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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.

The Fancy Thing

Mysterious All-Electric Eyes

Blue Birds

Green Hell

Sprinkles

Wonder Wizard

Mean Girls Club

Ed

Cinderella Starfish

Frog Wife

High Fivesies

Pleasure Planet



ABOUT:

Ryan Heshka is an artist and illustrator, born in Manitoba, Canada. He spent a lot of his childhood drawing, building cardboard cities and making super 8 films. Formally trained in interior design, he is self-taught as an artist. Ryan’s illustrations have appeared in publications such as Vanity Fair, Esquire, Playboy, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and others, as well as art magazines, American Illustration and Communication Arts. His artwork has been featured on the cover of BLAB!, and his work has been featured at galleries in North America (Roq La Rue, Seattle, WA; Richard Heller, LA; Copro Nason, LA; Orbit Gallery, NJ; Rotofugi, Chicago) and Europe (Feinkust Kruger, Germany; Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea, Italy). Ryan’s work is known for its surreal scenes, humor, pop culture references and visual language similar to comics and cartoons. He lives and works in Vancouver.

Ryan Heshka Art

https://www.instagram.com/ryanheshka/?hl=en

Pauline Butcher Bird is a unique and remarkable historian. Not only does she write about life in Los Angeles during the wild and wonderful 1960s and 1970s, she actually lived it. Her fantastic book, Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa, is a personal account of her life when she lived with Frank Zappa and his family in their legendary Laurel Canyon home. The “Log Cabin” as it was known had become Rock ‘n’ Roll central in the spring/summer of 1968. Pauline, a British citizen, found herself mixed up in this wild life of big personalities—and was clever enough to write it all down as it happened. Her memoir of this time is one of the best books on life in the famous Canyon.

Pauline graciously agreed to an interview and let us know a little bit more about her life and work. Thank you Pauline!

Pauline Butcher Bird

How long did it take you to write Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa? When did you first begin the book?

Freak Out! Started as a radio play. A producer was working with me but Germaine Greer got wind of it and made her own documentary on Frank Zappa (full of errors) and the BBC said they would not do two programs on Frank Zappa in one year, and mine was dropped. I was so mad, I decided to turn it into a memoir. I wrote to every suitable publisher in the Writers’ and Artists’ book saying I was writing this memoir about Frank Zappa and 12 wrote back and said send the chapters, so I knew I had a marketable product. Of course, I hadn’t written any at that time! But

The period your wrote about is from 1967-1971. The book was published in 2011. What was it like to relive all those memories some forty years later?

It would not have been possible without my diaries and more importantly, the letters I wrote to England which both my mother and my close friend kept. It took me nine months to type these out into chronological order and it was from these that the memories came back.

Why did you decide to write a book at that time in your life?

I have always wanted to be a writer, but my life was taken up with raising our son. I was a very hands-on mother. I don’t know how female writers who have children manage it. But when our only child, Damian, left for university, and my husband was constantly abroad with his work, I knew I had no excuses left. This would be 2001. I spent six years sending off play after play to the BBC until a producer told me, ‘Write something that no one else can write,’ and I thought my Zappa experience is the only story that no one else could write. So, I wrote it as a radio play as I state in my answer to your first question.

So, six years after struggling to get a play on the radio, and Germaine Greer intervened, I began the memoir, and it took four years to finish it. Therefore, from the moment I decided to write, after Damian went to university, and publication in 2011, it was ten years.

Your book is very well written, extremely engaging and highly detailed. I often felt like I was there with you. Did you keep a diary of this period in your life?

Absolutely. I have kept a diary all my life. But the letters were more informative and thank goodness my mother kept them in a shoebox for 40 years because I wrote them in great detail, some of them ten page long, as if I was writing a novel.

Pauline and Frank Zappa

What do you remember most about living in the log cabin? Looking back, was it like being in another world?

It was. As you know, I wrote the memoir very much ‘in the moment’ and did not look back and make judgements from today’s perspective. Now I am able to do so.

Looking back, many questions are raised in my mind. For example, Frank and Gail were newly married with a young baby, just like millions of other young couples. So why did he choose to live in a huge rambling house in the middle of Laurel Canyon and have living with them eight others? And in the process, he ignored us all. Only once in the five months we lived at the log cabin did Frank join us in the kitchen to socialize. We had to tip-toe round him.

I remember feeling buffeted between Pamela Zarubica and Gail. I was out of my depth with those two and was never sure if they were friends or foe which gave me a constant feeling of unease and anxiety.

And of course, the man with the gun, a terrifying experience which I’m not sure if I adequately conveyed in the book.

On the other hand, I loved the experience, despite the house being such a wreck although as I describe, I did make my own room the jewel in the crown as it were.

Paradoxically, I loved the times when Frank was away, although I missed him and wrote letters to him when he was away telling him so. Which is why I think when he returned after two weeks away the first time, he knocked on my door and wished me good night. I remember that moment.

But when he was away, we had lots of fun in the house, especially later on, when no one bothered to visit any more, and it was just the ‘family’. We showed films and played silly games.

Talk about the writing process. How did you begin the book? Was it written chronologically? How long did it take to write a chapter?

I wrote the first chapters in Australia because we were travelling at that time. I still have them, and they are awful.

I wrote the chapters chronologically, following my letters and diary entries and as they appear in the book. Of course, the first part, in England, was done completely from memory, but the whole experience of meeting Frank Zappa in London was imprinted on my mind because it was so life-changing.

As were the two meetings in New York though they were more hazy because my sisters were very against any connection with Frank Zappa, his image of a drug-crazed hippy not helping!

I sent the first three chapters to my agent, Laura Susijn, and she wrote back and said, ‘Can you make it more literary?’ She was also concerned when she read more chapters that I was not conveying the charisma and dynamism of Frank Zappa that got to me personally. So I had to make those changes.

How do you write — at a computer, in a certain place, at a certain time? Describe your work space?

We were in Australia six weeks, and then on to Singapore. The book was written in Singapore. We had a huge mansion set in two acres of land with a pool outside under jungle trees. There I sat, under the arbor, each day.

We had a live-in maid who lived in a two-roomed cottage in the grounds. She brought our breakfast in the breakfast room, our coffee, lunch and afternoon tea outside under the arbour by the pool, and dinner inside. I helped her one hour a day to dust away cobwebs and such in the eves and skirtings as an attempt to keep lizards at bay – I was terrified of them.

So, I had the whole day to write, and even so, it took over two years. My husband and son kept urging me to send it off, which I did, and I regret because it got published straight away, and I wish I had put it in the drawer for three months as you are advised to do and then read it and edit again.

My publisher is putting out my revised re-structured version in August this year. It takes out many of the peripheral characters, brings most of the stuff about the Mothers together instead of all over the place, and ditto Gail and the GTOs.

I am present writing a novel and try to start in the morning but I usually find there are e-mails and phone calls and domestic issues to deal with, and I always stop for coffee and while listening to an audio book, or BBC radio 4, I solve a killer sudoku to keep the maths side of my brain awake.

So, usually it is after lunch when I start writing with a break for a short walk with my husband. I continue into the evening, usually till 10pm.

I sometimes write sections by hand, but mostly it’s at the computer. I am a fan of Anne Tyler, and she writes her novels by hand, then types, and then writes it all out again by hand! I don’t have the patience, but I have tried writing out certain sections by hand after I’ve typed them. But overall, I would say mostly I write at the typewriter.

Who edits or sees your work first?

No one except me. I had no editor. It was published as I wrote it.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What books did you read? Who were your favorite authors?

Yes, an avid reader. I don’t remember what I read as a child, but as a teenager, I read everything I could get hold of but again, I don’t remember what. I presume it was romantic female novels.

When I was in California and after I stopped working for Frank full time, I visited every few days a local book shop on Melrose Avenue. I decided to work my way through the fiction section starting in alphabetical order of author’s names, and started with ‘A’. If I liked the author, then I read others by that author, but if not, I moved on. I don’t remember where exactly I got to, but I think it was about ‘G’ which, paradoxically, included the newly published and sensational The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer.

The writers I turn to while I’m writing are:
• Anne Tyler – everyone of her books except those with a male protagonist.
• Gone With the Wind – no explanation needed
• J M Coetzee – Boyhood, Youth, both of which I think are wonderful
And of course, I believe I’ve read every ‘how to . . . . ‘ write novels/be a better writer genre that is going.

The GTOs at the log cabin

Have you been back to Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain since you lived there? Would you like to return again?

We returned in 2008. My husband and I had dinner with Gail in the Valley. She did not mention Frank once but wanted to talk about Bill Clinton whom she’d met at the White House after she’d donated to his campaign.

She showed me round the house which I did not recognize as they had made so many changes.

We visited the site of the log cabin which of course was a wild site, no sign of the house, and all the others mentioned in the book.

What are some of your favorite rock ‘n’ roll memoirs?

I don’t have any.

What are you working on now? How is the process different? Has your writing changed?

I am writing a novel set in the 2nd World War and finding it very difficult. I am 80% way through. I just want to get it finished!

Was there a wine cellar in the basement of the log cabin?

There was a vault and that may have been used as a wine cellar, but not in Frank’s time. The GTOs used it to write their songs. It had pine walls.

Did they call Frank Zappa’s home on the lot a “Tree House” back then?

No. It was called the log cabin. The tree house was simply the end part of the house above the kitchen and my office. It was Calvin’s apartment and was called the tree house because the enormous tree at the end of the house had a stair-case wrapped round it that led up to a balcony sticking out from the bedroom up there and you could step across from the metal staircase on to that balcony. But the real entrance to the ‘tree house’ was up wooden stairs outside the back door and they left up to the main door into that apartment that was called the ‘tree house’.

Did anyone ever mention architect Robert Byrd in connection with the log cabin? He allegedly built one of the structures on the property?

No.

How do you want people to remember Frank Zappa and Gail Zappa?

Not a question for me to answer.

Who are you favorite authors today? What are you reading currently?

I’ve listed those above. I also like ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ‘Alone in Berlin’ but I can’t remember the author’s names. I’m currently reading everything about life during the second world war.

Talk about the letters you wrote to your mother back then. How long were they, how often did you write her, etc.?

Some of them were ten pages long or even longer, single spaced on American A4 size sheets. I wrote every week in the beginning, sometimes more often. As I became immersed in my life there and no longer an outsider but part of the team as it were, I wrote less and less. This is shown in the memoir which has 200 pages on the log cabin and 100 pages after we left.

Did you take any mementos with you when you left working for Frank Zappa?

I have a lock of Frank’s hair that Frank gave me when he was having his hair cut in the bathroom.

Pauline, 1971

If Frank wasn’t married at the time, would you have been interested in having a serious relationship with him?

Yes. But I think I would have been swallowed up. I could not have coped with his womanizing. I have every admiration for Gail’s stamina to have withstood it all.

What is your life like now? What do you do for fun?

We have had a year of lockdown. My husband was an academic when I met him, but became a banker and adviser on gas/electricity/oil/nuclear power stations. We live a comfortable life. Our son lives in London and we have not seen him since Christmas because of Covid-19. We are soon to get our second jabs, so life should start to open up again. We socialise by inviting our friends here. I love the theatre and cinema but all that has been on hold.

Do you spend more time writing, or editing your work?

The two are interchangeable. They run together – write, edit, write, edit.

Any advice for anyone wishing to write a memoir?

Don’t try to write your whole life. Choose a section. Know the ending.

Try to make each chapter change in emotion – happy to sad, unknowing to knowing, anger to peace, and so on and vice versa.

Make each event cause the next event – the biggest difference apparently between those who get published and those who don’t. They just write random events. It doesn’t work.

What music do you listen to today?

BBC Radio 3. Classical

Do you have a timeline for the book you’re currently writing?

Yes, but I’ve already over-run it.

How much research is involved with your current project? Is it all online, do you spend time at the library as well?

Masses. My dining table is covered with books by people who lived through the war.

What is your favorite Zappa album?

I don’t have one. I have been promising myself since time began to make my own because I like some tracks from each album, but not all the tracks.

Was anyone living in the Houdini mansion across the street during your stay at the log cabin? Did you ever visit inside the home?

No.

Pauline’s book has been translated into several languages.

I love the ending of your book. Talk about what happened next, and what you did for the next five years.

I went to Cambridge university, studied economics and psychology. Met my husband. Moved to Scotland. Lived there for seven years where our son, Damian, was born. Lived in Norway, Australia and Singapore. We are now back in England.

Thank you for taking part in this interview.

http://paulinebutcher.com/


“The Language of Flowers”

by Jennifer Lorene Ritenour


When I think about Amá’s death it comes in pieces and the memories, they’re all out of order, as if someone took them and shook them around in my head. The first memory is always different, but the last memory is always the same, with her being in a box. Right now, I’m thinking about her hair. It was thick, wavy, and soft brown, and in the light it had a little red in it. She didn’t have much of a waist but she had great legs. Thick in the thighs without being like Jell-O. She wore tight mini-skirts to show them off. The men whistled and she would smile. She drove them loco. It always made me laugh because I know she did it to mess with them.

*

Nicole lived in the apartment next to us. I felt bad for her because one time I heard all this yelling coming from her house, and then the next thing I heard was crying outside my window. I pulled up the blinds and I saw Nicole sitting there in the dirt where a bush should be. I opened my window and talked to her through the screen and asked her what was wrong. She just kept crying. I told her that she couldn’t be crying all night underneath my window, so she had to tell me what was up. And she got real quiet. She said that her parents were fighting and she didn’t want to be there anymore, with them. I told her that I had to sleep. We have school tomorrow. She didn’t move and kept sniffling. I told her that I didn’t want to hear her sniffles all night. Eventually, I took off the screen door and let her crawl into my window. She slept on the floor.

*

Amá used to say that she had a tickle in her throat. It wasn’t a deep cough but more like a hacking sound. When she’d finished coughing she’d grab a Ricola and suck on it. She kept a bag of them in her purse. I got tired of seeing her reach for those medicine candies. I told her to go to the doctor. I have no insurance mija, she would say. I told her to go to the free clinic. Her eyes looked foggy, like an old dog or something.

*

Amá taught me the sign of the cross and The Lord’s Prayer when I was real little. She’d said I didn’t need anything else. One day when she was dropping me off at school and we were stopped at a red light she asked me if I remembered the prayer and the sign of the cross. So, I showed her. A black mascara tear rolled out from underneath her sunglasses and she said, Nothing can get in the way between you and God.

*

I used to go to the liquor store after school. This guy from Iran owned it. I know he was from Iran because I asked him. His store sold Mexican candy and it was close to my house so I would always get Lucas there. The chili powder kind. It comes in a little plastic salt shaker. You shake it into your hand and then lick it. I brought Nicole there after she slept on my floor for the first time. She said she didn’t like hot things. So, I bought her limón flavored. She held out her hand, and I remember thinking how it looked like a scared white bird. I shook the candy into her palm. And she looked at me and she looked at the stuff in her hand, and I knew she was thinking that I gave her salt, but I told her it was okay. I poured some in my hand up and I dipped my tongue into my palm and she smiled. Then she dipped her tongue into her palm and smacked her lips and said it was okay.

*

My abuelos came to visit us from San Pedro, we lived in Riverside, and they sat on the couch and talked to each other in Spanish. I didn’t know hardly anything they talked about. I knew only the simple things. ¿Hola, cómo estás? And some of the bad words. Pinche. What I knew was useless. Sometimes my Abuelo would smile at me and I would smile back all awkward. My Abuelita, well, she couldn’t even look at me without sadness at that time. I think it was because she was ashamed of the sin I was born from, because my parents weren’t married, and probably because my dad left us. I only saw them during the holidays up until that point. When Amá  got sick we just sat on the couch and looked at our hands when we heard her coughing in the bathroom.

*

I remember once when we went to visit my abuelos in San Pedro and stayed the night. Amá wanted to take me to my first bonfire. It was just me and her at Cabrillo Beach though. My abuelos didn’t feel like going. Amá had on an orange-colored bikini, a white cover-up, gold sandals and she looked like a freaking Goddess. It was night, and we were sitting in front of the fire. I wore my regular clothes. Three men sat at a bonfire next to us. One was Mexican like us. They drank beers and sang songs to Amá. She laughed but it wasn’t a real laugh, it was a fake one, because she whimpered a little at the end. She was scared. And I just stared into the fire because I didn’t want to be around that. Then I felt really uncomfortable, like something was on my back, and I looked to the side and one of the men was looking at me all nasty. You know, where their eyes become slits. And he quietly puckered his lips. That’s when Amá said it was time to go and when we got into the car she cursed in Spanish about men and then complained in English that she can’t even take her daughter to the damn beach.

*

I had woken up all scared and sweaty. But I couldn’t remember my nightmare. Something about losing teeth. Nicole was sleeping on my floor that night, and my sheets were too damp. So, I got out of bed and I lay down next to her on the cool floor.

*

I remember one doctor visit at the clinic. Me and my abuelos and Amá. She was gone inside one of those little rooms. The doctor came out and said a bunch of Spanish to my Abuelos. My Abuelita put her hand to her chest. My Abuelo squeezed her when she said mi dios, mi dios. I knew that. I got worried. Then the doctor went back to the room and my Abuelos sat down and they had wet faces. I heard a nurse behind the counter say to the other nurse, without whispering, that she couldn’t believe that woman tried to hide it for so long, and the other one said that she would probably go soon. They didn’t think I knew English.

*

Amá used to have a picture of my dad in her wallet. It was the only picture I ever saw of him. He had thick dark hair and tanned skin, a long nose and hazel eyes. He wore a blue flannel shirt and some jeans and some boots. I had his hair, that’s it. I looked nothing like him. Except for the eyes. Amá, her eyes were a deep brown. She used to say, I thought I had a prince but he ended up being a pendejo. I’d ask her why she kept this picture then. She’d put it away quick and then say, looking down, that it was for me. 

*

Nicole had asked me what was wrong. We were in my bed, underneath the covers. It was cold, but we both had our hoodies on so I didn’t mind it much. I was crying then. I remember I couldn’t open my eyes and look at Nicole. I told her my mom was gonna die and I didn’t know why this was gonna happen and that there was nothing I could do about it. And it hurt so bad. I think it was in that moment I really felt it, before it even happened. It was like there was this burning thing in my chest and I couldn’t cry it out because I didn’t want to wake my family, and I didn’t want them to find out about Nicole sleeping in my room. She touched my face. And I opened my eyes. Nicole’s eyes were watery too. She said she didn’t know why my mom had to die. She stroked my forehead when she said this. I asked what could we do with all of this? She didn’t know. Nothing, she said. I let her hold me that night, my face in her chest. Our hot breaths under the blanket. She ran her hands through my hair and shushed me to sleep. 

*

Amá wanted to keep her hair. I found her once in the bathroom in her robe. She used to lay all day in that robe. It was pink and always looked so soft. Like she was wrapped up in cotton candy or something. I found her in the bathroom; she was sitting on the floor. Her robe had green vomit stains on it. Her hands were moving slow. And I could see her scalp. All she had were these thin wires sticking out of her head. She moved her hands over the tile like she was looking for the rest of her hair.

*

Amá came home crying once. I was sitting on the floor in front of the TV. I think I was eating macaroni and cheese. She came in holding her high heels, and there was all this make-up running down her face. She sat on the couch and lit a cigarette. Her hair was curled and framed her face like a lion. I told her she looked like a dead clown. She put her cigarette out and laughed. She laughed really loud. She asked me to come to her and I did. She wrapped her arms around me and kissed the top of my head. Mija, mija, she said. She told me that it was better to come home to a daughter then to a stupid man. She must have really thought he was the one. Whoever he was.

