. Usually, he didn’t swim this far out. The overflowing river and ice blocks made it too dangerous.

He focused every bit of his concentration on fighting the pull of the water, just as he had that time when he was a boy. When he was ten feet away, he stopped swimming to tread water. Thick pine branches scraped the girl’s chin. He wondered if she’d been hit by the truck. This close, he could hear Sadie crying and asking her mother to help her. Lloyd pushed his body closer and broke a tree branch that was preventing him from reaching the little girl.

“Hang on. You can do this,” Lloyd said, repeating the same words Edna had once said to him. The water pulled at his waist, chest, and thighs.

The girl’s face was white with shock. Above them, Mable’s cries were drowned out by the sound of rushing water.

He inched forward and held a hand out to the girl, willing Sadie to reach out to him. Then he remembered that Mable had told him the girl was afraid of men. “Do you remember me? Lloyd, from the store?”

The little girl shook her head, not looking at him.

“My mother, Edna, used to give you lollipops in my store, remember?”

Sadie remained still. Lloyd inched closer so that he was only an arm’s length away. A large branch lay between them. The tree could sink if he tried climbing over it to reach Sadie.

“I like grape,” he said, not feeling his feet. “What’s…what’s your favorite?”

The little girl turned then and looked over at Lloyd. Her lips were purple against her white face. “Ch-cherry,” she whispered.

“Your mom wants me to get you.” Sadie’s mittens slipped. The girl seemed so small against the sheet of ice next to the tree.

Sadie shook her head and pressed her body against the tree.

He swam closer to the tree just as Sadie’s mittens slipped, and she went under the water. Lloyd dove under, the water pushed him, and he scraped the top of his head. His numb fingers felt for the girl, his body thrashing wildly in the water. Then, his hand grabbed something soft. He yanked the girl against him. Surfacing, he gasped for air. Sadie began choking and coughing. Water ran down her nose and out of her mouth. Lloyd fiercely pulled the small child to his chest.

He thought of Mable standing on the bridge. “I got her,” he shouted. A flash of joy rushed through his body.

“Hold on tight,” he told Sadie. “You’re okay. You’ll be okay.” Lloyd slipped his arm around her chest and kicked his feet against the current.

When they were close to shore, he stood up. His knees buckled, and he almost dropped the girl. He pulled her closer and carried her over the rocks and blocks of ice along the shore. Carter came to Lloyd holding out a blanket. Lloyd wrapped it around the little girl and then scanned the bridge. Clara held Mable in her arms.

“She’s okay,” he called up to them. The crowd above him clapped and cheered. A woman dressed in an EMT uniform ran down the embankment. She pulled Sadie from his arms. Lloyd, exhausted and shivering violently, followed slowly behind. Carter ran to get more towels and blankets.

By the time Lloyd reached the bridge, Sadie lay on a gurney in the back of an ambulance. Mable knelt beside her, holding her hands.

The ambulance driver swung the door closed and jumped in behind the steering wheel. Lloyd watched the vehicle, its lights and sirens blaring as it sped in the direction of the hospital.

Buck stood on the sidewalk, bleeding and crying. A state police officer held out a pair of handcuffs and ordered Buck to turn around.

Clara’s eyes were wet and soft as they met Lloyd’s. She wrapped a wool blanket around his dripping body.

“That was brave of you, Lloyd.” He felt the pressure of her strong fingers against his cold flesh.

“It was lucky.” His thin, wiry frame shook as he watched the ambulance drive away. “The water was w-warm today.”

 

Two hours later, just as the sun was setting, Lloyd noticed a car stopped in the middle of the bridge. He saw Mable’s pink hair. He sprinted down the stairs and called out to her, worried that something had happened to Sadie.

“Mable?”

“She was crying for her little bear.” Mable clutched a stuffed bear to her chest. “I almost lost her,” she said, watching a piece of ice break free in the water. Her cheeks were damp. “You saved her.” She rubbed her sleeve against her runny nose. “I don’t know what I would do if something happened to her.”

Lloyd regarded the long building that was his clothing store on the other side of the bridge. He remembered Edna pushing him into the river when he was a boy and how angry he’d been. Today, he saved Sadie’s life. If it wasn’t for Edna, he might not have reached the girl in time.

“You’re doing your best,” Lloyd told Mable, thinking of Edna. Remembering how she’d taken him in and tried her best to be his mother. His throat hurt. The sun shifted in the sky and moved towards the mountains. “Tell Sadie I’ll bring her cherry lollipops tomorrow – if she wants.”

After Mable had left, Lloyd stayed on the bridge, watching her car’s rear lights until they disappeared. He glanced up at his apartment and saw the lights on in his living room. The back apartment, where Edna once lived, was shielded in darkness. He would stop by the hardware store in the morning to pick out some paint. Maybe yellow. Then he’d tell Mable that the apartment was hers and Sadie’s for as long as she needed it. From the pocket of his overcoat, he pulled out the flyer he’d picked up earlier that day. His index finger traced the still damp picture of the marmalade kitten.

Down the street, the door to the C&L Market swung open. Lloyd heard Clara’s high heels on the sidewalk. He pulled his shoulders back, stood up straight, and then turned to watch Clara walk towards him. In the soft, honey-golden light, Clara’s face seemed to glow. As she drew closer, he noticed for the first time that her eyes were the color of field grass in early summer.

