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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 Anita Leigh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frankenstein

 

 

 

 

Leigh Anita — Artist Statement

I was born during the Halloween season, imagining what is unseen for as long as I can remember. During my adolescence, I struggled with night terrors, at once being in fear of and fascinated by the dark. I had recurring dreams of a red house with a narrow twisting stairway. These long nights would leave a vivid imprint on my waking hours. I held onto the instinctive wisdom of sleep as a way to dispel these specters back into the darkness where they belonged. My work reflects a skeptical curiosity, offering a lightness to the monsters of folklore. I implore the viewer to embrace these characters with sympathy, and to see their fears as they are reflected upon what cannot be seen.

In my early twenties, I relocated to  Salem,  Massachusetts,  where  I  taught  myself wood burning and began experimenting  with  homemade  Ouija  boards  and  Tarot  in the attic apartment of an old house. The same presence followed me to work at an old theatre, where I stitched costumes late  into  the  night  while  displaced  voices echoed  through  the  rafters.  In these years, I suddenly found myself slipping close to  the veil. As I regained health, I began to study art  history  and  the  occult.  I  found power in the language of symbols and ritual practice. My work draws heavily on this time, much of my work acts as a conduit for my exploration of darkness and light. As    an adult, I imagine the good and evil that exists within us all. By night, I still often lay awake to see claw—like branches and shrouds flapping in the wind, and they inspire me to create, question, and continue to toe the line between the mundane  and  the twilight world of spirits.

Prints of her work are available at Etsy.com/shop/leighanita
If you’re interested in purchasing an original piece, please contact Leighanita@gmail.com

Leighanita.com

IG: @Leighanita

 

 

 

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Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All

by Evelyn Somers

 

“For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.”

—Christopher Smart
from Jubilate Agno

 

 

Isaac Martin stopped on his way to his dad’s house to pick up the mail. It was his first trip back home to Covington in two months. Winter had slithered away after one last, limp snow, and the grass-tufted tarp of spring was being drawn greenly over the yards in one fluid, fast motion. School would end in three weeks. He had been living in a church homeless shelter in University City, singing in their praise band in exchange for his lodging, and trying to complete his classes remotely, ever since he’d gotten arrested and thrown in jail (first) and kicked off campus (later) for an absurd dorm dispute with a fellow music major, a psycho Maltese percussionist named Den. In the end, the prosecutor said the arrest was ridiculous, and there had been no charges, but Big State U had not welcomed Isaac back. They’d sealed his future with a bogus investigation, and now he was trying to figure out what to do. He felt terrible for losing all his scholarships and ruining his future; though he still didn’t know what he’d done wrong. His sister, Jasmyn, said it was all about money and influence; but it was not just that, and they each knew it. They’d known it since he was nine and Jasmyn was fifteen. Something was right on them, tearing up their family. It wasn’t just him it was after. It was Jasmyn, and his dad. And most tragically, their mother, Adrianna. It had started when she was killed nine years ago. When his dad took to building his barricade and hoarding cats. Sometimes it seemed like only the band teacher, Mr. Wright, was on their side. But whenever Isaac thought this, he remembered St. Tamzin and imagined she was their side, too. Tamzin: a celestial agent of sometimes quixotic benevolence who seemed to reside mainly in and around Covington. Everyone knew about her, and some people called her “St. Tamzin,” though she wasn’t a real saint. No one was quite sure what she was. In fact, most people weren’t sure she existed, but they were afraid to disavow belief and lose her goodwill. Her arch-enemy, from the dawn of time—or, at least, from way, way back—was a she-devil evil bitch-spirit named Mary Black. Mary Black was the “something” that had been tearing up the Martins for years.

The mailbox was an antique cast-iron Victorian postbox that Randall, Isaac’s father, a scrapper by trade, had liberated from a condemned old mansion. The ornate box had a decorative medallion that looked like two lions facing each other, stirring kettle of apple butter. It was mounted on a pressure-treated pine post set out at the end of the driveway. The letter carrier couldn’t get to the Martins’ door because of Randall’s scrap blockade: a barrier of metal bits and appliances that he had picked up and hauled here. Stuff he could have made money off of, if he’d sold it instead of building the blockade. But no one would want the scrap now, and no one tried to steal it, because the cats had coated it with their spray.

Isaac had to juggle his pack and his trombone to get the mail. There was nothing that looked important in the box: a postcard advertisement for high-speed Internet. Then he saw that there was a real postcard stuck to the ad. Isaac had to peel the two cards apart. He gasped when he looked at the second card, the real one. It was addressed to his mother: “Adrianna Martin, Blue House, Pink Elephant Lane, Covington.” No house number. Pink Elephant was an actual road. There was not a blue house there that Isaac could think of, however, and his mother had never to his knowledge lived on Pink Elephant, though she had died there. Who the hell would play such a creepy joke?

But the stranger and creepier thing about the postcard was that his mother’s name and the first address had been crossed out, and above them was written, “No such person anymore.” Then underneath, the new direction, which was to “Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin.” It was the Martins’ street address. There could be no mistake. Yet something about the writing: it was totally readable, but Isaac had not seen writing quite like it anywhere. Just looking at it made his skin prickle. Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin

Mr. Whiskers was his father’s favorite cat.

The picture on the postcard, from the Roman catacombs (cat a combs?), was creepy too: a mountain of skulls in a dank, rock-lined subterranean chamber. The handwritten message, in fine-point marker in the same unusual writing, was on the front, across the photo of the skulls, not on the back, where it should be. It read “To My Darling Mr. Whiskers: ‘What you are now, we once were. What WE are now, YOU will be.’” As if the skulls themselves were speaking. It was signed “Your friend, counselor, and eternal lover,” with eternal darkly underlined.

Isaac read this again with a sensation he’d become very familiar with lately: a sensation that hovered between anger and disbelief. A creepy, anonymous postcard dredging up his mother’s death and threatening the cat? It was the last straw. One of many, since his arrest in February. Jasmyn said that depression was when everything felt like the last straw and your anger never left, just traded places with sadness, back and forth. He had never been depressed before, but she was exactly right. For a girl with only a high school diploma, whose main claim to notice was her breasts, she could startle them all with her wisdom. She’d inherited some of that from their mother, who’d been poor but country smart. The rest had come when she’d gone up on a pillar on the Big State U campus for weeks and become a pillar saint, denying her earthly self so Isaac could receive justice (it hadn’t worked).

He pushed his backpack up on his shoulder and headed for the scrap blockade. Randall had erected the scrap blockade just over onto the county side of their property so the city could not fine them. The blockade guarded the house, such as it was, and the Martins’ possessions, which amounted to nothing. And the cats, numbering a steady fifty. Their census should have waxed and waned: coyotes lurked in the brush, waiting to pick off the old ones. Hawks and owls wheeled above, peering down with accute raptor vision and waiting with infinite patience for the plump kitten that strayed too far from the clowder. Yet no cat was taken. They were not immortal entirely—the old ones died eventually of natural causes, and there were the usual fatal accidents and diseases—but some invisible entity guarded them from predators, at least.

You could cross the scrap line anywhere, but in and around the array of dead dishwashers and piles of old aluminum downspouts and barn roofing were lengths of two-by pried off old houses and barns, nails still poking through, ready to stab a foot. Isaac didn’t chance it. The “gate,” which sat between a heap of guttering to the rear and an overturned washer body in front, was a 1977 blue soft-top Chevy Nova on blocks. He opened the passenger door and got in. There was a terrible, gagging stench. It wasn’t cat pee—it was much worse. He scooted quickly across the seat to the driver’s side to get away from the stench and got out into the piss-smelling yard. That smell, the pee, he could tolerate.

Randall had left several days’ mail on the car’s dash, so Isaac grabbed it as he scooted and added it to the postcards. Before closing the door quickly, to seal in the unbearable odor, he leaned in and gave the horn three quick toots and was immediately swarmed by cats. Tabbies and piebalds and calicos and tortiseshells: they acted starved, though they just wanted attention. Soon more came: a mewling, leg-rubbing sea. When they saw where he was going, they set up a raucous meowing and followed him as he crossed the dirt yard. On the porch, in an old Shop-Vac drum—just the drum, no motor or or hose—a half-grown gray kitten peered over the rim to watch the tide of cats moving toward the porch. Next to the vacuum drum was a white wicker rocker with four cats piled asleep in the seat. They woke and cried drowsily at Isaac. The cats pooled and parted around him at the steps, trained to stay outside. He went up the steps, pushed gently on the front door, and found it unlatched.

Inside, Randall was standing in the middle of the living room eating Wheat Chex. Isaac was accustomed now to community meals at the shelter. He’d forgotten Randall’s solitary art of eating, another habit that had developed after Adrianna died: Gaze into space with a hollow stare. Hum and gulp and commune with the soul of . . . what? He was somewhere else; that was all Isaac knew. Like he was hearing a voice no one could hear but him. Not that they didn’t all sometimes hear voices. It seemed to be congenital among the Martins. Perhaps that was why Tamzin always hovered so near: they needed protection from the bad ones.

The cereal bowl was cracked and chipped. Some milk leaked from the corner of Randall’s mouth, a thick, ivory droplet. Evaporated milk from the food pantry. Randall poured it on the cereal without reconstituting it. Isaac had grown up with this. He used to think it was cream. Randall put it on noodles, too.

“You’re dribbling, Dad,” said Isaac. “And that bowl needs to be thrown away.”

“It’s fine. My dribbling—it’s fine, too. No worse than your trombone spit,” said Randall. He didn’t smile or greet Isaac, even though they hadn’t seen each other in months. He just hummed and finished the Wheat Chex. Then he set the cracked bowl on the coffee table, which was half a door from an old schoolhouse on iron hairpin legs. The knob was still on the door, and Randall used it as a cap holder.

“Why the bone?” he said, nodding at the trombone case.

“I have to practice. And I didn’t want to leave it.”

“Didn’t they kick you out of that place?”

“Yes. No. Not until May. I get to finish the semester. Jasmyn says they won’t risk a lawsuit by expelling me. She says they’ve perfected the art of the legally unimpeachable screw. The lawyer says so, too. Where’s Mr. Whiskers? There’s a postcard for him.”

“Don’t shit me.”

“And something from the vet clinic.”

“It’s his path-ology,” said Randall. “Why do you think I left it in the Nova? I’d rather not know he has cancer.”

Just then, Mr. Whiskers padded into the room, tail thrashing. They’d had him since his kittenhood, when Randall had found him, malnourished and near death, curled up hiding in the engine of an old wreck he was hauling. In the months before she died, Adrianna had fed him formula and brought him back. Later he’d lived mostly outdoors, until Randall had singled him out as a companion when Adrianna died. It was Mr. Whiskers who’d started the outdoor cats pissing on the scrap blockade, and the other cats kept doing it after he moved inside.

He was a truly handsome animal: a gray tuxedo cat, with four white paws, a white “shirtfront,” and a dashing white half-mustache above his mouth. The rest was a deep charcoal. He groomed religiously, and his short, sleek fur was thick and shining. His eyes were full-on green, and he had unusually long white whiskers (the occasion for his name) and eyebrows. His face and nose were long and noble. He wore a perpetual frown and would not tolerate fools or other cats; thus he was the only cat allowed inside. He walked with a sassy strut, and though he had been neutered, his ballsack remained prominent. Nevertheless, he had the dignity of a creature who has traded copulating in the bushes for higher pursuits. His tail and eyes were insanely expressive. The former twitched and switched like a whip; you always knew Mr. Whiskers was feeling deeply when the tail went into action. The eyes were almost human. When he was annoyed, they grew dark and unforgiving. When he was hungry or wanted attention, he stood on his hind legs, paws on your knee supporting him at full stretch, and gazed up into your face, commanding and imploring you. He was like a person in a cat body. In Randall’s estimation, he was the smartest cat ever made.

He was also a biter. Right now, seeing Isaac, he gave a high, wicked meow, flew at Isaac, and bit his ankle.

“Ow!” yelled Isaac and swatted him away.

Isaac had never taken to Mr. Whiskers. For a cat, he was full of dislikes and far too quick to bite, but he had to admit that Mr. Whiskers was very, very smart and loaded with personality. For a cat.

“He looks like he’s gotten thinner, Dad.”

“I been feeding him wet food and lard. He loves his lard. But I knew something was wrong, so Jasmyn took him last week.”

“Do you want me to open this?” said Isaac, pulling out the letter from the clinic.

“In a minute. What’s that postcard?”

Isaac showed him. Randall read it without his cheaters. His eyes were good for a man in his late fifties. For just a second he looked destroyed, and his face crumpled. Isaac wondered if he would cry. He’d never seen Randall cry. “I don’t understand why everything got turned so bad and why—”

“What?” said Isaac.

“Never mind,” said Randall. He took the envelope from Isaac and opened it and skimmed the pathology report. He looked down at Mr. Whiskers, who was lying flat on his side on the rug. “He’s been lying like that lately. I think he has a tumor in his belly.”

He showed the report to Isaac. Isaac read the dread word: Lymphoma. They had the cat’s name misspelled, and all through the report the pathologist referred to “Mr. Whiskey.” Mr. Whiskey presented with lethargy, shifting lameness, and reduced appetite. On physical exam Mr. Whiskey had enlarged peripheral lymph nodes (under the jaw, and by the hamstrings). CBC revealed increased WBC count (36,000 ref. range 5,500-19,500), mature neutrophilia and moderate lymphocytosis. Abdominal ultrasound of Mr. Whiskey shows many enlarged mesenteric lymph nodes throughout abdomen…

 

Jasmyn had had $4200 saved from her job at the nursing home for a Ford Escape, but she’d used most of it to pay for Isaac’s lawyer, and there were several weeks of lost wages from going up on the pillar to be a saint. And now Mr. Whiskers needed vet care, and she’d end up paying for it. But she didn’t say anything. She took Isaac back to the shelter the following Monday so he could focus on his homework and meet his teachers for lessons and his accompanist to rehearse. Before she dropped him off, they went together to the vet with Mr. Whiskers. Randall would not come. The vet had him down as “Mr. Whiskey” in the chart. “We have pretty good results with steroids. Mr. Whiskey would probably have another six months if we do that. With chemo, you’ll have maybe a year and a half,” said the vet. Steroids were $20 for three months. Chemo would cost more than the lawyer, and the cat would have to come back for treatments every week. It was a no-brainer, but Isaac felt sad. The sadness had traded places with anger. If Randall were there, he might have figured a way to barter for the chemo, but Jasmyn, who possessed many skills, lacked that touch.

“We’ll try the steroids,” said Jasmyn, and they were given a pill bottle. The tech had referenced the pathology report while writing the script; or maybe the vet clinic had him in the system wrong, and the bottle label, like the report, said “Mr. Whiskey.”

When Jasmyn pulled into the church lot to drop Isaac off, he asked if she wanted to come in and see his bunk.

“I don’t think so, Icey. I’m so mad about this every day of my life. You’re so smart and good; you’re just different, and no one gets it. I wish Mom were here.

“Does she ever talk to you?” said Isaac. He’d wondered more than once if Jasmyn had seen her when she went up on the pillar and denied herself.

“Does she talk to you?” Jasmyn asked quickly.

“You’re the one who stood on a pillar for weeks and hardly ate anything. You didn’t hear any voices?”

They’d both forgotten about Mr. Whiskers, in his Pet Taxi in the backseat, but now he mewed demandingly.

“Did you?”

Jasmyn said, “I heard things. It’s not what you think up there. I can’t tell you about it.

“Why not?”

“I just can’t. It was pretty rough.”

 

He went back home the next weekend to check on his dad. Mr. Whiskers looked thinner, but that didn’t make him any happier to see Isaac or the trombone. He streaked away when Isaac came in the front door.

But then, a few minutes later, he was hanging outside the living room doorway, waiting to ambush whoever stepped through. Eventually he gave up the ambush and simply strutted in, emitted his spine-tingling apha cat yodel, and bit Isaac’s shoe.

Randall didn’t say much, but he seemed hopeful. The veterinary supply company in the next county that sold him all the vaccine for the cats (in a hauling-for-meds barter, of which Isaac only knew the vague outlines) had given him a case of high-calorie gel. It came in tubes and smelled and looked like sticky fish toothpaste. Mr. Whiskers tried to run away from it, but once you forced him to confront a spoonful of the translucent, tobacco-colored gel, he was mesmerized and compelled by some irresistible quality of the gel to lick, lick, until he cleaned the spoon. Then he worked the stuff around in his mouth like a baby eating a ball of caramel.

“They say it’s a miracle paste,” said Randall. “If he gets fat again, I’ll believe them. It makes him hungrier, anyway. I doubled his lard, and he hasn’t puked it up.”

While Isaac was home, he borrowed Jasmyn’s car and drove out to the high school so Mr. Wright could listen to the pieces he was preparing for juries next week. Mr. Wright looked like he always did. He was balder, and he was growing a spotty beard. He was closer to forty than thirty now, and his wife, Ms. Figueroa, the former assistant band teacher, had just had a baby. First he hugged Isaac. Then he showed him a secondhand tuba in good condition that the band had bought recently. Isaac tried out the tuba. Then Mr. Wright showed him a picture of the baby—a red-haired girl named Veronica. He sang part of the Elvis Costello song about shouting and stealing clothes and the Empress of India. He acted like he always did, which made Isaac want to cry.

“All right, let’s hear you play,” he said, and Isaac got out his trombone and played the two pieces he was preparing, and a third, something he’d been messing around with.

“Wait. What is that? Did you write that?” said Mr. Wright.

“Yes. It’s only a little part. I think it’s going to be a symphony.”

“Man,” said Mr. Wright. “Look at you. Someone knocks you down, and you just get up and compose yourself.”

Isaac looked at him. “Did you really just say that?”

They both started laughing, and they were still laughing when one of the senior clarinets came in with a sack of belated Easter candy and offered them Peeps. Isaac grabbed one and ate it. He felt joy. This was joy. It was like things had always been here, in the band room, where he could imagine that something awful wasn’t eating their family. Isaac whooped and took another Peep and devoured it headfirst, little dot eyes and all, and Mr. Wright, smiling still, delighted to have him back, said, “What did she used to say? Roach-turd eyes?”

Isaac froze in mid chew.

Mr. Wright backpedaled. “I know someone who used to call them that. One of my cousins.”