*

I waited for Nicole one day at the liquor store. She didn’t show up. So, I put the chili Lucas and the Limón Lucas in my backpack. When I got home, I knocked on her door. But I didn’t hear nothing. I wanted to turn the doorknob, but I was scared of her parents, these white people that yelled all the damn time but I’d never seen. I had put my face up real close to their window. Through the cracks in the blinds and I saw that her living room had nothing in it but carpet.

*

Amá was in the recliner and I was sitting at her feet. They were just like ice. Her skin, which used to be smooth and soft brown, was grey and loose. Her eyes were rolled up and her teeth were chattering. Her hair and her eyebrows were gone. She was just a round head popping up from her robe. Abuelo was holding her hand. He was on his knees, and he was asking God to help her. He said his prayer over and over to where it didn’t sound like Spanish or even English, but another language that only he and God understood. His forehead was all tight. Abuelita lit all these candles with pictures of Mary and Jesus and Saints on them. I asked her what the hell were they good for, these candles. Don’t do nothing but make the room hot. But Abuelita wouldn’t understand me, and I didn’t have the energy to try and say it in Spanish.

*

Amá sold Avon for extra money. She kept the samples she liked and convinced our neighbors to buy lipstick and rouge and all kinds of creams for their faces. On New Year’s Eve there’d be a line of women waiting to have Amá make them pretty, like her, and even if they didn’t come out looking like Amá, they came out feeling like her. Their backs straight and smiles all big.

*

One time I was sitting on a bench near the basketball courts at school during lunch; all the kids circled me and asked me where my weird friend was. The white girl who wore the same clothes every day. I knew what clothes they were talking about. A black T-shirt and a pair of dirty jeans. I told them that I didn’t know and that I couldn’t worry about it right now. And one of the girls got real sassy and said that maybe Nicole was living in a box in an alley somewhere. I told that puta not to play like that. And my eyes, I knew they had lots of anger in them because she backed off and got this fear on her face. She said that I really was weird like Nicole. Everyone left me alone. And I thought about the night Nicole held me to sleep. Then, I felt real cold. 

*

Amá was put into the hospital after her fingernails and toenails fell off. I used to rub the raw area, where the nail used to be, real light, when she was sleeping. After school I would take the bus to the hospital. I would sit in a chair in the room that Amá was put in. I would do my homework while these ladies, sometimes men, would come in and fix her wires and that little bag of water they put in her and that little bag of liquid for the pain. Amá didn’t talk much and I didn’t talk much. When she could talk she would say mija, and I would say Amá. And she would roll back. 

*

Mija, she said in a daze in front of the TV. ¿Qué? I said. The movie she was watching was Cinderella from the 1960s. The actress had brown hair, wearing her cleaning clothes, and had a perfect smudge on her white cheek. Nothing, she said. Then the fairy godmother came on the screen and waved her wand and changed Cinderella’s life. Amá laughed and said Cinderella was stupid. It’s better to be the Fairy Godmother because she can do anything she wants with that star shaped wand. I laughed too.

*

I went to the liquor store the day after Nicole was gone. I bought myself a mango sucker. I wanted something fruity. I sat on the floor against the store’s wall. The concrete was hot from the sun, so I kept my sandals on. I wanted to hear someone say: Hey.  And I wanted to look up and it be Nicole. I’d ask her where she’d been. She’d sit down next to me. She’d have cut her blonde hair short. She’d say that her parents got better jobs and that they moved into a house. That she had her own room now and she had lots of different clothes. Dresses. A light blue dress, almost silver, would look nice with her yellow hair. I’d tell her that it was a nice area, and what was she doing down here? She’d say that she wanted to find me and eat candy and ask me to live with her once Amá died. Her parents became good, like parents on TV, but this was just my daydreams.

*

The day I stopped doing my homework, I knew I was running out of time. Her eyes, the whites, turned as yellow as banana skin. Amá would shake, and finally I just couldn’t take it, and I asked the doctor why she shook and why her eyes were yellow, and he took off his glasses and he sat down and he looked at the floor and he said that her pain was so big that her painkiller had to be bigger and that plugged up her liver, which made her eyes yellow. I asked, what about the shaking, could you make her stop doing that? And he looked at me and he told me that the morphine wasn’t touching her anymore.

*

Amá sang in the bathroom while she crimped her hair. Everything from Gloria Estefan to George Michael. She didn’t sound like a Disney Princess but she didn’t crack any glasses either. Sometimes when she was on the phone outside on the porch smoking and talking, I’d go into the bathroom, stare into the medicine cabinet mirror, put on her lipstick, and sing all dramatic. She’d come back in, my lipstick already wiped off, and tell me that was a good impression.

*

I went to the liquor store and I bought the chili Lucas. The owner asked if I was sure I didn’t want the limón flavor like I always get. I told him I used to buy that one for my friend but she moved away and that I really like the chili kind. He told me he would make sure to keep the chili kind in stock. I thanked him and walked out of the store crying. I knew this was my last trip to this store because Amá was going to die and I would have to leave Riverside and live with my Abuelos in San Pedro soon. I don’t even know the store owner but he was nice to me without even knowing what was happening.

*

I remember her stomach being swollen like Amá was going to give me a brother or a sister. But I knew that it was all the sickness swelling up inside of her. My Abuelos ate downstairs at the cafeteria. I never felt like eating anything then but candy. Amá kept saying, No pueden encontrarme. And I told her that I loved her, but I don’t think she heard. Everything she said at that point was in Spanish. She would giggle, and I would get scared because she didn’t even seem like Amá anymore, she seemed like a demon with her yellow eyes. And for the first time I told God. I closed my eyes tight and I told him he did this to her and now it’s enough, that he needs to take her because her gums are red with blood now. And I opened my eyes. And I remember I saw the sickness in Amá’s stomach move. It went up the side of her chest, where her once full breast used to be. And then to her throat, like a frog, and I was scared that she was going to choke, but I stayed in my seat. Then her mouth opened and out of it came this large ball of moving lights. So many lights, like tiny rainbows. And it went through the window like it wasn’t ever there. 

*

One time Amá painted my toenails. Black and orange for Halloween. I felt silly with them, so I asked her to do it too. She shook me lightly by the shoulders and said that she wasn’t a niñita like me.  But then I gave her my sad-girl face, and she sighed and said okay. That day we wore sandals together to the grocery store but no one noticed our feet and that was okay.

*

I dreamt about Nicole. We were standing in a dark room. I couldn’t see the floor, the walls, nothing. She poured the Lucas into my hand and instead of the candy, it was sparkling light that fell from the container like water. Thank you, she whispered.

*

The church was filled with flowers. White ones, yellow ones and red ones. All marigolds. We had a picture of her when she wasn’t sick blown up and put on an easel. Her coffin was closed. No one wanted to see her all shriveled up and bald. I couldn’t listen to the priest; I just kept staring from her picture to her coffin. She was really in there. That’s what I kept thinking. And her picture, it was so weird, it felt frozen in time. And the other thing about it, about pictures of dead people, is that even if you didn’t know that they were dead at the time, you could look at their picture and think, that person is dead. Or at least I could always tell. But the priest, he made us repeat the words about Jesus and Mary and mothers and sons and stuff, and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he kept singing it like a song, and I swear each prayer lasted like twenty minutes. The whole thing took forever. At one point he had us stand and sit back down a couple times too. And that’s all I remember about it, the picture, the closed coffin holding her sick dead body, and the little priest at the podium singing. Then after that we drove to the cemetery and they brought the coffin to the plot and they lowered Amá into the ground, and when I saw that, I thought, it’s over. Her friends were there and a few men that I didn’t know, though none of them had been there while she was in the hospital, none of them, even when she was alive they couldn’t see her soul. Pendejos. We all looked down on that box. I was never going to see her again. I was never going to feel her curls on my cheek when she hugged me, or smell her musky perfume. I was never going to hear her sing while she got ready for work. I was never going to listen to her cry about her boyfriends. My fat tears plopped on her casket. She deserved a nice man, a prince, to love her. There was so much never. 

*

I skipped the funeral party. I left everyone in my old house, neighbors, cousins, tios, eating their food. It was the middle of the day and our apartment was right by the orange groves. I walked through them and smelled the citrus while I kicked up dusty dirt and listened to my Walkman with Amá’s Santana mixtape on repeat. As the sun went down behind the mountain, I made sure to get back home before everyone would worry where I was at. I just wasn’t hungry.

*

My new life in San Pedro, those who were born here call it pee-drow, began with Abuelo’s voice echoing in the house when he left to go to work, construction. The smell of his coffee floated into my new room under the crack of the door. Abuelita warmed up his pan dulce, just for a couple seconds to make it warm. My stomach grumbled before the hum of the microwave started and filled the house with sugar. I heard him leave from the rattle of the security door.

*

I went to the kitchen, and there Abuelita stood, back turned to me, with her arms up to her elbows and soapy water. She stared out the open window at the wall of jasmine on a trellis, and I wondered what she thought but didn’t ask. She was in a trance. Stared at the jasmine but didn’t really see it. She inhaled the perfume from the flowers and it was like her mind went somewhere else, somewhere private and hers. She shook her head and scrubbed a dish like she never even stopped. A pink concha, on a plate, was left on the table for me. I sat down and ate it in torn-off pieces. She made me a cup of decaf to go with it, brewed with cinnamon and sugar.

*

Abuelita wore a bright-colored sundress. A striped pattern of green, fuchsia and turquoise. Her gold-hooped earrings dangled from her thick earlobes when she would put a dish in the rack to dry. When she was done, she took her earrings out. She sat at the table with me and ate with me even though she probably wasn’t that hungry.

*

In Abuelita’s room there’s a dresser mirror with prayer cards shoved in the corner. Doilies are sprawled across its surface with one small jewelry box in the center. I open it sometimes. The wood smells like mothballs. Inside are two of Abuelita’s small hoop earrings, a pearl drop necklace, an opal ring, and Amá’s turquoise bracelet that she strung herself. I put on the bracelet. It hung on my wrist, heavy. She could have had her own jewelry store. I opened the top dresser drawer to find large silk panties, nylon stockings to the knees, Abuelita’s underthings. Among them I found a photo in black and white and recognized Abuelita because the small mole above her right eyebrow was there. The ‘40s and ‘50s, those unfair decades, but everyone looked like movie stars. I liked the way Abuelita’s hair was curled tight and how her teeth peeked from behind her dark lipstick. She looked at the camera, over her bare shoulder, all flirty. The blurred outline of her body reminded me of the fuzziness in dreams.

*

In the nightstand drawer is a wooden box with La Santa Biblia in gold lettering. Once, I lifted the rusty latch and inside saw the portrait of Jesus; one hand was raised, one hand tapped his chest, a thin golden halo surrounded his head. His face looked feminine and soft. His beard was trimmed into two peaks and reminded me of something more devil-like than holy. A ring of thorns squeezed his exposed heart. When I saw the drops of blood, I couldn’t help but flinch and bring my own hand to my chest. I flipped the thin see-through pages of the Bible. It fanned a smell of its own like money. I pinched out a piece of the page from the Bible with the word sangre printed on it and placed it on my tongue. Bitter. I don’t know why I thought it would taste like cotton candy. Jesus’ eyes squinted at me, and I snapped the book shut in its case. 

*

In my room there’s a crack in the wall. Stretched up near the ceiling from the Northridge earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night and felt like our house was a new toy in a baby’s hands. I got up and yelled for Amá, reached in front of me in the dark. I felt clothes. Lost in the closet. Freaking out, I told myself I was going to die in the closet, suffocate by sweaters. Then Amá wrapped her cold hand around my forearm and pulled me into the doorway. She held on to me tight while the earth moved under our feet. Though she held her breath, her heart beat fast against my cheek. I looked up at her face, focused on the mole above her eyebrow, Abuelita, not Amá.

*

Abuelo came home and smelled like a wet sock, and his hair was plastered to his head from his yellow hard hat. He barely said hello as he put his empty coffee canister in the sink and then jumped straight into the shower. He met us when the food was placed on the table, wore a fresh white T-shirt, sweat pants, hair slicked back from being shampooed. His face was freshly scrubbed, but his puffy eyes and droopy cheeks showed how tired he was.

*

From the kitchen table, I noticed a hornet’s nest in the corner of the window near our front porch. It looked like a honeycomb. I stared at the slick wings of the hornet, its jittery body crawled up, in, and around its nest. I pointed to it and Abuelo stood from the table. He sighed, grabbed the broom, and then went out the front door. I sat inside the house, safe, while Abuelo took the stick end of the broom, held his breath, counted to three, and whacked the nest. It crumbled like graham crackers.

*

I watched Abuelita through the window water the plants. She stood on the balls of her feet and stretched herself taller to get at the tomatoes that hung over our porch. Her chapped and rough heels lifted from the bottoms of her yellow slippers covered in dirt. I worried when she got shaky, like I wouldn’t be able to catch her. She wiped her sweaty face with the back of her hand and came inside the house. 

*

Abuelo put the paper down in his lap and told her she looked sick. But she waved her hand and said she was fine, just a fever. We told her to rest, and for once she listened. I hummed a song to her while she slept in the recliner. Abuelita’s cheeks were sagged, her mouth randomly chewed, her snores got stuck in her nose, and then came out in squeaks. She woke up for a moment and then settled back into sleep. I hummed a song to her sweaty forehead, her faded red eyelids, and the soft hairs in her nostrils. 

*

I made Top Ramen for dinner. Me and Abuelo ate in silence, slurped our noodles; neither of us got full. Cooking isn’t so bad, I said. When we finished our meal, Abuelo took the plates away and filled them with hot water and soap. He scrubbed them with a sponge and then turned them upside down on the rack to dry. The next morning, I made us cereal in the same bowls we ate the ramen from. As soon as I poured the milk in the bowls, rainbow bubbles rose; Abuelo didn’t rinse them well enough. That afternoon, our new neighbor came over, an Italian lady. She heard about Amá and made us lasagna. This dish of mourning, she called it.

Abuelita told me my clothes were like a boy’s. That I wear too many T-shirts and jeans. I told her just because our family has changed doesn’t mean I have to wear dresses all the time. I have one ugly dress, lime green with white polka dots. I wore it to Amá’s funeral. I refused to wear black. Abuelita had ironed it and when she was done, I pictured her wedged shoes sinking into the carpet as she approached my door, hanging the dress on the door knob to my room, sighing before she turned away. Sometimes she still tries to get me to attend misa and hangs that ugly dress on my door.

 *

Abuelita wanted to keep the vanity table when I moved in with them. Round with a gold filigree frame. No one used it since Amá died. It was in my room with a sheet over it. I got up from the edge of my bed and locked the door. I turned off the light on my nightstand. The moonlight peeked through the blinds in the window, enough for me to see without bumping into things. I took the sheet off and stood in front of the mirror. I stared at the outline of me with my face in the shadows. Amá, I said her name, and then three times I said: Araceli, Araceli, Araceli. In time, I saw a jasmine flower unfold it’s petals in the mirror. Her face popped out of its center. Skin soft and brown again. And then I saw her eyes, just two tiny dots of light in them. Her mouth opened and all of these spiders crawled out all over her face like rippling black smoke. I couldn’t scream, stuck in place, the fear rushed through me in hot and cold sweaty waves. You gotta let me go, Amá said. Her voice sounded like when I talked into the floor fan as a kid, all shaky. You gotta get it all out and let me go, she said. I grabbed my stomach. I told her I saw her in the light already. She said, that was my soul and this is my spirit. And then her image flickered and dissolved. I fell to the floor. All of the sadness I carried inside of me, keeping her spirit here, so unnatural, it all came out of me in one glowing stream.

*

I agreed to go to the cliffs with Abuelo one Sunday. Just once. He said he was too tired to go to the cemetery. It was too much to watch Abuelita cry over the names and dates on the marker of her only daughter. To watch her tears hit the stone and then dry up from the sun. Abuelo was too tired to go to misa. It was too much to see the rest of the people sit in the pews and soak up all the light from the stained glass windows of the church. So, me and Abuelo went to the cliffs, he gripped my hand and spoke in a Spanish that lost me. We had walked to the edge of our city, carrying old plastic grocery bags filled with jasmine that we had picked from the trellis that morning. We had dropped the star-shaped flowers one at a time over the cliffs. Watched them catch the breeze, float, and then fade into the waters below.

*

I dreamt I was in the darkness and I could hear Amá crying. Her tears sparkled with the light of her soul. I saw her face cover my ceiling. The same face I saw in the mirror. But this time she was smiling and this time there was no darkness and this time her tears fell from heaven and turned into white jasmine flowers that looked like stars and pressed upon my chest and rippled throughout my body as she sang my name: Viviana, Viviana, Viviana.

BIO

Jennifer Lorene Ritenour is from San Pedro, California and has lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her writing is informed by place. Her style has been described as dirty fabulism. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness Magazine and Waxwing among other places. “The Language of Flowers” first appeared in two parts in the Santa Monica Review. For more information visit: jenniferloreneritenour.com

Sweet Thing

By Carolyn Adams


She was a tall, slender girl,
pretty, gamine as a deer.

One day, after gym, she showed
me her twin.  A tiny ceramic doe
cradled in cotton,
in a pink paper box.
She’d taken it from a store.

She tenderly moved the wrap,
whispering that
she’d named it Sweet Thing.

She treasured this stolen thing.
I worried, certain
someone would find us.
But she loved it so.
And she shared it with me.
I never knew that contraband
could be so adored.

That was the first time
I learned that theft
could equal love.


Night Work


Carry me off to bed,
lay me down gently.
I’ll drift in soft cotton
on a warm night sea
until I slam the bulkhead.

I’ll find myself
in the abandoned house,
the empty store,
the wretched schoolyard.
There’ll be a predator
with a dagger smile,
its breath hot on my throat.
It will turn and fix its eyes
on me.  And I’ll run.

Or there’ll be a man I can’t
get rid of.  He’ll ford the
windowsill, wade through
the front door.
He’ll demand my bed,
sex, a place at the table.
I’ll know his name.
I’ll half-recognize him.

There’ll be more
I won’t understand.

It will take all night, but
I’ll do the work.
The work that gets
me out of here.


The Map Dream


I trace the shape of continents,
marking cities with pins,
seas with fingertips.

And then I’m swimming
in one of the oceans
I’ve recently named.

The water is warm,
the sun is kind.
But I’m afraid
of what lurks just under.

There’s an island nearby
and that’s
what I’m aiming for.

I pull out the map to chart
a course.  But my destination’s
lost in a deep fold
of the ancient paper,
it’s getting wet.

And something’s disturbed
in the water.


BIO

Carolyn Adams’ poetry and art appear in Amsterdam Quarterly, Blue Collar Review, and 1870 Poetry, et al. She has authored four chapbooks, and has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and Best of the Net. A staff editor for Mojave River Review, she is also a poetry editor for VoiceCatcher.



MOHUA

By Maitreyee


I

The trees that stood before the gate of their house swayed in the gentle breeze. Spring had brought about tiny, yellow flowers on them. But the flowers had almost all fallen off by now. The Mohua petals filled the surroundings with a sweet, sleepy smell. These Mohua are said to be flowers of intoxication. Sweet liquor is made out of their juice. Some sages have called them the flower of attraction, flowers of illusion, and therefore fit to be metaphors for life. But those sages are mistaken; life is not what is sinful. Life is a penance; and that thing we do to escape from it, that is the actual sin. The drinking is sin, the wanting is sin, the dreaming is sin, and death is sin. Even austerity (unbeknownst to these sages) is a sin.