She leaned against the bridge’s cement railing, her arm touching his as they stood side by side, gazing into the distance. Behind them, they heard the cars and trucks slowed down as they passed over the cement bridge.

“I wonder what they’re saying about us,” Clara said. She placed a bare hand on the sleeve of his coat.

Lloyd took a deep breath and covered her fingers with a warm hand. She turned her wrist so that their fingers entwined.

“They’re probably saying I’m one heck of a lucky man,” he said.

 

 

 

BIO

Trish Perrault earned her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and works as an adjunct professor. Her stories have been published in Snowbound – Best New England Crime Stories 2017, The Literary Nest and The Lindenwood Review (May 2018). Trish lives with her family just south of the Adirondacks.

 

 

 

 

0

A Marvelous Peace

by Joe Fortunato

 

 

There is a marvelous peace in not publishing.
—J.D. Salinger

 

John Malachi flung his pen across his office and sprang to his feet, sending his chair rolling back, crashing into the wall behind him. He bellowed through the open doorway in the general direction of his assistant’s desk. “Any word from Reinhardt yet?”

Cheryl Solanich startled. By the time she looked up, Malachi—coat and tie off, sleeves rolled up, salt-and-pepper hair disheveled—was pacing in front of her desk grasping a fistful of papers.

She took off her black-rimmed glasses. “There’s no need to yell, John; I’m right here,” she said.

“I wasn’t yelling.”

“You know I would’ve put him straight through to you if he’d called.”

“It’s not like him to be late for a meeting.” He sat in the chair by her desk, tapping his feet rapidly. “I’m worried.”

“About him, or the deal?” Cheryl asked with a smirk.

“Both.” Malachi drummed his fingers on her desk.

He cocked his head. “What’s with the new hairdo?”

“I was wondering when you’d notice.” Cheryl gingerly patted her short, pinkish, kind-of-spiky hair. “I had it done Saturday.” She batted her dark blue eyes and flashed a roguish smile. “Like it?”

“I hate it. It’s unprofessional and undignified.”

She swiveled her chair in a complete circle her outswept arm taking in the entire storefront office. “Look around.”

“Well, can’t you dye it brown again, and de-spike it or something?”

“No,” Cheryl said. “Do you want me to call his cell again?” She lifted the receiver of her desk phone. “Third time’s a charm, right?”

“Yeah, go ahead.” He resumed his pacing. “If he doesn’t sign these contracts today, the whole thing goes up in flames. And me with it!”

Cheryl punched Reinhardt’s cell autodial number with the eraser end of a pencil, and, cradling the receiver, glanced up at her boss shaking her head. “Straight to voice mail, like before.”

“Try his office.”

“I doubt he’d be there. He was supposed to come here first thing, right?”

“Do you see him?” Malachi spread his hands and twisted left and right. “Me neither. Call.”

She pencil-punched Reinhardt’s office number. “This is Mister Malachi’s office calling. Has Mister Reinhardt checked in with you? No? Hmmm. Yes, I know, three hours ago. But he hasn’t shown up yet. Well, if he calls or comes in, will you tell him to ring Mister Malachi right away, please?” She half-whispered into the phone, “He’s apoplectic.”

“I heard that,” Malachi muttered.

Cheryl covered the receiver, “You were meant to.” Then, back to the phone, “And if we hear from Mister Reinhardt, I’ll tell him to call you. Okay, thank you.” Cheryl hung up. “No dice.”

“Damn him!”

“His assistant says she hasn’t heard from him since lunchtime Friday. Now she’s worried too.” She added, “About Mister Reinhardt, not your deal.”

The deal. It was a make-or-break arrangement for the tiny publishing house. House? More like hut!

The odds were stacked against Malachi from the start. He was an attorney—and a successful one—who knew next-to-nothing about publishing, beyond having represented an emerging author once in a dispute over royalties. But John Malachi was a dreamer, an idealist.

A little over two years ago, the forty-two-year-old divorcé hadn’t a care in the world. Then, one day, out of the blue, he bought out the contract for his partner-track position at a Philadelphia law firm, emptied his bank account, and cashed in virtually all his assets—house, car, boat, and what remained of some so-so investments—leaving himself with just enough to live on and to pay his ex-wife’s alimony for the next three years.

Malachi used the money to team up with his best friend, Steve Borek, an English professor, to found a small publishing company. Since English professors aren’t celebrated for their colossal salaries, Malachi supplied the lion’s share of the capital, while Borek contributed his expert eye for quality literature. The pair incorporated, and Malachi Borek was born.

The plan was to seek out and disseminate superior works of literary fiction by unknown writers. The fledgling publishers leased a pricey medium-sized suite in a prestigious Center City high-rise, hired a top-notch designer to trick it out with stylish furniture, carpeting, and fixtures, and waited for agents and authors to beat down the door.

The trouble was, most unknown writers stay unknown—and unread—for a reason: they stink! Instead of agents and authors, creditors beat down the door. By the time the endeavor hit bottom, Borek had bailed, and the creditors, particularly the high-priced decorator, had taken the door.