He was lying. He’d meant Isaac’s mother, and there was no reason he would know what Adrianna used to say about Peeps unless they had spent time together privately, laughed together like he and Mr. Wright had just been doing. His mother was thirty-three when she died, and Jasmyn was fifteen. His dad was a fifty-year-old scrapper who even then was poor and not entirely on the planet. Mr. Wright was twenty-six and single. Isaac realized he had known about his mother and Mr. Wright without knowing. He remembered that Mr. Wright had been nice to him long before he was Isaac’s teacher. He had come to her funeral, and Isaac hadn’t wondered why. He was nine then. He didn’t think about why adults did anything: Mr. Wright had been Jasmyn’s band teacher at the time; it seemed to be reason enough.

Back at the church homeless shelter, he started a list of questions in one of his small notebooks that he used to organize his life and make sense of things. He kept the list with him when he was doing homework and wrote things down as they came to him:

Who sent the postcard to Mr. Whiskers?

Why did Den the psycho Maltese percussionist lie about me?

Was there ever a blue house on Pink Elephant?

Did my mother love Mr. Wright?

 

He finished his music history paper on the Ukrainian dumy, a kind of oral folk epic that in centuries past was performed by men who were disabled, or who apprenticed out as teenagers from poor families who couldn’t afford to help them. Isaac could relate. He went home again the next weekend. Five days until juries. His notebook was in his trombone case. Home felt different now that he knew he was probably never coming back to stay.

When he went through the Chevy gate and tooted the horn, the pee smell flooded his nostrils and cats swarmed him as they always did. It was feeding time, , and they flew away at a gallop when Randall came out on the porch with the food bucket. He walked around the side of the house to the retaining wall and poured a continuous string of cat chow along the top of the wall. The cats ran to it and lined up and ate; tails high, tails low. Fifty of them. So many that you could hear them crunching and purring from yards away.

His father saw him but didn’t wave. Isaac followed him inside and set his ’bone in the hallway. Mr. Whiskers sashayed toward him with a hint of unsteadiness. He was, in just a week, starting to look more like a Flat Stanley cat. Randall had gone in the kitchen, and he came back with a plate of tuna, biscuit crumbles, and lard. He sat and petted Mr. Whiskers in the hall while the cat ate. His callused scrapper hands were large and clumsy, stroking the cat’s side. Every one of the cat’s ribs showed, where his hands pressed the fur. Randall was talking softly. At first Isaac couldn’t catch what he was saying, it was so soft. But then he got used to the cadence, and his ears picked it up “You are the greatest of all. The greatest cat. Mr. Whiskers, you are the greatest of all. There will never be another cat as great as you.”

How could the father he knew be talking to a cat this way, crooning in its ear? The big hands ran over the thin ribs; and when Mr. Whiskers turned away, leaving the food only half finished, Randall picked him up as if he were made of fine blown glass. Mr. Whiskers put his face up to Randall’s and nuzzled him again and again. Randall crooned and Mr. Whiskers nuzzled. Neither of them acknowledged Isaac’s presence. It was love.

Love.

Quietly Isaac unlatched the case and slipped out the notebook and added My dad loves Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All, but he’s going to die to his notes.

 

Then his juries were over. They went as well as they could, given that he was depressed and technically homeless. He got all A’s. He didn’t think any of them were out of pity. His affiliation with Big State U was ended forever, and the future was muddy and clod-filled as a newly plowed field after a soaking rain. He could go home to Covington, help Randall pick up scrap. He could work at the bottle factory. He could finish his symphony, but what then? Who would perform it? He had no mentor to connect him with composing connections, no program to support him. Maybe he could start giving music lessons; but he wasn’t sure who would take them. He was not good with kids and had trouble talking to people; he made them uncomfortable. He was not antisocial; he just always felt how much he was out of place. He was not Mr. Wright, who everyone loved.

He decided to stay at the church homeless shelter for a while. There was no time limit for how long he could stay, so long as he helped with the music, and it was depressing to go home and see Mr. Whiskers wasting away. Each time, he was thinner, but Randall was in denial, munching cereal or noodles with Pet milk, humming his communion with the unseen whatever, nuzzling the paper-thin cat and saying that he was looking better, when the cat’s eye had begun to weep and he’d taken to pissing wherever he wanted, all over the house. Mr. Whiskers’s white shirtfront was getting dingy, and he slept twenty-three hours a day and then staggered up and picked at the tuna and lard; he wooled the fishy gel around in his mouth and smacked his gums sadly. His eyes were no less human, though, and you could see that he wanted to be himself and was trying to; his tumor-ridden body just wasn’t cooperating with his desire.

One night after Jasmyn took Isaac back to the shelter and he was lying in his bed, he started thinking about Adrianna and Mr. Wright and his father and the affair that must have happened when he was in second or third grade. He sat up and grabbed his notebook and wrote: All the adults I know have hidden pasts and secret selves, even the ones who are dead. Then he realized that he was an adult, too. My secret self is right here, he wrote. Meaning the notebook, but it was in his symphony, too.

Later that week, in Wednesday night worship at the church, they were singing a song that Isaac did not like because the lyrics were so overblown yet dirgelike. Isaac suddenly couldn’t stand to sing anymore. He kept seeing the cat’s human eyes, looking at him, pleading, in silent cat language, “I don’t want to feel like this. I want to strut around and bite you and be king of the cats, the Greatest of All. Please make this stop happening to me.”

He stopped singing. It took a while for people to notice. They kept on, the pastor playing lead guitar, the worshipers, some of them genuine homeless, all singing, and the other vocalists doing the harmonies, so into it that Isaac’s ceasing went unobserved. And now Isaac could hear another voice, inaudible to everyone but him. It gave him a terrible chill and made him think about the creepy postcard addressed to Mr. Whiskers. And about what Jasmyn had said: that she’d heard things on the pillar that she couldn’t talk about.

 

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
I will harm them, yes I will:
I’ll make them suffer, all.

Each little flow’r that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
I’ll ‘viscerate their colors,
and rip their tiny wings.

 

Who are you? Isaac thought; and in answer he heard, like an intruder in his mind, Ask your friend Mr. Whiskey. Ask your dead mommy. Ask your sister with the big tits. She thinks she figured me out up on that pillar and has me defeated, but she’ll be sorry. Ask Mr. Wright. Ask his sweet little baby Veronica. Ta-ta, Isaac! We’ll meet again, don’t worry.

The next morning he told everyone at the homeless shelter that he had to go home, his father needed him. He called Jasmyn, and she came and picked him up in a 2014 Escape.

“How did you get this?” he asked.

“How else? Dad,” she said. “He made some kind of deal for the down payment, and I can manage the rest.”

“What did he have left to trade?”

“Cats?” said Jasmyn.

They both laughed. But then Isaac had to tell her why he was coming home, and what he’d heard, the shrill singing that had chilled his blood. To her credit, Jasmyn believed him. “It’s Mary Black,” she said.

“I’ve got to warn Mr. Wright to watch his baby.”

But she just changed the subject. This frightened him because she must not understand how serious it was. She turned up the radio and would not say anything until they hit Covington. She took the long way around from the highway, and down Pink Elephant—and there was a blue house. It had been there all along; it was back from the road, amid a snarl of trees.

“Did you ever notice that house?” he said, pointing it out to Jasmyn.

“That’s where Mom died,” she said, and Isaac was silent after that.

They stopped at the back gate of the scrap line—it went all around their property on the county side. Isaac got out and opened it, and Jasmyn drove in, and he pushed it shut and wired it—it was a steel panel of barn roofing fastened on either side with a web of wire. It smelled redolently—the cats had even peed here.

Once the gate was secured and Isaac got back in, she turned to him. “Mary Black can’t get through the scrap line. She can’t hear us now, either. I don’t know why. I don’t think Dad even knows that’s why he built it. Maybe Saint Tamzin was talking to him, the way Mary Black was singing to you. Anyway, don’t tell Mr. Wright the thing about his baby, Icey. I’ve got this. But you can’t tell him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just don’t. Don’t. Trust me. His baby is okay. You asked me what happened on top of the pillar. Stuff happened. But I can’t tell you. Just trust me. I’ve got this.”

“What are you talking about?” he repeated. “What do you have?”

“Icey, I’ve just got this. Don’t ask me anything else. I can’t help Mr. Whiskers because Mary Black was after Dad, and she knew it would devastate him if the cat got sick and died. And maybe cats don’t count because they don’t have souls or something. But you and I have some protection, as long as we come back here every once in a while. There’s something here, inside the blockade that stops her. As long as we touch the ground here every so often, it seems like we take enough of it with us to keep her away.”

“Mr. Whiskey doesn’t have a soul?”

“I don’t know. He’s a cat.” Jasmyn obviously wasn’t interested in the question; she seemed more concerned about making sure Isaac wouldn’t talk to Mr. Wright. So he said he understood, which he did, up to a point.

But he avoided promising, and she didn’t notice.

 

Jasmyn was living in a duplex with two roommates and trying to save money, but going up on the pillar had changed her, and sometimes she showed up at Randall’s house for no reason and stayed for as much as a week. Isaac was staying there for the short term, singing for funerals at a hundred dollars a pop and practicing trombone and working on the symphony as much as he could. Mr. Wright had helped him start looking into other schools and said he shouldn’t worry about money yet; just see how things went. He decided to sit out a year and take some classes at the community college. He was delivering for Pizza Casa, using Jasmyn’s old car.

They’d all underestimated how long and valiantly a cat with lymphoma could live, how much of him could waste away and he would still be Mr. Whiskers. Randall built plywood steps to everything: even to the sink so the cat could nose around and lick the dishes if he felt like it (he didn’t). Six months passed, and he was still kicking. Then eight, then ten. Every morning when Isaac got up and came out of his room, Mr. Whiskers carefully climbed down the plywood steps from Randall’s bed and scratched at the bedroom door, and Isaac let him into the hall and he ran downstairs, white hocks flashing. How could he even run? There was nothing left. Then Isaac took him in the kitchen and got an energy drink for himself and plied Mr. Whiskers with bits of bacon, salami, butter, mayonnaise: a fatty smorgasbord. The cat would dig in for a few bites, then lose interest and wobble away. If you’d had x-ray vision, you would know that Mr. Whiskers’s bony pelvic girdle was shaped like a fearsome horned mask with two wide, rounded eyes set low, and a vast forehead below the horns. In the center of this massive forehead of bone were two perforations: a pair of angels or winged demons facing each other, bowed in prayer or secret powow. From behind, when Mr. Whiskers walked disdainfully away from his food, these same large bones of his hips jutted side to side in a way that made him look like a stately ship. He wore his imminent death with dignity; but his eyes still held that plea.

The morning came when Isaac got up and let Mr. Whiskers out and he ran with a staggering trot downstairs and would not touch his food at all. “Did you give him his pill last night?” Isaac asked, after Randall came in from feeding the cats and checking the scrap blockade.

Randall nodded distractedly. Someone had left a message on his cell about a refrigerator, and he was trying to figure out who it was.

“He wouldn’t eat at all, Dad,” said Isaac.

Randall shook his head and wouldn’t talk about it. Soon he went off to get the fridge. Isaac went out on the porch and warmed up his voice. All the cats disliked hearing him sing, and they acted out by sauntering over to the blockade and spraying. Then he heard the clang of the barn sheeting being moved around, and soon Jasmyn, who had worked night shift, drove up. He told her about the cat, and they went in and found him lying on the piano bench, sleeping in a way that was new in the last few days: a sleep of resignation and escape, in which he seemed to be pulling away from everything, but especially the pain of his tumors, which must have turned a corner in intensity.

“Poor Mr. Whiskers,” said Jasmyn. “We don’t let them go through this at the nursing home; we just pump morphine into them,” she told Isaac.

She stayed around while Isaac went and did the lunch shift at the Pizza Casa. When he came back, Randall was home. He was sitting in the front room with Jasmyn.

“We set a date,” Jasmyn told Isaac. “It’s next Wednesday.”

That was four days away. Isaac didn’t ask how Jasmyn had made this happen. “Are you going with him?” he asked his father.

“I can’t. Your sister will take him. She says he’s suffering and that we can’t watch him starve to death.” Randall picked up the cat and carried him out.

“Which do you think she wants more? For him to suffer? Or to die?” Isaac asked his sister. They both knew he meant Mary Black.

“I hope I’m right,” she said. “Because if I’m not, and it’s death . . .”

“Will he go to heaven?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mom won’t recognize him. The last time she saw him, he was a kitten,” said Isaac.

“Icey, it’s not actually like that. But it is kind of. I didn’t understand everything I saw on the pillar.”

She added, “I didn’t see Mom.”

 

The last day of Mr. Whiskers’ life, he woke and his bones ached, and the tumors in his throat and stomach gave him excruciating pain if he swallowed and made it impossible to eat without everything burning inside him.

But later the pain lessened. He nuzzled Randall, and for the first time in a while, it didn’t hurt when he was picked up and carried. He had always loved being carried. It was still winter, technically, but the day had turned out to be springlike. The boy who sometimes made a racket with the horn went off and came home smelling like pizza, and it woke his appetite for a second, and he ate some ham, and a few bits of salmon. Then the girl came, who smelled like her mother who’d fed him when he was a baby, and he knew what was going to happen. Tamzin, who watched over all the cats and fought the raptors away, and the dogs and coyotes, had whispered the knowledge into him. “Mr. Whiskers, I made you and now I am unmaking you. Seed to cat, to corse to earth.” He was going to the mother. The mother of the girl, but also the Mother of all.

The boy and the girl and Randall, whom he loved with the greatest love of any cat for any man ever, took him outside. He didn’t know why, but he was the greatest of all, and he had been placed in the engine of a car, where Randall had found him. He didn’t remember how he got there. Just that he was hungry and knew he was dying, but the man picked him up and carried him home, and he didn’t die. He was the first of many, many cats, and after the mother died, and the man started building his wall of metal, Tamzin had told him to piss on it. So he’d pissed and pissed, and taught the other cats to piss there, too. The more cats there were, the more they pissed on it. Mr. Whiskers had taught them, and they passed the knowledge from generation to generation, up to twelve generations (cat generations are short).

Outside now, he trotted a bit, listing to one side. He ate a piece of grass and looked into one of the window wells by the side of the house. The day was strange and new. He was weak, but Tamzin helped him explore.

The scrap blockade was a thing of beauty. Only he knew the secret. She could not abide cat piss. Not even the most imperceptible whiff of it,  picked up on a shoe or a car tire, while crossing the barrier. They were safe here because the cats had sprayed the barrier, every last inch, and Mary Black would not cross a line of cat piss to hunt a man, though she had gotten to Mr. Whiskers long before, when he was still in the car engine, planting a little seed of death.

It was a long way, but he did his best to saunter to the nearest point.  He walked past the pine tree that the woman had planted. Past a mole hill. (Why were the other cats not taking care of these moles?) Past a beetle coming to life in the warmth. He felt the instinct to chase it, but he was too weak.

He was tired when he got to the blockade. But determined.

Then he turned and backed up to it and sprayed with everything that was in him, to remind the others they had a job to do.

All the cats on the property, wherever they were, looked up.

“I’m the greatest of all,” he meowed to them.

The Pet Taxi was on the porch, but he disdained to look at it. He was looking at Randall, the man he loved.  Will I know you when I see you again? he asked.

Randall was asking the same thing at the same time.

“What do you think? Of course you will!” called Tamzin (but she was just a spirit, so none of them heard), perceiving Mr. Whiskers’s meow and glancing down for a second from where she’d been swatting away a hawk with its eye on a thin gray cat that was walking, very slowly, back to the house.

 

 

 

BIO

Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review and teaches writing and literature. She also serves as a staff writer for Bloom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, the Millions, Florida Review, Southwest Review, South Dakota Review, Shenandoah, the Collagist, and Potomac Review, among many others. Her work in progress is a novel-in-stories about music, magic, and two warring female divinities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

hippie from the ghetto run…

by Amber Wilkinson

 

 

AMBER IS LOVE?
AMBER FEELS LOVE?

AMBER KNOWS LOVE
WHO THE FUK IS AMBER?
WHO IS LOVE?

WHERE DO WE MEET ON THIS JOURNEY, ARE EITHER ONE OF US REAL?
WHAT IS REAL?
PRISON LIFE…
KILLING…LIVING…KILLING…LIVING
RUNNUNG…HIDING…RUNNUNG…HIDING
LIVING?
WHO ARE YOU IS NOT ME…
WHO IAM IS NOT ME…
WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?
YOUR DUMB AS FUCK IF YOU THINK YOU GONNA GET PEACE HERE!!!!
HE CALLED A HIPPIE.
SAID YOU ARE FREE SPIRITED.
SAID HE IS FREE SPIRITED TOO.
SAID LETS SET OUR SPIRITS FREE THROUGH SEX…
AS LONG AS I WAS CONVENIENT LONG AS I WAS PLEASURABLE FOR HIM…
CAN WE LIVE LIKE THIS???
A WOMAN BE DOWN TRODDEN LIKE THIS…
DID HE REALLY THINK YOU WERE A FUCK…
A FUN…
A PAST TIME…
HIDE BEHIND THE SODA MACHINE DICK SUCKER?????

 

 

 

INSIDE/OUT

 

dwelling or dwellers,slimy,creepy,untouched,unseen,numb,unfeeling,is called unloved…
WHY?
THEY SAY…
its in your DNA
but is it a curse or maybe a cure…
not just for me but for a whole generation…
      THE LOST ORPHANS
the RE jected or RE directed
      the alone and abandoned

 

 

 

LIVE OR DIE

 

If you don’t move you will die…
and the last thing I am doing…
because we must understand that this is just a body carrying a splendid spirit
and this spirit dying with the karma of a cowardliness…
i will desist!!!!
IAM ONLY PASSING WITH MY HIGH VIBE ENERGY CAUSE IAM PASSING WITH
…HIEGHTZZZ…
HIGHER THEN THIS BOX YOU THINK YOU LOCKED ME IN??!!
      I AM THE BEGINNING WITH NO ENDING
UM PLEASE LISTEN REAL CLOSELY…
      BB YOU GOT ME TWISTED…

 

 

 

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW

 

PHYSCHOLOGY, PHILOSOPHY
      spinning in my head…
making me believe…
that i was never dead…
in a spy of an eye denied…

(it was all in that twilight zone)

where we born to be different
why do we have to be weird
where do i belong…
how can i heal and escape…
how can i prosper
where can i find salvation
please with in my soul
love upon my lips
pain ridden in my heart…
where i should start…
you can hit me
beat me
even lit me…
i act like it wasn’t meant for me…
cause i know this life is a temporary life
equally it hits me
deeply
or cuts me deeply
because your understanding of me is “deplete”
i just wish people would get me
instead of hit me………..