Salim knows this because his mother has made him learn it, many times over. You have to endure the life you are given, you have to be thankful in living it. But Salim has committed every possible sin on the list. He instinctively knows that. But logically, what Keshav says is also correct. If you do something not as an escape but as enjoyment, it turns from sin into penance, because it turns from escape into life. That is also how love works. He has read that love is the biggest redeemer of all; the most vital of feelings – he has read it keeps the heart beating and the universe going. But you have to enjoy it in order for it be a penance. Salim’s mother never taught him sex could be anything but a penance, a righteous act. And he knew it was correct because when he said that in class, their doctor, Miss Anshu, had him applauded. Until a few years ago, Salim would feel really lucky. He had love in his life, he had money, and he had a basement to live in. Jasleen had it better, Malik and Hafiz had it way better, but their mother had chosen him over them. He was supposed to get married to his mother when he grew up. But in recent days he has started to feel slighted when other boys spoke about girls they liked. When he said this to Keshav he laughed so high all the crows from the Peepal tree flew away. He said Salim’s mother was a b**ch and a c**t. Salim didn’t defend his mother. He had begun to learn how wrong all this in theory was. But this was his life and she was his family. If she wanted to marry him, she could. No amount of wrong could turn this from right.

Keshav was a slumboy of heavier built with long stretch marks on his ribs. He had recently taken up the job of selling IDs to potential buyers. When Salim had asked him where the photos in the IDs came from which they changed after being paid to, at first he couldn’t tell. One day, Keshav came up from behind and sat down on the slum fence by him, saying nonchalantly “I found out where they take the photos from.” On Salim’s asking many times, he said “They kill them. That’s what they do.” Salim thought Keshav was really cool. He knew people who are killed for the good of the world get to heaven. But he still felt a certain chill at the thought. That was always Salim’s fault. He could never change how he felt. Over time, Salim learnt which people were killed. That was the way it always was with Keshav and Salim, they learnt together and realised together. They chewed Mohua petals together. Keshav didn’t make fun of his book reading. He said Salim should create similar books for book-reading if he wants. “You should write it so raw and painful that the readers fear to read it” He said once “because they know it so real that they know what happens in the end.” Keshav is bitter that way. He does not believe in fairy tales. He likes books on murder scenes and fight scenes.

When it came to sex, however, he could never make it come at home. He thought he did well but as he grew, he learnt the difference between the robotic and the human. Keshav didn’t get the subtle difference. Nor did most people in fifth grade. Even Malik and Hafiz couldn’t make him feel. Not even for Miss Anshu who had become a contestant for his mother’s place in his little heart. But once his thoughts had run over Malik’s best friend; that’s when he had an inkling of what it should feel like. Malik played Men’s football at the neighbourhood club, and Salim often went to his practice, committing the young men to memory. Keshav said there was no difference in essence between a man and a woman; and he had read that in school too, men and women are equal in all things. But he knew he must marry a girl. When he first realised he would have equally liked to have Miss Anshu as his bride, he felt a huge sense of guilt. He didn’t even go to the slum wall to meet Keshav though he had promised stock. But it was true. He would like to sleep by her side, cupped in her arms. Feel her heartbeat and hug her from behind in the kitchen. Maybe she would let him marry a man later, too.

As Salim continued to grow up, things started to clear and cloud simultaneously. Almost all of the most important things in Salim’s life happened over the course of the summer in seventh grade. It started when the Mohua first blossomed in the trees, and climaxed when he met Keshav for stock on the first day of school after spring break. There was always enough stock at home. What Salim went to the slum fence for was not the stock but Keshav. He waited for him, his feet dangling over the kickable bricks. But when he saw a tall, dusky figure walk out from behind those trees of sin, his words got caught up in his throat. He found it funny that the first word he thought was ‘puberty’.  Salim had been waiting for his own. Keshav had grown up. Deep ridges now formed in his cheeks as his smiled; the tilt of his lips had become even more crooked. His eyebrows had deepened. Jaws chiselled out. He himself seemed unaware of it. Salim realised with that caught up throat he had not one but two things now, that for the first time in his life he wouldn’t ever be able to share with Keshav.

II

Salim walked up to the fence from under the shade of the Mohua trees and climbed to the other side. No matter how hard it is, he always must take the route through the front door during daytime. From here he could see his mother slouched on a plastic chair, her head towards the ceiling. He was a little surprised when she made no movement at his coming in. It was a good opportunity to turn right back out. On his way out he saw a bare-chested, broad-shouldered delivery man pass by him. He stiffened, his clenched chest loosening like rabbits. He knows what this is. A man’s jealousy. He walked about the corner and entered through the back door, his heart beating wildly.

The back door led through the kitchen to the cellar, which Salim had perfected into a basement living area. It was far from perfect, however. The house stood proud in what remained of an 18th century Thakurbari, with the first floor locked and sealed. Salim’s mother had rented that ground floor where she started a necklace making workshop. Salim wondered if the landlady knew about the basement. One day Salim had ripped off the plaster in the process of being thrown down the stairs and that had revealed passages, with several tiny rooms and one leading to the river. These days Salim didn’t like to spend the night in the basement. He wondered if the landlady was aware of the man who lived in the tunnel.

Salim had heard and smelled him walk, eat, hum and even smoke once. He found some rice and fish in the fridge which he took with him downstairs. The rubble from the broken plaster wall still lay around after seven months. He sat down on the floor and slid his right hand into his trousers. With each mouthful, he increased the intensity of the movements. Salim had wanted to go to the rooftop after lunch now that Keshav was away, but he didn’t get to do that. By the time he regained his consciousness, he could already hear Malik’s haggard breathing from the room above. With an involuntary sigh, he got up and climbed into the light.

But the noises had stopped. He could now hear the new man’s deep voice break into a cracking high-pitched scream. Salim ran into the bedroom in time to see the delivery man push his mother to the ground and lash belt after belt on her. Salim’s chest smarted again; he felt his blood rise up. Malik and Jasleen stood in separate corners, nonchalantly chewing on a paan each. Hesitatingly, Salim walked up to the man and placed his trembling hand on his collar. He didn’t look convincing at all. But he asked him to leave his mother alone. The man smiled and wiped his spit. He put a stop to his mother sleeping by them again.

From that day onwards, the horrible spitting man became a sole centre point for everyone. Their mother no longer spent much time with them. One night, Salim wondered if his mother had already changed her mind about marrying him. To pair intense dismay with infinite relief is an odd thing do to; but both resulted to tears that night and Salim balled up on the floorsheet and cried.

“Did the fisherman bite your hand again?” Keshav asked, breaking into his chain of thought.

“It’s a new one this time” he replied “He’s everywhere and everything now.” Salim had two new, hazy scars on the back of his palm. His eyes went back and forth helplessly, from his own scrawny body to Keshav’s lithe stomach and back.

The delivery guy was everywhere, but to Salim there was a newer, more exciting personage now, and he felt like crying when he thought of it. Salim was bringing back milk from the adjacent market on the first Sunday of his vacation, rejoicing in the well known smell of the flowers that adorned his path. The tree-grove started a little away from the hustle of the morning haat. His revere came to sudden stop when a tall, middle aged metrosexual passed by him to the opposite side. ‘Metrosexual’ was a word Salim had newly learnt on the internet. That well groomed man spiked a sudden chill in Salim’s arms. But no, not because of his appearance. It was his smell. A good smell? Perfume, shampoo? It was a musty, decade old smell of damp. Salim was only too familiar with it. Wishing Keshav was there, he traced the man to a clean, two storied blue house. Then he went home.

At home he stole some phenyl from the kitchen and cleaned all rooms on the passageway from the cellar to the tunnel. He even cleaned his own room. Then he dropped on his floorsheet and slept for the first time since his mother forgot of him.

Next morning after eating some bread and changing his trousers he waited at the Mohua groove for the clean blue thief. But he waited in vain. It was on the day after the next that the lean middle aged muse walked down to his home. Salim hid behind the tree and followed him at a distance. At the third turn he bent down to tie his shoes. Salim slid from behind the Peepal tree and sniffed the blue thief’s shirt. Sure enough, the smell was not there. Salim could even catch a whiff of the Phenyl. At that moment the man stretched up and turned towards him. A terrified Salim turned and sprinted towards the super mart.

Keshav had turned away to snicker at Salim’s retort. “Maybe you should rethink about marrying your hands-throwing momma then,” He said with a chuckle. “Bloody H**ker”

Salim knew what that was. But right now his eyes were fixed on the building at the other end. Every morning around this time the horrid delivery man would come up to drop off mail to this house. Oddly, he delivered all kinds of things. “Wo!” said Keshav “That’s boss. Wait it’s been a while.” He jumped down from the brick fence and ran up to the delivery man. Without knowing the exact words and while mixing up the profanities, Salim thought in essence oh crap. He jumped down too, and before Keshav could find him, reached school.

School was intolerable that day. On the hallway after the last class was over he met a classmate with long black hair. He pulled her into a vacant room (the hundred year old private school was filled with unused places) and pressed his body with hers. The enraged girl took a minute to realise what was happening and while he waited for the unfeeling, mechanical process to reach completion she landed a swinging chop on his throat and walked off. He could feel her crying long after she was gone. He stretched on the ground and waited for them to come drag him away. But surprisingly nothing happened. It annoyed him. He snorted some stock till he felt like himself and made straight to the tunnel. The thief was bundled up on the right side, probably sleeping. Salim produced a cracking kick for his shoulder. This time he was completely convincing. Before the man could react Salim held him up by his collar and laid punch after punch over his clean-shaven face. The man did not retaliate, but calmly accepted Salim’s vehement curses. They eventually fell down, both breathing heavily and wincing with pain.

III

Anil had a very straightforward routine in his everyday life. Three years ago he moved to this city, (some people might say like a creep) and has lived ever since on his lakhpati family’s inheritance. He was a man of simple tastes. In his early twenties he had run away from home with the ambition of joining the civil services. There he rose rapidly through the ranks, but was rumoured to have resigned after the woman of his dreams turned him down. If you could take a peek into his mind you would be able to see how he congratulated himself to have lived the classic bourgeoisie lifestyle, in a half-satirical, bitter sort of way. Every morning he would wake up, complete his training routine, eat his fill and go on a walk. At a certain time and certain point on his walk he would pass by a private school and look for a single mother who would be saying goodbye to the daughter. He would smile on his way and move on. That, he would happily often conclude, was all he allowed himself. His ardour for the woman, he would say, had all subsided except for a lingering affection; but her daughter was his daughter, and she was everything to him now. Most people snickered at this thought, some people wondered if it was perverted, but there was indeed nothing perverted about Anil’s love for the family he had claimed as his own. She might not see it, but he saw that vacant place in the little girl’s marvellously vast life and he wanted to be worthy of it. He was on good enough terms with her mother to be able to do that monetarily – as they owed their first meeting to that infant child – and for now, that was enough. He was even trying to give up smoking and drinking, because he couldn’t imagine the darling angel coming in contact with that swirling poison. He said this to the collar boy, whom he really found amusing.

“I did find you smoke once though.” Salim replied. 

“I do it whenever I am stressed. It’s my way of coping with everything that’s going on” said the blue thief, slightly ashamed of his easy life.

They talked for a while about some things. But the clean thief wouldn’t tell Salim what he was doing in the tunnel. On Salim’s commenting how it was his house actually, the thief made it clear to him that it wasn’t; it was the landlady’s house and his mother was the one who paid for it. Salim asked him if he wanted to buy some stock. The man thought for a while and said yes. He said his name was Sayan. Salim almost laughed out aloud. There were two things in the world that Salim knew well about. One was stock and the other was identity; this man was lying about both. This man had never taken a snort in his life. But when he produced actual bank notes, Salim made sure to get them exposed as counterfeit.

“They are real.” Said Keshav, holding them up in the light.

Salim was still enraged at Keshav for knowing the delivery man, better still for liking him. The worst part was the delivery man was actually fond of Salim. In a sick way Salim knew he was his favourite. One of those days, Salim and Hafiz were sitting down for lunch. It was on those rare occasions when his mother was not high. Salim couldn’t really eat like this; but he was really saddened by Hafiz receiving an extra egg. By the time the delivery man came home Hafiz was already done with both the eggs. The man asked Salim what was wrong. Hafiz told him about the prehistorically existing egg-serving story. He said the reason Salim was never happy about eating with them was because he was a little man who wanted grown man’s food. The delivery man picked Hafiz up and threw him against the wall. Salim bolted up terrified. The man picked up a hot ladle and struck Hafiz with it. All Salim could do was to cry and assure him that he did not want the second egg. He asked their mother cook another egg for Salim and made him eat it.

Not that Salim didn’t once use this to his advantage. By the third week, that man’s younger brother had started coming to their house too and had taken a fancy to Jasleen. Salim was horrified at the thought. And sure enough, she brew trouble. Mother and Jasleen had always been against each other about men, and she soon confronted Jasleen for shamelessly pursuing a man who was too good for her. She asked Jasleen why it was always her priority to ruin their mother’s life. Things soon escalated and mother held up Jasleen’s hand on the stove. The delivery man snatched Jasleen away from mother and the usual scenario was recreated. Malik who tried to come in between them ended up bleeding from his forehead. Salim yelled at the top of his lungs “Stop! STOP!” but no one heard him. In the end he had to make it end by piercing his hand through the pointy fishhook left behind by Jartha.

And this is exactly what he would never tell Keshav. This was the kind of thing his friend hated the most. It was the only thing that could ever made Keshav cry. Salim asked Keshav what the tunnel man could be doing. Keshav thought for a while and told him that recently a lot of young girls had been reported missing. The man could be a detective and hiding there to catch boss.

“Did boss do that?” asked Salim, his hands going cold.

Of course not silly, replied Keshav.

Anil knew about the identity-theft in the neighbourhood. He even knew about the drug racket. He was never bothered about any of that. But there was something about this missing person’s case; it caught his fancy enough to drive him out like in the old days. There was something artistic, mysterious about these kidnappings. To satisfy himself, he had hung around the gang leader, even lived under his girlfriend’s roof. He had not been wrong. Those people were as clueless about this as he was, and probably more worried. After all, this was not the way professionals did it. This was subconscious social mockery. But the dinghy tunnel turned out useful in the end. If not for that hiding place he would never have found out about the abandoned hydrogen plant by the riverside.

IV

Salim sat on the hill by the river in a dejected mood. His eyes followed Salima, his namesake, as she walked by the bank towards the ruins. She was Mehrab’s sister, the girl whom Salim had pinned to the wall the other day. Even though he knew he would never apologize, Salim felt uneasy every time he thought of it. Anil said he would never let a single sin touch his angel without her permission. He was sin. He knew if Keshav knew what he had done, he would have stiffened, and said in a soft voice “That’s an awful thing to do.” What if Mehrab had other ideas about this? Salim decided he would actually be really sorry if someone else ended up with the same unfeelingness.

Salima was soon out of sight. Salim knew girls shouldn’t be going about alone. He got down from the hill and did what he was best at doing. The sister crossed the Mohua grooves and the Palash grooves until she was pretty much walking through the barren land of the decaying chemical plant. Now the boy was really worried, almost sure she was giving up her safety for something stupid. They were walking through a path with only a few thorny shrubs and wild grass here and there. Salim kept to the grass. His heart stopped at the firm grip on his collar. “This is a first” said a well known voice from behind. “You are following a girl through creepstreet. Salim-Salima. Nice.”

Salim said nothing. He undid the hands from his collar and crawled ahead. The sister stopped before a bunch of trees. It seemed she would go towards the highway instead. Keshav had been only teasing him till earlier, but now he added. “Don’t follow her. Let’s go back. She might board the car.” What car? Salim turned towards him. Keshav said nothing, only pulled him backwards.

“Are you involved in this?” said Salim. Keshav shrugged. “It’s her choice. Let’s go.”

“Are you involved in this.” It wasn’t Salim’s own voice.

“Why do you care?” Keshav’s eyes shot afire. “Have you found yourself another whore so soon because your mother will no longer give you your midnight kiss?”

“Well maybe you should go look for someone else because you have successfully mocked and overlooked everything I have ever cared for!” Salim pushed the tall boy away. “Funny to hear you talk about whores after all the people you visit with your murder money! You never taught me any of that!”

Leaving the boy groaning on the ground Salim rushed to the road from where muffled screams were emanating. He crouched down behind the bushes but he could see no one. “This way” said Keshav in a hush. Salim followed his finger and saw two pale naked women carrying an unconscious body into the chemical plant. “Holy hell” said Keshav. Salim ignored him and tiptoed to a creak among the ruins.  Behind the chemical plants were series of abandoned workers’ quarters. The women crouched over the body like two mad cavemen. When they were close enough, they saw Salima was still alive but unable to make any noise. “The twin sisters,” an astounded Salim said under his breath.

But the women seemed to catch on to something. They got up to look around. Salim jerked back in fear. Keshav grasped his hand and led them to place behind the barrels. It was so dark and so jammed no one could know there was any space there except the ones within. Salim lay down for what seemed like eternity, spooned tightly in Keshav’s arms. Keshav closed his eyes and breathed in sync with him.

“I didn’t” Keshav whispered as they untangled after the women were gone “I didn’t meet any whores, with or without my stupid money.”

“One of us must go report.” Said Salim. Keshav nodded. “You will be okay?”

In those days they still kept up the telephone booth, but the nearest one was at the marketplace, which was six miles away. No one can run that distance that fast, but Salim had that day. How he would come to regret that decision! He had years enough to balance them out; to figure out what he regretted the most – the punch, following Salima, the goodbye or the moment he turned around. That was it. When he hung up on the kind dispatcher and lifted his head towards where Keshav waited for him, and saw the smoke rise into the sky. And he ran back. Fighting, fainting, falling he ran half the way till he realised it was pointless. He sat down on the wet ground and pressed his hands upon his aching jaws. It would take him months to learn how the kids had been tied together, gagged and blown up; it was originally meant to have been a house on fire but the plant had blown up too with what remained in it. It would take him years to learn the mechanics.

The whole neighbourhood knew how close the two boys were. His mother came down to meet him and wiped away his tears. Is my little prince doing well? She asked. Salim sat stoned, unable to process what she said. She placed her hand on his head and stroked his hair lovingly. Then she promised him she would make sure he felt better. But before she could kiss him, he got up. The Mohua flowers were long gone, leaving two old, commonplace trees behind. Miss Anshu’s Hospital wasn’t really far from his place. He calmly walked up to her and sat down. The truth is he doesn’t remember how she looked, why he sat down and what he said.

They waited till ten o clock. The police did arrive despite the commotion of the blast. His mother and Malik arrived. The roadside workers injured in the blast all arrived. It was unbearable. Mother and Malik put on a great show; their child would never say such a thing in any other circumstances except a shock of this intensity, he had been on drugs in company of the unfortunate boy, his mother had toiled lifelong for them etc, etc. When Salim realised he would have to go back to the basement anyways, he decided to go take a stroll.

Outside, Anil was sitting on a bedi smoking. When Salim saw him, he sat down by his side. Really sorry about your friend, Anil said. Salim shook his head. It didn’t matter anymore. He had successfully entered into the penance of life, nothing was anymore an escape. “Death is about to become commonplace.” he said, looking at the blinking lights of the unending queue of ambulances. Anil was amused again. But then Anil did the unthinkable.

He extended his palm and offered Salim a smoke.

The kid looked at the spiralling fumes. His lungs burned in anger yet ached for them. In the end he lost to an ancient sigh, and stretched his fingers out.



BIO

‘Maitreyee’ (She/Her) is currently completing her senior secondary from Kolkata, India. She likes to tell stories that deal with concepts of Behavioural Psychology, Perception and Dialectics. Her involvement with the heritage of Bengal, though relatively new, has had a great impact on her characters and the world they live in. Her work has previously been published by Rigorous and The Write Order. She has written for and is actively associated with Wallflower Scribbles, a student based social media community that aims to explore local culture and support youth empowerment in the region. She is planning to complete her first book ‘All Good Girls Go To Alsergrund’ in the very near future.


Guide to the Ruins

by Eve Müller


I.