However, Malachi, too stubborn (or too stupid) to accept total defeat, decided to go it alone. Using a little of the three hundred thousand dollars of his own money he’d held in reserve, he downsized the office space to a small drop-ceilinged storefront in a Northeast Philadelphia strip mall and hired his recently-widowed twin sister, Cheryl, as his administrative assistant. The place had been a Laundromat until a few months ago, so in addition to the change machine cemented to the floor by the door, an exposed pipe between Cheryl’s desk and Malachi’s office presented an omnipresent tripping hazard. What passed for his office had no door, and was made of what had to be the cheapest composite paneling available. Cheryl swore the wonky fluorescent lights were sucking the vitamin D out of her and causing her vision to flicker.

To fill the space, Malachi picked up a couple of cheap desks, a few chairs, and a brown metal filing cabinet at a bankruptcy auction. On the walls hung three or four landscape prints, each about a quarter of a notch higher in quality than Dogs Playing Poker and Velvet Elvis. To complete the transition from prince to pauper, he swapped out his leased Claret Mica Lexus GX 460 SUV for a red Kia Rio.

“Maybe he’s dead,” said Cheryl.

“If he is, I might as well join him.”

“God forbid, don’t say that!” She made a sign of the cross. “But he could be. I mean, he weighed at least three hundred pounds and smoked three packs a day. He could’ve had a heart attack. Or been murdered.”

“People don’t get murdered just because they’re fat smokers. And stop talking about him in the past tense,” Malachi said. “Besides, he can’t be dead. He has a contract to sign. After that he can be as dead as he wants.”

“John, he’s only one client.”

Malachi looked at her as if she’d sprouted a turd from her head. “He’s only one client? Cheryl, Reinhardt is my only client. Or would have been if he hadn’t up and died on me.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t dead.”

“Well why else would he be more than three hours late?”

“You always say writers are the most unreliable people on the planet, always acting fickle and changing their minds.”

“Gus Reinhardt isn’t a writer. He’s an agent. They’re a little more reliable. And one of his clients is Paul Quickthorn, the guy who wrote The Nicodemus Pendant and three other best sellers before it. Quickthorn’s not happy with the way his publisher handled the publicity for Nicodemus. He claims they edited the hell out of the thing, and then pushed him too hard with an impossible schedule of interviews, signings, and appearances. He figured after three consecutive best-selling novels, he’d earned the right to rest on his laurels for the fourth.”

“So he’s looking for a new publisher.”

“Right,” said Malachi. “He thinks a smaller house, where he’d be a huge fish in a tiny sea, would treat him with more respect, coddle him. I happened to cold call Reinhardt at just the right time. It was kismet. We talked on the phone, met for lunch a couple of times, and I made some promises. Reinhardt took them to Quickthorn, who liked what I offered, and agreed to sign a two-book deal with me. Gus is supposed to sign a preliminary deal today, and bring in Quickthorn next week.”

“Except now he’s probably dead.”

As the words left Cheryl’s lips, the little bell above the door tinkled and a fat man in a charcoal cashmere coat waddled in huffing, a lit cigarette dangling from his pale lips, an inch-and-a-half of ash dangling from the cigarette. He coughed, and the ash floated to the gray-speckled linoleum floor. The man looked around, and in a hoarse voice asked, “This isn’t one of those non-smoking offices, is it?”

“Gus! No, smoke all you want, my friend.” Malachi rushed to greet him with a hearty slap on the back, pumped his hand and said to Cheryl, “See? I told you he wasn’t dead.”

Reinhardt knitted his bushy grey eyebrows. “Dead?”

Before Malachi could think of a reply, Cheryl came to the rescue. “Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Reinhardt?”

“Yes, please,” he rasped. “Black, one Splenda.”

She grabbed her pocketbook, said, “Be right back,” and rushed out the door.

“Where’s she going?” Reinhardt asked Malachi.

“To the Starbucks across the street.” Reinhardt shot him another quizzical look. Malachi added, “Uh… Our Keurig is in the shop.” He made two mental notes: stop saying stupid stuff, and, as soon as he signs this contract, buy a Keurig.

Malachi put his hand on Reinhardt’s shoulder and guided him to the office.

“Geez, Gus, for a while there, I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“Yeah, well, I got tied up in some tough negotiations that took longer than I’d anticipated. I’m sorry I didn’t call. My smartphone fell in the sink last night while I was brushing my teeth, and when I went to check in with my office this morning, it kept shutting down on me. Luckily, it’s insured, so I can get a new one cheap.”

Cheryl came in with two coffees, placed them them on Malachi’s desk, gave her boss a thumbs up behind Reinhardt’s back, and walked out.

“So, let’s get down to business, shall we, Gus?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you.”

“Tell me? What tell me?”

Reinhardt lit a cigarette. “The negotiations I was into today were with Quickthorn’s publisher.”

“Wait a minute,” Malachi said. “I thought I was going to publish him.”

“His almost former publisher, then.” Reinhardt loosened his tie. “You see, John, Quickthorn never really wanted to leave Dolce-Placer. They’d been good to him, put him on the map. He just wanted to shake them up a little, you know, get a better deal, a lighter load.”

Malachi began to see the light. He swiped his hand over his face and groaned.

Reinhardt continued, “When he told them he’d decided to go with a small house, at first they thought he was bluffing. Which, of course, he was, but they couldn’t be sure.”

Another groan, this time from deeper in the throat. “No, please, Gus.”

“Last night, Dolce himself called me and said they were ready to talk in earnest. So early this morning I hopped an Acela to New York, we talked, and I rushed back here as soon as i could. I wanted to tell you in person. I’m sorry we had to use you that way. You happened to call at just the right time.”