 

 

 

MIRROR IMAGE

 

      WHAT WOULD YOU SEE IF YOU LOOKED AT YOURSELF IN THE DARK?
      WARRIOR/FAILURE
LOVER/HATER
      JUDGEMENT/FREE THINKER
ILLEGIT/LEGIT
      FREE SPIRTED/CHAINED BLACK CROW
with a hope for tomorrow a light at the end of the tunnel
if we were one we could conquer…
conquer what?
THE WORLD…….

 

 

SKIDROW BLUEZ

i was wondering will we ever think positive again?
or be who we need to be
feel the cool breeze of freedom from this hell
the dark deep secret of the world hidden from humanity
i guess ill take a reality slip and go back to sleep with an aching heart
of weariness and aching
who am i … who are you…
as i slip a mother fucking pill down my throat…
gulp…

 

 

 

BIO

Amber is a self-taught, self-motivated, inspired and aspiring artist. Her work is primarily multi-media, 5-D abstract canvases. Amber found the Studio 526 more than three years ago through their yoga and meditation classes.  The studio has moved her to open up her inner core and creatively throw it up on the canvas. She also takes advantage of the Studio 526 music room, playing multiple instruments, singing and dancing.  She uses the audio equipment to compile clips for her DJ sessions. She also has creates one-of-a-kind jewelry. Her art has shown at Friends House Foundation, Skid Row History Museum, Bolt Barbershop. She’s an active participant with Zine Magazine festivals. She was honored to recite her own poetry at The Last Bookstore for Ivy Pochoda’s reception for  her latest best-selling book “Wonder Valley”. Her dream for the future is to own her own gallery to display her own work and the works of any other creative individual no matter their creed, race or gender.

 

______________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Invitations

by Kobina Wright

 

 

October 19th was thirteen days away.  After verifying that Marssarah Rabbat, known as March, had no plans, Bali Favre, decided to gather a few friends for March’s birthday.  Bali had initially planned for it to take place at her house, but it was the day after her gray morning, though she no longer felt the energy sucking dread of it, Bali felt a gnaw at the ragged tail of her mind and asked March, if she minded a change of venue.  March was thrilled, until she remembered Bren’s Sunday night meltdown.  Maybe meltdown was too strong a word, but there was definitely a waddling cycloptic attitude.

“If you don’t mind, run it by Bren before you set this in stone.  She was offended we didn’t invite her to Roman Sports Bar and Grill on Sunday.”  March was on her cell phone in the breakroom at her coffee shop, Steaming Mug.

March glanced up at the clock on the wall in front of her and then out through the small window that allowed her to watch her two employees tend to a short line of customers.  It was the time where morning rush was slowing to a trickle as break-time approached.

“Seriously?  She has to be invited to everything you do?”  Bali was standing at her bathroom mirror applying eyeshadow, then eyeliner with one hand.

“So… I think she’s under the impression that all my friends are her friends too.”

“Really…”

“Oh yeah.  Sunday night when I got home she was all pissy.  Yesterday, she acted like she was so busy she didn’t have time to speak to me.  Not that I care…”  The line was growing in the coffee shop.  The young woman, at the cash register, glanced over and observed March on the phone through the tiny window.  The woman raised an eyebrow and smirked.

“Wow.  Okay.  I’ll call her.  Get her permission to have your friends over to your house for your birthday.”

“Thanks lady.  I’d do it myself, but the line here is almost out the door.”

Bali examined herself for a time in the mirror.  She felt the breath of the troll in her head about to criticize her, so instead of waiting for it to speak, took two steps back from the mirror; tugged at her blouse; patted her butt through her jeans; grabbed her phone and walked away.  She dialed March’s landline.  Bren picked up on the second ring.

“Bali!”

“Hello Bren.  Glad I caught you.”  Bali slid her ten painted masterpieces into a pair of four-inch black suede booties.

In an unlit closet, Bali stretched on tiptoes to the high shelf above her clothes rack for her Mark Cross, python tote.   She tossed the empty handbag onto the bed and retrieved her full butter soft, milk chocolate leather handbag from the chaise near her bedroom window.  She picked up a bath towel from the floor and spread it onto the bed.

“Well, I called because I’d like to host a little shin-dig over there for March’s birthday.  It’s nothing fancy and it’s not a surprise.  I just got the ‘ok’ from March a minute ago, and wanted to call to make sure you’re cool with it.”

There was pause.

“You’re asking my permission?”

“Yes.”

“It’s March’s house…”

Bali thought, yes, girl, I know…  I don’t think you should have any say in the matter either… but to Bren she said, “You live there too, Bren.  I just wanted us all to be on the same page.”

Bali dumped the contents of the milk chocolate leather bag onto the towel and sorted through the contents.  Only the essentials would be invited into the python tote, which was a third of the size.

“Am I invited?”

“Of course you’re invited.  Bring your boyfriend, Alvin.  It should be fun!”  Bali could sense Bren’s eyes rocketing happiness, a cascade of glittery light.

“Okay!  Yeah, we should totally have it here.  We should make it a big party.  She’s got a ton of friends…”

“No.”  Bali stopped the content transfer between the two purses.  “Nothing big.  This will be a small intimate gathering.  Nothing more.”

Another pause.

Bali’s firmness startled Bren.  “Sure.  That makes sense.  A small party will make it special.  Who needs all that work planning a big party anyway, right?”

Bali didn’t dislike Bren, but hovered in a magnetic field in which Bren both annoyed and concerned her.  Bali noticed the widening of Bren’s eyes when Bali was near.  She saw the plastered benevolent smile, lips twitching ready to laugh at Bali’s smallest witticism.  Bren was too old for that – but there it was, posted on every corner of interaction.

She softened her tone. “What are you doing today?  I think I might try to find March’s birthday gift.  You wanna come with?”

“Aw!  I wish I would’ve known about your plans yesterday.  I plan to meet Alvin for lunch.”

“He’s not working either?”

“No, his shift ended early this morning.  He’s done for the rest of the day.  I figure I’ll let him sleep a few hours before I bug ‘im, then we’ll have a late lunch.”

There was a weasel in the story Alvin was giving her. It hid a stolen truth in its quiet earthy hole.  It was Alvin’s random work schedule that sounded a silent alarm.  She had no hard evidence, or even nearly opaque circumstantial evidence.  It would’ve been pointless to bring up unfounded suspicions.  She couldn’t articulate her concerns so then wished Bren a beautiful day.

This morning Elias would open the gallery while she drove out to Riverside Art Museum to take a look around in the museum’s shop.  If she had time, she’d have preferred to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art instead.  Where else could you get a Sister of Arp Coat of Arms scarf and a David Hockney, Expanding: February 1990 print?   But time was short and buying from LACMA’s online store didn’t really fit the aesthetic of the occasion. Buying local was charming, even responsible, she decided.  It was her duty to support the efforts of local artists.  She was a gallery owner, after all, even if it were lowbrow, and sold no art by any locals.

She had no doubt that Elias would open the gallery late, though Bali asked that he do his damnedest to be on time.  It was an issue, one that she didn’t want to knot bricks to.  She tried her best to be concise and professional in her brief speech, pointing out the value of his punctuality.  Without any emotion, he gave her his word.  Done.  The truth was, even if he were a few minutes late, she had no real room to balk.  Elias was remarkably reliable.  His craftsmanship was professional.  He even seemed drama-proof.

When she told him of the incident of the noise outside Saturday; her investigation and the shadow that moved towards her; the police coming by, finding nothing; he raised his eyebrows and mumbled a couple of phrases of disbelief, but didn’t appear overly concerned.  Despite his zombiesque reaction to the episode, he would, nonetheless, feel the ripple from the strange currents.  Yesterday’s three phone hang-ups were surely proof of it.  She felt a tickle of guilt over it.  Calling and hanging up… such a childish thing to do.

Bali picked up her cell phone again. She was prepared to leave a message, but it was picked up on the first ring.

“Hola!”

“Hola! Perdon! Tengo el número equivocado.”

“Wait.  What?”

“Jane?”

“Yes…?”

“Don’t answer the phone in Spanish if you’re not prepared to speak it.”

“Bali!  O-M-G!  I would have never guessed in a million years you’d be calling!  Hold on a sec.”  Jane placed Bali on hold, then picked up again.  “I’m back.”

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“Oh.  There’s no school today.  It’s some kind of teachers’ training or meeting day.  Or whatever.”

Bali remembered her days in school when the announcement came that there was no school on a certain day, for no apparent reason.  She remembered how lucky she felt, like finding a $20 bill on the street.  She reminisced about the feeling of unexpected breaks with Jane, giggling through adolescent spirited conspiracies about what the teachers were really doing on such days.

Before Bali, ran too far down the rabbit hole, she remembered why she was compelled to call.  It was all the ripples.  It was the acrid smell in the air left behind by childish logic.  Remembering her last interaction with Jane, Bali reflected on a silly battle of wills.  An ironic game of chicken played by a teenage girl and a very grown man.  The puzzle pieces from recent events needed further examination to determine if her young friend fit on any side.

“You remember when I introduced you to that guy, Max, at the gallery?”

“The one with the beard?”

“Yes, the one with the beard.  He doesn’t have a beard anymore though.”

“Okay.”

“In the gallery, were you trying to out-stay him?”

“Out-stay?”

“Were you trying to stall and make him leave before you did?”

A smile flickered in Jane’s voice.  “Maybe.”

Bali walked into the kitchen.  She scanned the contents of the refrigerator, pulled a bag of coffee out, then began prepping the coffee maker.

“Okay.  Maybe.  What about yesterday.  Did you call the gallery yesterday?”

“No…”

“Just to be clear, you didn’t call the gallery, maybe by accident… and then hang up?”

“No!  I wouldn’t just hang up like that.  Even if it were an accident, I’d at least say I messed up.  ‘Sorry. My bad.’  Something.”

“Okay.  Just checking.”

“Somebody did that?”

“Indeed, they did, but it was probably nothing.  Stuff like that happens all the time.”

“But not all the time to you.”

Bali smiled.  “No.”  Bali riffled through her cabinets and then went back into the refrigerator and pulled out a small plastic carton of lemon, poppy seed muffins.  She placed them on the counter then popped the lid.

“Since there’s no school, what are you plans today?”

“I don’t have any plans… I figured I’d live atomically today.”

“Atomically?”

“Right.  So atomic living is like, a theory made up by this girl, Kiran Ghandi.  It goes like this: when you have a choice between doing something, like, spontaneous or like, something ordinary, you should always choose the spontaneous one, if the spontaneous thing makes you happy.”

“Ah.  I see.”

“I saw Kiran Ghandi explaining it in a video on the internet.  That’s how I want to live for now on.”

“Interesting.”

“You should do it too!”

“I’m afraid that theory doesn’t quite work as well when you have to maintain a business and have bills to pay.  I suppose, though, it could be applied in small bursts in certain situations.  I’ll consider it.”

“At least I got you thinking about it.”

“In that vein… I’m going to drive out to the Riverside Art Museum Gift Shop today.  You wanna come with?”

“Heck yeah!  See!  Atomic living…”

“Now we just have to get your grandpa’s permission.”

“I’ll call him back right now!”

 

Jane left the house wearing printed jeans and a white pullover sweater.   Her strawberry blond hair was swept up in a top knot, adorned with an artificial daisy clipped to its base.  Jane’s perfume permeated the car with the scent of raspberries, licorice and vanilla.  She held a white handkerchief edged with lace.  Her eyes were watery and most likely red rimmed under her blue eyeliner.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.  Just tired.  And I kind of feel like a headache is about to come.”

“I’m sorry you’re not feeling so hot… but you look so cute.  And you smell nice!”

Jane beamed.  Jane had worked methodically on acting cool, not wanting her to ever know that she very badly wanted to impress Bali, who was always so impressive to her.  Jane practiced setting her eyes a certain way.  She studied her look, determined to master hanging her lids at the center of her iris to nail the impression of world worn seriousness. Bali, however, was aware of the effect she had on the 15-year-old, and the attention she gave the girl gave Jane a sense of accomplishment.

When Bali and Jane had been on the 215 north for nearly fifteen minutes, Bali’s cell phone rang.  She had been expecting it and had considered letting the call roll into voicemail, but there was an opportunity mushrooming.  She would never admit – not even to herself – the petty enjoyment this call was about to bring her.   It was Bren.

“Hello Bren.”

“I have good news!  I just became free!  I can come with you to shop for March if you like.”

“Sorry.  I’m already on my way.  I’m on the 215 and I have Jane with me.”

“Jane?  Who’s Jane.

“You don’t know her.  She’s a brilliant fashionista who practices Atomic Living.”  Bali glanced over at Jane who smiled back at her.

“Oh.  Okay.”  Bren was afraid she might sound stupid if she admitted she didn’t know what Atomic Living was.  She’d look it up later on the internet.  “Guess I missed my chance.  Maybe I can meet the two of you there.”

“Don’t worry about it Bren.  We’ll only be there a second.  You take care and enjoy the rest of your day.”

Bren sighed heavily.  “You too.”

The phone was not on speaker mode, but Jane heard the exchange clearly as the brown hills in the distance approached and passed, approached and passed.  She felt a tidal wave of disappointment building up, racing towards her in the passenger seat at the thought of someone else butting in on her first outing with Bali.  She exhaled when Bali shut her friend down, and felt the wave recede.  No one as sophisticated as Bali ever wanted to hang out with Jane like this.  Her truth was, she hadn’t even known of anyone else as put together as Bali.  This was Jane’s day off and she got to spend it (at least part of it) with the most bad-ass woman she knew.

“Who was that?”  Jane dabbed at her nose and studied Bali’s profile.

“That was…Bren.”

“A friend of yours.”

“Not exactly.  She’s more like a friend of a friend.  She thinks she’s my friend.  I let her.”

“Why would you let her think she’s something she’s not?”

“There’s no harm in it.  She’s not in a good spot right now.  She doesn’t have a steady job, her boyfriend doesn’t seem to want her around much and as far as I know she has few friends of her own.  She kind of attaches herself to my friend March and her friends.”

“Like a parasite.”  Jane was proud of her quick assessment.  She studied her nails to hide her pride.

Bali chuckled.  “I don’t want to admit it, but that’s actually a spot-on comparison.”

“She sounds like a loser.”

“You shouldn’t call her that.  She’s not a loser.  She’s just a woman who’s just lost her way, I think.  Something has chipped away at her self-esteem.  She has a good heart.  She’s just very needy.”

“So you think she’ll eventually become your real friend…”

On the 215 north, they were passing the grounded airplanes behind the chain link fence of the old Air Force Base.  “I don’t know about that… Bren is a nice person, but she wants something from me that I can’t give.”

“And what’s that?”

Bali’s brown eyes twinkled as she glanced at Jane.  “I don’t know.  I have no words for it.”

The twinkle extinguished into a matted blank stare when Bali noticed, on the side of the road, a great white egret standing on the shoulder, as still as if it were standing dead.  Jane had spotted it too and they drove a half mile in silent reverence until there was another.

“Bali!  Another one!”

The second great white egret stood much like the first but Bali saw it quickly turn its head in their direction.  It didn’t look into the car, but beyond it and in less than a second, the car shot beyond its gaze.  Its lean white body was almost blinding in the desert sunlight.

Bali and Jane saw six more just as the first two, standing still, facing traffic on the dusty shoulder of the 215.  Some looked down at some crawling thing unseen by human eyes.  One looked up at the sky calculating.  Others were just seen, the details of their behavior lost from the shock of their presents and numbers.

Jane glanced at Bali with a mouth shaped like the letter “O.”  Her eyes were wide with the shimmer of a smile at the edges.  If the skies had opened up and suddenly snowed, the effect would have been the same on Jane.

For Bali, the sight of one great white egret would have been an anonymous gift of stolen breath.  The sight of eight was worthy of tears of gratitude, no doubt, but the birds, for Bali, were also a fence that surrounded a dark fog in which she could not see through.  It delighted her just as it had Jane, but it also brought a chill that pulled on the hairs of her arms and made her heart want to look away.  The army of great white egresses were ushering or guarding.  An unknown something was coming. Or maybe it was going.

 

 

 

BIO

Kobina Wright is a second generation California native with a degree in Communications from California State University, Fullerton. Wright is an artist, writer and entrepreneur and is a board member of The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation, an organization that helps to service the community through health education and navigation to support individuals and families to access quality health care.

Some of the publications Wright has written for include LACMA Magazine, The Daily Titan, and CYH Magazine. In 2001 she wrote her second volume of poetry titled, “Growth Spurt,” and in 2004, wrote her third volume titled, “Say It! Say Gen-o-cide!!” − dedicated to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

Wright’s work has been published in: The Bicycle Review; Boxcar Poetry Review; Burning Word Literary Journal; Crack the Spine; The Fiction Week Literary Review; The Missing Slate; Orion headless; The Passionate Transitory; Subliminal Interiors, Wilderness House Literary Review,  Blackberry: A Magazine, Blue Lake Review, Extract(s) and SNReview.

 

 

 

 

0

Feeding Frenzy

By Mary Bone

 

 

Jaws drip saliva

Thirsting for the blood,

The bones, to chew.

Stomachs grumble,

The hunt is on.

Crouching low,

A jungle cat

Leaps forward.

The prey unaware,

Continues to graze

Until teeth snare and falls.

The jungle floor is covered

With carcasses from different hunts

Making way for ants to feed

On leftovers.

Nothing is wasted in the

Feeding frenzy,

And appetites are satisfied.

 

 

 

Alphabet Soup

 

I spelled words with letters

In my bowl.

I ate the verbs, adverbs and adjectives.

Nouns floated around and I crossed the i’s and

The t’s,

Stirring up trouble

With my spoon.

I realized my spoon was finally empty.

The soup was good.

It was the best words

I’ve ever eaten.