It is dark outside the plane. You see your face in the window, harsh, more committed than ever to its path of decay. The plane hurtles across the night sky, carrying you from suburban Maryland all the way to Rome. You remember reading about Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city, suckling at the teat of the she-wolf thousands of years ago. You are hoping to save your marriage, heavy with its own history. Rome will transform us, you think. You lean back in your seat, inviting a miracle. Loaves and fishes. Something holy, sanctified, but also useful.

II.

You arrive to find Rome closed. It is August and the Romans are at the beaches, flirting with waves, swimming in crystalline lakes, hiking through olive groves on Monte Subasio. They are laughing and drinking elsewhere—the city an empty vessel. Corks, bottle caps, bits of confetti, and flyers promising the perfect mattress lie crushed among the cobblestones, the only signs of life. You forage for your supper, try out your new skeleton key, ride up and down in the little red elevator. It will lead you up to and away from your husband all year, rattling along with the weight of daughters, grocery carts, time.

III.

A bag is misplaced. Argument ensues. You storm out into the blazing heat, find a loaf of bread, a ball of cheese, some anchovies. You remember the words for bread and fish. Pane. Pesce. You go home, feed your family. Does this count as a miracle?

IV.

Your apartment is eight flights up. A narrow balcony allows you to look down over Via Celimontana. You think this means “heaven’s mountain,” but foreign languages have never been your strong suit. Still, it can only bode well.

V.

You visit your husband in his office, the United Nations’ modern-day palace. He is preoccupied. He fills his tray with rabbit and duck and sauvignon blanc, everything cheap and good, but you suspect he feels no joy. The view from the cafeteria balcony should give anyone pause.  And yet they all chew, swallow, talk about crops droughts euros banks as if the rocky skeleton of Circo Massimo were not spread out beneath them like a second banquet.

VI.

San Clemente lies a few blocks away, an architectural palimpsest. Three levels down, the ruins of a Mithraic temple. Above that, the remains of a primitive church with bits of fresco visible in dim light. At ground level, a basilica with a golden tree of life that takes away your breath, rewriting—but not erasing—everything that came before. Here it is: The possibility of making something new without wholly replacing the old.

VII.

You’ve always wanted to visit Rome. As a long-time fan of ruin porn, dilapidated grandeur, the remains of what was once magnificent, you’ve sought out ghost towns, abandoned churches, the crumbling cores of industrial capitals. You love entropy in action, feel vindicated when weeds spring up between the paving stones, when vines take over walls. Given a choice between old and new, you always choose decay.

VIII.

Lying side by side in the darkness, you ask your husband:

Do you ever think of laying waste to what you love?
Reducing it all to rubble?
I have no idea what you’re talking about.

IX.

The children are speaking Italian. You marvel at how quickly this happens. Yet now you are locked out of their world as they prattle of bambole, orsi, palle.

X.

And so, Italian lessons twice a week. Not enough to speak of the sky, the lush feel of vowels rolling around on your tongue, your slow promenade towards death, but enough to buy garlic, bunches of parsley, greet the man in the wine shop downstairs. Your teacher commands you to open your textbook and read.

Do you speak Italian?
Parli italiano?
I do not speak Italian.
Non parlo italiano.
And yet you speak of ruins.
Ma tu parli di rovine.
You speak of nothing else.
Non parli d’ltro.

XI.

You make friends at the children’s school. Giulia and Maurizio and Lilli and Alberto and Ludovica and Giovanni. You drink coffee and giggle like a girl. You’re not a girl, and you get a bit loud. The café owner asks you to be quiet. She has other customers, and they don’t like American noise.

XII.

What are you reading?
Cosa stai leggendo?
I am reading about noise.
Sto leggendo del rumore.
What does European noise sound like?
Come suona il rumore europeo?
I do not hear anything.
Non sento niente.

XIII

Your younger daughter is turning five. The mothers at the school, a chorus of Roman fishwives, tell you where to buy a cake, special order. It is spectacular—Spiderman hazelnuts zabaglione, fit for a tomboy king. It costs a fortune. All her little friends in the scuola materna eat the cake with their hands. Constantine’s barbarians, they leave you none.

XIV.

The Italians know how to throw parties. This makes you a bit jealous. You only know how to throw potlucks. The host presents a magnificent loaf of porchetta. People roll up their sleeves, sigh with pleasure. A knock at the door interrupts all of you mid-sentence, mouths full of meat. A guest sweeps into the room. Helmet in hand, he grabs you by the waist, plants a kiss on your lips. You’ve never seen him in your life. His girlfriend laughs, Welcome to Rome!

XV.

Some days you can’t bear the splendor. Basiliche and glittering chapels and a million pizzerias and big looping graffiti on stone walls that insists on now at the expense of then. There are no trees, but the flowers in the market at Campo de’ Fiori are flushed pink and red like women dying of rheumatic fever.

XVI.

Some days bore you to tears. You drink a cup of hot tea, use the bidet, check your email. You might even mop the floors, but you’ve never been a very good housekeeper. You watch a YouTube video about objectum sexuals, people who fall in love with—and want to rub up against—the Eiffel tower, Statue of Liberty, bells of Notre Dame.  You understand this urge. How many times have you stood on the rooftop, hung laundry out to dry, fantasized about lying down among the ruins, becoming one with Roman stones?

XVII.

You watch your husband fix the bathroom sink. He remains an enigma after all these years. Solid and fine as Roman rock. You have spent your marriage trying to crack him open, lay him bare. Seeing him on his knees, head bent in concentration, you think: He is master of band saws, nuts, bolts, all things mechanical.  Yet of you, he has no inkling.

XVIII.

What do you want from Rome?
Cosa vuoi da Roma?
I want abundant life.
Voglio una vita abbondante.
And what of you?
E tu?
Will you never choose abundance?
Sceglierai mai l’abbondanza.

XIX.

Lying awake at 3am, you can’t remember why you came here. Your husband sleeps beside you. You haven’t touched in months. You are suddenly hungry beyond belief. Standing in front of the open refrigerator—cold air, white light pouring out into darkness—you think of all you want to eat. Chicken legs, black cabbage, stuffed pigeons, marzipan. But more than that, you want to fill your mouth with marble columns, Bernini’s ecstatic saints, Caravaggio’s red lipped boys.

XX.

Your husband comes home from work, stretches himself out on the couch like a dying god. You pour him a drink.  You know you should leave him alone—he is tired. But you can’t help yourself.

Do you ever think about desire?
No, not really.
Do you ever get the urge to grab everyone you speak with,
kiss them hard on the mouth?
God, no.
Do you remember the scene in Microcosmos, where the snails mate to the sounds of Wagnerian opera? Rise up on their glistening feet and merge from head to toe?
That’s what I want.
Good luck with that.  

XXI.

Steeped in Roman history, you’re tempted to forget your own.  You came to Italy with a pocketful of pills that keep you from flying too close to the sun, getting lost in serpentine darkness. Work has always protected you. But here in Rome there is little to hang your day upon. You and your husband tried all this before, many years ago before there were children—pulling yourselves up by the roots, planting yourselves in Mexican soil. You remember how you sank into depression like a stone into well water. Even though you wanted to bring your family to Rome, you are not without misgivings. History is so often a story of return.

XXII.

You discover Facebook and the middle-aged men come out in droves. This feeds your vanity. It’s too much, yet never quite enough. You refresh your screen. You find the waters irresistible. You type faster, fingers on fire. Your children have to pry you away from your desk.

XXIII.

Half a dozen confessions of ardor appear in your inbox. You think about the wooden gates of Santi Quattro Coronati, opened silently by slippered Augustinian nuns. They usher you into a frescoed room, life’s possibilities unfurled across the walls: Constantine is cured of leprosy, crowned Emperor, holds the wide green world in his fist. Now Byzantium is yours. You think, at last I will be loved as I deserve.

XXIV.

The language teacher, eyes thick with mascara, mouth a red smear, little black hooves where feet should be, tells you that what you are going through is pronounced crisi di mezza età—mid-life crisis. You like this. You like it so much that you go out and buy a pair of knee-high boots—gli stivali. You take a photograph of yourself in the boots, post it to Facebook, wait for the silver-tongued flatterers to sing. 

XXV.

It’s Thanksgiving and Rome doesn’t care, but your American friends are joining you for dinner. You special order a turkey from the butcher shop across the street. Tacchino. It’s got a nice ring. You go to pick it up, and the butcher gives you two chickens instead. You try to explain that this is not the same thing, but your Italian fails you. You mutter something about a festa americana. The butcher shrugs. You give up, head home, eat pollo and apple whiskey cake, go to bed with your back to your husband.

XXVI.

The stranger climbs steep hills.
La straniera sale colline ripide.
She sighs as she climbs.
Sospira mentre sale.
She finds herself among the clouds
Si ritrova tra le nuvole
looking down on granite tombs.
guardando dall’alto tombe di granito.

XXVII.

Your Italian friends think you are sleeping with another woman’s husband. You are surprised to hear this, a little bit sad and a little bit proud. You really are a Henry James heroine now, wandering the Colosseo at night with your gentleman friend, hopelessly lost in translation. 

XXVIII.

The crack in the bathroom mirror splits your face down the middle. You lean into the glass, peer closely at what is left of you after forty-five years. You see a web of lines and think of lace, broken china, the inlaid gold tilework of the Cappella di San Zenone, backroads connecting Umbria with Tuscany, the Fiume Tevere snaking through Rome. Yes. Even in ruins you are beautiful.

XXIX.

Who am I?
Chi sono?
Green eyed.
Occhi verdi.
House divided.
Casa divisa.
I paint my face each morning.
Dipingo la mia faccia ogni mattina
Comic, tragic, forgettable.
Comica, tragica, dimenticabile.

XXX.

The man in the cigarette shop sees you walking past the Colosseo in your rabbit fur hat, a child’s hand clutched in each of yours. He approaches the three of you, says you look just like Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. For a few golden minutes you forget your children, your failing marriage, are lost in talk of long-ago movies and far-away places.

XXXI.

You walk down Via Merulana in your black dress and boots, your skin alive, electric, your legs longer than ever. You stride past liquor stores, butcher shops, displays of shiny knives—the street is yours for the taking. A man on a motorbike stops dead in his tracks, blows you a kiss.

XXXII.

Strung out on espresso granita, you find the technicolor glow bright and gaudy in the winter sun.There are halos around everyone’s heads, and not just the saints on the walls of San Giovanni in Laterano.You turn to your personal intercessors—Cymbalta, Olanzapine, Ativan.

XXXIII.

On a whim, you enter Santa Maria Maggiore, settle into a pew, pray for healing of this bone-deep restlessness you feel, this hunger. After you light a candle, you descend into the crypt beneath the church, where you find a hair of the Virgin, the arms of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Proof, you think, of the Italians’ abiding affection for bodies—even the bodies of the dead. 

XXXIV.

In the Capuchin crypt beneath Santa Maria della Concezione, you find yourself drawn to the artful arrangements of skeletons, macabre valentines to death. There’s poetry to the names of each room—Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. Later, you spot your reflection in the plate glass windows of Via Veneto, hunched, formless in your black coat, and think of what lies just beneath your own pale skin—scapula, clavicle, iliac crest. You turn and head east. Towards home. Relieved to find your children adamantly alive, demanding suppers and baths.    

XXXV.

The family is eating another dinner from one of your Italian cookbooks. Not on the roof tonight—it’s still too cold. No one is talking, and your husband is more remote than ever. You think, maybe you overcooked the pasta. Maybe you over-salted the meat. Maybe the silt that filters in through the windows and settles on the book shelves, counters, beds and tiled floor—maybe this dust of ages is burying you all alive.

XXXVI.

Your husband once told you that after his first time unzipping your dress, watching you step out of it, trembling—after the first year of playing house, growing lettuces, hanging bed sheets out to dry in baking sun, painting all the walls bright shades of blue and green—after the first baby bursting from your womb, wet with blood, loud as thunder—there wasn’t anything left. He’s been around the world half a dozen times. Perhaps for him, Rome is just more of the same.

XXXVII.

The children ride ponies in Villa Celimontana, your husband lies on the trampled grass, basking in silver light. He is noble, you think. His wants and needs so few. Not unlike the turtles sunning themselves on the lip of the fountain.

XXXVIII.

How can you stand it?
Living in a world where nothing’s ever new?
Boredom’s the price you pay for peace.

XXXIX.

You lean back on your elbow and take stock of this man beside you. You are struck by his beauty. How like a turret, you think: silent, steadfast, insular. But you want to lose yourself in talk, to speak of the Milky Way, the vast universe outside and within you, to love with abandon. And he wants none of this.

XL.

It’s a lovely spring morning. The ruins are calling. You and your American friend make your way down Via Appia Antica. You are surprised by how quickly the city turns to countryside. It’s 10am. You step into a small shop and your friend buys a bottle of wine. She’s a poet. She promises you that drinking this early will be a revelation. There is laughter and the twisting of an ankle on cobblestones. You can’t believe how much you are enjoying yourself. It is your turn to offer her something. You give her the Catacombe di San Callisto which extend beneath the fields for miles, are home to half a million bodies. In the dimness, you come upon Maderno’s statue of Santa Cecelia—hands bound, head neatly severed, face covered with a marble rag. You are both abruptly sober.

XLI.

All the families are out walking. You arrive at the gates of Villa Doria Pamphilij, littered with grottos, hedges, putti, artificial ruins. Why build crumbling towers? you ask. Why begin with endings? No one hears you. Your husband is far ahead. Your daughters busy chasing after swans.

XLII.

You think, if only you could make him see Rome as you do. Layered like a vast cake. You propose dinner with Italian friends, music by Monteverdi in the chapel at Santa Prassede. He declines your offer. You go without him. You find you don’t really miss him. You come home and he’s in front of the TV, doesn’t even look up when you enter.

XLIII.

After your night of stained glass and madrigals, the long walk home cloaked in darkness, you are surprised by how readily ecstasy morphs into anger:

I want to scream.
You make me want to scream.
Don’t start up.
I’m not in the mood for your hysteria.
Hysteria is the only thing that keeps us honest.

XLIV.

Today you choose self-denial, crawl all the way up the Scala Santa on your knees. You and a friend do it for kicks, but the feel of stone scraping skin, each step worn down by centuries of penitents creeping toward salvation, brings you close to tears. You bend over, let your forehead rest on the stairs for just a moment, try and strike a bargain with god.

XLV.

Today you choose Bacchus. Your husband stays home, watches Netflix reruns. It’s already midnight and you are just beginning. Your Italian friends take you to the Forte Prenestino, abandoned military complex, labyrinthine squatters’ lair. The whole place is illegally occupied, you sneak in under cover of darkness. You feel like a rat. See a few scuttling down shadowed halls. You are already thinking about how you can spin this to your American friends. You are drinking too much grappa, smoking hashish with people you’ve never seen. You are ridiculously free you are dizzy giddy rushing spinning burning liquid on your tongue you trip over your teeth speak in broken sentences hold up a few Italian phrases like bright jewels in the darkness.

XLVI.

You’ve reached an unspoken agreement. Your husband stays in Rome, while you and your daughters travel deep into the countryside to visit a Swedish friend. The children watch Jaws dubbed into Italian. You are all horrified by the blood, fascinated by the shark’s gleaming teeth. Clothes come off and everyone is naked in the river. Your friend’s father gathers mushrooms for dinner, lays them out on a big wooden table. They are larger than a man’s hand, bold shades of red and green. You think of fairy tale endings. They are surely meant to kill you—bad mother, failed wife. Who will live to tell the story? You close your eyes and eat.

XLVII.

How many mushrooms would you like?
Quanti funghi vuoi?
No thank you.
No grazie.
I do not eat the red ones.
Non mangio quelli rossi.
I do not court death.
Non cerco la morte.

XLVIII.

You pass the whores on the way to the beach. They stand by the side of the road, hard-eyed, unsmiling, spread out at equal intervals among the scrawny pines. It goes on like this for miles. You wonder, what would sex feel like on a bed of dry needles, a stranger in your arms?

XLIX.

The beach is mobbed with Romans reaching for the sun. A big fleshy woman, all ass, hip, belly, rosy areolas, dances frantic in the surf. Bare breasted maenad, transistor radio in one hand, sandwich in the other. She is everything you wish to be. Untethered, glorious, entirely without shame. 

L.

The children run wild. You drink cold coffee from a can, sit listless on a park bench, watch your daughters climb gates pick up trash hide in dormant fountains walk on walls spray-painted all the colors of the sunset. Slim-hipped boys swagger amidst the rubble of Trajan’s baths, conquistadores with cigarettes, tight blue jeans, attitude to spare. Your elder daughter appears victorious before you, holding up a broken plastic figurine. For her—a princess, mermaid, treasure. For you—a tiny naked martyr, neither hands nor feet to call her own.

LI.

You seek signs and portents everywhere, wander the streets, stumble upon Largo di Torre Argentina. Mussolini excavated these derelict temples. Julius Caesar was betrayed and killed here. Now the place belongs to packs of feral cats who strut, sleep, breed among the ruins. Perhaps you should join them.

LII.

You return home after your wanderings. Your husband speaks to you through clenched teeth.

You make a terrible housewife.
I never asked to be a housewife.
I ask so little of you.
Exactly.
If only you’d ask for more.

LIII.

You’ve been here before. Always an ocean roiling inside you. Always a forest of thick black trees shooting up between you.

LIV.

You’re like a dead man.
And you’re just looking for drama.
I bring you Italy
hand it to you on a platter
and you won’t fucking eat.

LV.

Your family climbs down from the bus, tramps through the fields and farms on the outskirts of town. You take pictures of the girls. You take pictures of your husband, moving through the grass in silence. You put the camera away. Why commemorate pain?

LVI

You pass the nymphaeum you love so much, take in the vivid green, the bubbling spring, imagine your daughter water nymphs bathing naked, pure.

LVII.

Do you like the water?
Ti piace l’acqua?
Yes. May I join you in the nymphaeum?
Sí, posso unirmi a te nel ninfeo?
I am sorry, age and pain have no place here.
Mi dispiace, la vecchiaia e il dolore non hanno posto qui.
What did you say?
Cosa hai detto?
Your age and pain have no place.
La tua età e il tuo dolore non hanno  posto.

LVIII.

Time is running out, the year is almost over, your life in Rome a reckless scattering of stones. You sit on a park bench in Piazza Celimontana, watch your children playing for the hundredth time. They plunge their hands into the ancient fountain, pull out turtles, hands dripping with water. They shriek with joy, turn to show you, faces radiant, turtle shells glistening in the sun.

LIX.

You lure your husband into yet another argument:

What do you think? Was it worth it?
What are you talking about?
Coming to Italy in search of miracles?
In case you haven’t noticed, your Rome and mine are two different cities.
I work all day in an office.
I’ve no idea what you do.

LX.

Your husband comes home early. You are playing memory games with your daughters. They are winning. He tells you the house is a mess. Filthy, he calls it, fed up with your Facebook housewifery. You exchange insults. Tears begin. You tell him to stop. He does not. A line is crossed. Neither of you sure how you got here. He standing above. You below. The children in the wings. Forks stones plates pins rain down from his mouth. You a heap on the floor. You don’t ever want to stand up share a mattress again. You lie face down for hours, kiss the cold stones.

LXI.

You awaken bone chilled and stiff, peel yourself off the hallway floor, survey your kingdom from the balcony. So much for heaven’s mountain.

LXII.

You command yourself to go on.
Continua.
Breathe.
Respira.
Hold your daughters tight.
Tieni strette le tue figlie.

LXIII.

You give your husband an ultimatum:

If you really want me, talk to me.
Tell me our happiness matters.
Promise me we’ll rise up together like snails.

He turns away without a word.

LXIV.