The groan had evolved into a growl.

“The clincher,” said Reinhardt, “was that Dolce-Placer just hired a new editor, a guy whose style Quickthorn has always respected. Quickthorn made it a condition that this man would be the only one to edit his material.” He shrugged, “They agreed, and Quickthorn signed a five-book deal with Dolce-Placer. And Steve Borek will be his editor.

“Borek?”

“Yeah. You know him?”

With a roar, Malachi leaped over the desk, knocked Reinhardt and his chair backward with a crash and a thud, and stretched his fingers around Reinhardt’s plump neck. The agent puffed and panted, began to turn blue. Malachi released his grip and collapsed on top of him.

#

The medical examiner determined Reinhardt died of a massive heart attack, probably as a result of the physical assault, with obesity and cigarette smoking listed as contributing causes. Malachi apparently succumbed to a brain aneurysm that burst while he was attacking Reinhardt.

Two days after her brother’s funeral, Cheryl started her new job as a barista at the Starbucks across the street.

 

 

 

BIO

A native South Philadelphian, Joe Fortunato taught math and physics for twenty years before retiring in 2014 to pursue writing. Prior to his teaching career, he spent more than two decades as a voice talent and radio personality in New Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In addition to making his debut in this issue of The Writing Disorder, Joe’s stories have appeared in The Storyteller Anthology and The MacGuffin. His hobbies include acting in community theater, and oil painting. Joe lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Deb, their cats, Punkin and Sadie, and a black-mouthed cur named Rufus

 

 

 

 

0

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

by Ricky Garni

 

 

They discovered another earth. It’s beautiful and round and fiery orange.
This is good news. Unfortunately, it is quite far away, and not populated
by people you know. In fact, it might not even be populated at all!
Right now scientists are hard at work trying to find out for sure:
Is it populated by people you know? Is it populated at all?
They are building a super powerful telescope to find out.
I say, just use a cheap one from around the house, point it at your heart,
and pull the trigger.

 

 

INFIRMITIES

I have a friend who sits on an orange chair
that looks like a whale.
She enjoys sitting in the chair when her friends
call her and ask her what she is doing.
And she says: “I am sitting in my whale chair.”

“Wheelchair?” they ask.
“No, whale chair.”
“Wheelchair?”
“No, whale chair.”
“I don’t understand…”
“A wheelchair.”
“Oh! I thought so.”

And then she tells them where she found her
orange wheelchair,

in an old shop on 6th Avenue that sells things
that look like orange whales.

 

 

BIO

Ricky Garni grew up in Miami and Maine. He works as a graphic designer by day and writes music by night. His latest book, THE PRESSED TABLETS OF DOMINO, will be released in Spring 2018.

 

 

 

0

Ketchup Sandwich

by Shamar English

 

 

Growing up in poverty is phantom pain, it never goes away like hunger. It lingers for seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on. You never forget because you always remember.

You have to devour whatever edible thing you can find. Food fluctuates in my home like the stock market. The one thing I can make and eat heavily are sandwiches. Particularly, special sandwiches since there isn’t always meat.

So, I make syrup sandwiches, sugar sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, wish sandwiches, and jelly sandwiches. Not too many peanut butter sandwiches. I tried a few times, but it wouldn’t stick to my stomach. It smelled like seaweed and paste and tasted like chalk.

But ketchup sandwiches are my satiety. I can eat more than one like a can of Pringles. They get me through the days pacifying my growling belly. It sounds gross, but not when you’re ravish by hunger.

Ketchup sandwiches subdued my impending starvation more times than I can ever recount. So, whenever the refrigerator and cabinets are full of food I go directly for the bread and ketchup.

 

 

BIO

Shamar English is a budding writer. He has a piece published in literallystories2014 magazine, and another piece that will appear in Better than Starbucks magazine. He’s originally from Santa Barbara, California, but lives in Douglasville, Georgia, with his family and attends Georgia State University pursuing his bachelor’s degree.

 

 

The Skid Row Zine Writing Group

Introduction by Ivy Pochoda

 

 

In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.

Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.

One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.

We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.

 

This is a New Series from the Skid Row Zine Writers Group:

Each issue will feature new work from the group.

This issue features:
UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh

 

 

 

0

Wildfirelife

by Brad G. Garber

 

 

The black bear peered at us, from the edge of the wood
square nose pointed toward the forest fire we were
heading toward, having smelled it washing like ocean tide
up the flanks of a mountain glowing in moonlight.

It was a full moon, orange against a starless night sky
that followed the bear into a copse of trembling aspens
lighting ripened berries like sugar lanterns in the night
the bear’s nimble lips a soft smoke drifting through.

And, on this morning, as smoke descended like wool
the black bear peered at us, passing by like ashen waters
toward uncertain tides and ducked back into the wood
confident in the fruit of the earth and her place in it.

 

 

 

San Francisco Airport

 

The fog spills over the hills
like frosty butter poured
over boiled shrimp, curled
waterfalling, thick and soft.

This, in the land of bitcoin
wealth erupting up the hillsides
waves of black information
slapping against tender brains.

Around me, fretful travelers
swirling like fog, not noticing
the thick clouds descending
upon a threatened landscape.

This, where the earth aches
to move like a falling tree
uprooting its ageless innocence
laying waste to every excess.

And I wonder where will be
this airport, this place of flight
when the waters rise to meet
a slowly pouring, terrifying sky.