 

 

 

 

 

BIO

Mary Bone has been writing since the age of twelve. Some of Mary’s poems can be found in the Fall issue of The Homestead Review Online, Literary Yard, Oklahoma today, Poetry Pacific, Magazine Record Blogspot, The New Ink Review, Our Poetry Archive and The Writing Disorder.

 

 

 

 

 

An Uncommon Hero

by Jeffrey James Higgins

 

Mohammed Habib is a hero.

Mohammed retired last year after valiantly serving his country for 35 years. For over three decades, he displayed physical courage when threatened, moral courage when offered bribes, and uncommon courage putting his values into practice. Mohammad’s actions saved the lives of many children and made the world a better place. Mohammad was not a famous politician. He was not a decorated combat veteran. He was not a police officer capturing criminals or a firefighter running into burning buildings.

Mohammed was a security guard at the BBC International School in Cairo.

The girl was an eight-year-old student at the school where Mohammed kept order, earning a meager security guard’s wages. The girl’s father was a wealthy and politically powerful man with a sociopathic personality. The father divorced the girl’s mother and tried many times to abduct the girl. He stalked and hunted the girl and her family around the city, forcing them to flee time after time. She evaded him, but school was the one place this evil man knew he could find her.

One day, the girl’s father arrived at the school ready to take what he knew was rightly his to take. The girl was his property to possess, humiliate, and torture. He walked up the school entrance and was stopped by Mohammed. The girl’s father demanded that Mohammed bring the girl to him. The girl’s father was famous and very influential. He got whatever he wanted. He stared into Mohammed’s eyes, his posture and bearing signaling his superior intelligence, wealth, and social standing. In a place where justice is earned by the contents of a wallet and political influence is the difference between life and death, the girl’s father held all the cards. He hovered over Mohammed commanding Mohammed to bring the girl out of the school.

“She does not attend this school,” Mohammed responded flatly. The lie was obvious and hung in the air between them.

Unable to comprehend Mohammed’s defiance, the girl’s father repeated his command. “Bring me my daughter.”

“She is not here,” Mohammed replied. His gaze slowly rose up until he stared directly into the man eyes. “Perhaps I should call the police now,” Mohammed said. It was an empty bluff. The police were corrupt and both Mohammed and the man knew the police would do the man’s bidding. The problem was that the father wasn’t dealing with the police. He was facing Mohammed, who stood before him, filled with the unrelenting moral courage of a man willing to die to protect the children under his care.

When the girl’s mother first brought her to school, she told the administrators about the horrible violence the girl’s father had wrought upon them. The administrators passed the responsibility to Mohammed, the lowest paid employee at the school. Mohammed accepted this responsibility knowing the nature of the hard thing he agreed to do. He met the girl and told her, “As long as I am alive and you are inside the walls of this school, no one will ever hurt you.”

The girl found peace, safety, and security inside that school, thanks only to Mohammed. The girl’s father returned many times to steal his daughter from the safety of her sanctuary, only to encounter Mohammed staring back at him in front of the school’s entrance. Every time. Mohammed was impervious to threats and unreceptive to bribes. For the first time in her life, the girl knew she would not have to look over her shoulder. The unthinkable, sadistic fantasies of her sociopathic father would not be realized under the protection of Mohammed. She was safe.

Mohammed risked his life, but he didn’t do it for glory, riches, or gratitude. In all the years Mohammed protected the girl, he never once told her about it. He never mentioned it as he stood beside her on the steps of the school every afternoon, waiting for her mother to pick her up. The girl only learned what Mohammed had done from others who witnessed the confrontations with her father. Mohammed never told the girl’s mother about it, in the hopes of receiving a reward. He never asked for thanks or respect. He never bragged to his coworkers about his courage.

He protected the girl, because it was his job, his responsibility. He did it because he gave his word to protect all of the children at the school. Mostly, Mohammed did it because it was the right thing to do.

Mohammed is an example of a man living a virtuous life. He took pride in working to sustain himself, instead of living off the charity of others. When parents tried to give him gifts of thanks, he refused to accept them. He did his job because it was his to do. Mohammed expressed the meaning of honor with every action he took in that school. He took pride in being responsible for the safety of the children and pride in fulfilling his promise. Words like honor and courage represent great virtues, but they are only promises of what can be. Mohammed honored them every day with his actions.

Mohammed protected all of the children in that school for decades. Some required more care than others, but every child lived under the shield of Mohammed’s unyielding integrity. Thanks to him, thousands of children were educated and grew up without a worry for their safety. For many children, like the girl, this was the only time they felt safe. It’s impossible to know many children went on to live productive and happy lives because of Mohammed. The ripple effect from Mohammed’s courage and virtue can never be calculated.

Last year, Mohammed quietly informed his employers that he would retire. There were no grand celebrations or any celebratory parades. Those honors are reserved for politicians, actors, and others who show their worth on the public stage. Those accolades are not for men who express their virtue, dedication, responsibility, and courage during the quiet anonymity of their everyday lives. Mohammed was comfortable with that. His reward was the pride of knowing he did his job well. Knowing he lived a just life.

Word of Mohammed’s retirement quickly spread from student to student, in person. One student started a fund raising drive on the school’s Facebook page and over 5,000 former students responded sharing stories of what Mohammed meant to them. Notes of thanks and expressions of love poured into the site. An informal collection was set up to buy Mohammed a retirement gift. The people formerly under his care, many of who were living in poverty, sent in donations. They quickly raised over 10,000 Egyptian pounds.

Seeing the outpouring of affection, the school created a fund to recognize employees who made a difference in students lives, so they could have financial help when they were ill or when tragedy struck. The students bought a trophy for Mohammed and presented it to him. He wept when he received it, overcome with emotion. The children knew what Mohammed had done for them and now, Mohammed knew it too.

On the girl’s last day of school, she stood on the front steps of the building and saw Mohammed standing there. She walked up to him and looked into his eyes. “I love you Mr. Mohammed,” she told him. They hugged for a long time, then the girl, like thousands of students before and after her, walked away from school and began the rest of her life. Mohammed watched her go then took his place at the front door.

 

 

 

BIO

Jeffrey James Higgins is a former reporter and a retired supervisory special agent, who now writes creative nonfiction, essays, and novels. He recently completed The Narco-Terrorist, a nonfiction book about the first narco-terrorism investigation. Jeffrey is represented by Inkwell Management and is currently writing his first thriller. Jeffrey has appeared on CNN Newsroom, Discovery ID, CNN Declassified, and other television programs, radio shows, and podcasts. He has been published in the Adelaide Literary Journal, American Conservative, Trail Runner Magazine, The Washington Times, American Thinker, Police Magazine, and other publications. His recent articles and media appearances can be found at JeffreyJamesHiggins.com.

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Plagiarist

by John Mandelberg

 

 

When I was serving time in a California state prison for grand theft, I decided to take an English class from a college correspondence program. Then a woman teacher from a community college came to give a writing class and I decided to sign up. Everybody in the class wrote about themselves and their hard lives, except me. I pretended to, but actually I borrowed the stories of other men’s childhoods and wrote as if they were my own. My real childhood was too empty to talk about. When the teacher found out that my stories weren’t really about me, she was surprised and confused. But then she gave me special attention, because I was more like a real writer.

She was in her late fifties, and seemed very calm and unafraid to be coming into prison. But also she seemed sad and worn-out. I started to talk to her more than I thought I would. She was not attractive or pretty but she had a look of peaceful listening that made me want to talk more. Her eyes were very full and honest. Sometimes when the only guard who did not forbid us to use the copy machine was there, I walked with her to the office down the hall and talked to her while we copied things.

She always answered my questions in a serious and respectful way without talking about herself. Once we were talking about poetry, and she said she had published a book of her own poetry. But she didn’t seem proud of it and didn’t want to talk about it.

After I was released, I went back to Los Angeles where I had lived before. But I had trouble finding a job. I got the idea that I could make money by writing a book of stories. I wrote to that English teacher asking her for advice. For a long time, I did not receive an answer. I thought she probably didn’t want to be in touch with any ex-prisoner. But months later, I got a note from her in the mail. She was now teaching at a different community college, further north in the San Joaquin Valley. She said she couldn’t give me much advice about writing a book, but she wouldn’t mind if I sent her my stories to read.

This letter was the only touch of humanity I had felt for many months. I decided to go visit her, even though I expected that I would frighten her and that I would end up depressed and hating myself.

It took me eight hours to drive up from L.A. to that town, much longer than I expected. It was already getting dark when I arrived. I didn’t have much money so I slept in my car. The next morning I tried to clean myself up and called the community college to find out when she was there. I rested in the city park. Then I went to see her in the afternoon.

I waited on the asphalt outside a bungalow classroom where she was teaching, and met her when she came out. She was surprised to see me, but still seemed calm and patient. She smiled at me. We talked out in the haze, then she invited me to a little office she shared with some other teachers. I asked her if I could see her book of poetry. She hesitated but then pulled it out of a bottom desk drawer. Though the tiny office was crammed with books on all sides, she did not keep her own book in sight.

I don’t remember the exact title of the book, but it was something about smoke, landscape, and a color – like “Smoky Landscape with Yellow” or maybe “Landscape with Amber Smoke.” I looked through it and thought it was interesting at first. But the poems were long and complicated. I had trouble concentrating on any one of them. I noticed that the book had been published twenty years ago. I asked her if she had written another, or planned to.

“No,” she said.

I asked why not.

She sat and thought about it. It was after three o’clock. The other teachers had left, but students were laughing in the hall. She stood up, shut the office door, and sat back down.

 

She said, “About twenty years ago, I was an instructor of English at Cal State University at —. I had just divorced my husband, but I was happy. I had hopes of becoming a tenured professor, I had many good friends, and I had just published this book – my first book of poetry.

“The poems were mostly about a trip to Italy I had taken with my husband while our marriage was strained. I had enjoyed the trip and the beautiful Italian landscapes with such intensity, perhaps because I also sensed that the end of our relationship was coming. I did not write any of the completed poems in Italy, but I was constantly scribbling fragments and phrases in notebooks. Then when I came home, I looked at the California hills and cypresses and olive trees, which kept Italy close to my mind, and I worked very hard at assembling the poems from all the scattered pieces I had collected.

“I had planned to dedicate the book to my husband, because I was grateful to him even if I no longer loved him. After all, he had supported me through college when I was already in my thirties, and he’d taken me to Italy. But after we separated, I changed the dedication to acknowledge a good friend, an old professor of Italian who had helped me a great deal with Italian words and historical references.

“I felt so happy that fall, full of hopes for a good career, proud of my little book, confident that I was now beyond the difficulty of my divorce . . . Then one day a strange woman came to see me in my office. It was late afternoon, just about the time it is right now.”

She looked at the clock for a while, then went on.

“This woman, with thick dark-rimmed glasses and snowy white hair, knocked loudly on my door and came in. She seemed agitated. I asked her, ‘Can I help you?’ I did not recognize her at all. She held out a copy of my book, and I was flattered to think that she might want me to autograph it – she would be my first fan! ‘Is this your book?’ she asked. ‘Yes!’ I said happily.

“Then she said in a cold, angry voice, ‘Do you admit that you have committed plagiarism, that you have stolen every one of these poems?’

“I burst into laughter. I saw instantly that this was a joke or prank, and my mind raced to guess who might be behind it. But the woman only became angrier. ‘Why do you laugh?’ she shouted. ‘I am giving you one last chance to admit you are a plagiarist! Do you admit it?’

“‘No, of course not!’ I said, still laughing. The woman threw a thick envelope down on my desk. ‘I gave you a chance to admit it, and you did not,’ she said. ‘Now you’ll be very, very sorry.’ Then she ran off down the hall.

“I felt puzzled, in a pleasant, amused way. I curiously opened the envelope. Inside was a folded wad of photocopied pages of verse, much of which seemed to be in Italian. When I unfolded the pages like a book, I saw Italian and English versions of poems very similar to my own, on opposite pages. It appeared that someone had made slightly altered versions of my poems and then translated each one into Italian. But each Italian poem was credited to someone named Maria della R—, and each English version was labeled, ‘translated by Ellen T—.’

“I laughed and shook my head in amazement. Someone had undertaken a vast amount of work just to play this joke on me – who could it possibly be? The only person I knew well whose knowledge of Italian could’ve allowed him to do this was the old Italian professor. But he had left after his retirement for an extended trip to Italy. Surely he would not have had time to translate all my poems while preparing for his long-awaited trip, and anyway a prank like this would’ve been completely out of character for him.

“I just sat in my office and marveled at this strange homage to me and my poems. I kept laughing in disbelief. And as long as I sat there, I felt completely sure that it was nothing more than a joke.

“But when I finally stood up to leave, and locked the office and walked down the deserted corridor, I began to feel a little disoriented and frightened. I knew I had written all those poems myself. I distinctly remembered the trip to Italy, the golden landscapes, the cypresses – I remembered scribbling the phrases in the notebooks, on hot nights next to the open hotel windows while my husband called for me to come to bed – and I remembered the months of work I spent back in California, in my new apartment after I left him, staring at the pale yellow-brown hills from my window, going over these phrases again and again, trying to stitch them together – working with iron concentration so as not to think about my broken marriage. How could anyone dare to say, even as a joke, that I had not written every word of these poems myself?

“But – what if I had imagined the trip to Italy, the notebooks, everything? That seemed impossible, but –”

She stopped here, and looked at me steadily.

“Since I am telling you the whole story,” she said, “I should also tell you that I . . . I had mental problems when I was younger. I had delusions, and terrible fears about things that were not true. I was hospitalized when I was twenty. It took me . . . it took me years, to, to feel that I belonged in the healthy world again. So you see, I could not be completely sure that what I remembered was real. In fact, as I drove to my apartment, I thought the appearance of the white-haired woman might have been a delusion, and I expected that when I came home and opened the thick envelope that now sat beside me on the car seat, I would find that it contained course outlines, or tax information.

“But when I opened the envelope again, it still had my poems, slightly reworked in English, then translated into apparently fluent Italian. It was not that a few lines were similar here and there, or that merely the overall narrative or shape of any of these poems was the same as mine. No – every line of every poem corresponded to mine, both in English and, as far as I could tell, in Italian.

“That night I managed to calm myself. Already the strange white-haired woman seemed like a creation of my own imagination, and if that was troubling – but perhaps you won’t understand this – it also meant she couldn’t really hurt me. When I noticed that my eyes kept turning back toward the brown envelope on the kitchen counter, I put it into a cabinet, out of sight. I felt pretty relaxed then, and I slept well.

“But the next morning, as I remembered the woman’s accusation, I suddenly felt a weird sense of dread. I arrived at the campus, and found a note in my mailbox telling me to see the department chairperson immediately. When I went to his office, the secretaries stared at me and whispered, and the chairperson looked very grim. He pulled out a brown envelope just like the one I had been given. My heart began to pound and I saw spots in front of my eyes, and I had trouble hearing what he was saying. It was a very serious matter: I had been accused of plagiarism.

“After that, my memory is blurry,” she said. She looked out the small dirty window, to a sidewalk that crossed the dead lawn toward the parking lot. “I remember vaguely that over the next few weeks, I was interviewed by the dean, by representatives of the faculty senate I think . . . by the vice-president for faculty or someone, and by lawyers for the university,” she said. “They confronted me with a letter, written apparently by the same white-haired woman who had come to accuse me on that strange afternoon. In this letter, the woman, Ellen T—, claimed that she had met me at a specific writing seminar four years ago, and that she had shared with me her translations of an Italian poet, Maria della R—, who died in the 1950s.

“I had actually attended that writing seminar, and admitted it, but I had no recollection at all of meeting Ellen T— there, nor of ever hearing the name of Maria della R—. Someone did some research, and ascertained that Maria della R— was a real Italian poet, known in her own country but untranslated. The name of Ellen T—, who claimed to be a doctoral candidate temporarily away from her studies, wasn’t known to any specialists in English or Italian literature, but that was not unexpected, since she had not yet published any of her translations. There was no Internet yet, it was simply impossible to quickly check out any of her claims in detail. And of course she supplied transcripts and letters and certificates from her college in New England to prove that she was who she said she was.

“Soon I also heard from the small press that had published my book. They had received material from Ellen T— also. They were withdrawing my book from their catalog and threatened to sue me as soon as she sued them.

“The university gave me a hearing, and let me try to defend myself. All I could say was that I had never heard of Maria della R— or Ellen T— before, that I had written all the poems myself, that I had no idea whatsoever who Ellen T— was or what motive she would have for inventing this story, or for forging dozens of letters and documents in order to slander me.

“After terrible indecision, I brought in some of my original notebooks to show them. This was so very embarrassing for me, because those notebooks also contained my, my . . . most private thoughts about my husband and my marriage. But the members of the committee just glanced through the notebooks, looking skeptical. They seemed to think it would’ve been easy for me to have written all these notebooks, just to cover myself, long after stealing the ‘real’ poems – perhaps even in the last few days.

“I was completely humiliated. They suspended me from teaching, without pay, and then cancelled my contract.”

She stopped speaking and sat quietly. She played with a pen on her desk.

Then she resumed in a calm patient voice, “I felt I was in an endless nightmare. It was bad enough to lose my job and my teaching career, but to feel that I had lost my sanity too, that I could no longer be sure what was real and what was not, that my roots in reality, which had once been so difficult to grow, had all been torn away . . . well, I . . . I felt very strange . . . Do you know what I mean?” She looked at me in her honest way.

I said I knew what she meant.

She went on, “None of my new university friends would see me, none of them believed me. I think they had all been surprised by how learned and classical my poetry was, since I’d seemed so dumb and innocent to them at first, and now they felt justified in their earlier opinions of me. I was frightened that I was having another mental breakdown – I can’t tell you how frightened I was. I went to a therapist, and then to a psychiatrist for tranquilizers. I wrote a long desperate letter to the old Italian professor, enclosing samples of the Italian poetry, begging him for help – but he did not answer me. I even went to my ex-husband, sobbing and pitiful, and he would have nothing to do with me. He shut the door in my face.” She smiled faintly and distantly.

“When I told the therapist that someone must want to hurt me very badly by spreading these lies about me, she asked me who that could be: my ex-husband? a colleague? a former student? But I could think of no one. Either I had committed plagiarism without remembering it, or I was having paranoid delusions.