His silence spills into days and then weeks.

LXV.

You can’t stand it. You tell him it’s over. You will move out when you return to America in a few weeks’ time. You will take your daughters with you and live in a friend’s attic. He is mystified. But you are unyielding.

LXVI.

It’s almost midnight. Your husband has gone to sleep, left you with nothing. You walk out alone into the darkness. Men stand in doorways. Call out to you. Make lewd gestures with their tongues and fingers. You don’t understand a word they are saying, but are pretty sure it goes something like this:

Le gambe tue sono colonne di alabastro.
Your thighs are alabaster columns.
I tuoi seni come cervi che saltano.
Your breasts like leaping deer.
Allungo le braccia attraverso la tua finestra, e le mie mani sono piene di miele gocciolante
I reach through your window and my hands are filled with dripping honey.
Vieni a casa con me.
Come home with me.
Sdraiati con me.
Lie down with me.
Non te ne andare mai.                                                 
Don’t ever leave.

This is the Song of Songs they’re whispering to you. It feels like your swansong. Your finale. You are sure of it. You walk for miles, past throbbing discotheques, bells tolling in the distance. Rome’s songs of desire and mourning poured out for your ears alone. 

LXVII.

Wandering the narrow streets of Trastevere, noonday sun beating down, your elder daughter finds a speckled bird dying on hot stones and gathers it against her breast. She turns to you, eyes soft, and asks why the bird has to die. Some things cannot be saved, you say, and you both burst into tears.

LXVIII.

Your younger daughter joins in. The three of you form a forlorn chorus at the edge of the piazza. Behind you, water tumbles out of a stone mouth and into a fountain. You wonder to yourself, is this the sound of Rome falling?

LXIX.

The bar is filled with jazz piano and the weary voice of an older woman, tired of singing for tourists who care for no one but Beyoncé. You have asked your Roman friend to drink with you tonight. There is no one else to talk to. You are wretched, but you cannot stop. You cannot believe how lonely you are. She listens, passes silent judgment on your American grief.

LXX.

Have I been unfaithful?
Sono stata infedele?
Yes, you have loved a city.
Sì, hai amato una città.

LXXI.

It is dark outside the plane. Your younger daughter squirms in her seat. The elder leans into the warmth of your body. Both girls are bathed in the glow of their personal TV screens, rapt, angelic. You have no idea what you are doing with your dolce vita—sweet, sweet life. The plane shudders, turbulence right on schedule. You are overcome with nausea, retch until there’s nothing left, your body an empty vessel. You lean back, close your eyes. The plane’s engines lull you into fitful sleep. You dream of stumbling over mounds of broken stones, chasing after your daughters as they climb and gambol in their summer dresses, voices shrill as birds. 


NOTE: With thanks to Alberto Zezza, who generously corrected my Italian.


BIO

Eve Müller makes zines and paper cutouts. She is a relative newcomer to the world of literary non-fiction/memoir, but has published extensively on autism and language. She is a single mom who lives in College Park, MD, with two breathtakingly reckless teen daughters, two cats and a rabbit.

Marked

By Deborah A. Lott


The Torah forbade the Israelites from incising their flesh to express their grief. They were instructed to rend their garments instead.

My father’s hand shot up to his eyebrow, his finger poised there, as if he were about to stroke his brow. A gesture I’d always considered deeply imbued with his personality. The gesture he performed when pondering a problem. While reading a book or talking on the phone. Whenever he was thinking.

Was he, or whatever was left behind of him, still capable of thinking?

My father was dying. He’d had a massive bleed in his brain, the final in a series of strokes. I sat at his hospital bedside; my mother, two brothers, and I were all there. Intent on his every faltering breath, I could not take my eyes off the spectacle of his body’s failing. His face was inordinately pale and blank, while his body, under a white blanket, twitched and seized. Small jerks and larger rumbling quakes. They had taken out all the tubes; he was attached to only a heart monitor. I tried to distract myself by looking at those numbers rise and fall, but his body pulled me. They told us his organs were shutting down.

Dying suffused the atmosphere in the room; it was inside him, it was outside him, it felt like it was everywhere. The more I stared, the more I feared I would be consumed by it.

We were seeing autonomic reflexes, the doctors told us. He was unresponsive, they said, on the way to brain death. Yet all day long, his hand kept shooting up to his eyebrow in that familiar gesture. As if he were on the brink of telling me something. The motion repeated and repeated.      

The next day, I could not bear to go back to the hospital. That was the day the doctors predicted he would die. The rest of the family gathered there; I was expected to come. That morning I had gotten my period. Death was a shark circling his room; I knew the shark would smell my blood and get confused.  I was confused. My father and I had always been too close, too connected. I had been too susceptible to feeling everything he felt. What would it take to sever this connection? My uterus seized. If I were in the room, would I have to give birth to his death from my body?

That night after my father died, I went to my uncle and aunt’s house where the family had congregated. On my way up to the front door, their new cat wandered across my path.  It had been a stray, still half-feral. I impulsively picked her up, craving some comfort from the cat’s warm body, its soft fur against my face. She reached out her claw and scratched me. A deep, mean, diagonal scratch across my nose. It bled and bled. I cried, this sudden pain amplifying the deeper wound of grief. When I went into the house, I hid this bleeding from my family. It was too naked a show, rhymed too closely with the other blood rushing from me.  

Years later, my nose still bears a scar. My hand shoots up now, automatically, over and over again, several times a day, to run my fingers over it. It reminds me of my father. And then, of his dying. His death found its way to inscribe my body despite my efforts to hold myself inviolate. I could not keep it out.  


BIO

Deborah A. Lott is the author the recently published memoir, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me. Her creative nonfiction has been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, StoryQuarterly, the nervous breakdown, the Rumpus, Salon, Los Angeles Review, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, and many other places. Her works have been thrice named as notables by Best American Essays. She teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles. You can learn more about her at deborahalott.com



Annual Rites

by L. Shapley Bassen


     Sunday, March 4th, 2001, Marwa set aside homework (fine-tuning preparation for the Intel Science Fair in Brooklyn in two weeks) to accompany her Stuyvesant High School classmate Judy and her father out to a cemetery on Long Island to put stones on Judy’s mother’s grave. Judy lived uptown from Marwa in Greenwich Village. A monster snowstorm was predicted for Sunday night through Tuesday; TV meteorologists were frenzied, storm-tracking this and Doppler-4ing that. Dr. Yamaguchi, Judy’s father, was less depressed than Marwa thought he would be because he was “getting a chance,” he said, “to drive his midlife-crisis-red Nissan out of the City.” Marwa had stayed over at Judy’s on Saturday night so they could get an early start. Marwa didn’t understand the Yamaguchi family mood, especially since eight-year old Nina was coming along to the cemetery for the first time, but she had felt honored when Judy had asked her to come along.

     Dr. Yamaguchi was about the same age as Marwa’s father, in his fifties, but that was about the only similarity she could see. Dr. Y (Why?), as he liked to be called, was mid-height. While he was not fat, he had a distinct belly that pressed against the belt of corduroy slacks.

     “I am not a fashion-plotz,” Dr. Why apologized.

     Judy suffered not only over paternal wardrobe but also her father’s “faux-Yiddish that he somehow thinks makes him an honorary member of my mother’s tribe.”

     Marwa could not think of an occasion that could compel her father ever to apologize or speak faux anything. He was tall and trim. “A banker is not a shopkeeper.” She had never seen her father even in slippers without socks. But Dr. Why didn’t care Judy and Nina weren’t sons.

     Dr. Why was a Japanese-American who had married a Jewish woman. Because of the impending blizzard, they wouldn’t be going after the ceremony to the condo of her Lensky grandparents. Judy’s Lensky-Yamaguchi mini-genealogy included Dr. Why’s parents, both deceased, who had been in the concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens during WWII. He had family living “in Northern California where the mud slides,” Dr. Why added from behind the wheel.

     Beside him, Nina was occupied with changing a CD. 

     The sporty red sedan had just crossed over the Williamsburg Bridge and was moving toward a huge cemetery. Marwa had an early memory of this garden of stones. She had asked How do stones grow? Her older brother Sharif said Stupid girl. She thought (1) stupidity was bad; (2) girls were stupid; (3) there was an important difference between stones and living things.

     Dr. Why started singing. Nina put a CD in and pressed Play. 

    As Nina sang along with the motherly teapot from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Dr. Why stuck to, “Life is just a bowl of cherries…Don’t take it serious, life’s too mysterious…”

     “My father prides himself,” Judy said, “on singing a song when another one plays.”

     Dr. Y tapped his head. “You should see what flashes in your brain. ‘You work, you slave, you worry so’–”

     “–But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go,” Nina sang.

     “Nice, Dad,” Judy grumbled.

     Marwa patted Judy’s hand. “Commiserate with the shark guy’s kids.”

     “What?” Dr. Why said.

    “Archaic sharks on the Discovery Channel, Daddy. They were a hundred feet long with teeth shaped like triangles the size of my hand,” Judy said.

     “I don’t want to imagine their kids,” Dr. Why teased.

     “Not the shark guys, Daddy, the sharks had the teeth,” Nina said.

     “Toothless scientists studying ancient sharks?”

     “Yes, Daddy, the scientists were utterly toothless,” Judy said.

     “They were not. They sat inside the shark’s jaw,” Nina opened her mouth wide. “They could both fit inside it!”

     Marwa thought of repetition. Arachnids had eight appendages, the octopus eight arms, oxygen’s atomic number was eight. She said, “The Chinese consider eight good luck. They exchange eight tangerines for the Chinese New Year.”      

     Nina said, “I’m eight.”         

     “Ijtihad,” Dr. Why praised. “It means the ancient Islamic tradition of questioning. Ijtihad.”

    The car had moved past the wide ocean views rimming Brooklyn’s Atlantic shore. The highway curved to parkway to eastern Long Island. Marwa looked out at the reddening trees. They would green next, willows haloed in yellow with neon forsythia. Purple, yellow, and white crocus were budding out of patches of old snow.

     The night before, Marwa maneuvered Judy away from morbid topics to a tetrahedron sculpture on a windowsill beside a giant geranium plant. It looked like Judy’s tiny two-dimensional Jewish star expressed in three-dimensional bronze wire nine-inch outlines stuck into a wooden base. They faced each other across the coffee table and put the sculpture between them like a Ouija board.   

      “Vibrations?”

     “None.” Marwa stood up and went to a tall glass centerpiece at the dining table. “Hey, this is new.”

     “Hey, be careful, it’s my mother’s last extravagance. My dad only took it out today. It’s a Klein Bottle,” Judy said. “Hand-blown.”  

     The transparent object looked like a one-legged stork bent over, its beak hollowed into a tube against the one leg. Marwa made a face.

     Judy said, “Wanna blow into it?”

     Marwa took the fragile object out of Judy’s hands and replaced it on the table. “We do not,” she said.

     Judy curtseyed, “You’re such a prude, Queen Victoria.”

     Marwa wandered over to two large prints framed above the couch. “I like the Magritte with the men falling like raindrops. Like scales on a fish, all in one direction. Like worshippers bowing to the Kaaba.”

     “You think conformity is beautiful?” Then Judy backed off, “Are you hungry?”

     “I dreamed last night that I was eating my way out of a bathtub filled with spaghetti.”

     Judy had chased Marwa into the small kitchen. They made grilled cheese sandwiches with tomatoes and sour pickles. Marwa didn’t tell Judy about Descartes’s three dreams or her own.

     Nor had Marwa told Judy about seeing Denim Prix (Pree) two weeks before, during February break when the Yamaguchi sisters had been away in Florida with the maternal grandparents she was about to meet at the cemetery. Denim Prix was the highest paid male model in the world, and he lived in Marwa’s building in Battery Park City. She had met him in September.

     Marwa’s parent were working that week in February, and Joey was looked after by Mrs. al-Banna, an Egyptian widow at their mosque. For this week that New York public schools had off, her mother took Joey to Mrs. al-Banna’s apartment over on East Broadway.

     Marwa had been left to herself to work on the Intel Fair preparation, which she had dutifully done until the weather changed for momentarily to Spring. The sun rose into a cloudless sky, and the temperature climbed to fifty degrees. Marwa might not have known, so engrossed in spreadsheets and graphs as she was, had not a pigeon perched on her windowsill and pecked at the glass. It had been months since Marwa had seen a pigeon fly this high and close to the building. All winter, there had been only seagulls and terns in the distance over the Hudson.

     Marwa stared at the blue-necked white pigeon. It quickly flew away, and then she looked down at the street. People were walking without coats. A carnival breeze was blowing at street level. Marwa decided to go out for lunch. Mounds of snow from the last storm remained, but melt was in the air, puddles everywhere. Marwa left her parka behind. She walked along the esplanade. The sun glittered on the river.  

     Pree wasn’t sitting on the bench where they’d met. He leaned against railing and stared at the water. He wore a dark wool cap pulled over blond curls. Pree turned and saw Marwa. The cap was a dark outline around a smile. His green eyes were outlined in brown. She smelled coffee brewing and thought his skin explained why coffee was called ‘brown gold’. She said yes to lunch nearby in a small cafe decorated for Valentine’s Day, all red hearts and bow-and-arrowed Cupids on the windows, doorway, and cashier’s counter. They found a table.

     Marwa kept talking.

     “The month of February is named for one of the aspects of the Roman goddess Juno. The whole month was sacred to Juno Februata, patroness of the fever — febris — of love. The original Valentine’s Day was Rome’s Lupercalia. Guys handed out proto-valentines with girls’ names on them to be partners in erotic games. I take Latin.”

     Pree signaled a waitress who tripped when she saw him. She spilled the water she poured   and rushed to put in their orders.

     “It’s a good thing she’s not carrying knives and oranges,” Marwa said. 

     “What? Why?”

     “The Koran tells of Yusuf, Joseph, ‘the noble angel’ and the rich women. They cut their hands with knives intended for oranges when they first see him. When they see Yusuf, their hands just slip.”

     The shaky waitress returned with their food and iced tea for Marwa, hot coffee for Prix.  

     Pree sipped and said, “It’s like acid.”

     “Your coffee?”

     “The way the waitress looks at me.”

     Marwa couldn’t swallow.

     “I don’t want you to think I like it,” Pree said.

     Marwa stared at a red cardboard heart. “The Catholic Church replaced Juno Februata with the mythical martyr St. Valentine. They said he was a Roman teenager who was executed at the exact moment his girlfriend received his invitation, the first Valentine.”

     “People look at me as if I’m food. As if they’re starving.”

     Marwa forced herself to take a sip of the cold tea. “There are a lot of people worse off.” It’s what her mother would have said.

     He laughed and pulled off his cap.

     Dizzied by his gold curls, Marwa thought of her hijab and blurted, “There wasn’t any observable differential.”

     “What?” Pree asked.

     “Deferential?” he asked.

     “Differential,” Marwa said. “The diamond I told you about in September. At the bench on the esplanade. I don’t know why I lied like that.”

     “To impress me,” Pree said easily, eating his sandwich. “It worked, but I didn’t believe you. Don’t you like your salad?”

     Marwa looked down and saw the food. She took a forkful, swallowing with the help of the iced tea. 

     “Why didn’t you believe me?” she asked.

     Pree shrugged. “I never believe anyone.”    

     As they were walking back to their building, he invited her to his apartment, then laughed when she said no. He twisted the gold ring on his middle finger

     “I hoped you wouldn’t. But you say the view is lousy from your floor.” Pree put his hand on her arm. “You may never talk to me again — but I want you to know something. From the time I was half your age, there were people — of both sexes — who wanted to buy and sell me. And they did. I even thought they cared. But it got — old and it got — ugly. And now I wish I could outvirgin you.”

     His hand steadied her. Then he let go.

     “Oh,” he swallowed a curse, “that came out wrong. I don’t mean — I don’t know how to talk to anyone,” and Pree left her rooted there.

     Why hadn’t she said anything or run after him, caught up? He didn’t want her. She hadn’t misunderstood him. It was just the sudden heat, the ides of February, all the others’ fevers for him including her own.

     The memory and its heat were blown away by the bitter March wind at the cemetery. Dr. Why walked ahead, taking Nina’s hand out of her coat pocket and putting it with his hand inside his big brown leather glove. Nina had been quiet since they left the highway for the wide avenue that took them past several large cemeteries. They had stopped at a strip mall of grave monuments and a florist where Dr. Why bought green metal cones and three bouquets of daffodils. You could taste the storm coming, a metallic flavor in the icy air. At the gravesite, Judy’s grandparents and uncle and aunt were shivering. There were embraces and small talk. Dr. Why, Judy, and Nina stuck the daffodils inside the cones into the ground.

     Judy’s Uncle Robert took out a prayer book and read, “Yis’ga’dal v’yis’kadash sh’may ra’bbo…v’imru. Omein.”

     Judy’s relatives all repeated, “Omein.”

     Judy and Nina joined in a second behind as their father did. The prayer went on for a short time, but Marwa knew it was over when a final-sounding “Omein” was echoed.

    The grandfather cried, but Judy’s grandmother just pressed her lips together tightly and held her husband’s hand. Uncle Robert’s wife unfolded a piece of paper and read a poem.  It was very short.

     “‘Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing,/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling/ To keep a drowsy emperor awake;/ Or set upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.’”

     Then each family member picked up a pebble from the ground and ceremoniously placed it on the top of the headstone. Marwa thought, Once out of nature, why would all the questions Nature forces us to ask even matter? They wouldn’t matter without matter. But they were the most important questions we asked here. Then a huge black crow flew to a tall yew hedge and folded its wings. It waited, flapped, cawed loudly, waited again, and then flew away. Nina huddled between her father and her sister, but she didn’t cry until Judy did. Uncle Robert’s wife had tissues. There were embraces again and tearful farewells. Back in the car, Nina made no move to put in a CD.

     Judy asked Marwa if Muslims observed annual mourning.

     “In the twelfth lunar month, Dhul-Hijah, at the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, for Id al-Adha, in late January or February usually, we visit the graves of our relatives. The Feast of the Sacrifice. But all my family’s graves are in Egypt.” Although no one asked, Marwa filled the silence by adding, “The Id marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s command, according to the Koran.”

     “Did he kill him?” Nina said.

     “No, it’s the same in Judaism,” Judy explained. “Abraham’s son Isaac. There’s an angel or a scapegoat instead. A goat appears. Abraham kills the goat. That’s where the word ‘scapegoat’ comes from.”

     Nina said, “An escape goat? It didn’t escape. It should be an instead-goat. A steadgoat. Why’d God want to kill the son or a goat?”

     “Abraham wanted to show Allah that nothing was more important to him than Allah. For us, it is a sheep, not a goat.” Marwa said.

     “It was Abraham’s idea? Marwa, you said at Allah’s command. I don’t think he should’ve killed a goat or a sheep,” Nina said. “I’m going to be a vegetablarian.”

     “A vegetarian,” Judy corrected gently. “A vegan. Tell Marwa where babies come from.”

     “Doesn’t Marwa know?” Nina said.

     “She’ll admire your theory,” Judy encouraged.

     “Well, I don’t believe it any more, of course,” Nina began, “but when I was little, when I saw fat pregnant women, I couldn’t figure out how the baby would get out. Then I thought of belly buttons and figured baby buttons grew during pregnancy. When it was time for the baby to come out, a special baby button doctor knew how to unbutton the buttons. Like those trapdoor pajamas they put on kids.”

     Marwa realized that Dr. Why had been silent since he’d started driving back to Manhattan. He didn’t utter a word until they were nearly at the Williamsburg Bridge, and then he asked Marwa about her Intel Fair project. He expressed surprise when she told him it was not only her synesthesia but also his research that had inspired her, but Marwa saw the Crayola Timberwolf grey in his voice and could almost hear a low howl.   