 

 

 

Storm Cycle

 

There is a storm building

            across an ocean of human heat.

            Take your pick . . .
intolerance, distrust, fear, ignorance, denial:

we don’t like
we don’t listen
we fear
we don’t care
it’s not us.

            The storm surge will kill
its stupid-foot waves

            prejudicial waves
            apathetic swells

            crushing, drowning, wiping
scouring the surface of the earth.

Left . . . a pristine beach, populated
            with hungry birds, winter foam
                        silent sunsets

Until clouds build along the horizon.

 

 

 

Syrian Literature

He was writing poetry
in a waning ray of sunlight
when he was picked off
the roof like a pigeon
by a sniper, his brain
a puff of feathers, floating
with his peaceful words
down to indifferent earth.

 

 

 

Nature on the Back Porch

 

The red dragonfly, as the hummingbird
has its hunting grounds, this afternoon
darts out to capture swarming midges.

I remedy my insecurities with bourbon
staring at the imperfections of my skin
capturing what I can of confidence.

Like the dragonfly, I return to the spot
where I can scan the killing field, full
of swarming memories and expectations.

Overhead, the hummingbird sucks water
a blooming fuchsia plant a distraction
from what is sustaining and what is not.

The red dragonfly eats its fill and leaves
and the hummingbird goes to its roost
leaving me to rattle the ice cubes in glass.
 

BIO

Brad G. Garber has degrees in biology, chemistry and law. He writes, paints, draws, photographs, hunts for mushrooms and snakes, and runs around naked in the Great Northwest. Since 1991, he has published poetry, essays and weird stuff in such publications as Edge Literary Journal, Pure Slush, On the Rusk Literary Journal, Sugar Mule, Third Wednesday, Barrow Street, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Barzakh Magazine, Five:2:One, Ginosko Journal, Vine Leaves Press, Riverfeet Press, Smoky Blue Literary Magazine, Aji Magazine and other quality publications. 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stitches

by Rick White

 

 

It took me a good twenty or so years to realise that it was a feather duster, the strange alien life-form which lived in my grandmother’s airing cupboard. As a young boy, whenever I walked down the hallway to the bedroom where my grandmother lay, I’d pass the airing cupboard and I always had to stop and look inside. The feather duster I remember was red, or some sort of vivd pink and it moved and pulsated like a weird plant. Its soft, feathery tendrils moved in the convection of the warm air and seemed almost to beckon me in.

And although I was always a bit frightened to look inside that cupboard, I still had to do it every time I walked past. I only thought of it today, decades later, because a huge spider has made it’s home in the compost bin in my garden. Now every time I walk past the bin I have to open the lid and look inside at the miniature forest world, draped and festooned with fine cotton sheets of web. The spider always retreats slowly from my view and I close the lid and walk away.

There are tiny parts of this world which do not belong to us. Miniature worlds within worlds just like my grandmother’s airing cupboard which have been annexed by something other, and in to which we can never truly hope to look. Part of the fabric of our Universe, yet quite entirely apart from it in every way, hidden behind the finest of shrouds. And it freaks me out.

My grandmother was dying, although I didn’t realise it at the time because I didn’t know what dying was. She lay in her pink sheets and blankets in her bed by the window. Her small frame and short curly hair just as light as the feathers on the duster or the spider’s web. She was waiting there to float up from the mattress one day and out of the open window.

“Give me a hug to last until I next see you.” was what she’d always say at the end of my visits. And I would squeeze her tightly, just not so tight that she’d break, and I really believed that the hug would last. Of course she knew that each time might be the last time we’d see each other, but that was not something she wanted me to have to know.

She was my paternal grandmother, my dad’s mum. My father and I have never really spoken about her except for when he told me she was a spiritualist. She believed there was a connection between the realms of the living and the dead, and she believed that this connection could be used to heal.

My dad told me about a dog that wouldn’t stop snapping at its own ear, and my grandmother asking its owner if she knew anyone who had passed over who walked with a cane and smoked a pipe.

“That’s Uncle John.”

“Uncle John – I’m sure you’re very welcome to come and visit any time you like but can you not bring your dog as it’s scaring this one.”

That story gave me chills when I heard it, especially because it was so incongruous with dad’s most pragmatic nature. It seemed so unlike anything he would ever subscribe to that it must be true. I since heard somewhere or other that the whole “don’t bring your dog” trick is bread and butter to anyone wanting to pass themselves off as a Medium. It’s like telling someone in a cold reading that they’ve always wanted to write a novel.

Dad really seemed to believe it though, or maybe he believed it because his mother believed it. Maybe he found it easier to believe that story, than to admit how much he loved and missed his mother. Maybe he clung to it, maybe he needed it.

Not so many years after I heard that story, my younger brother injured himself quite badly while riding a motorbike on holiday with me and my dad. He bit through his lower lip and had to have the wound stitched without any anaesthetic, in case he swallowed his tongue.

Dad sat by my brother’s bed and held his hand while the stitches were being sown and he said that he could feel every last ounce of my brother’s pain. Later, Dad asked my brother if his pain had diminished whilst he was holding his hand, and my brother replied that yes, it was the strangest thing, but it actually had hurt less.

I had sat out in the corridor on my own as all this was taking place and heard my brother’s screams echoing through the hallway. I would suggest that sure enough he’d felt every last stab of that needle, every last tug of that thread and could still feel it later when he was being asked to relive it.