“Maybe I had absorbed all those poems into my mind, blocked out the memory of the woman who had given them to me, then regurgitated them, word by word, on the trip to Italy. But then I had to wonder: did I ever really go to Italy? Was I ever married? Had my whole life been a delusion, and was I still twenty years old and in the psychiatric hospital?

“All I could do was to spend my days in a stupor of psychotropic drugs and daytime television. After a long delay, the psychiatrist was able to get me on disability, but I spent all my savings. I could no longer read, write or think. I was afraid to go to the store, I was hardly eating. Then one day I received a letter from my old friend, the Italian professor. He was back in Sicily, after traveling for almost a year, and had just now found my letter.

“He wrote urgently to tell me that the poetry ascribed to Maria della R— was a fraud. She had been from northern Italy, and the poetry was written in southern dialect and with modern, even americanized slang that she never would’ve used. In fact he suspected these Italian poems were not even written by a native speaker of Italian. He urged me to see a lawyer.

“By this time I was so depressed and numb that I didn’t want to see a lawyer. But my therapist was so surprised – I suppose she had never believed me before – that she finally dragged me to a lawyer’s office herself. The lawyer sent a private investigator to see me, and he said immediately that Ellen T—’s white hair and thick glasses were probably a disguise. When the lawyer received all the papers from my hearing, he noticed discrepancies and repetitions in the phone numbers and addresses Ellen T— had supplied for her references. The stationery from her college in New England was not authentic. And by now nobody was able to contact Ellen T— by phone or certified mail.

“I had saved all my old class rosters and teaching records, and the investigator was able to get additional information from the university. He found out that a certain female student of mine from several years ago had since been arrested several times for stalking an ex-boyfriend. I only slightly remembered this young woman, and had forgotten that she was an Italian major. But I recalled that she had been disproportionately angry at me when I gave her a B instead of an A. She was probably the student whose very hostile anonymous evaluation of me turned up in my personnel file, and if so, then her handwriting looked just like Ellen T—’s handwriting.

“The investigator tried to locate this student,” she continued, “but he –”

Suddenly she was interrupted by the loud ring of an old-style beige telephone, which was on one of the other desks. The coarse buzzing sound startled us. “That phone doesn’t usually ring,” my teacher said. She sounded unusually nervous. She let it ring several times as we looked at it. Then she stood up, picked up the handset and said in a tense voice, “Hello? Who is this? No, I’m sorry. What was the name again? She’s not here. I don’t know. I really don’t know who she is. You’re welcome.” Then she sat back down in her chair. I heard her sigh softly.

“The investigator was unable to find her,” my teacher went on. “She seemed to have vanished along with Ellen T—, and it was reasonable to believe that they were the same person. The investigator’s report, a letter from the Italian professor, and a statement he obtained from an Italian journalist who had known Maria della R— and who said she had never written any poems like mine – all these convinced the university’s lawyers, finally, that the charges of plagiarism were false.

“I quickly agreed to a settlement, since I was desperate for money, and after paying the lawyer and the investigator, I received about $17,000, most of which I paid to the therapist and doctors. My book was never put back in the publisher’s catalog, though. But my mind cleared, and I was able to get off disability, I worked part-time as a cashier. After three years, I was able to resume teaching English, but I have stayed at the community college level since then, mostly here in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I’ve never heard again from the woman who called herself Ellen T—. I think she may be in a psychiatric hospital herself, or dead. But I still feel frightened of her. I like to think she could never find me here.”

The teacher was quiet again. I realized she was done with her story, as far as it went.

I said this ex-student must’ve been obsessed with her.

“Yes,” she said. “I can’t understand why. I will never understand it.” She blinked her calm, full, peaceful eyes.

I asked her if she’d ever written poetry since then.

“No,” she said. “I’d be afraid that it wouldn’t really be mine.”

But, I asked, she couldn’t still doubt that her trip to Italy, her months of writing, her poems and her life were real, could she?

“It’s hard to explain,” she said softly, “but once that fear came back into me, it never went away.”

The haze outside the window was turning to dusk. I thanked her for her kindness in seeing me. I invited her to dinner, as if I had any money to pay for it. But she politely declined. I gave her a folder of my bad half-written stories that I had so much trouble finishing. We said goodbye. I drove back to Los Angeles in the misty night.

 

In a couple of weeks, I received back in the mail the stories I had left with her. She had written nice but very general comments. I was a little annoyed that she hadn’t been more helpful. When I was in her office, I had copied down the number of the office telephone without her noticing, and now I decided to try calling her in the late afternoon, the same day of the week as when I visited her, thinking she would be there. She answered the phone, and sounded surprised to hear my voice. But she agreed to talk with me for a few minutes.

She said she wasn’t really qualified to give me detailed criticism, but she encouraged me to keep writing. She said that it would be good for my imagination, even if I couldn’t get anything published. She said I should not have unrealistic plans to make money from writing fiction, because almost nobody does. And even if I did get something published, it would have to be in some obscure literary magazine which couldn’t pay me anything anyway.

I said that I had been thinking a lot about her plagiarism story. I asked if she would be offended if I used it in a story of my own.

She paused a long time and then said, “No . . . no, I’d rather that you didn’t.”

Why not, I asked her.

“Well . . . because it’s not really finished,” she said. “We don’t know why this former student did what she did, or how she managed to do it, or what happened to her. We don’t know what it means. It’s just an odd anecdote, and it’s not realistic – it wouldn’t work.”

But I replied that I could make up new details if I had to.

“No,” she said. For the first time she seemed a little impatient. “You asked my permission, and I am telling you no. If anyone is going to write about it, I should be the one. It’s really my story.”

 

In a month I decided to call her again. I had finally found a job but I hated it and was feeling a desperate frustration. I needed some goal to desire, I wanted something to want. I told her that I really wanted to get something published, even if I couldn’t get paid for it. But now I couldn’t think of any more ideas to write about on my own. My stupid job was fogging my brain. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her story. I told her I was becoming almost obsessed with it. Again I asked her if I could write it.

“No, please don’t,” she said. “Please. This crazy woman, if she is still alive, could read it and remember me and come after me again. Please – you’re frightening me. Don’t make me feel sorry that I trusted you. It’s my story, it doesn’t belong to you.”

I begged her.

“No!” she said. “Please – I’ve tried to help you. You have to realize that there is nothing more I can do. You have a false impression of me, you think I’m important somehow – but I’m nobody, I’m nothing! Please don’t write about me. To bring up all this humiliation from the past – I couldn’t bear it. I’ve suffered just like you have – please promise not to write about me!”

Now her calm quiet voice was full of anxiety, passion, and desperation.

“OK, I promise,” I said.

But then I decided to write this anyway.

 

 

 

BIO

John Mandelberg’s short stories have appeared most recently in Prick of the Spindle, Beloit Fiction Journal, Santa Monica Review, and Storyscape. Apparently nobody wants to publish his novels but so what, he’ll keep writing more anyway. He lives in Los Angeles and usually doesn’t like any movie made after 1950.

 

 

 

 

0

Breathing Summer

by Judy Shepps Battle

 

 

Autumn cool mingles with humid
promise of change implicit

indifferent mosquitoes insist
on piercing repellant guard

living for the momentary
blood suck that itches, raises

welts, and claims my peace.

Eager to partake in painting
word pictures, Rusty trots over

licks purple Uni-ball Roller pen
wags his golden tail and

and sits content on my
bare feet.

Lone Blue Jay swoops, stares,
steals shelled peanut and

flies off, prize locked in beak
faster than my Canon can record.

My sneeze is signal for all
to scatter except for one

mosquito who finds the only spot
on my neck without protection

and bites.

 

 

 

From My Window

 

Leafless branches crisscross
creating intricate lattice

timber Xs
wooden Os

hungry starlings play
tic-tac-toe before

dining at swaying
cedar feeder

and vanishing into
cloudless sky.

 

 

 

Synchronicity

 

nothing by accident
all affects all

smallest thoughts ripple
zig and zag

receive and transmit
connect and separate

magic and mystery mingle
taut muscles relax

breath swaddles
vulnerable heart

all in this nanosecond
all in this precious nanosecond.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Judy Shepps Battle has been writing poems since long before she became a psychotherapist and sociology professor at Rutgers University. Widely published both in the USA and abroad during the Sixties and Seventies, she deferred publishing to concentrate on career and family. Fortunately, her muse was tenacious and she continued to write during the next three decades filling a file cabinet with scrawled and typewritten poems that are now being organized into chapbooks and individual submissions. The material submitted for publication represents her return to active participation in the writing community. She can’t think of a better way to spend her retirement. Her poems have been accepted in a variety of publications including Ascent Aspirations; Barnwood Press; Battered Suitcase; Caper Literary Journal; Epiphany Magazine; Joyful; Message in a Bottle Poetry Magazine; Raleigh Review; Rusty Truck; Short, Fast and Deadly; and The Tishman Review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Let That Be a Lesson

by Linda Boroff

 

 

A couple of scenic, twisting mountain roads link Santa Cruz with Silicon Valley, one maddeningly slow; the other lethally fast. People believe that this difficult commute is all that stands between us and the Valley’s ravening technology guargantuae, straining to spread south and plant their sarmak-campuses amid our beaches and redwoods.

We’re often mocked as throwbacks—Birkenstock-wearing, patchouli-reeking tree-huggers; clove-smoking dietary wackos. But decades ago, a rash of serial killings turned us into the “murder capital of the world.” Even now, suspicions linger that our ferny forests and riverbeds conceal yet more quicklimed horrors. Beneath our vintage hippie brand, a collective neurosis hums like background noise.

I returned here to heal, but that wasn’t happening. When you flunk out of law school, the consequences waste no time in manifesting. My deferred student loans awoke like the Spanish flu virus in that corpse frozen since 1918. A torrent of demand letters found me huddled weepily in my childhood bedroom, watching sitcom reruns. Like bricks, their paragraphs walled me into ruinous debt.

Ghosts of my aborted legal education trailed in my wake. Wherever I went, I spotted “tortious” conduct. Contracts shook its knotty head at every agreement I made. I couldn’t stop spouting half-baked legal advice to friends.

My childhood home soon became more prison than refuge. My parents’ tentative queries about future plans sounded like the mind games of the Spanish inquisitors. My boyfriend requested some space.

Yet, further humbling was in order: my frantic job search yielded just one tepid offer, and that from a law firm. I was to be an “admin trainee;” a serf, performing the most grueling and menial chores in the office. So much for my conquering hero courtroom fantasies.

Demand letter threats playing in my head like a repeating tune, I arrived for my first day. The firm occupied a hacienda style building with a low-pitched, glowering solar roof. In place of a lawn, water-sparing sedge grass with razorlike sawteeth undulated thirstily. A door the color of dried blood proclaimed Holland & Sklar, Attorneys at Law, in haughty gold cursive.

In the waiting room, a lighted case displayed a stuffed owl lashed to a gnarled tree limb, its eyes realistically desperate beneath the taxidermist’s glaze.

At last, a tiny woman nearly buried in a black turtleneck sweater opened a door and cocked her beaky little head at me, sharp obsidian eyes blinking rapidly. I followed her into a large cubicled room whose mushy gray carpet grabbed the soles of my shoes.

“That’s you,” she said, indicating a wooden table and chair wedged between a pillar and the wall. A flat, dusty computer monitor lay inert on the floor, as if injured.

“I’m Edie,” the woman said. “I work for Mr. Sklar. Mr. Holland recently died, and we’re disorganizing I mean reorganizing the office.” She cut off my understanding nod with a knifish glare and turned away.

I hung my jacket on the chair and hoisted the monitor onto the desk. Something about the place reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake, the wrenched ground shuddering and spasming above broken strata, the air reverberating.

“It’s a pity you’ll never know Harv.” A tall woman in her late fifties was wheeling over an office chair. “I’m Eleanor,” she said, and sat down in it beside me. “I was Harv’s secretary.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice hoarse with disuse.

“He was on borrowed time, poor thing. A heart infection. They cleared it up finally, but the damage was done.” Eleanor tipped her chair back alarmingly to grab a magazine from a file cabinet. “Here he is, the way I like to remember him.”

The magazine was at least twenty years old, judging from its garish colors and wacky typeface. On the cover, Harv as a youthful visionary gazed into the future from eyes of blue agate. Streaked blond hair tumbled to his collar. His smooth, regular features radiated a complacent moral purity.

“He had a golden aura, didn’t he?” Eleanor said fondly, stroking his magazine-

hair. I surveyed the auric Harv and nodded, wondering how he had looked at the end.

A man suddenly loomed above Eleanor, who mugged fear and straightened her back.

“Welcome, Melissa, I’m Tom Sklar.” He grinned at me with perfect but feral teeth. “I’m officially senior partner here now, though of course, Eleanor will never buy that.” He winked at her, and she lifted her chin in mock indignation, exposing a deeply corded neck.

Tom Sklar was one of those men who gets better-looking as he ages; his clipped graying hair flattered him more than the tousled brown mop in the law school picture on his desk. The years had chiseled the youthful pudginess from his face, and his brown eyes were now a steely gray-blue in their tinted contacts.

“Eleanor will welcome another tall gal here,” Tom said.

“Tom loves tall girls,” Eleanor smiled archly. I looked reflexively at the ring on his finger, and he followed my glance, and our eyes bumped and bounced apart.

“I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Holland,” I said, and Tom’s face morphed instantly into practiced sadness. “We go very far back, Harv and I. Eleanor will fill you in on the whole saga.”

“Maybe not the whole saga,” Eleanor replied, and something crackled between them like water hitting hot oil in a frying pan. I felt a sudden urge to run, but the carpet held my feet, and the mantra, “avoid further legal action” recurred in my brain.

Eleanor soon took to hanging out at my desk on the pretext of “training” me, but really for an excuse to talk. She was an encyclopedic authority on all matters Harv, fiercely possessive even of his wraith. The syllables of his name summoned her like a pheromone; so that people across the room had to whisper or cover their mouths when they mentioned him, or else she would arrive and hijack the conversation.

The law was woven through Eleanor’s life like a weft. She had grown up in Live Oak, an anomalous blue-collar neighborhood nicknamed “Live Okie.” Shy and coltishly tall, she grew her auburn hair long; somebody had once called it a river of fire she said proudly. The river was dammed now into a brassy bouffant cone, sprayed stiff and secured with a plastic tortoiseshell dagger.

Her eyes, large and greenish-gray, were still arresting in their iridescent eyeshadow and false lashes, despite the wrinkles. Decades of hurrying from desk to lawyer’s office, to kitchen, waiting and file rooms had given her a stretch-necked, giraffelike gait. As the day wore on, her lipstick would migrate into the vertical creases around her mouth.

Desperate to escape her brawling, hard-drinking parents, young Eleanor studied office skills in high school, winning awards for her shorthand and typing. After graduation, she endured interviews with grim, Dickensian office managers and lordly attorneys—until one banner day, she had broken through, a legal secretary at last.

I suddenly flashed on a disruptive young office beauty: on the gleaming hair and long limbs and riveted gaze; the silky blouses above the sternly fitted pencil skirts; the awe, the vulnerability, and the utter, unquestioning fealty. A wife’s perfect nightmare.

I could guess at the various jobs, the inevitable affairs, the getaways and lingerie and baubles and tears and scenes and abortions. The decades had marched past, and the lovers had aged and retired and some had even died. None had kept their promises. Now she was growing old, cast up like flood detritus on the banks of a river after the storm subsides.

Already a veteran when she joined the staff here, Eleanor had promptly seized the helm; within a couple of months, any competitors or challengers had resigned, retreated or been fired. “I whipped us into shape,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty, but I did what I had to. Harv could never assert himself the way he should have.”

Now, her boss gone, the once office queen was reduced to a ”floater.” Former subordinates ordered her to make copies or coffee, sent her on errands, and pointedly excluded her from smoking breaks and party planning.

I soon realized that the friendless Eleanor had laid claim to me. She hovered with fierce solicitude, herding others away like some secretarial sheepdog. I suspected that she was grooming me to summit the office hierarchy on her behalf. Armed with my college degree, and (nearly) year of law school, I would take power, restore office hegemony, and dispense retribution, while she guided me like some Lord Protector.

But this victory would require the toppling and vanquishing of Edie, the fierce tiny avian who had opened the door for me on my first day. As Tom Sklar’s secretary, Edie had been Eleanor’s chief rival. Harv’s death had catapulted Eleanor from her throne but hardly settled the feud.

The partners were former assistant district attorneys, tough competitors who had teamed up to prosecute one of the county’s emblematic serial killers. The ordeal had forged a bond. They left the DA’s office soon after to form a partnership, fueled by Harv’s popularity and Tom’s slick aggressiveness.

But the competition that the partners had resolved now played out by proxy in their secretaries, and the friction heated up like magma. Eleanor insisted that Harv was the “brains” of the firm, while Edie called Tom the “engine.” Their debates turned into screaming matches. I could imagine Eleanor looming like a T-Rex above the agile, ferocious Edie, feinting and darting and dodging to counter Eleanor’s verbal bludgeons.

Edie, because mere bad luck had taken down her rival, was denied a decisive victory. Even now in her triumphal role of “Administrative Director,” she couldn’t avoid Eleanor skulking on the periphery, watching for an opening. Edie responded by shrinking Eleanor’s duties to the most demeaning, below even mine.

“How can you stand this?” I asked after Edie had set her to cleaning the office refrigerator. Kneeling before a glass shelf encrusted with ancient yogurt smears and desiccated veggies, Eleanor looked up at me, her hands in rubber gauntlets, a damp bronze curl dangling from her forehead.

“Things will change,” Eleanor replied. “They always do, in time. Besides, I know something very damaging about Edie, and she knows I know.”

“What’s that?”

“She’s a witch.”

“Edie’s a witch?”

“She let it slip once; it explains everything. I realized that she’d been casting spells on all of us for a long time. How could I have missed it? I just didn’t put it all together until it was too late.”

“Eleanor,” I said, “witchcraft isn’t real. People pretend to have power…”

“Oh they have power all right, if they’re good. And Edie is good, oh my, so very good. In Harv’s case though, she went too far. And she knows it. She killed him.” Eleanor pried a tiny dried carrot from the glass shelf and examined it, turning it over and over.