     Every September for a generation now, I remember that journey with Judy’s family. I take the subway downtown from my lab to the 9/11 Memorial. I don’t leave from my apartment on the West Side. I need to go to work first before facing Pree’s name carved with the others into the black stone around and far above the waterfalls in the recreated foundation of the Towers. On the subway, I always retrace my steps of August, 2001. It was as blistering hot as the blizzard cold in March. That August day, Judy got a tattoo to mark her loss of virginity the month before. I got my ears pierced. I told Judy ear-piercing was okay because Safiyah and Fatima had gold earrings. In the summer of 2001, Judy and I had internships in different university labs and were anticipating senior year in high school. Judy messaged me at Stonybrook from Hopkins in Baltimore. In that July, Pree took me on a chaste date to a movie star’s mansion in Southampton. In her absence (starring in France), Pree vacationed there. The celebrity offered her home as penance for being one of the many who had abused his youth. After the hot day of tattoos and piercing, later in August, I broke Pree’s heart. Even at virginal seventeen, I understood that he was sacrificing his desire to regain innocence to my lust for his experience. Of 9/11, I have many memories. I have a thin scar over one eyebrow where I was cut by something falling out of the sky. It is better than a tattoo. When I go every year and penitently place a pebble at Pree’s name, I remember the rabbi at the cemetery: “The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror which also means ‘bond.’ When we pray, we ask that the deceased be ‘bound up in the bond of life’ – tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that the person lives on in and through us.”


BIO

A native New Yorker now in RI, L. Shapley Bassen was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest for ‘Portrait of a Giant Squid’. She is s a poetry/fiction reviewer for The Rumpus, etc., also Fiction Editor at https://www.craftliterary.com/, prizewinning, produced, published playwright: originally at http://www.samuelfrench.com/author/1158/lois-shapley-bassen, now https://www.concordtheatricals.com/p/1563/the-month-before-the-moon ; 3x indie-published author novel/story collections, and in 2019, #4, WHAT SUITS A NUDIST, poetry collected works at https://www.claresongbirdspub.com/featured-authors/l-shapley-bassen/
FB Author page: https://www.facebook.com/ShapleyLoisBassen/?modal=admin_todo_tour
LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/lois-bassen-11482a5/
Website: http://www.lsbassen.com/

she wears chaos like Dior

by Elizabeth Train-Brown


I’ve got my hands all over her
in the train toilet
en route to Manchester Piccadilly
and she’s alive like static
under my fingers
whispering in tongues
gulping down the sweat in the air.

when we set off the fireworks
by Lancaster canal
she ground her thumb into gunpowder
painted it on her cheeks,
her white moth eyes
chasing the Catherine wheels
spinning under the bridge on the M55.

she pulled me onto the 23:33 from Preston
with a hand around the back of my neck
told me,
I might not ruin your life
but you’ll excuse me if I certainly try.


you


we were walking back from theirs
butterflies in our bellies
(that might’ve just been the vodka red bulls)
and my feet were singing on the air
because I could still taste his lips on mine
could still feel his hands on my hips
fingers dancing through my hair.

we were walking back home
in the rain in the dark
and I sat down in the road

to break.

the others watched me
crumble on wet tarmac
tear the air apart
chest heaving
shaking

eyes burning

they’ve never seen destruction
quite like this
never knew sobs could rip the night sky
curdle the stars
spill into the street like oil in a storm

and they don’t know
why I keep whispering your name

they don’t know
because I’m 150 miles away
from where you died
and no one here
pours an extra vodka red bull
and leaves it untouched on the table.


gentlemen,


see before you,
an hysteric.
call me Blanche
call me mum
call me the name
of your first lover
it doesn’t matter
because I will be
the thing you dream
of tonight.
I am the future
the night
the darkest
of your delights
and tomorrow
you won’t remember
the colour of my
eyes.


I buried my heart at a crossroad


you have her eyes
(Hecate’s)
like wine
like chaos.
you probably have her mouth
too
but I can’t concentrate
long enough
when you start giggling
against my collarbone –
all I can think of
is how your breath feels
skating over my chest
as you tell me about
how sirens spring
from the women
who throw themselves
off cliffs
how vampires are the women
who drink blood
between the legs of
lovers.



BIO

Elizabeth Train-Brown (she/they) is a circus performer and award-winning journalist, studying Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She is Poetry & Prose Editor for TL Publishing, Developmental Editor for Flash Literary Journal, Poetry Reader at Bandit Fiction, and Poetry Staff Writer at Saturdaze Magazine. She won the 2020 Literary Lancashire Award, came highly commended in the 2021 Erbacce Prize, listed under Best Submissions in the 2021 SLF Young Poets Prize, and has been published over 30 times. She can be found online at bethtrainbrown.journoportfolio.com and instagram.com/choo_choo42.

The Two Missing Words

By Dave Henson


When a commotion outside Mep Dugan’s open bedroom window woke him, the dream scurried into the thick undergrowth of his subconscious. Widow Splenks was arguing with baker Brown. Mep stuck his head out the window and saw that a toss further down the street Lucas Diddle was shaking his fist at the milkman.

Mep wondered why nobody in the village got along anymore. The thought yanked the dream into daylight. The dream tried to squirm away, but Mep held it tight ‘till it was clear in his mind: Two words had gone missing from the village, and their absence was the reason no one got along anymore.

Mep couldn’t remember what the two words were but felt he’d know if he saw or heard them and so set out on his search.

The first place Mep looked was the library. What better place for words to hide? But after rifling through the pages of nearly a hundred books, he was overwhelmed. Volume after volume, shelf after shelf. Mep asked Lydea the librarian for help. He didn’t tell her the whole story. She had a way of arching her eyebrow at Mep and making him feel peculiar. Mep just asked Lydea to be on the lookout for two words that, while perhaps unknown to her, felt vaguely familiar. Words that seemed out of place, perhaps in the margin of a book or in a sentence where they didn’t belong. Despite Mep’s careful manner of asking Lydea for help, she arched her eyebrow.

The next place Mep sought the missing words was on Lerry Lowdly’s street corner. Lerry took to the corner from dawn to midday and spoke mostly nonsense to no one in particular. The village folk ignored Lerry’s gibberish, which Mep thought made it an excellent place for the words to hide in plain sight.

“A day of clouds seeks the shadows,” Lerry said as Mep approached him.

“Never mind me, Lerry. I’m just going to stand with you a spell.”

Mep listened as Lerry went on about such things as the soil having its way, bark shinnying up the tree and stones in soft places. After a few hours, Lerry announced that the river’s climb to the sun was steep and walked off.

Mep wasn’t ready to call it a day himself. A short ramble outside of the village, was a babbling brook — a tranquil place for missing words to hide.

When Mep got to the brook, he was shocked at how many rocks the words could be hiding under. But determined as ever, he took off his shoes and socks and waded into the stream. He flipped over stone after stone, but found no missing words. Exhausted, he sloshed to dry land and lay down under a tree.

… A pain in Mep’s foot awoke him — a crow was pecking his big toe. “Hey, stop that.”

“I’m here to help,” the crow said. “I have the two missing words.”

The crow told Mep that his tenacity was impressive and that it had long-standing familial ties with a murder of crows in the village. For those reasons, the crow gave Mep the missing words.

When Mep heard the two words, they shone in his mind like shafts of light through breaking clouds. No wonder their absence had caused so much trouble. Mep thanked the crow and offered to dig up some worms to show his appreciation. The crow said thanks, but no thanks and flapped away.

Mep, so excited he forgot to retrieve his shoes and socks, rushed barefoot to the village. He spoke the two missing words to everyone he met and convinced the town crier to repeat them over and over.

The missing words found their way back into the villagers’ vocabularies and conversations. Arguments grew less frequent and nearly stopped. But the villagers began to overuse the words, wedging them into verbal exchanges where they weren’t necessary, where their intent was to dismiss, manipulate or create advantage. 

One morning the crow who had returned the missing words to Mep glided through his open bedroom window. The crow told Mep that if the villagers didn’t stop using the words selfishly, they would disappear for good at dusk.

Mep spent the day begging his fellow villagers to use the rediscovered words as they were intended so that their little town didn’t again find itself in the throes of acrimony. No one paid him any mind.

Just before dusk, as Mep noticed the crow circling lower and lower, he came upon Lydea the librarian in the park. Mep explained all that was at stake to her.

Mep thought Lydea’s face softened, thought he’d gotten through to her, that there was hope. “Peace be with you, Love,” she said. Then she arched an eyebrow. “Now fuck off, you peculiar little troll.”


BIO

David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in numerous print and online journals including Fictive Dream, Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review, Fiction on the Web, Red Fez, Bewildering Stories and Literally Stories. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.

413B

By J.R. Solonche


Options presented.
Benefits and risks
of each explained.

Simply as possible.
Layman’s language.
Doctors’ baby talk.

Diagrams on yellow
legal pad, shadowed
by diagrams in air.

Now I am alone for
two days to figure
out the best way out.

Had they only come
with three straws,
two long, one short.

I look at the pad.
I look at the hasty
oval of heart, at

the arrow arteries,
at pain’s thick mark.
Statistical probability.

X Y Z prophecy for me.
So for two days
I sit by the window above

Seventh Avenue to scan
the sky for flights
of sparrows. To wait

for a cloud shaped
like a helmeted woman.
To stare at the ceiling

tiles and the fly that
must settle on the tile
with the stain. To listen

for nine rings on the nurses’
station telephone. For a
coincidence of coughs

in the corridor. To watch
for the sign in the dream
I will for two nights dream,

above the door of my wife,
that will sing in neon:
“Enter – This Way Life.”


A DIALOGUE


The one says:
I did not know what you knew.

The other says:
What I know I know because of you.

The one says:
Suddenly it has grown cold.

The other says:
What should I remember about you?

The one says:
Nothing has changed.

The other says:
Once you were larger than life.
Now you are loose change in the pocket of my heart.

The one says:
The future had your profile.

The other says:
I will save us.

The one says:
I have already saved us.


BANKS


In the Chase Manhattan Bank branch
on the corner of 235th Street
and Johnson Avenue, I have changed
my mind about banks. I never used
to like banks. I despised banks. Now
I like banks. I like standing in the cool
lobbies of banks. I like the brass stanchions
and the velvet ropes that are swagged
between them that you must follow
to the tellers’ windows, as though through
a maze. I like the ballpoint pens chained
to the counters where you fill out deposit
slips and withdrawal slips. I like the blue
deposit slips and the pink withdrawal slips.
I like the look on the faces of the tellers,
especially when there are many customers
waiting. They are the concentrated faces
of efficiency. I like to say something
pleasant and polite and civil to the tellers
when it is my turn at the window.
Their gratitude is palpable. It shows on
their efficient faces, and I like that.
I like being a number. I like being several
numbers. I never thought I’d like being
a number, but I do. I like being a number
and a face without a name. It is such
a pleasure not having a name for a little
while during the day. How tiring it is
to answer to a name all the time. I like
the air-conditioned, clean smell of banks.
I like the brand new bills they give me.
I like the way they smell and feel and look.
They remind me of the brand new
books they gave me in school, that I was
the first to use. I like the word. I like
the sound of the word “bank.” It’s the sound
the vault makes when it’s shut and locked.
I like to look at the big vault door. I like
the shiny brushed steel of it. I like
the solidity of it, the indestructibility.
I like the enormous tumblers of the locks.
I like the timing mechanism in its glass
case. I like the handle, big as the handle
on the air-lock of a submarine. The door
looks strong enough to keep out death,
master-thief, genius of safe-crackers.
I do not like death.



BIO

Professor Emeritus of English at SUNY Orange, J.R. Solonche has published poetry in more than 400 magazines, journals, and anthologies since the early ’70s. He is the author of Beautiful Day (Deerbrook Editions), Won’t Be Long (Deerbrook Editions), Heart’s Content (Five Oaks Press), Invisible (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by Five Oaks Press), The Black Birch (Kelsay Books), I, Emily Dickinson & Other Found Poems (Deerbrook Editions), In Short Order (Kelsay Books), Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday (Deerbrook Editions), True Enough  (Dos Madres Press), The Jewish Dancing Master (Ravenna Press), If You Should See Me Walking on the Road (Kelsay Books), In a Public Place (Dos Madres Press), To Say the Least (Dos Madres Press), The Time of Your Life (Adelaide Books), The Porch Poems (Deerbrook Editions , 2020 Shelf Unbound Notable Indie Book), Enjoy Yourself  (Serving House Books), Piano Music (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by Serving House Books), For All I Know (Kelsay Books), A Guide of the Perplexed (Serving House Books), The Moon Is the Capital of the World (WordTech Communications), Years Later (Adelaide Books), The Dust (Dos Madres Press), Selected Poems 2002-2021 (nominated for the National Book Award by Serving House Books),and coauthor with his wife Joan I. Siegel of Peach Girl:Poems for a Chinese Daughter (Grayson Books). He lives in the Hudson Valley.

Matters That Concern Me

by Walter Weinschenk


I’ve experienced some difficulties lately.  I’m thinking of the most recent chapter of my life though that chapter may not be as recent as I suppose it to be.  Hard to say, hard to think.  I’m speaking of the project I’ve completed.  I have built additional brick walls within the confines of my room to buttress existing walls.  I had planned this endeavor for quite some time and designed it with precision and constructed it with care and, presently, the brick reinforcement that I had envisioned and needed in a dire way stands firmly before me.  Though it took considerable effort, that effort is best understood as a symptom, a side-effect or manifestation of limitless need, an ever-evolving need that I don’t quite understand.  It rises and dissipates, hibernates and wakes, sleeps and rouses itself in some part of me and, without hesitation or forethought, proceeds to wage war against me from within.  It is an asphyxiation of sorts.  The present expression of this come-and-go need, this rise-and-fall desperation is only one chapter in an endless array of chapters in my book of need and is by no means the last chapter or next-to-last chapter.  It can be said that the struggle to resolve some need or all need that arises within me serves to define me, more or less.  I had a need and this particular need could not be ignored and attending to it could not be delayed.  The nature of that need, this time, was much in line with the way it always is though somewhat at variance with it.  I have added a brick lining to the walls in my room despite the fact that the room was not very large to begin with and isn’t simply a room:  it is, in a very real sense, a sanctuary, some days more than others.  The old walls that defined the room (and there could not have been a room without the presence of those walls) had been in place for as long as I can remember and those walls continue to stand but, somehow, I became convinced that they were not enough.  I came to believe that the walls as they existed were in need of immediate fortification and so, now, they are fortified.  I was convinced that the added strength would provide longevity.  There was no other possibility, there was no other way to live, it could be no other way, it had to be just so, now and forever.  It’s done, at least for now and, perhaps, forever.

It took some time, I forget how much time.  It was backbreaking labor though I hardly remember having been engaged in the process.  The dull clay lining of brick, the color of overripe fruit, is solid and sublime.  The work is complete in every way at this particular juncture.  I know it, I see it and I presently experience it but the story of its construction is a dim memory, barely a memory which is, more or less, the equivalent of a dream and, like a dream, it is ephemeral and dissipates in time.  A dream cannot be explained and the same holds true for memory:  it cannot be explained.  I have created a new reality for myself in the form of new brick walls but I am the only one who sees those walls and appreciates that reality.  It is, nevertheless, a statement that I alone could make and stands as utter and absolute proof of my effort and, no doubt, I had to have made such effort to get to this point and achieve what has been achieved thus far.  There is no other explanation.  It is there, I am here and my new reality is confirmed by the fact that the area of my room has now been diminished by the area of space committed to, and consumed by, the additional inner wall that now stands flush against the existing wall to which it is adjoined.

The job seems to have been done rather well, at least that’s my impression.  Those bricks are as straight as straight can be.  They run perfectly across and around me as any horizon you might detest with all your heart as you stand upon the beach and peer out in all directions.  That horizon is the only thing you see.  It encompasses you like a circle of elderly trees.  Detest, I say, because that horizon is perfectly straight, sharp against the sky and well-defined in a threatening manner like the edge of a razor that needs to be kept at a distance for fear of the potential that lies within it like electric current that rides within a wire and can’t be seen but threatens because it exists and is, in this way, quite inhuman, perfectly inhuman.  The vertical lines are plumb, of that you can be sure.  What I’m left with is a hardened insular lining.  I am protected like a fox in a lair, a bear in a cave, no doubt you understand, you empathize, you’ve been there.  You might even picture yourself sitting in my room in place of me, needing something, wanting something, faced with a predicament that can never be defined even if we took all the time until the end of time and back to the moment that has just passed to define that need, that predicament, that problem and you might as well spend the whole of your life seeking a resolution that is somehow satisfactory.  In fact, it becomes you all at once and you find yourself doing just that, seeking something out, seeking the answer, all the while knowing there is no answer and so you let it go until it arises again.  It’s a never-ending start and stop.  I said that it becomes you and that is unfortunate but, after all, we are only human.  It is hard to keep it all in mind because the memory of the problem and solution are crushed, one atop the other, each forged into the other so that each consumes the other, each overtakes the other, each is enmeshed and adjoined with the other in the way that a crimson meteor crashes to earth and becomes one with it so that there is only one thing left.  The two become one and one is all that remains and all there is.  It is an answer of sorts.  The resolution has been formulated and all will be fine, at least for a while, until the problem reemerges years or months or seconds from now  and, once more, it will stare you down, mock you, concern you, seek your pity or petition you for closure until you can no longer stand that state of irresolution and you feel compelled to resolve it, once again, knowing that it’s not something within your power to resolve in any effective, enduring way.  For now, however, the new brick wall – my double wall – will suffice.  It is a holy bulwark.  It will harden until it is no longer capable of hardening and, at some particular time, it will cease to be a memory.  I will have become accustomed to it and I will come to believe that there never was a time at which it did not exist.

But it is not fear of a thing that gives rise to the problem and it is not fear of a person that gives rise to the problem because, in truth, there’s nothing I seek to avoid and I have no one to fear.  The problem is a bit more complex, I suppose.  It begins with me:  I bask in my own invisibility.  I celebrate my own distance from things.  I see a world that exists beyond my window and beyond my walls but I need to be decisively separated from it and I see the whole of the world through my window and through my mind’s eye and I remain far from it.  I am here and there, I am in and out, I can see but I can’t be seen.  I feel secure and insecure simultaneously and it is a remarkable thing.  I look out through my window, I gaze, I raise my head slowly so my eyes are positioned just above the sill and I peer out at whomever walks by.  I watch every move but he or she or they that I watch don’t feel my eyes upon them.  They don’t feel the traction of my vision upon their backs and they fail to detect the drag of my cognizance of their existence hovering over and beside them though it feels to me that my stare is so heavy and so immensely forceful that it surprises me that no one feels the trembling weight of it or senses the heat of it or hears the drone of it.  I know each who crosses the path of my vision at the very moment that he or she or they cross my path.  Their presence is announced long in advance by the shuffling of their footsteps upon the pebbly pavement and I feel their presence as their presence rises and fades, much like the memories and dreams that invade my consciousness in the moments just before my eyes are scalded open in the light of morning while (and all the while) I remain untouched, unseen, unknown and this, for some reason, has given me a source of meaning and method of experience that is personal and can’t be explained but exists and takes the form of an underlying vibration that coops the space within my being and evolves into a form of problem, an unwanted noise, a throb of consciousness that claims my entire attention as I pace the inner sanctum of my room.  It is, perhaps, the wriggling embryo of an enigma that lifts its head and arises unannounced and needs to be resolved and, when it yawns and wakes and pulses, it requires that I attend to it.  This is my pattern, this is my purpose, this is my sequence, this is the order and character of events that comprise the ether of my experience.  Those parts and participles and fragments are nothing more than pieces of problems that emerge in variant form but they coalesce, eventually, as a continuum, a unitary problem that has phases just as you and I experience the flow and confluence of day and night, wakefulness and unconsciousness though each phase has a different feel over time.  Consequently, my existence can be summarized as a continuing dialectic, a quivering procession.  My endeavor to resolve the problem is really my attempt to apply salve to an unending series of lacerations.  Problem, resolution, problem, resolution, over and again:  it is tantamount to a sweeping, desperate effort to satisfy a craving for refuge within an enclave or behind some rock or curtain or wall.  I seek an escape from the eyes of others.  I need to remain unseen.  I reserve and effectively retain my place outside the line of sight so that others may remain oblivious to my existence while my eyes fill with theirs.  I suppose there is nothing new or exciting about this.  I’m no different than anyone else.  I suppose we occupy ourselves in individual efforts to rectify or resolve whatever requires resolution, each in our own way, though I really wouldn’t know, will never know, can never know.