I think he wanted to make my dad feel better. So maybe you can take someone’s pain away if you want to, and if they’re willing to let you.

You just have to believe in the same stories.

You just have to give them a hug to last them.

 

 

 

BIO

Rick White is a writer and debut novelist from Manchester, UK. He currently writes for a number of online magazines including Vice and Drunken Werewolf, as well as his own blog www.badtripe.com. Rick’s first short story was published earlier this year by Storgy Magazine, https://storgy.com. Rick hopes you enjoy reading his work.

 

 

 

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Pink Lemonade

by Michael McCormick

 

 

Greg, Ricky, Joel, and Sean all left the basketball court and headed over to the parking lot. Three two-on-two games in a row and now everyone was exhausted (particularly Sean, who every one of his friends and family members agreed was a monster on the court). They were now ready for some lunch.

“Where we gonna’ go?” Ricky asked, wiping sweat off his face. “Can we do something other than Sonic?”

“I’m good with anything,” Sean said, dribbling one of the basketballs on the parking lot.

“I just want a drink,” Greg said. “I don’t really care what we eat.”

“How about Luby’s?” Joel suggested.

“I’m not in the mood for Luby’s,” Ricky replied.

“I need a drink,” Greg said. “What are places that I can get a drink?”

“There’s Jack and John’s,” Sean suggested.

“Blegh!” Ricky replied. “Forget that.”

“Why don’t we just get a pizza somewhere?” Joel asked. “Then we can get drinks somewhere else.”

“Can we not make a million stops?” Ricky replied.

“What about Sam’s?” Sean suggested.

“Yes, let’s go there,” Joel said, wiping a bead of sweat on his neck. “Can we get out of the sun already?”

“Yeah, let’s go to Sam’s,” Greg said. “I’m down for some Mountain Sunrise.”

“Ricky?” Sean asked.

“What’s Sam’s?” Ricky replied. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a steakhouse,” Joel said. “You’ll like it. Come on, let’s go! It’s freaking hot!”

“Alright, whatever,” Ricky said. “I’m okay with steak.”

With that, the four friends hopped in their cars and drove away from the park. Being the very middle of lunch hour, the roads were quite busy. It took nearly twenty minutes for the four to arrive in the parking lot of Sam’s Steak Shack.

Sam’s Steak Shack had been up and running in central Houston for nearly thirty years. While hardly known outside of Houston, the steakhouse was massively popular within the city. Top quality steaks, excellent service, and a clean and relaxing atmosphere made for the perfect spot to eat. In addition, the steakhouse was known for being home to the Mountain Sunrise, a drink that could not be found at any other restaurant. Popular among young males (particularly young males who had only recently become legally allowed to consume alcohol), the Mountain Sunrise had a unique flavor and delightful taste that was very difficult to forget. Most diners who experienced this delightful taste for the first time looked forward to paying several visits to Sam’s Steak Shack in the future for the sole purpose of having the drink again.

After a ten-minute wait, a woman led the four friends to their table in the back of the restaurant. Greg was frustrated that he had to wait so long just to get his drink, Ricky was so hungry that he was about to start gnawing on the table, Joel was just relieved to finally be out of the sun, and Sean had his mind set on taking a thirty-minute shower as soon as he arrived home.

“Next time we play ball, I’m bringing a pack of Budweiser,” Greg said as he sat down. “I hope that isn’t illegal.”

“If it is, I’m not bailing you out,” Sean said.

“It’s okay, his granny will probably take care of it,” Ricky said.

“Shut up,” Greg said with a grin. Ricky chuckled.

“Hey Sean, when’s your interview again?” Joel asked, taking a look at his menu.

“Monday,” Sean replied. “Wish me luck guys. It took me five freaking months to get this interview. If I don’t get the job, I’m probably going to smash a window.”

“Then you’d better stay away from my car,” Greg said.

“Ah, I’m sure you’ll get it, Sean,” Ricky said. “Who wouldn’t hire someone with your smoking hot body?”

“I think it’s going to be a guy,” Sean replied.

“And how do you know he won’t be interested in your hot body?”

“Oh, shut the hell up.”

Ricky chuckled.

Having never been to the restaurant before, Ricky looked around. It seemed like every other steakhouse he had been to before. Walls made of wood, pictures showing the restaurant in its earlier days, pictures of the food served at the restaurant, and several other pictures of the famous Mountain Sunrise. Ricky was quite curious to see what it tasted like.

Greg also looked around the restaurant. Every table was full. Mostly with young men, though there were a few families. Almost every young man in the restaurant had a glass of Mountain Sunrise to their side. Greg could hardly wait to get his own glass of the delicious beverage. He was sure that he was going to have drunk at least three glasses by the time he left the restaurant.

Greg also noticed at least two young men who had glasses of what appeared to be water. Greg was baffled why any man would come to Sam’s Steak Shack and not order the Mountain Sunrise. It was utterly bizarre to him. Water could be found at every other restaurant in existence. Could these men just not see the Mountain Sunrise advertisements all over the walls?

After another minute or two, their waitress returned to their table with a pen and notepad in her hand.

“What can I get y’all to drink?” the waitress asked.

Greg said: “Mountain Sunrise” without even blinking.

Sean, who also had been looking forward to a glass of Mountain Sunrise since Sam’s Steak Shack was decided on, also ordered the drink.