I reminded myself that in Santa Cruz, no belief system was too exotic or outrageous to have its devotees; witchcraft was actually quite mainstream compared to some of them. A wave of dismay washed over me: how had I ended up here, babysitting a crazy, superstitious old woman rather than lighting up the law review?

“She leaves things for me,” Eleanor was saying. “Little twisted pieces of hair and scraps of paper with strange words written on them. She plants herbs on the property to use in her spells, so her husband doesn’t find them around the house. She knows I know. She tried to make me drink some yarrow tea once. That would have made me vulnerable. I threw it in the toilet, of course.” I shook my head. “She casts on everybody in the office—not you, not yet. But she’ll try, just watch her, because she knows you’re on my side.”

After this, I did my best to tamp down Eleanor’s obsession, changing the subject or even ignoring her when she presented “evidence.” She showed me a two-inch length of coiled black yarn she had found on the carpet that had not been there the night before. She searched her file drawers each morning and threw out items she swore were new, even an expensive scissors once. A stray push pin, a piece of thread—anything that could bind or immobilize was proof of Edie’s mischief. Eleanor checked the kitchen thoroughly for suspect spices, leaves or roots. She would walk past Edie’s cubicle, catch my eye and point surreptitiously inside, or motion her head to alert me that Edie was concocting spells rather than working on office business.

The magazine with Harv’s picture came to rest permanently in my inbox. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to return it to the dark obscurity of the file cabinet. There was something reassuring in his benign, clueless presence. I would look into the optimistic blue gaze and wonder what he now must know.

Whenever I hear people talking of how children enrich one’s life, it sets me thinking in just the opposite direction—how thoroughly children can destroy a life. The local wisdom was that Harv’s endocarditis was only a secondary cause of his death. The true mortal blow had been struck by Harv’s delinquent son, Erik, age 15.

Harv’s fate was proof that a life well and ethically lived can veer off to an outcome so rotten as to turn people into deep and bitter cynics. Nothing you did mattered because if there could be Erik, then there was no justice, no order. Harv’s fate became a rationale for impulsively ditching a spouse, buying a sports car, or acting on a grudge.

Erik’s latest run-in with the law was an assault on the high school boys’ locker room. He and his accomplice, Fred Pettingast, a judge’s son, were caught in the act by the janitor.

This wasn’t mere drunken teenage vandalism, but an orgy of demolition. Swastikas were etched and painted everywhere, along with anti-Semitic phrases in Gothic blackletter and caricatures of Jews, blacks and Mexicans. They had pulverized the lockers, crumpling and piercing the metal beyond repair. Benches were splintered. They destroyed the plumbing in the showers with corrosive acid, and shattered the tiles into powder. The paint they used in the graffiti was so toxic that it required professional disposal of everything it had touched.

Fred insisted that Erik had been the instigator, while Erik, of course, claimed otherwise. Judge Pettingast must have leaned hard on somebody so that both boys would be undercharged and given probation, and the incident downplayed in local press.

Erik’s locker room exploit was not an isolated incident, though. He invaded, rather than attended school; entrepreneurial talent had made him a drug dealer by his junior year. His grades were good, shored up by cheating, bribery and intimidation.

When it all became too much to take, Harv would drop into Tom’s office and open his heart to the only person he could trust with his anguish.

“The kid’s sowing a few wild oats, so what?” Tom Sklar would comfort his partner. “Hey, I could tell you things I did at his age, you probably wouldn’t want to live in the same town with me let alone practice with me.”

“I couldn’t make it without you, brother,” Harv would choke up.

“Hang in there; you’ll get through this just fine, all of you will.” Tom would come around his desk to give Harv a hug, with a few mutual thwacks on their Barney’s jackets.

Eleanor’s adoration of Harv had spawned a proportional hatred for Harv’s German-born wife, Helga. Her digging into Helga’s background revealed a relative who had been a Nazi official in Bavaria, prominent enough to be hanged by the British after the war. Now, although Helga was a dedicated vegan, grammar school teacher, and Democratic party worker, in Eleanor’s eyes she was the Beast of Belsen.

Helga must have been beautiful once, but life’s stresses were aging her. Her skin was taut over her cheekbones. Her eyes, like Eric’s, which Eleanor described as “Hitler blue,” sometimes widened alarmingly when she spoke, a sort of tic.

“Come with me,” Eleanor said, leading me to the closet of cleaning supplies behind the restroom. She showed me that if you stood in just the right place, you could hear everything going on in Tom’s office. She had also used an ice pick to create herself a neat pinhole for discreet peeping.

“Some hot stuff goes on in there,” Eleanor said, fanning her face. “Helga and Tom. Yes, right under Harv’s nose. For years. They do their nasty here in the office. Tom the big family man. And Helga with her animal rights and eco-activism. Sometimes I was sure they knew I was here. It was like they were daring me to tell Harv.”

“Did you?”

“I had to. I finally couldn’t stand it any more.” A vision of Harv at the end suddenly invaded, the face gaunt with disillusionment and betrayal, the eyes now riddled with bitter self-doubt.

“He got sick right afterwards, one of Edie’s spells I’m sure. She went too far that time. They were all jealous because Harv was a great man. I was the only one who really tried to protect him.”

For months, Harv battled every complication his disease could throw at him. He surfaced at last from an ocean of antibiotics, weakened and wearied. His eyes had gone dull and pale, with brownish hollows beneath; his legs, once firm and tanned from the tennis he loved, were now thin and unsteady. The first thing he did was to file for divorce from Helga. The second was to retire.

To everyone’s surprise, the sickly, divorced Harv took on a sexual allure that the healthy, monogamous version had lacked. Women began to flock, stalk, and proposition him; even women he had once sent to jail offered themselves. Everybody wanted to care for him, to heal him from the inside out. Lock up your daughters, friends would rib him when Harv entered a room. But this stage could not last: like an incandescent bulb, Harv flared into a bright, final burn and then blinked out.

Late last Friday night, the phone rang. I was having a stiff scotch from the bottle of Glenlivet that my parents had bought me to celebrate my getting into law school. I used to tell myself that when the bottle was empty, I could put the whole experience behind me.

“I did it! I’m sorry to bother you at home, Melissa, but I had to tell you. I finally did it.“

“Did what?” My stomach gave a hard jump.

“I told Tom about Edie and her witchcraft. I waited until everyone left tonight, and then I went in and showed him all the evidence. Everything was marked with a date and catalogued. Tom always says the chain of evidence is the pivotal part of a case. Every single piece was there, where I found it and when. Edie was nailed!”

From my bedroom window, I saw a slate-dark, drizzling sky, and for some reason, I pictured Eleanor standing outside in that rain, the upswept hairdo soaked and collapsing of its own weight, sagging comically to one side like a duffel bag, the false lashes flapping wetly above the livid slash of lipstick.

“When you try to straighten things out,” Eleanor said, “and they keep getting twisted up again, you know there’s a powerful force working against you. I told Tom I’d tried to fight it for a long time, but her magic was getting stronger and he needed to take action now or it would be too late, the way it was with Harv. If he didn’t get rid of Edie, she would turn on him too and tell his wife and kids about the affair. Or else try to take you over. Edie is a very dangerous woman.”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak, so I tossed back the rest of the scotch, which seared a raw, welcome swath all the way down, burning through the hopeful lies; the presumptions and facades and well-worn excuses we employ to shore up our collapsing dreams.

“Oh I had her, all right. I even went out in the garden and pulled the plants she uses in her spells—star anise and bay leaves and lavender and rosemary and about a dozen more, and are they ever potent. Let her try to explain that away when Tom confronts her.”

“What did Tom say?”

“He said, “Well, Eleanor, it looks like you’ve done your homework. I know how much you care about the office, and I’m grateful for your work all these years.”

”That’s what he said?”

“Yes, and he should be grateful.”

My silence must have summoned back Eleanor the careerist. “It’s so considerate of you to hear me out, Melissa,” she said. “I apologize for calling on a weekend, but I did this for you too. Things will be different from now on, you’ll see.”

When I arrived at work on Monday morning, Edie met me in the waiting room. The stuffed owl observed us with its clever and knowing stare.

“Melissa, you should know that Tom had to fire Eleanor. So she won’t be here anymore.”

“Tom fired Eleanor?”

“He only kept her on here out of pity long past the time when there was no work for her. She lost important files and client information, and she was a handful for all of us—including you, I’m sure.” Transfixed by Edie’s pointed gaze, I said nothing. “Between you and me,” Edie said, “she was a disaster waiting to happen. I’m amazed at Tom’s patience. He felt terrible, of course, but he had to take the step of getting a restraining order to keep her from harassing us. So you let me know if she bothers you.”

As I turned away, Edie added that despite anything Eleanor may have told me, Tom was the most faithful of husbands and had always been a loyal friend to his partner. She hoped this whole unfortunate incident would not cause me to think of leaving the firm. In fact, Tom had even mentioned sending me to classes that would prepare me for another try at law school.

When my messages to Eleanor’s phone went unreturned, I drove past her small bungalow in Live Oak and knocked on her door. There was no response, though I thought I sensed movement within and I either glimpsed or imagined large, haunted eyes peering from a slat in the blinds.

Last week Edie moved me out of my cramped quarters and gave me Eleanor’s roomy corner cubicle. She and Tom even held a little ceremony with cake and tea to mark my elevation to legal research assistant. They presented me with all new office furniture and a new computer, and Edie even graced my office with a charming miniature spice garden under its own fluorescent lamp.

Shortly afterwards, my once boyfriend called to ask if would consider giving our relationship another chance. He sounded more ardent than he ever had.

As I drive to work, it occurs to me that each street, house and building in town has its own story, and that these are sometimes very bizarre ones. I remind myself  that this must be true of every hamlet in the world.

 

 

 

BIO

Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Hollywood Dementia, Drunk Monkeys, Word Riot, Hobart, Ducts, Blunderbuss, Adelaide, Thoughtful Dog, Storyglossia, Able Muse, The Furious Gazelle, JONAH Magazine, The Boiler, Cold Creek Review, and others, including several anthologies. 

She was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize for fiction, and she won first prize in The Writers Place short story competition. She has written one feature film which played in theaters and festivals in 2010. Her short story published in Epoch is under option to Sony and director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer). She wrote the script for the upcoming biopic of film noir actress Barbara Payton, Fast Fade, currently casting with producer Don Murphy (Transformers).

 

 

 

 

 

A Turkish Coffee Reader

by Ana Vidosavljevic

 

 

Grandma Lela was an elderly Serbian lady. She lived in the small town Vlasotince and was a famous Turkish coffee reader. People from all around Serbia and some foreigners came to her house every day and waited in line for her famous coffee reading and to tell them what they could expect in the future. People in Vlasotince said she was a master of interpreting symbols, coffee figures, revealing the dark secrets, predicting the future and giving advices. Rumor had it that she could even put a black magic on those who deserved this kind of ominous spell.

My mother was a good friend of Grandma Lela and she regularly drank coffee with her. Then, after drinking this famous drink in Serbia, Grandma Lela read her coffee cup, actually, interpreted the symbols found in the coffee sediment as well as those on the saucer. My mother loved this coffee reading rituals. And she was pretty good in this herself. That was what I honestly believed.

Children were not allowed to come to Grandma Lela’s sacred room for coffee reading, but seeing my curiosity for this unique skill, my mother took on the challenge of reading my coffee cup and teaching me how to do that. These daily rituals were interrupted only by my school hours and her working schedule. But somehow, we managed to drink our coffee almost every day. Mine was full of milk and sweet and her black and strong.

Soon enough, I learned what dogs, mice, rabbits, trees, flowers represented and I allowed my imagination to deviate from the interpretations established by Grandma Lela and my mother. If I saw a dog on the bottom of my coffee cup or on its walls I believed it meant I would find a puppy on the way to school and bring it home. At other times, if I saw a bunch of flowers made of coffee sediment, I thought it meant I should buy flowers for my mum and grandma that day. My mum often laughed to my interpretations and obviously loved them except the ones of adopting animals that I found on streets. But I managed to get few pets. A parrot that she agreed to buy me and which we named Charlie, a beautiful black puppy that I found and we adopted after hours of my whining and begging her, and two little kittens that someone had thrown on the public waste depot.

Later, when I grew up a bit I continued adopting animals without finding an excuse in the coffee cup signs and at one point our house resembled a small zoo. My mother always complained about all those animals but as long as I kept them outside (except the parrot and a fish tank) she didn’t really mind. However, I can blame the coffee cup reading for starting the animal adoption adventure.

And back to Grandma Lela…she was pretty famous by the time I became a teenager. And it was my big Wish, one day, Grandma Lena to read my coffee cup. And only when I was old enough to drink pure black coffee (according to her standards it was at the age of fifteen), she agreed to read my coffee cup. Well, I can’t say I was thrilled with her coffee cup reading but I do remember very well my first time. And I must admit it was intimidating.

One Monday morning, during the summer school holiday, while my mother was at work and Grandma Lela was not as busy as she usually was, since Monday morning felt like the time when people had better things to do than to visit the Turkish coffee reader, I went to Grandma Lela’s house. My mother had told me, the previous night, that Grandma Lela had invited me to come the very next morning. I opened the tall wooden gate of her house and continued to the ground floor, following the small cobble stone path. Once I was in front of the door of her house, I knocked timidly since there was no bell I could ring. Silence was strange and unusual for this place that usually swarmed with people. Therefore, Grandma Lela asked me to come in. She didn’t open the door, she just yelled loudly: “Come in!” The room where she accepted guests was not very spacious, and the air was stale. I could smell something rancid, some strange smell of moth balls mixed with lavender fragrance. It indicated that this room was old and not very well maintained. Grandma Lela had never got married. She didn’t have children. She didn’t have a maid to help her clean the house. She lived alone.

When I entered the room, I saw her sitting in the chair at the small table with the glass vase and few wilted, dying flowers in it. She had a scarf around her head. It covered her forehead and was tied off in the lower back of her head, the way Gypsy women used to wear it, even though Grandma Lela was not a Gypsy. Her hair was white and face wrinkled, but her eyes were watery blue and clear like those of babies. They seemed the friendliest part of her face and they invited me to come closer and sit in a chair opposite her. I obeyed.

She had already prepared two cups of black Turkish coffee, but there was no steam coming out of the cups, so I guessed they might have been prepared much earlier and were getting cold. I touched my cup and I was right. The cup was not hot. It was still warm though.

Grandma Lela gestured me to drink coffee as if rushing me into finishing fast my part of the role in this play called Turkish Coffee Cup Reading. There was something scary and unpleasant in her way of communicating with me and in her attitude of speeding up the process of drinking coffee which was usually and naturally done with no rush but with slow pleasure instead. I followed compliantly her instructions and drank my very sweet and mild coffee almost in one gulp. Then, I followed Grandma Lela’s example and placed the saucer over the cup (face on) and covered it. Soon after, I made few horizontal circles clockwise with the intention to move the sediment around the cup and evenly spread it around the inside of the cup. Then, I turned the coffee cup upside down with a quick movement and passed it to Grandma Lela. She didn’t take it immediately. Instead, she let it there on the table in front of her for five minutes and made a small talk with me. She asked me about school, friends and other, for me, not very relevant things. After five minutes of our small talk, she overturned my cup and held it upright. And she started reading it, interpreting the symbols she saw and making the whole story of my past, present and future. Since she knew me very well and my family in general, it was not hard for her to tell my past events as well as those of the present. They didn’t bother me or made me feel uncomfortable. But the ones from the future seemed terrifying.

Among other things, she told me that I would finish high school and enroll the university which I would probably never finish. I would get married and have two children but my marriage would end up in divorce. I would meet some other man, after the divorce, who would be the real love of my life and with whom I would spend the rest of my life. Grandma Lela didn’t mention what would happen with my children and if they would live with me or their biological father. However, after finishing the story, or better the prediction of my love life, she focused on my health. I was already pretty sad with what I had heard by then and was not happy to proceed listening to what type of bad illness would fall upon me, but I couldn’t stop her. She told me that until my thirties, I would be pretty healthy. But then, I would have some awkward leg injury that would lead to dry gangrene and I would have two operations. Doctors would save my leg but I would always have problems walking and I would be obliged to use a walking cane until the rest of my life.

After hearing all these things, I was so desperate and terrified that I almost started crying. I couldn’t listen anymore but I remained sitting in the chair my eyes fixed on the black spot in the wall. These were not those naïve coffee cup readings with my mum. I didn’t smile and I didn’t laugh. My mother and I enjoyed our lighthearted and funny interpretations of the coffee sediment symbols which never got very serious. Grandma Lela’s coffee cup reading resembled the dark ominous and menacing scenes from horror movies that suggested that something even worse and scarier would happen with every new scene. I didn’t enjoy and didn’t like it. Quite the opposite, it was repulsive and intimidating and left the bad taste in my mouth.

Grandma Lela didn’t have a pricelist for her coffee cup reading services, and people usually left as much or as little money as they wanted. That day, after she finished reading my coffee cup, I forgot to leave her some money. I know it was rude but I was so shocked and dismayed by what I had heard from her that I just left her house without even saying “thank you”. I’m sure my mother later gave her some money but it was pretty rude to leave just like that without even saying a word.

When my mother came back from work and asked me how the coffee reading was, I just mumbled “fine” and avoided the topic. No matter how much I wanted to tell my mother about everything and take comfort in her hugs and words “oh, don’t worry. That is just a stupid future telling that has nothing to do with the reality”, I didn’t want her to get upset, or angry with Grandma Lela and to lose her own interest in the coffee cup reading. But I hoped all those things Grandma Lela had told me were incorrect. Honestly, I was a bit worried and scared. But after some days I stopped thinking about my unfortunate future. Anyway, that was the only time Grandma Lela read my coffee cup.

Of course, years went by and Grandma Lela’s predictions proved wrong. Thanks to my lucky stars! But the whole event remained in my memory. I always avoided talking about her with my mother and I started abhorring all the coffee cup readers, fortune tellers, palm readers, dream interpreters, phrenologists and numerologists. I didn’t want to hear what would happen in the future and I, especially, didn’t want to hear bad news. Of course, once I became an adult I didn’t believe in things those kind of prophets said but I also didn’t want them to provoke some unpleasant thoughts. I didn’t want some strange sinister thoughts to ramble around my brain because those thoughts were dangerous. “What we think we become.” Buddha said. And I can’t agree more.