I rarely leave.  I stay within my own very well-defined perimeter that is framed by solid physical borders, now bolstered to an even greater degree by the addition of a solid brick lining with a surface so rough and real that it scrapes my skin as I brush my hand against it. Even if I wanted to saunter out on my own in the pale light of day, it would be difficult to do so.  Even if I no longer savored the space between myself and others and even if I felt compelled for some reason to link arms with he or she who walks down the street, even if I wished to join the ranks of humanity, even if I felt a need to stand on some street corner and greet each passerby as each walked by and extend my best wishes with joyful words that surge out of me and flow through the medium of my raspy voice, it would be so difficult, so extremely difficult.  It is difficult to leave the castle keep within which I have enveloped myself though, of course, I need to emerge every now and then because the exigencies of life demand it.  One must shop for groceries, one must buy clothes, one must argue with one’s neighbor or stand still upon the stool while the tailor draws the dull chalk like a knife across the coarse fabric of one’s new suit and one must sit in the chair while  one’s hair is styled as pieces of it fall past one’s eyes onto the floor and one must complete an array of tasks and indulge in various rituals and seek various allowances to accomplish the entirety of it all, the grand act of living.  One needs to leave one’s home.  If you wish to live, you have no choice but to leave and walk out into the world.  But to get out, one must get in and this is no easy feat.  First, there is the street and the doorway that would need to be opened, a heavy wood door, modern, pale like the skin of an old apple, beset by a small window that stares out warily like some cyclops eye, too small and high to be of much use to anyone and if that door were a face, it would be the blandest of faces, unknowing and apathetic.  Despite its appearance, that door would open easily but only after the latch is released and, unfortunately, it is often a bit difficult to manage.  It takes time to jiggle the key so that the latch turns but it becomes a habit after a number of attempts like anything else in life.  As you enter you would walk and as you walk you would find that there is a steady lowering of the ceiling that looms over you, high above your head at first but drops steadily at a gradual angle and lowers to such an extent that it almost brushes against your scalp as you pass beneath it and there comes a point at which you are forced to crawl along the floor to get to where you need to be.  As you proceed through the corridor, the flat blue matte walls are gradually overtaken by shadow but you navigate through it, narrow as it is, as the heat almost overtakes you and you struggle through two or three twists and turns, much like the jumble of paths and furrows that cross, back and forth, within some labyrinthine hedgerow until you are delivered into the confines of a small anteroom, not much larger than the dimensions of a Kashan rug, floral gray, onto which you step and from which you quickly step off, no larger than the top of a kitchen table, leaving it behind as you notice (and you will notice) that the room has no prominent features other than a bookshelf and lamp.  You notice that these walls, unlike the walls through which you have crawled, are spotted copper much like the spotted skin of your own arms that you can still see in the dim, dull light.  You sense the odor of plants and soil and moisture and, indeed, there are several wilting Philodendron set neatly on a narrow table that run the length of the wall in front of you.  At this point, you have no choice but to commit to climbing the black steel spiral staircase which you enter by stepping through an open archway.  You climb up and around the incremental steps that wind tight like a rubber band, your hand firm upon the winding rail as you walk in tiny, concentric circles and rise for an indefinite time and it seems like such a long time though you realize, soon, that it is but a moment until you reach the hallway, lit bright by a modest chandelier that protrudes overhead and shows you the way and guides you along but if you could only see the structure through which you have just ascended, you’d know that you’ve risen through a small white tower, a turret of sorts, which embraces a lone window with curtain drawn.  If you were to study this tower from the street, you’d note to yourself that the window is framed in black.  That window is my window.  You’d notice as well that my tower is topped with a cone roof, a primitive hat built of slate shingles that wind around in circles, smaller and smaller, culminating in a pin-like point at the very top but you are inside, not outside, and you have now come face to face with the cedar door to my room and, if you were to enter, you would notice the lining of brick that buttresses my walls and you would see the lone black-framed window with curtain drawn, that same window you noticed while standing on the street, and you would see me sitting at my desk or standing by the mirror or lifting the curtain that hides the window in order for me to peek out of it and, having arrived, you might not remember how you got there.  It may feel like a dream or a memory and, though your journey is vague like a dream or a memory, it is a reality nonetheless.  You are now here and being here is proof of the fact that you came here whether or not you remember the details of how it is you arrived.

This is how it is but this it’s not the entire picture.  What’s missing are the fields and forests of experience and the tangle of gullies and gorges of thought and need and resolution that come together to form an inextricable knot and comprise the evanescent conundrum that is my essential self. What’s missing is the sublime feeling that comes over me as I find my bed at night after having jettisoned many of my preoccupations.  I lie down upon a bed that is situated beside and beneath the sill of the window.  It is the very same window that you saw while standing on the street and would surely recognize if you were to enter my room.  I lie down and my head is so close to that window that I can feel the chill of its frame in winter and the heat of its pane in summer.  I am secure in the knowledge that my window is immediately accessible and it happens to be the case that many of my concerns wash away like leaves in the rush of a river in spring and this sense of peace arises only because I realize that my window is so close at hand.  The air settles around me and it is then that I hear the sounds of distant things.  I hear the rolling of railroad wheels.  I hear the insane drone of motorcycles on a highway.  I hear the languid roll of a plane overhead.  I hear all these things and, as I hear them, I feel myself drawn like a minnow into a gentle eddy of cool serenity.  I revel in the sense of distance between myself and the train and the motorcycle and plane and I can almost imagine the thoughts and concerns of the people aboard trains or those who ride motorcycles or sit high in flight above the clouds.  I delight in the mystery of that distance.   It feels as though I can see them though they have no conception of me and have no reason to think of me but I think of them always and can practically visualize the expressions on their faces.  I embrace them in my mind but they would have no reason to think of someone who thinks of them and projects a conception of them within his own consciousness and takes pleasure in that distance as he lies in bed on the verge of sleep and, in his final wakeful moments, wonders not of himself but of them.  It is an aberration of intimacy.  It is an elegy to the tenuous ties that connect me loosely to others as I meander through the shadows of their lives.  It is life literally passing in different directions, one past the other, each and all somehow free and somehow tethered.  This is how it is as I stare into the grey-black ceiling above me searching for planes and trains and motorcycles as the darkness of that ceiling becomes my own dark night and my eyelids sink into the floor of the gorges of my eyes like doors of a store that slowly close at the end of a long day.

This is how it is but it is only part of my particular picture because, like everyone else, I wake up.   These matters, these sensations, this procession of thought and the long coil of longing are the remains that I gather.  They are part of the whole.  The dreams that cascade through the thermosphere of my sleep are forever lost within the whirlwind of my own oblivion except for bits and pieces.  What’s left are fragments of thought and memories of a dream rather than the thought itself or the dream itself.  Dreams fade, memories fade, the sense of things fade, it all fades so incredibly fast.  No matter how hard one tries, those dreams and memories and sensations cannot be retrieved but for the edges and corners.  A moment or two passes and my thinking mind returns and its quadrants quickly fill with complete thoughts, rigid thoughts, and this barrage of thought is inconsequential though some of these fleeting thoughts are worth hanging onto.  There is always a category of thought that is key to survival and must be retained and developed if one is to navigate life and progress or proceed to some destination, however defined.  These are the mundane thoughts, the practical thoughts that serve as markers etched onto one’s mental compass and, in fact, much of my thinking is devoted to practical things such as cooking but I soon veer from the practical and settle into a quasi-reverie that is a peculiar form of consciousness in itself.  These are the moments that I spend wondering and peering out the window during the days that my eyes wish to wander like children.

In fact, my eyes have their own innate desire to latch on to those who walk by.  Passersby approach from the end of the street and cross directly in front of the window through which I stare.  I sit and wait and suddenly, as if on cue, I see someone, anyone, walking along the sidewalk in my direction.  There appears a man, there appears a woman, there appears the postal worker making his or her rounds, there appears the delivery man or the plumber or the electrician or the person who walks for the sake of walking.  If I wait long enough, I will have something that resembles an encounter, one in which my eyes are steady above the sill as I peer out, scan the street and behold some random person.  I will let my eyes latch onto his or her being and I will wind up thinking very hard and wondering very hard.  I gaze and theorize, I gaze and wonder, I gaze and fall into an ocean of want, a river of need.  I need to know who it is that my eyes follow.  I need to know the thoughts that are housed in his or her head.  I need to know what lies within the inner sanctum of his or her essential self but I know that it’s impossible to know.  There is no language through which that self can be communicated.  This question, this predicament, can never be resolved.  Conversation is inadequate no matter how honest and earnest and open a particular person might be.  That is the problem, it’s a real problem:  it is an unending deficit, a perpetual hiatus, an experiential nausea and it causes me to suffer from one moment to the next and, perhaps, I’m the only one who feels it and faces it and cowers before it.  I cannot know anyone in any real sense and, consequently, I’ve come to recognize and realize the vacuity and tyranny of raw need that cannot be assuaged.

If there is an exception, if there is one person who is capable of being known, it is the blind tenant who lives across the hall.  He is remarkable and astonishing but, as extraordinary as he is, I am discouraged in his presence.  I may visit him or not but I am less inclined than ever to interact with him and I have purposely kept my interactions with him to a minimum since these encounters always end in a way that is debilitating and unsettling.  I do visit him, however, from time to time.  I cross the hall, I knock on the door and I hear the latch unlock from within.  The door opens wide and the light of another world pours forth over me like shafts of sunrise.  Before me stands the blind tenant who ratchets his head down to face me and his face formulates a smile as soon as he hears my voice.  He is tall and heavy, his shoulders are wide and his red tussled hair falls unevenly about his neck and ears.  He embraces me, he grasps my shoulders, he pulls me through the door, he ushers me around a sparsely furnished room as he begins to talk and he rambles incessantly in a voice that is both gruff and happy and pleasing.  He offers wine or beer or bourbon and I take him up on it, I drink with him, I drink the beer or bourbon or wine and I ask for more and he delights in pouring.  I drink until I’m drunk, I laugh at his joke, I listen to his story and he and I join in laughter.  He laughs uproariously.  We toast each other.  We exclaim “to life!” in unison and we continue to drink but, invariably, the visit takes an odd turn.  He’ll draw me over to the large living room window that overlooks a street that runs parallel to the street that is mine to look out upon.  He’ll open that window as wide as he can and, as blind as he is, he’ll somehow know that someone is just then passing, close upon the sidewalk.  Somehow, he will spot that person who is no one in particular.  It may be some unsuspecting dog walker, for example, and he’ll yell “good morning” though its long past morning.  The dogwalker may yell back “good morning” and the blind tenant and the dogwalker might then carry on animated conversation about dogs and walking and the winter to come.  I can only hear one side of the conversation but I do hear the laughter that comes from each side of the window as that laughter punctuates the paragraphs of their conversation.  It is at this juncture that I begin to feel distance between myself and the blind tenant and the space between us explodes in the minefield of my mind and it is at about this time that I decide to leave.  Even though their conversation continues and the blind tenant and the dogwalker are happily engaged in explaining themselves and telling tales and recounting the twisting turns of their respective lives, I will feel an overpowering urge to leave, to escape, to run for my life and I will feel aching, debilitating need coalesce within me as though it were organic, soon to ferment like yeast or fester like infection.  I find my way out.  I fall through the door while the blind tenant continues his conversation.  I stagger back across the hall, I see my cedar door and I crash into it.  I open it quickly and I close it quickly and I throw myself onto my bed and I let the experience come to an inglorious end.  I let it become a memory, I let it be what it is:  something that I cannot quite grasp, something that evades me.  I proceed to let months or weeks or days pass until the time comes, once more, to visit the blind tenant.  Though it may be long, long, long into the future, that day invariably comes and, invariably, I summon the will to visit again.  I always visit again.

There is more, however.  There is more that I encounter, more to my reality and more to the tunnel of experience through which I pass.  There is the matter of rent and there is the matter of the landlady.  Rent is one of those things that one must deal with.  The landlady is real and my obligation to pay rent to her is real.  It is the pinion that holds the wheel in place and allows it to spin in circles.   There is also the matter of the landlady’s daughter who is no longer young but, when she was young, I was young as well.  When we were children, the landlady’s daughter would run in circles and I would run after her.  She had heather hair and her bangs would bounce against her forehead as she ran.  She would laugh while she ran and, when she laughed, two glistening teeth would ride high in her mouth and, indeed, she would laugh quite often.  I would laugh as well.  There was joy in running and there was joy in laughing and I recall running and falling and laughing.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that we were inseparable.  On occasion, she or I might sing.  We would collect sticks.  We would see who could jump the highest or farthest and we would march into piles of leaves with great vehemence.  We would strip petals from flowers in the garden.  We would dig through the dirt with our fingers.  We would retreat to the steps and sit.  It may have seemed as though we were waiting for someone to arrive or something to happen but, in fact, we were waiting for nothing and no one at all.  Her favorite color was blue and blue became my favorite as well.  Sadly, the friendship came to an end when she began having problems with her legs.  She had trouble running and then she had trouble walking and there came a time at which she could run or walk no more.  She sat in a wheelchair from that point on.   I saw less and less of her until I hardly saw her at all.

There is also the matter of the landlady’s son who lives somewhere nearby and visits his mother on occasion.  I don’t know his name though, perhaps, I should.  He is thin and his arms dangle as he walks and he wears a fedora and I find him repulsive.  He doesn’t comport with my conception of what a landlady’s son should be.  He doesn’t fit the model.  He is overly confident and self-assured, he is loud, he is argumentative, he is petty and you can tell that he tries not to smile.  He walks as though he owns the ground.  Ordinarily, this would not be a problem because, in truth, anyone can be loud or crude or narcissistic in some way, to some degree, at any particular time though some people more than others.  In this case, however, his presence is a problem.  Those who walk in my direction are forced to change direction to avoid walking into him.  He stands upon the sidewalk as if it were a conquered nation and his presence is enough to force those who pass by – those who I claim as my own – to avoid me, leave me, disengage from me.  The landlady’s son forestalls the only opportunity I have to behold the miracle of some other person, some stranger, some being who has a personhood all his or her own.  He repels all those who would otherwise enter my life and command my attention and serve as points of wonderment.  He destroys those possibilities.  He trespasses upon my psychic space as well:  though the silence of the evening doesn’t belong to him, the thought of him is enough to disrupt the delicate stillness and quiet harbor of my own inner peace.  He upsets the panorama of light and air and stars in the night that comprise my universe and he upends the reverie in which I may be immersed.  If he were to stand below my window and laugh or scream or berate his mother, his life would thereby be imposed upon my own – and so it is:  he disrupts both her life and my life in this fashion.  He imposes himself upon my personal eternity, he upsets the array of opportunities that are open to me at any given moment and, as he does, he folds my life into smaller and smaller dimensions.  Because of him, I cannot contemplate or confound myself with the mystery of trains or motorcycles or planes that I might otherwise hear in the distance.  I am prevented from contemplating or understanding those who happen to be walking along the sidewalk or rolling down the tracks or passing through the clouds or speeding down the highway as the sound of wheels and engines split the night.  My mind is pulled like a moon caught in gravity’s grasp so that it circles about him and is bombarded by his statements and exhortations.  The space we share is thereby sliced to shreds by his razor-edged voice.  Simply stated, I am dislodged from my world through his presence and I’m hurled into his.  My incessant effort to come to terms with my own world is upended.

There is another matter of concern and that matter is the dream that recently visited itself upon me.  I had a dream, most of which I can remember, and it was truly a memorable dream.  I dreamed that I looked down upon the street and noticed someone who slowly tilted her head, up, up, up until she was looking straight up, searching for me, patiently waiting for me to appear at my window.  When I lifted my eyes above the sill, I spotted her and, as I spotted her, I saw a smile that I think I’ve been waiting many years to see and I lifted my head so that I was standing tall by the window and gleefully yelled “how are you?” in as loud a voice as I could muster.  I didn’t care the hour and didn’t care if I upset the entire neighborhood with the sound of my voice.  I dreamed that she saw me and received my greeting and yelled in as loud a voice as mine: “how are you?” and it went on from there.  It was as happy an occasion as I can recall and it was a beautiful thing and I cried in my sleep and felt the drip of a tear as it ran across my cheek and jumped over my nose into my pillow.  At that moment, I woke up and remembered my dream in minute detail and this was quite unusual because I rarely remember my dreams.  I retained her image in my head and even though she was a creation of my own mind as it swam in sleep, I nevertheless thought of her as if she were real.  I thought about her often and I can’t help but think of her often.  Though her visit was not real, I spend time wishing she’d reappear.  I want her to search for me and find me.  I need to hear her cry out “how are you?” as if it were a statement and, if I were to hear those words, I would respond “how are you?” and I would luxuriate in her words and she in mine.

In addition to the matter of the landlady’s son and the matter of my recent dream, there is the more pressing matter of the landlady herself and the rent which lies at the core of our relationship.  In the absence of my obligation to pay rent, there would be no landlady and there would be no landlady’s son.  She exists, of course, and has a place in my life and has had a place in my life for longer than I can dream or remember.  If she did not exist, I would have some other reality to cope with.  I might live somewhere else, in some other town or city or in some other room or attic or cellar.  I might not spend most of my day peering out a window and, in that event, my eyes might not have the opportunity to lock onto the back of some unsuspecting stranger and I might not lie in the bed in which I presently lie while lost in the sound and mystery of the noise of trains and planes and motorcycles as the sound cascades into the plasma of the night.  I might live somewhere else and, for all I know, I might be someone else.  I might be well connected, socially adept, well-liked, sought after, loved.  I might owe rent to someone else and might have to answer to someone else but in a different way than at present or I might own my own home in which case I would answer to no one.  The possibilities are limitless but my reality, my only reality, is one in which I am bound to a person who has been my landlady for as far back in time as I can remember, to the extent I am able to remember.  Her need for me to pay rent emanates from her core and that need is palpable and endless.  In order to extract a check from me, she seeks me out and listens to me and cajoles me and soothes me and encourages me and insults me and this has been the case for countless years.  She can be kind, she can be understanding, she can be demanding, she can be disagreeable but she doesn’t know me and doesn’t seem to want to know me but I sense, in her case, that there is more to the story than her overriding need for me to pay rent.   She has tired eyes.  She draws her brown-red hair into a bun one day and lets it fall upon her shoulders the next because, perhaps, she lacks the strength to twist it.  There are times at which she seems lost as when her voice is weak and her eyes are red and the glistening edge of a tear appears beneath one eye, then another.  I can determine for myself that she feels defeated as when her left shoulder sinks lower than her right and her cheeks appear pale and the laces collapse upon the tops of her shoes with every step she takes, over and again, as if those laces share the burden of her defeat.  I think I can tell when she is sad though I say nothing and firmly believe that I shouldn’t say anything.  I’m tempted, during the course of her visits to ask, “how are you?” but I hold back.  It feels wrong or ill-timed or inappropriate or all of these at once.  I wish not to take the chance because, if I were to ask, “how are you?”, she may not answer and that would be devastating.  I won’t try, I just can’t, I know how it may go and it terrifies me.  The question that I could ask is a question that can’t be asked.  I have a strong sense that she has a multiplicity of needs that shroud themselves within a panoply of selves that cohabit within her but all this is based upon conjecture and the bits of things I’ve observed that I think I remember.  It is all part of my experience and it feels like dejection.