Ricky, although he didn’t know what Mountain Sunrise tasted like, was very curious as to why it was so popular. He also ordered a glass.

Joel looked at the beverage section of the menu. The menu heavily promoted Mountain Sunrise (there was a large picture of the famous drink at the top of the beverage section), but he was not interested. He had tasted Mountain Sunrise before and he wasn’t a fan of it. There was another beverage that he was hoping the restaurant served (he had only visited the restaurant once before). Sure enough, his favorite beverage was written in clear letters at the bottom of the page.

“Can I get some pink lemonade?” Joel asked.

“Sure,” the waitress replied, writing the order on her notepad. “Okay, I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

After the waitress left, Greg stared at Joel with a puzzled expression.

“Pink lemonade?” Greg asked. “What?”

“Umm…yeah,” Joel said, looking at the steak section of the menu. “I ordered pink lemonade.”

“Are you serious, Joel? Pink lemonade?”

“What’s wrong with pink lemonade?”

Greg smiled and chuckled. “Well now I’ve seen everything.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. We come to Sam’s, the only place where you can get Mountain Sunrise, and you order freaking pink lemonade. I just can’t wrap my mind around that.”

“Well, what if I like pink lemonade?”

“Honestly, I would be a lot less weirded out if you got water. Freaking pink lemonade. Seriously.” Greg chuckled and looked at his menu.

“Dude, leave him alone,” Sean said to Greg. “Let him drink what he wants.”

“I’m not going to stop him from drinking it,” Greg replied. “I just find it kind of weird, that’s all.”

“How is it weird?” Joel asked. He was feeling incredibly irritated.

“Let me repeat what I said. We’re at Sam’s. The only place where you can get Mountain Sunrise, and you order pink lemonade. You don’t see anything weird about that?”

Joel breathed deeply in frustration. “No, I don’t.”

“It is pretty weird,” Ricky said. “Why would you even get pink lemonade?”

“Because I like pink lemonade,” Joel replied. “Why would you even ask me that?”

Greg and Ricky both snickered.

“He’s probably also gonna’ order a salad,” Ricky said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Greg said.

The two laughed even harder. Joel was becoming more and more infuriated.

“Guys, knock it off,” Sean said. His tone of voice showed that he was incredibly frustrated. “If he likes pink lemonade, let him like pink lemonade.”

“He can like it all he wants,” Greg replied. “I won’t stop him. But it’s still weird.”

“No, it’s not,” Joel muttered. His face was turning red.

“Hey, let’s go to a bar later tonight,” Ricky said. “Forget beer, let’s get drunk on pink lemonade.”

Greg and Ricky laughed so hard that diners sitting nearby looked in the direction of their table. By that point, Joel was very close to blowing a fuse. Sean had half a mind to break Greg and Ricky’s noses.

“Come on, Joel,” Greg said. “Be a man and get some Mountain Sunrise like the rest of us.”

The “be a man” comment ended up being what completely set Joel off. Without even trying to control himself, Joel screamed: “I don’t like Mountain Sunrise!”

Joel’s scream was so loud that everyone in the restaurant heard him. To many, a negative statement about Mountain Sunrise was practically a crime inside the doors of Sam’s Steak Shack. The diners didn’t seem to approve of Joel’s remark.

“Who said they don’t like Mountain Sunrise?”

“Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“Get the hell out of here!”

The other diners were clearly exaggerating, as a large amount of laughter began to fill the restaurant. Joel, however, was not the least bit amused. He now wanted to get out of the restaurant as soon as possible.

“Did you hear that, Joel?” Greg said with a grin. He pointed his thumb at the other tables. “I told you it was weird.”

Just as Sean was about to stand up to keep Joel from strangling Greg, the waitress returned to the table. She walked up to Joel.

“I’m sorry sir,” the waitress said. “We don’t have any pink lemonade at the moment. Can I get you something else?”

“Ohhhhh,” Greg and Ricky said together. They both started laughing.

Joel looked at the waitress for a moment. He took a deep breath and said: “No, nothing for me then. Thanks.”

“Are you sure?” the waitress replied.

“Yes. I’m fine.”

A confused expression appeared on the waitress’ face, but she just shrugged and said: “Okay then.” She then walked away.

Before he could hear any more negative remarks about his beverage preference, Joel stood up and began to walk away from the table.

“Where are you going?” Greg asked with a grin.

Without even looking at Greg, Joel replied: “Getting pink lemonade.” He then exited the restaurant without another word.

 

 

 

BIO

Michael McCormick is a graduate from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in English. He is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. He is an aspiring author, having written stories since he was a child. His prose poem “Eight Minutes”, was published in the UTRGV journal Gallery in 2016. He currently resides in Edinburg, Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

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Desert Suite #8: Red Piano in the Desert

by Kimberly White

 

for E.J.

 

It is red, because the desert is red with small pianoesque shapes of scorpions,
lavarock concertos stripped to their bones

It is a piano because the keys of the desert pound strings of yucca leaf and
spiderweb, grace notes circle the raptors, trace ochre streams, carve red-vein
strokes of piano wind.  Tiny stones shift themselves in tune with the bars of
desert movement in constant orchestration, vibrating strings of connective
air, footsteps in sync with a jazzbeat heart, beat changing tides ebbing
flowing sunforsaken red

It carries, the hidden notes rustle to the surface, create subliminal bands of
disruption, fan waves of cold and heat, scatter themselves in leaf litter and
decay, die and resurrect before the echo settles backward into rest.