However, my mother and I continued our funny coffee reading rituals and even though we don’t see each other that often nowadays, often, when we meet and drink coffee, we read and interpret those symbols we find in the coffee sediment. I adore these Turkish coffee cup reading rituals. And I must admit my mother is the best Turkish coffee cup reader in the whole world. She will make you not only smile and laugh but she will inspire you to find the bright side of every situation and to be more positive about the future.

 

 

BIO

Ana Vidosavljevic from Serbia currently living in Indonesia. She has her work published or forthcoming in Down in the Dirt (Scar Publications), Literary Yard, RYL (Refresh Your Life), The Caterpillar, The Curlew, Eskimo Pie, ColdnoonPerspectives, Indiana Voice Journal, The Raven Chronicles, Setu Bilingual Journal, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, Madcap Review, The Bookends Review, Gimmick Press, (mac)ro(mic), Scarlet Leaf Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, A New Ulster. She worked on a GIEE 2011 project: Gender and Interdisciplinary Education for Engineers 2011 as a member of the Institute Mihailo Pupin team. She also attended the International Conference “Bullying and Abuse of Power” in November, 2010, in Prague, Czech Republic, where she presented her paper: “Cultural intolerance”.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Appraisal

by Jim Farfaglia

 

 

When you were in the backyard
measuring 2X4s,
I watched from my bedroom window,
trying to figure you out.

When you sat at the kitchen table,
worrying over the checkbook,
I was at my homework desk
studying why you weren’t good enough.

When you ruled the living room,
remote in hand,
I burrowed a hole under the covers,
my insides out of control.

When you and I passed each other
every day in the hallway,
our eyes never met,
not once.

 

 

 

Stroke

 

Like watching a lightning storm
strike a tree, shocking us

as bolt after bolt
travels through you

your right side collapsing,
your stiffened left arm

pounding the hospital bed,
trying, as you have all your life,

to drive back
what comes to claim you.

 

 

 

Nearer

 

The elevator’s ping startles me.
Sixth floor, a gentle voice confirms
as its steel doors part
and I step into another day

of your fading world. All week,
the shades have been drawn,
your bed wrapped in artificial light,
giving an antiseptic hope.

When your eyes open, you struggle
back from your leaving train
and we meet one more day
at the station of waiting.

 

 

 

BIO

Jim Farfaglia is a writer based in upstate New York. He has self-published three books of poetry that explore themes such as his rural upbringing and a devotion to the pop music of his youth, as well as several local history books. One of them, Voices in the Storm: Stories from the Blizzard of ’66, was a finalist in the CNY Book Awards. His website is www.jimfarfaglia.com

 

 

 

0

Disposal

by Zachary Ginsburg

 

 

Bethany ended the phone call with her husband and slid the kitchen knife back into its wooden block on the countertop. She tossed the unopened package of tortellini into the fridge and poured the boiling water into the sink. The sink flooded, and bits of soggy organic matter floated out of the drain and cavorted in the hot water like nudibranchs. As she reached to switch on the disposal, a small round object glinted in the basin. She fished it out and held in her palm her husband’s wedding ring.

“The hell?” she said aloud. She dried it off and laid it on a paper towel. On second thought, she slipped it into the pocket of her shorts. On third thought, she placed it back on the counter, because her shorts were pretty short and things tended to fall out of her pockets when she sat on the couch.

With her legs tucked under her on the couch, she gazed out the window across Lake Shore Drive at the boats bobbing in Belmont Harbor, thirteen stories below. Then she picked some gunk from underneath her fingernail and wondered why her husband had been so careless with his ring. By nature, he was a clean and organized person, even to the point of OCD. Everything in the condo had its proper place, from the leather box that held the TV remotes to the nightstand that stored his earplugs, sleeping mask, and Vaseline. When she would forget to use a coaster, he would lift her glass, slide one underneath, and remind her of the woodgrain. When she would forget to lay a towel down before sex, he would lift her ass, slide one underneath, and remind her of the eighteen-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton.

She kicked her legs up on the walnut coffee table and opened her laptop. She was in the process of designing a website for a nail salon. It featured a lifelike hand of adjustable skin tone, which would allow users to preview different polishes. Her clients expected this level of ingenuity from her. She made bold claims on the bulletin boards of Chicago coffeeshops and damn well lived up to them.

When his key jangled the doorknob, she closed her laptop and walked into the kitchen. He stripped off his sport coat and carried the smiley-face bag of takeout to their round oak dining table. Bethany handed him a plate.

“Check it out,” he said, nipping his chopsticks at her nose. “I’m getting better. Pretty soon I’ll be able to lift a grain of rice.”

The sweet garlicky smell of her pad thai made her stomach rumble, and she shoveled the entire plastic container onto her plate. “How was bowling?”

“Shot a two-twenty,” he said casually, scooping noodles into his mouth. “New personal best.”

“Did you win?”

“Oh, babe. This wasn’t league play.”

She chewed hard on a peanut. Did he really need to practice for his bowling league?

“Your ring’s on the counter,” she said.

He peered at the tan line on his finger. Then he scratched his stubbly chin, as if contemplating the best way to word it. “See, I’ve been taking it off, to bowl. But I thought it was in my work bag. Where was it?”

“The sink actually. The disposal.”

“You’re shitting me.”

She grabbed it off the counter and placed it on his napkin.

“It must have been when I was loosening it with the dish soap.” He rolled the platinum band around in his fingers and slipped it into the breast pocket of his checkered shirt.

“How was work, I mean, have you finished that new website?” he asked.

She burped softly and pushed the bean sprouts to the edge of her plate. She could hear the wheels spinning in his head: she’s getting quiet. I’ve done something wrong. Well, at least she hoped he was thinking this. He had done something wrong. She just didn’t know what it was yet.

 

It happened again a couple days later. Bethany was sitting in the kitchen, half working on her client’s website, half reading a news story about a missing woman from their neighborhood, when her husband called saying he would grab takeout on his way home from practice. She dumped the pot of water she had been heating and watched the nudibranchs dance up from the disposal and shake their tentacles. Amidst the merriment, Bethany spotted something shiny and lifted a ring that was not her husband’s. It was an engagement ring, with an awfully large diamond sparkling wet.

Her heart sank, and she plopped on the couch, clenching the ring in her fist. With her other hand, she teased the tassels on a throw pillow. Something about the innocence of the tassels, their simple purpose of adorning the pillow, made her want to cry. She pinched her thigh and wondered if she should have gone to more spin classes.

An hour later, he walked in the door, stepped out of his loafers, and crossed the beige handwoven rug they bought at Crate&Barrel. The smiley-face bag in his hand smelled sweetly of pad thai. Had she known “takeout” meant the same meal from two nights ago, she would have cooked the damn tortellini.

She marched to the table and set the ring on his placemat. “What is this?”

He turned it over in his fingers and raised one of his caterpillar eyebrows. She usually enjoyed this fuzzy expression but now analyzed it for discrepancies.

“Tiffany’s?” he said.

“Who?”

“I meant the jewelry store. Whose is it?”

“You tell me,” she said, dropping into the seat across from him.

Both of his eyebrows shot up as if the caterpillars were stretching their backs.

“What are you accusing me of?”

Bethany did not know the answer to this. Deep down, she felt he was having an affair, but why would it end with both his and her rings down the drain?

“Has anyone been here that I don’t know about?”

“You’re the one who works from home,” he said, hunching over his noodles. “I’m never alone here.”

“That’s not true. I go to coffeeshops. I go out with friends.”

“When was the last time you did either of those?”

“I went to my mother’s last weekend.”

“Your mother,” he said, spearing a piece of beef with his chopstick. “Are you going to call her after dinner? Tell her I’m having an affair?” His eyes hardened, and the muscles in his face tightened. “Are you two going to whisper behind my back?”

A flare-up. It was as if a switch flipped inside him. This was how she described these episodes to her mother, who often responded by calling him a “hothead.” She would never forget the first one, in college when she asked about his ex-girlfriend, and he spent the next hour ranting about how much he hated her, using insults she tried to wipe clean from her memory. Back then, she would offset these flare-ups with the reasons she loved him: his laugh, his caterpillar eyebrows, the way he would wait for her outside of her classes, the way they would talk until dawn, wrapped in each other’s arms. But tonight, she was having a hard time retrieving this affection.

“Goddamn it!” he yelled after dropping a saucy piece of beef in his lap. He stood, and it flopped to the floor, leaving a dark stain on his chinos. He snapped his chopsticks in half, stormed to the sink, and wet the orange dish towel. Nothing infuriated him more than stains.

A wave of schadenfreude lifted Bethany out of her despair. She tossed her unopened container of pad thai into the fridge and slunk to their bedroom. She decided against calling her mother. He wouldn’t win that easily.

 

His bowling league was the following night. He returned late on these nights after drinking with his friends, so she figured it was finally safe to cook tortellini. She had been brooding all day as she worked on the website and poured herself a glass of chardonnay. She considered reading The Art of Happiness, which rested on the coffee table for when she felt out of sorts, but the day had been taxing and reading seemed laborious. As the water heated, she watched the news, but this only made her feel worse. They ran a story on the missing woman she read about yesterday. A photo showed her smiling with thin eyebrows and highlighted hair cascading over her right shoulder. She was pinching a lock of it between her red fingernails, as if twirling it.

“Thirty-two-year-old Samantha Rogers was last seen at Diversey River Bowl, where she works as a bartender,” the newswoman said numbly.

Bethany turned off the TV and reached for the book. The doorknob rattled, and she jumped, imagining a burglar trying to pick the lock. She glanced at the knives on the counter, but before she could move, the door swung open. It was only her husband, carrying a bouquet of purple tulips.

“You may want to put on something nice,” he said, handing her the flowers. “I made a reservation at Mon Ami Gabi.”

This was her favorite restaurant. She breathed in the fresh tulips and searched his gray-blue eyes, finding them pleasant like the lake on a calm day. “What about the league?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “for acting like a jerk. Can I treat you to salmon tartare?”

She took another whiff of the bouquet. “I’ll be right back.”

She chose her green dress, leaving the lavender one on its hanger. He didn’t deserve her best, at least not right now. It would take more than one dinner for her to put on a show. Still, she wished she’d known in advance so she could have painted her nails.

After she retrieved her phone from the kitchen counter and zipped it in her purse, she noticed the front door was open.

He must be waiting in the hallway, she thought, annoyed by his sudden impatience. This night was supposed to be about her, right?

She stepped into her ballet flats but remembered the pot of water boiling on the stove. She dumped it in the sink and hovered over the nudibranch dance party, scanning for rings. She found none but spotted a pale shrimp-like object rolling along the basin. She reached her hand into the hot water and pinched its squishy middle. When she breached the surface, droplets of water dripped off the red nail. She was holding a severed human finger.

Her arm spasmed in a reflex of terror, flinging the finger into the sink. She did not hear the thud she must have made toppling to the floor. After righting herself to her hands and knees, the kitchen spun as if their whole condo were spiraling down a drain.

The missing woman on the news. Could her husband have possibly…?

She pulled herself up by the counter but lurched back when she saw her husband blocking the doorway.

“You look pale,” he said, his hard unblinking eyes trained on her. “Have you eaten today?”

“Not a thing,” Bethany said, glancing at the knives. A last resort.

“We should get to the restaurant.”

“Will you pull the car around?” she asked. “I just need to make a quick call.”

“A call?”

“To a client.”

His footsteps died down the hallway in the direction of the elevator. She grabbed her phone out of her purse and dialed 9-1-1, but her finger hesitated above the green call button. Her husband, the man she’d lived with for the past seven years, the boy in college who made her laugh until sunrise. Could he really have murdered someone? She deleted 9-1-1 and dialed her mother instead. Her mother would be too shocked to say, “I told you so.” That would come later. But in the present moment, her mother would guide her out of this disaster. She would rattle off a list of instructions like a recipe, with safety popping out at the end.

 

 

BIO:

Zachary Ginsburg was born and raised in Chicago and worked there as an educator. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at The New School.

 

 

 

 

0

Don’t u just wish.

by DS Maolalai

 

 

dont u wish
the world
could be easy? and here i am
sunday night
typing away
ransacking
fallen memories of old friends
& girlfriends
& things
that happened
as the wine
steadies down
like a thermometer
in a sudden snow.
tomorrow
the job
will be as it was before
& i will eat a chicken sandwich
& drink hot coffee
from a cup with ARAMARK FACILITY MANAGEMENT
written on it.
on my break
ill stand on the roof of the building
and watch ships
coming in and going out
like emails
& pass the time
tasting the air
& tasting
(i will imagine)
the salt freshness
of breeze
that means
the sea.

 

 

 

A little squirrel.

 

I dont remember her name
but she had short hair like a boys bob
and big eyes under it
and she said she worked in films
mostly doing small stuff
set dressing and organising props
and when I got on top of her
she went mad as a little dog at the doorbell
arms all over the place
wild and fingery
as if sex was something that suddenly brought life to death
and cracked wind against flagpoles
or broke open old wood
to reveal a sudden ebb and commotion of maggots
and her body was small as teaspoons
and not yet fat
and she moved with such whip-snapping
that she almost dragged the come out of me
like a magician’s handkerchief
and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me think of you
and how gentle you were in bed
like a little squirrel
cautious about offerings
and I thought
               I’ll never tell her about this
she never needs to know
because if she knew she’d understand
and never let me near her again
and when I got back to Toronto
you were still away
and it was easy
getting used to lying to you
until you got back.

 

 

 

The coward.

 

I come back
after 4 years away
and still
it’s the same – my friends
drunk
making
gay jokes,
chinese
jokes
still laughing at the idea
of fucking someone
who used to be a man – one is convinced
that his boss only beat him to management
because the company wanted to be seen
to be progressive,
one says
his university
is stopping fascists from talking
because they don’t believe in speech anymore.
I get quiet
and laugh along with the jokes,
remembering
my pretty chinese girlfriend,
the guys I drank with in kensington,
the one time Dani got a black eye
because she told this fascist guy to fuck off away from her
and showed me all the
anti-nazi tattoos on her back
and along her shoulder –
I come home
after 4 years away
and it’s still the same
but louder
and I stay quiet
and drink along with them
because it’s nice
all the same
to still have friends
to come home to
when you come home.

 

 

 

my sister writes –

 

she asks me
if there are any tv shows i think she should watch
and then tells me
since she’ll be spending some time in vietnam
soon
i should come and visit –
i can stay with her,
flights are expensive
but everything else is cheap
and she’ll have a flat by then
so it’ll be no trouble
if i want to sleep
on her floor for a while.

 

 

 

Oh boy, america.

 

oh boy
america
you really
make it hard
to want to live in you
the way
the news comes out now
over the sea
and yet
i do
i really do,
specifically
i want to live
in new york,
scabbed land
tamed from treelines to burning campfire skyscrapers,
i want to live in you
listening to people
talk like movies
talk
like someone typed their dialogue in a cafe –
cats sitting on bread in bodegas when i buy cigarettes,
people in parks
having conversations about
anything –
i’ve been twice now
and everything
only deepened my lust to live
in you;
the crank
of the L,
the smoke coming out of dustbins,
but oh
boy america
the news is bad for moving,
the green card lottery
is all burning down,
the borders are closing,
the evening getting long,
snow
is creeping over the mountains
and birds that sing,
bluebirds and jays and skyhawks
when dawn comes
like a thief
in the morning.

 

 

 

BIO

DS Maolalai recently returned to Ireland after four years away, now spending his days working maintenance dispatch for a bank and his nights looking out the window and wishing he had a view. His first collection, Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden, was published in 2016 by Encircle Press. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

 

 

 

0

I Know

by Laura Fletcher

 

It was a fine, large-windowed restaurant she led him into, their heads already a little light from the martinis at the first bar. She wore a dress that brushed just the top of her knees, and fit pleasingly over the parts of her body that were beginning to warp with age. His shoes were shined and his blazer was well-tailored over shoulders that seemed used to stooping. He was holding her hand; her laugh was just a bit breathy.

A gentleman led them to a booth by a broad window; she pulled her wrap around herself as the outside chill seeped in through the glass. She paused for a moment on her reflection, her eyes deeply shadowed. Through the dark pane of her face, she could see flakes of snow lazily swinging their way to the ground. Her breath caught in her throat as she came to herself. Her hand squeezed the inside of her opposite elbow, the nails biting the flesh. She did not cry. She turned back to the gentleman, her eyes shining, and ordered a Manhattan. She would try not to resurface again.

Her husband regarded her, his brow furrowed, lips poised for a smile, hoping he could smile. She turned back to him. “What? We’re celebrating. And we’ll get wine, too!” she said, her eyes bright; her jaw set. He smiled a little pityingly, looking down at the table. “Yes, celebrating. Yes,” he replied; he paused as she smiled back at him, glad, but not showing her teeth. He continued: “It is a big, big deal. You should be proud.”

“We’ll pay off the house, and Cameron will be set for college, if tuition hasn’t tripled by the time he gets there.” She was ever practical in the face of transformative things.

“Even if it has, he’ll still be covered. And we could move – find somewhere bigger, by the river.” His eyes began to grow a little misty, the two martinis helping him see a back porch overlooking a gentle, green slope, a little dock, the constant, quiet hum of the water, of things that do not end.

“You know I won’t leave her house,” she said, low and direct, bringing him back to the tablecloth, the candle, how it shone on her hair. “Of course,” he said. “I know.”

Her Manhattan and his gin and tonic arrived. She thanked the waiter in a throaty way, making her eyes luminously grateful as they met his. He nodded curtly, but flushed a little. She found herself smiling – these moments of radiance were so few and far between now. She cherished them when they did arrive; she felt herself swelling with potency and potential, with power, as though there might still be things ahead after all. She took a long sip of her Manhattan, as though it could keep her there in that emitting state.

“So, what do you think; are we going to retire?” her husband asked with some joviality, as the warmth of his wife’s glow seeped into his fingertips. She bestowed her shining gaze on him and laughed, “Jonesing to be a house husband?”

“Jonesing to be a man of leisure!” and the little dock came back to him, evening, himself in a white Adirondack chair, bourbon, a book, Cameron.

They laughed together.

“$41 million…” he said, shaking his head. “It’s remarkable. You are a remarkable woman.”

Now she blushed a little, looking down, a rushing in her ears, her fist clenching below the table, every sense on high alert. And then her husband touched her other hand and she was back, dimmed, but present again. They looked at each other. He could sense tremors that perhaps she herself did not even feel yet, and scrambled to draw her gently away from them.

“Have you told anyone at the firm?” he asked, pointing towards what he hoped was a safer harbor.

“Just that we won, not how much or anything – that seemed gauche. Well, Amelia asked specifically so I told her, but that’s all.”

“It’s lucky for us they’ve been so supportive.”

“It’s counting as pro bono hours for them, so everyone’s getting what they want,” she replied. A tremor. Her eyes dropped to the table, hearing her own words, her throat catching, her eyes welling suddenly as she looked back at her good, kind husband and he, having been poised at the ready swiftly took her two hands, pressing her palms together and casing them with his, murmuring in as deep a voice as he could muster, “I know, Turtle. I know.”

“I don’t want this,” she whispered, her lashes glittering.

“I know. Me too. Me either. I know,” he whispered back, his own breath catching in his throat, leaning in as he pressed her hands again. They breathed together for a moment, then she pulled back, shaking her head, touching the corner of her eyes. “Okay. It was for Cameron. This changes things for him.”

“For us,” her husband interjected, touching his own eyes.

“Yes. Ok, yes. For us. This was for us.”

The waiter glided up to present them an amuse bouche from the chef, and to take their order if they were ready but there was no rush. They needed a moment to look over the menu.

He swallowed whole his spoonful-worth of whatever it was in one gulp; she perused the menu silently, decided, and sipped her spoon, watching him closely, still curious after all these years. He held the menu flat on the table and leaned over it, seeking without scrutinizing the first acceptable option he could find, which she already knew was the portobello ravioli.

She would test herself. “What do you think?”

“Ravioli.”

“It was the first thing,” she laughed, right again, the corner of her mouth twisting. His smile was wide, sheepish, caught.

“It was the first thing.”

They linked hands across the table, as though he were going to kiss her fingers, swear fealty to her. He met her eyes, “You’re still my first thing.”

She pulled her chin down, almost blushing. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

The waiter returned. Their hands slid back to their respective sides. He took their order and departed. She sank back in her chair, staring somewhere past the top of her husband’s head. She slowly turned her glass, with just the tips of her fingers. She had meant to say something, there had been something…but the space before her eyes wavered towards its center, her head was light, her arms felt heavy. She drank half her water and contemplated the final mouthfuls of her Manhattan. Her stomach rose a bit toward the back of her throat as she thought of the wine that was already on its way. She sipped her water again and excused herself to the ladies’ room. Her husband grabbed her hand as she passed, and she leaned down to kiss him, touching his face.

 

He waited as she walked away, then gently touched his temples. His throat constricted suddenly; his eyes watered. His breath came out in a tight cough. His hands came together, covering his face for a moment, then pulled down to his chin as he took in a deep breath. He blinked hard, and busied himself with stirring the end of his drink.

 

She was leaning forward over the edge of the sink, observing herself in the mirror. She reached to smooth the makeup that had caked slightly in the line from her nose to the corner of her mouth. She thought again how she looked like her mother – not the way her mother looked now, but the way her mother looked when she thought of her, how her mother would have been about her age when she looked like this. And in a rush, she felt herself stretching back along the chain of mothers and daughters that led to her, the final, broken link, limp with disconnect. Her face contorted horribly as she ran the water to drown it out, but it came anyway, her mother’s voice on the phone, first with extreme pathos, then rising with hysteria, “What? She…what?” and her own inability to repeat the words, forming them with dry, heaving sobs, her mother slowly joining her as the infidelity of death settled over them both. Like a malevolent, runaway train, there was no way to stop this once it had begun – it just had to be ridden out. She clung to the sides of the sink, eyes pressed tight, until the many-fingered demons clutching her heart and lungs began to relax their vicious grip.

She shook her head, patted a wet towel to her cheeks and chest, and pushed through the door to her husband.

 

The back of his neck came into view first: a patch of clean skin above his stooped shoulders, and she would have briefly hated his bad posture and misaligned collar if they were not so familiar to her, and she was ready to accept anything recognizable, solid, distracting. She ran her hand over his shoulder as she passed him. He started, looking up at her, and beamed. She smiled as she sat across from him, her lips pressed together. She looked down until he broke the silence welling up between them. “We could talk a little about her.”

“What else is there to say? We’ve told every story.” Her voice was like sandpaper over skin.

“Well…we could retell our favorites…” he stumbled, “and maybe there are some we haven’t told – I just…I was just remembering what her sneeze sounded like, just a huffy little cry and not a real sneeze, just a little baby sneezy sound.”

It had been just like that. This little bundle of miraculous continuity she had not even been sure she had wanted, but who had arrived and who could sneeze. It had become as familiar as an old cardigan, this vertigo sensation, as her stomach dropped and she curled in on herself, her shoulders wrapping forward like inverse wings. She knew that if she let herself contract, if she could bite the inside of her lip and twist her toes uncomfortably against the inside of her shoes and squeeze her eyes shut, it would pass – it would wrench through her, her grief a medieval torture device, and then it could be contained and then she could return to the world. He was right. She had not thought about that little sneeze. What a gift, what a precious gift: a sneeze, a rough pearl to add to the string of others rubbed to a bright polish with remembering.

She laughed, a small, genuine, grateful laugh, and began to decontract. “Yes, okay, yes. Let’s talk about her a little.” Her mascara had smudged in the corner of one eye, and he stared at it, suddenly fixated on how she was always like this, how so much armor had so many cracks, how it just took one good pry to pull the whole thing apart, how she was infuriating in her righteousness but also sometimes had smudged mascara and he just wanted to cup her cheek and rub it away with his thumb.

The wine arrived. The bottle was good. The waiter poured, and departed.

“So, what else have you got? What else have you been keeping from me?” she asked laughingly, trying to bring some brightness back to her eyes. His face fell as though struck, shoulders stooping even more.

“You know I don’t keep anything from you.” His voice was hurt, quiet. He was looking down.

“Oh Turtle, you know I didn’t mean it like that!” She floundered, “I didn’t mean anything – I know you don’t.” She reached across the table, opening her hand for his. “I’m so sorry…I just want more…more of her…and her sneeze,” her eyes welled, she sniffed, “that was so good, such a good one. I just want to talk more about her.”

He laid his hand in hers. She gripped it. After a moment, and without looking up yet, he gripped it back.

“I have another – it was before you went back to work – maybe one of the first times we all got out of the house, and it was just going to the diner, and she was asleep and Cameron was being good and when we got there, he wanted to push her stroller.” He had been speaking with his eyes half-closed, methodically but with vague anticipation, until here where an electric shock went through them both. He snapped to face her, his eyes wide. “It wasn’t that one, it was the old one. Cameron’s old one.” They both relaxed, imperceptibly. He pressed on. “He just wanted to push it, but he was really too little, and you stood behind him and had your hands over his hands on the handles and I was walking a little ahead and I just kept looking back at you and him and her and I just kept saying ‘This is my family, this is my family, this is my family,’ and you know I almost cried in that parking lot with my heart fit to burst?”

“This is your family,” she said, her voice tight and tender.

He looked up at her, reaching his other hand up to grip hers with both. “Yes –” he blinked hard. “I love you.”

“Always. Through everything.”

“Yes.”

They sat quietly for a moment, seeing each other. With a squeeze of his fingers, she leaned back. “I have one.” She twisted her wine glass in her fingers, then sipped it. “It was Christmas,” she paused, her breath caught in her throat, her face crumpled. “Her only Christmas….” He dropped his head too, wrung his hands while she raised her napkin to her face. They were both quiet for a moment, composing themselves. With an audible heave, she began again. “It was Christmas, and she was down for a nap…it must have been Christmas afternoon…I guess everyone was napping, because I’d fallen asleep in that big arm chair in her room. I came to with these quiet little sounds nearby – it was your dad. He was standing over her crib, holding her feet while she kicked, singing these little songs to her and she was, you know, making those little happy sounds back at him, and then I realized he’d pulled a blanket over me and I just thought ‘Oh, he’s a good protector. He’ll protect her.’” She swallowed hard, her voice cracking again. “And I didn’t say anything and I kinda smiled a little and went back to sleep thinking…thinking how…how safe we were.”

She sniffled lightly, glancing up to see the waiter gliding to the side of the table, plates in hand. She looked to her husband, his face inscrutable, trying its best to rearrange itself now that a stranger had shattered the thin, glass bubble they had blown for themselves, where they imagined themselves invisible, or at least alone, the sounds of the world muffled, they the only real things, the protagonists.

“Madame, your risotto, and sir for you, the ravioli.”

“Thank you…thank you, it looks lovely.”

“Our pleasure. Is there anything else you need at the moment?”

“No, thank you…no, that’s all.”

“Enjoy!” He glided away.

They were both quiet as he faded, each touching their forks but not eating yet.

“That’s what they were doing, you know.” He was now staring at her intently, gesturing slightly with one hand. She furrowed her brow. “They were keeping her safe. It was supposed to be the safest stroller in the world.”

“Mhmm.” Her voice was flat, but her chin raised slightly, edging it with challenge. He held her gaze, then sat back, slightly stunned. “You blame them. You still blame them?” He shook his head. “I don’t believe it. You still…do you?” His welling fury passed suddenly to the pleading of a small child. “Do you?”

He hunched forward, his shoulders round, his mouth open. He scrutinized her bowed face. He spoke haltingly, like a growl. “As far as anyone knew, it was the safest stroller in the world.”

Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her lips were thin. The floor seemed to tilt below her and she shook her head ever so slightly. “It wasn’t, though,” she barely whispered.

“Of course it wasn’t, of course. They just paid us $41 million because they were cheats and liars, and in this one, single, devastating case, murderers. But my parents did not know that,” he was almost shouting now, his face red with grief, indignation, wine. “They didn’t know; of course they didn’t know; no one knew…no one knew.”

The bubble that had ballooned around them faded again. Other tables came slowly into focus, sounds became louder, or more particularly, the immediate quiet surrounding them became louder, until they were forced to look around, to glance momentarily at the couples trying not to glance momentarily at them. His face reddened more deeply. She found his gaze, held it, hardening herself against what she was about to say. He waited, the hairs on the back of his neck rising in panic, in protest.

“Our baby is dead, and we are getting paid for it.”

She said it like it was something he did not already know. With complete clarity, he felt himself hurling his glass to the ground, enjoying the sharp shatter, shoving the table and all its contents into a magnificent and representative heap, he heard himself screaming that she was not the only parent, that his grief was also a pit that reached from his stomach to the center of the earth that no houses by the river or gin and tonics or other children could fill or close or even lessen – that he knew and he knew and he knew.

He convulsed from everything it took to control himself, and then his slumped shoulders slumped yet again toward the still-intact table. She waited, not sure if she was poised for fight or flight; the table, a tangle of plates, and one small, mangled body the only things lying between them.

He found he was still clutching his fork, and he gently laid it by his plate. He laid his hand beside it, his fingers lightly splayed. “I know,” he said, staring at the empty space in the middle of the table. “We could donate it all away, we could get divorced, we could take it out on Cameron, we could cut ties with my parents, we could commit suicide, we could both join a monastery and never speak again…and it won’t bring her back. It won’t make her even one tiny little bit less dead than she is now.”

She regarded him levelly, her chin jutted forward, her arms crossed. And then it was her shoulders that slumped, her cheeks that grew hot. There was nothing to fight, or to flee. “I know.”

He reached his hand across the table, asking for hers again. She stood instead, swinging around the table and sliding into the booth beside him, crushing herself against his wrinkled suit, his warm side. She turned her face up to his, the corners of her mouth raised in a question, an apology. He smiled back, touching the corner of his eye and reaching his other arm around her shoulders. He kissed her forehead, then adjusted his plate and, one-handedly, began to eat. She pulled her plate across the table and, between small hiccoughs, almost like a baby’s sneeze, began to eat too.

 

 

BIO

Laura Fletcher studied creative writing at Princeton University; her work has previously appeared in The Nassau Literary Review and Wax Antlers. She has been an educator, entrepreneur, consultant, product manager, and apprentice baker, though is happiest when she is a writer. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado and finds the mountains a great comfort.

 

 

 

 

 

Female, Age Twenty, In Need of a Diagnosis

by Eimile Bowden

 

 

“Female, age twenty-four, experiencing nausea, sweating, and excruciating pelvic pain.”

Sounds like a burst ovarian cyst.

“Let’s do an ultrasound to look at her ovaries.”

Called it.

“Male, age forty-five, suffering from migraines, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound,

and says he feels like he’s ‘living in a movie.’”

Concussion. It’s a concussion.

“Sir, have you hit your head recently?”

“Well, I work in construction and I was-”

Thought so.

“Female, age sixty-five, discomfort while urinating, lower back pain, and-”

UTI turned bladder infection. Easy.

“Take a urine sample.”

Classic.

I love hospitals, especially a late-night trip to the emergency room. This one is no different, it brings me the same amount of twisted joy as any other unexpected hospital visit. I run my fingers over the thin sheets that cover the lumpy mattress as I listen to the symphony of machines and voices that only a medical institution can provide. I hit the jackpot with this room; it’s near one of the nurses’ stations so I can eavesdrop on my fellow patients’ cases. There is a soft knock on the wall and my curtain opens. The nurse rambles off my symptoms and I nod along with her, even though she isn’t looking for my approval.

“Female, age twenty, experiencing nausea, vomiting, migraines, and general body aches. Not pregnant, blood work looks fairly normal, but she is a little dehydrated and we should keep her on fluids.”

“It looks like a bad case of the stomach flu,” the doctor responds with a sigh.

I knew it.

“Sounds good!” I reply.

The nurse pushes her eyebrows together but doesn’t ask. The doctor leaves the room quietly with a friendly but bored smile. He’d rather be examining someone who swallowed a screwdriver or a patient with a tapeworm from an exotic vacation.

I try an old joke of my father’s to lighten the mood.

“Well, at least you don’t have to amputate.”

The nurse glances at me and presses her lips into a long thin line. This nurse doesn’t think I’m funny. I bet she thinks I’m an asshole for trying to joke about something like amputation. Maybe she’s seen people lose limbs or is an amputee herself. It’d probably make it worse if I asked about her limbs or lack thereof.

She hands over papers that have the Answer, and marks where I need to sign. The Answer paper is always explicitly clear. I can depend on its thorough explanation of the visit and diagnosis, followed by neat bulleted lists of home remedies and treatment options. There is no room for vagueness or unclear messages. There is only permanent black ink on clean white paper and I am comforted by its clarity, it’s definiteness and assuredness. I tear off my copy and hand the signed portion to the nurse who does not think I’m funny.

 

 

BIO

Eimile Bowden is a recent college graduate, pop culture enthusiast, and avid supporter of the arts. This is her first published piece.

 

 

 

0

Deception of Tulips

by Zoë Christopher

 

 

They discard their juicy
flesh and descend
into a riot of sea creatures,
jewel-hued petals throwing off
their gracious curves
in favor of eccentric contortions
and seductive grinds,
a raucous drunken party
where stem legs surrender to mush
in an inebriated collapse.

Their broader succulent
petal limbs wizen
into soft angular joints,
twisting into bony contemporary
dance interpretations.

It leaves me slightly dazed.

When the ovary has dried
stigma loses its magic,
and I lie down at last
exhausted and spent,
my perfect head resting
on the table.

 

 

A Crime He Can’t Remember

 

I.
Mr. P is not among the current litigants.
He has undergone counseling, has no grudge
against the Order.

Do not wear bluejeans. No low-cut sweaters.
Wear slacks. Do not wear heels. No stockings.
These guys haven’t touched a woman in years.
Make simple conversation. Be attentive.
Keep your chin down.

II.
Mr. P has been criticized, particularly because
he routinely speaks on behalf of the Order
and advises victims to reconcile.

Standard haircuts. Time-weary men in blue
work shirts, cuffed and belted jeans,
institutional shoes. Impeccable fingernails.
The air is smoldering and heavy.
Eye contact must never linger.
Thanks so much for coming.

III.
It’s 2017 and Mr. P stands at a podium,
and I can’t hear his poems. I want to unravel
his cool-headed gaze.

I search those soft eyes for crazy,
trace the line of his jaw looking
for a stinging snap, a bite. I conjure
laugh lines but there are none.
We small-talk, cupping hands.
He is dead serious.

IV.
Mr. P applauds the friars for facing the problem long
before the nationwide scandal broke. He helps both
them and their victims deal with the aftermath.

I see him draped in black robes himself,
the priest with that holy light
beneath the skin, a radiant sorrow.
What’s he in for?
In seminary and prisons
we must never ask. Most do time
for a crime he can’t remember.

 

 

The 23 Helping Verbs

 

I am eight, standing halfway down the stairs when I learn she’s dead.
I go blind with the shock of loss
               is be been am are
               was were has have had
knowing her broad lap and cushioned arms will never hold me again.

I am eleven and his white smooth hands touch me in the pool house.
His half-naked and trembling body presses against my belly
               do does did
               may can might
me wishing I’d never learned to swim.

I am fourteen and her father washes her mouth out with soap.
He slaps her once for each piece of clothing she left on the floor
               could must shall will
               should would being
sending her away to clean herself before grabbing between my legs.

I am eighteen and my mother pummels me, pounding my head.
Like a fetus I curl on the floor
               do does did
               may can might
giving up my future, an unwed pregnant teen.

And now you, receding into dementia,
fading quickly so that I will not catch you.
I lean against the closed door,
fists clenched, sucking in my rage
               could must shall will
               should would being
reciting my helping verbs when no one else can.

 

 

 

BIO

Zoë Christopher is a photographer and writer who published her first poem at 16. Soon after she was sidetracked, putting food on the table as an ice-cream truck driver, waitress, medical assistant, addictions counselor, astrologer, art installer, bookseller, Holotropic breathworker, and trainer of psychospiritual crisis support. (She didn’t get paid for milking goats, teaching photography, or raising her son!) She holds a Masters in transpersonal psychology and spent 20+ years working in adolescent and adult crises intervention. Her poems have been published by great weather for MEDIA and WordsDance.

 

 

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