 


 

The Blue Dog of Midnight

 

Clatterdog paws on a kitchen floor
sniff out scraps of night

paws hesitate, then pick up,
follow a twitchy nose along
cupboard borders and pantry doors
and refrigerator floors.  I, the
insomniac in the back bedroom,
sweat through sheets twisted
with the haunted labor of counting
down the night.  The wages of
sleep earn themselves, disrespective
of my circadian plans.

Calloused dog paws scratch the back
door, wanting out, hungry for the
call of the moon.  Sleepwalk
footsteps shuffle his way, blind to
tender toes underfoot.  The sleepwalker
checks her sleep pocket for the gun that
lives only in her dreams.  A dog barks,
her hand opens a door, the dog escapes
to the welcoming moon.  In my sleep,
I hunt, I stalk, my prey recognizes
my gun and flees.  Possibly warned by
the dog

who has padded off to someone
else’s sleepwalk, maybe his own,
or to sniff another kitchen door,
ragged nails click time counting
down another ruthless night in a
wakeful backroom bed.

 

 

natural conundrum

 

If a fat-ass robin
hits a tree and the
poet is not there
to laugh at it, does
it make a sound?

Doesn’t matter.
Coyote will hear it.

Coyote,
he can smell stupid
a mile off.

 

 

 

BIO

Kimberly White’s poetry has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Cream City Review, Big Muddy, and other journals and anthologies. She is the author of four chapbooks and two novels. You can find her poetry and collage art on her website, www.purplecouchworks.com, as well as on Facebook and various refrigerator doors.

 

 

 

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The Art of Miss Fluff

 

 

Bubble Doll

 

Ice Cream Pinup Doll

 

Leopard Mermaid with Sea Kittens

 

Glamour Girl on the Moon

 

Martini Mermaid

 

Pinup Nurse

 

Sugar Pinup

 

Tipsy Martini Mermaid

 

 

ABOUT

Fluff is an enchanting design brand created by artist, Claudette Barjoud. She is a multi media artist working in both traditional and digital mediums. Her inspiration comes from childhood loves such as Betty Boop, Disney, Hello Kitty, and Vintage Barbie, just to name a few. Combined with a fascination for exploring the styles and themes of decades past including Classic Pin Up, Golden Age Hollywood Glamour, Tiki, Rockabilly, Mid Century Mod and Art Deco! Claudette founded Fluff with the mission of making people “squeal with delight” for which she designed many collections of accessories over the last 15 years. That is how she became known as Miss Fluff, the lady that creates all the Fluff!

Recently Miss Fluff has turned her focus solely to the pursuit of creating art, releasing her designs onto products only through collaborations and on demand production companies.

 

ARTIST

I was born and raised in Miami, FL, and have loved to draw since I was about five years old.  I would go off  by myself and just escape into my mind, drawing for hours non stop. I did not see it as anything more than a hobby for a long time until my best friend’s boyfriend would not stop talking about an amazing arts high school he was attending. He was in theater, but the school had all the disciplines including dance, music and visual arts!  He went on about how he got to have such fun classes and that the visual artists there were so good there was no way I could get in.  Well, I never back down from a challenge, so I auditioned.  He was right.  I was not as skilled as the other artists. But, I won over the teachers on the jury with sheer enthusiasm and got into the school, New World School of the Arts in Miami!  So that was the start of art as my life.  I had an art degree and no idea what to do with it. So I started working for different companies that required “artsyish” talents ranging from logo and brochure design to magazine layout. I was not getting to draw or really design much, but wherever I was, I always kept a little sketch book with me where I would scribble fun ideas I would do if I could do whatever I wanted. While I was working at Fredericks of Hollywood I was asked to design the packaging for some of their products: Some pajama sets and bridesmaid gifts. I decided to make them more fun and friendly with vintage inspired illustrations of cute pinup girls and animals. They became very popular and people even started collecting the products with my designs! This got me thinking, maybe I really could do my own art and design for a living.So I took two weeks off of work, put together a line of greeting cards with my art and went to the California Gift Show. They were just printouts from my little desktop printer. But I took orders on them and I have never looked back since. After making the cards I was licensed by different manufacturers that expanded my line into purses, cosmetic bags, apparel, a pet line and much more!  It was carried in over 2000 boutiques all over the world. I named my line Fluff because it is fun and frivolous, an escape into a fantasy of vintage inspired cuteness! And after the first couple of years people started calling me Miss Fluff!  Because I was the lady who designed all the Fluff!

My artwork is heavily inspired by things I loved from my childhood: Vintage Barbie, Cartoons from the 1930’s like Betty Boop, and  original Disney films. I love to mix this up with classic Pin Up , Rockabilly style and Old Hollywood glamour and burlesque. Overall I am simply in love with the art and design of decades past. There is too much to name it all here! I just think it has so much charming magic and I hope to capture that in my own work. After designing for Fluff and managing the business for almost 15 years, I am so excited to have gone solo and dedicate myself to art only! I am so grateful to be doing what I love the most as my full time thing! And even happier that people enjoy my artwork as much as I enjoy creating it. Claudette Barjoud  a.k.a  Miss Fluff

 

SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website: www.missfluff.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/missfluff
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/miss.fluff/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Miss_Fluff

 

 

 

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