There is, however, the approach that I devised in my own mind based, to some degree, upon memory and dream and an element of hope which is a small raft in a large sea, difficult to cling to but the only thing one can hope to hold onto if one wishes to avoid drowning.  That hope will become a reality because I see it in my mind’s eye.  I am certain of it and I can say with utmost assurance that the event or experience I contemplate will happen as though it has already happened.  It cannot refrain from happening.  It is bound to happen.  Reality bends in my direction, it has no choice, it can be no other way just as history has no other option but to be whatever it is, at least to the extent that it can be retrieved or remembered or dreamed.  What will happen is this:  I will peer out my window and see a blue dot at the end of the street and that featureless blue dot will grow and advance in my direction.  That blue dot will define itself and come closer and take on the features of a human being and, before long, I will not see a blue blur but will see, rather, the landlady’s daughter once again.  She will approach in her wheelchair from far, far down the street and I will recognize her and find comfort in her familiar image.  I will remember her, to the extent that I am able, in the form and manner of the person she is and I will recognize the array of bits and pieces of her that have lingered in my memory.  The woman I see will be the same person as the girl I once knew.  I will realize that she’s been gone, long absent, deeply missed and I will suddenly realize how much I’ve missed her.  I will realize her as a person, here and now, in the course of this new time, this new immersion, this new day.  She will come from the far end of the street toward my window, closer and closer, and I will hear and feel the dull vibration of the steel silver wheels of her wheelchair as they screech and moan until that screech and moan ceases.  She will sit upright in that chair and I will see her situated directly below the sill of my window and she will allow the wind to lift grey tufts of her hair so they float like feathers above her head as the wind lurches past her in spasms and her hair will rise just so high as to reveal bright earrings, each laden with glassine diamonds that light electric, energized by the spears of the sun’s light that land like arrows and those glistening targets will fire like twisted lightning against the coral sky.  I will slowly lift my head above the windowsill and slowly stand and I will feel the gentle push of the airstream against my face and under my hair and around my shoulders and my features will be clear and evident for her to see and she will ask “how are you?” and I will respond “how are you” and I will let those words fly in the air in a manner in which they can be heard and felt and understood and they will be heard and felt and understood as a statement and they will mean and can only mean “I need you.”


BIO

Walter Weinschenk is an attorney, writer and musician. Until a few years ago, he wrote short stories exclusively but now divides his time equally between poetry and prose. Walter’s writing has appeared in a number of literary publications including the Carolina Quarterly, Sunspot Literary Journal, Cathexis Northwest Press, Beyond Words, The Closed Eye Open, The Write Launch and others. His work is due to appear in forthcoming issues of The Courtship of Winds, Ponder Review, The Raw Art Review and Iris Literary Journal. Walter lives in a suburb just outside Washington, D. C.



In the Houses of Others

by Anita Kestin


            We are in England, in a house with a garden. My mother and I are visiting her friend, Penny. Penny: born into wealth, solitary, childless, tall, educated at Cambridge, elegant. I am holding onto my mother’s hand. Penny shows me to a staircase and tells me that a fairy lives under the stairs—a fairy who has hidden treasures for me all over the garden. Penny hands me a large wicker basket. “Go on,” says my mother, removing her hand from my grasp, and she and Penny return to the table where they are having a meal, laughing, and talking.

            The garden is unmanicured, even wild in places, and filled with rosebushes. I have no experience of treasure hunts and Easter eggs, but, once I get the hang of it, I scamper about, finding chocolate eggs and little toy rabbits everywhere. Into the basket they go, and now the basket is filled and things are spilling out as I run, so I stop, pick up the things I have dropped, and return to the table, where my mother has prepared me a plate of small sandwiches and cakes. My piece of cake is laden with pink roses with elaborate green leaves, all made of frosting. I take a few bites and then set about looking for the fairy who created this wonderful surprise for me, but she proves impossible to find. And then it is time to leave, and Penny tells me that I can keep the basket and she hopes to see us again soon.

            I begin to wake up the next morning in our house in London—the house my parents and I have been living in for several months at this point, but it is also the house that my parents are shortly planning to sell because the three of us are going to live in America from now on. Our house is a modest one with a tiny garden. Yesterday begins to take shape in my mind, and I lie in bed thinking of Penny’s garden and the white wooden staircase where the fairy sleeps.

            Did my father ever visit Penny’s house with my mother and me? I cannot recall, but I think not. Penny belonged to my mother’s world and not his. How old was I? I must have been three or four years old. I had never before seen such a place, and Penny was a stranger to me. 

            My mother’s childhood in Warsaw had included some degree of luxury and art of all kinds; my father’s childhood in Warsaw had not. They had both wound up in wartime London with nothing. Where had my mother first met Penny? I have no idea, but running through my mother’s adult life was a longing and a gravitational pull toward places that felt like her childhood home—graceful places, rooms where music and art and literature flourished. The house, the garden, the spring air, the china, my mother’s laughter, Penny’s elegance, and the rosebushes not yet in bloom: I remember all these things from our visit to Penny’s, but most of all, I remember the fairy who had hidden the treasures for me to find.

            Some of my grade school and college friends have had houses like Penny’s where I have wandered beside the botanical prints and the chintz armchairs, never quite feeling that I belonged, but returning time and time again to spend the night or be caught up in the magic of parties that took place there.

*****

            Right after college, I am scheduled to be in London for ten days. My mother writes to Penny to ask if I can stay with her, at Penny’s apartment in the city. The answer comes back on one of the thin blue paper aerogrammes people used in those days: Yes.

             In college, I had been startled by the effect on me of a live performance of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. When the dancers waved long blue cloths to represent waves and stepped into those waves, I felt the cool water, the heat of the sun, and the force of the waves. As I watched, I could feel my hands quiver at the intensity and magic of the performance.

            In London, I want to see more live events as I had heard that this was the place to experience live theater. I also want to taste the things I had eaten as a child: Ribena, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and milk chocolate with hazelnuts. I want to have a Guinness draft in a real pub. 

            I land at Heathrow and take a taxi into the city. We pass gardens and row houses and small stucco houses with tiny gardens. I think of the rosebushes, the basket full of sweets, and the fairy under the stairs.

            The woman who opens the door is bent over, with unwashed hair pulled into a bun held with a plain elastic band.

            She walks me around the apartment. Her eyes are aimed perpetually at the ground because of the curve in her spine. The place is filled with stuff:  newspapers, old letters, three capsules and an apple core on a plant saucer. The fridge is empty and she is apologetic and visibly ashamed. I am tired, and my clothes are damp and stale, but she immediately proposes a trip to the grocery store, fumbling around for her list while talking about a range of unconnected subjects.

            We set off at a slow pace, her face turned downward. She asks after my mother but struggles to reach the store, stopping at every bench to rest. At the grocery shop, she cannot find her list.

            When I wake up the next morning, I am still tired. The room is dingy and loaded with piles of clothes and magazines. I lie in bed, thinking of the garden and the stairs from long ago, of yesterday’s empty refrigerator and lost grocery list (which, as it turned out, had been in the woman’s pocket all along.) I think of the Penny I remembered– especially of her elegance, and how the things she said had delighted and amused my mother. Had my memory been so inaccurate? Was I confusing her with someone else? For a while, I wonder whether I have gone to sleep in the wrong house. When had my mother last spoken to Penny or seen her? Was this what my mother had expected when she had proposed that I stay with Penny?

            The woman has managed to make coffee but is visibly frustrated as she tries to find the food we bought last night. She is shuffling around the kitchen, face trained on the floor. When she needs to look at something higher, she has to tilt her torso backwards and I am afraid that she will fall. I pick up an envelope that has fallen on the floor and there is Penny’s name, so I am in the right place after all. This is reassuring and not reassuring at the same time. The only phone I have access to is in this apartment. I think of calling my mother, but what would I say?

            I ask Penny about the house and the garden. “That was sold a long time ago,” she says.  I tell her about my memories of the fairy under the stairs and the Easter egg hunt.  At this, Penny stares off into space for a while, but she never answers.

*****

            My trip does not go as I had fantasized. Mostly, I try to help Penny as she struggles to get things done. I do manage to have a Guinness at a pub, and it is as rich and acrid and reminiscent of molasses as I had imagined it would be. At the market on a trip I make by myself, I discover containers of yoghurt stuffed with hazelnuts and buy 12 pots of them, adding them to the basket already filled with biscuits and Ribena. 

            There are no outings to the theater, but Penny insists on that we go by train to Cambridge for the day. When I see her contend with the mechanics of buying a ticket and locating the correct platform, I realize how much she has wanted to see Cambridge again, how much pleasure the sight of its buildings might give her—and how incapable she is of traveling to Cambridge on her own. I feel a surge of warmth towards her that I had not felt before. When I comment that Cambridge looks like Princeton, I see a flash of the old Penny I thought I had been coming to visit when she replies acidly: “No, dear, Princeton looks like Cambridge.”

            I do take the Tube to see some old friends of my parents at their flat. This couple had also emigrated from Poland, and they knew my parents when they all were young and living in London. They live in an elegant stone building, but the staircase leading to their apartment is shabby and full of litter. The apartment is glorious, with wood floors, interesting artwork, and bookshelves lining many of the walls. The wife is vivacious and an excellent cook. The husband is a raconteur, and they tell me many stories about my parents that I had not heard previously. They treat me like a real grown-up, and the husband pours me a glass of cognac in exactly the proper glass for such a thing. I have never tasted cognac before. It is fiery and metallic, and I like these people immensely.

            But when I settle back into my chair and start free-associating because of the cognac, I recall the story of  my grandmother telling my parents that my father should have married the woman in whose house I am sitting. That is a story I do know, and the thought of the pain felt by my mother when my grandmother said this shoots through me. The warmth generated by the cognac and the armchair and the books fades to a chill. Was my immediate reaction to this woman disloyal to my mother? Or is it unfair to blame the woman for the cruelty of my grandmother’s remark?

            When it is time to leave, the husband offers to drive me back to Penny’s. His wife will not accompany us and, as they explain why, the disconnect between the condition of the stairwell and the apartment becomes clear. The building has been partly taken over by squatters, and this has occurred when apartments have been unoccupied for even a time as brief as an hour. The couple owns their apartment, but there is an ordinance that has prevented rightful owners from reclaiming their apartments when squatters take over, and long legal battles ensue. So, for the past two years, this couple has never gone out at the same time together. I think of this often, years later, during the pandemic.

*****

            When I return to Providence, my mother is shocked and despondent  at the news I give her of Penny and she also feels guilty about sending me to stay there. I have not yet started medical school, and I am unable to put the pieces together, but my mother and I surmise that Penny has developed some sort of dementia. My mother and I write Penny a letter to thank her but no reply arrives. Three years later, in another aerogramme, Penny tells us that she has been suffering for a long time from undiagnosed hypothyroidism and memory loss, and now that the diagnosis has been made and she has been prescribed medication, she is hoping she will get better. That is the last communication my mother receives from Penny, and neither of us learns anything more about her. When I Google her name, nothing informative appears.

*****

            When my children were small, and I was overwhelmed with the joy of hearing their happy sounds and the sounds of their friends reverberating through the house, I sometimes dreamed at night of finding a whole corridor in my house that I had not previously known existed. I would run through the new parts of my home, throwing open doors and thinking of what I would do with these rooms. How would I furnish and decorate them? What could I make of this new wing in my house? A suite for visitors? A study? A place for the kids to hang out with friends? 

            When I woke up from these dreams, I would try to place the rooms, for they would often turn out to be from houses I had seen before or from places I had imagined when I lost myself in the books of my childhood. Here was Sara’s bedroom from A Little Princess, the one she occupied before she was banished to the attic. Another morning, I awoke from a dream in which I had been wandering in an immense house with views of the water on three sides. The house was open and airy, filled with shells and maps of the Bahamas, and pillows with images of flowers and birds. On the ground floor, hibiscus blooms were visible from the many windows and a breeze lifted the slight curtains away from the window frames. I remembered passing by this house long ago when we were on vacation in Eleuthera. I had peered inside and wondered what it might be like to live there.

***** 

            Now, years later, I wake up from a different dream. My children have grown and the house no longer bursts with the sounds of children playing. My first thought upon awakening: it is still the pandemic. In recent dreams, I am being moved against my will into a tiny space, consisting of three tiny rooms. I see my belongings being flung into a large garbage bin and when I cry out and ask them to stop, no one seems to hear me.

            Some of our neighbors throw parties when the weather is good. Through our open windows or during our solitary walks, we hear the laughter and see the gardens lit up with lanterns and the outlines of the guests inside the houses. A pandemic walking route takes me by a property that reminds me of Penny’s garden. The house is rambling and white and sits on a hill, the gardens filled with hydrangea blossoms that spill over fences and masses of rose bushes. I remember the parties there—especially the walk I would make up the giant driveway and the times I waited on the doorstep to be let in.

            The evenings spent in those houses were, for me, filled with the same sort of evanescent magic as Penny’s garden, but my memories are always coupled with my memories of myself, standing outside on those doorsteps, hoping to be let in to these other worlds.     

            My husband and I have always enjoyed visiting homes for sale when there are open houses near us. During the pandemic, we embark on virtual tours of the places someone might choose to buy. If the house is elegant enough, it will have been photographed from many angles. We move through these houses, from room to room, in three dimensions, and once again find ourselves lost in the houses of others.



BIO

Anita Kestin, MD, MPH, has worked in academics, nursing homes, hospices, and locked wards of a psychiatric facility.  She’s a daughter (of immigrants fleeing the Holocaust), wife, mother, grandmother, and a progressive activist.  She is now attempting to calm nerves and stave off longing for family by writing (memoir, short fiction, nonfiction, poetry). She submitted her first non-scientific piece in her sixties (during the Pandemic) and is thrilled that over a dozen short pieces have been accepted for publication.



Blurry

By James Croal Jackson


Home is a little bit blurry.
Mom, I swear to you, it might not be
July next time I see you.

Your digital face is a little bit blurry,
but our lighthouse will always be
the one light in dark through memory,

right? I want to climb the ladder
to surveil the roof. Home has
become a wall of atrophied faces.


Near-Collisions


I have driven along red sand roads
knowing my speed uncontainable,
locked eyes with oncoming traffic
on drugs and drink. Death wants
to always remind me how close
we often get, that sometimes
he’s a blur rushing toward me,
and I must know to swerve.


Gummies


Stress-eating sour worms
while working from home.
A dumb numbness. Live
a weekend for a little
joy. A stressed syll-
able. A stretched neon
bleeding the pumps
from my heart, my long
and yellow heart, crusted
from swallowing earth’s
bitter notes back. I used
to take outside for granted.


You Want Positivity? Here’s Some Positivity


The sun shines on my goddamn sunflower teeth.
Thankful my dental appointment was rescheduled

to an indeterminate point for future me (who is
that crooked reflection in the mirror? Relieved

to see bad posture alive and well) to compensate
for. When I graduated college, I fell in love

at the slightest touch– autumn leaves floating
in a pond, the draft of winter wind through

the window. Now I’m older and more ragged
(the other day I tossed a rug with a painting

of a lion so I could replace it with speckled
blue) and, certainly, with so much heat death

to look forward to.


Noodles


tin colander holes  parts of me peeking
out into the kitchen horizon    past the stove
which so very recently burned blue &
contained above potentially dangerous
gas    of which you were in control
unlike last night you did the right
thing  begging cathy not to drive
home   her slurring sentences
& drunken desperation   just
hours before  all three of us
together   I had to walk home
after downing Nosferatus
and you were there with her
drinking tequila when you called
to say now I really
have to say goodbye
but everything was fine you
arrived at your destination
but she wanted to
drive again the night
air thin
& shivering &
blue when she
departed



BIO

James Croal Jackson (he/him) is a Filipino-American poet who works in film production. He has two chapbooks, Our Past Leaves (Kelsay Books, August 2021) and The Frayed Edge of Memory (Writing Knights Press, 2017). He edits The Mantle Poetry from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (jamescroaljackson.com)


An Artist’s Whore

By Grace Ford


            The first stroke is the hardest—that’s what artists always say. They don’t speak much once they’ve gotten started, tucked deep into the fervid concentration required for true genius, but they tend to chatter a bit before their brush first finds the canvas. They get a little jitter in their hands, rolling and rerolling their shirtsleeves, shifting around on their stools. Creative nerves. Yes, the first stoke is the hardest. One particularly crude man told me that the same can be said about sex, and he grinned when he saw me blush. I never posed for him again.

            Once they put their brush to canvas, I become a body, my contours and angles theirs to consume and regurgitate. The exchange of money makes me a common commodity. Like a prostitute—you can wander the streets as the sun slips away, and if you have the right intentions, you’ll find one of us to strip down for you. These are the things I think about while I pose—an ideal time for useless thoughts—and the painters wonder why my skin flushes pink as the minutes pass. They ask if I’m feeling too warm, and should I like them to open a window? Sure, open a window; the passing breeze might distract me.

            “Is it the candles?” Mr. Barrow asks.

            I jump, startled. The linen sheet shifts beneath me. “I’m sorry?”

            He doesn’t look up from his canvas but stands now in a warm cast of firelight from the dozens of lit candles strewn about the room. The half-darkness is oppressive in such a small flat. His eyes flicker over his work, hungry, obsessive, grappling for a flaw.

            “The candles,” he repeats. “I like the contrast they give, but it can make the room rather hot. I could open a window.”

            There’s a window facing West, opening onto the lamplit street. It must be drizzling outside; the glass pings as its spit with rain. He doesn’t wait for my response, doesn’t even glance over to consider my expression—a charmer, he isn’t. The night air chases out the thick perfume of mineral oil and sweat.

            “That’s better,” Mr. Barrow says, and returns to his canvas.

            I say nothing, resume my pose: one arm supporting my head, which looks off with an expression of unassuming sexual allure, the other draped across my side to emphasize the curve of my waist, making sure to keep my thighs slightly crossed. Too much on display is distasteful, though not enough is boring. Art, it seems to me, must always strike a balance of provocative and socially acceptable. 

            Mr. Barrow is talker, always mumbling something, even now as he continues to paint. Technical musings about light and color theory that seem to spill out of his throat, unnoticed. It comes so quiet, I barely catch it, and I find myself straining to listen.

            Then, “I’d like to include the birthmark.”

            The beat of silence that follows is deafening. Out of instinct, my arm shifts to cover the dark, oblong shape that sits, like a stubborn coffee stain, in the crook of my waist. Part of it still shows, the massive thing.  

            “I told you up front, Mr. Barrow,” I say. “It’s my one condition: no birthmark in the painting.”

            “You don’t need to call me that,” he mutters, but I ignore him. He puts down his brush. “There’s no need to be ashamed of it. It’s very unique.”

            “I’m not ashamed.”

            “Then why hide it?”

            “Precisely because it is unique,” I say. “Recognizable.” I would kill for a glass of water at the moment, my mouth has turned so suddenly dry.

            His eyes linger on my face, and he does not pick up the brush again, instead grabbing a paint-stained rag to wipe his hands. In the glowing half-light, I lose his face to shadow.

            “Dorothea,” he says quietly. My name—I didn’t expect him to remember it. “Do people call you Dot?”

            I watch him, watch the vacant, deft movements of his hands. “Some people do,” I say.

            “May I?”

            “Mr. Barrow-”

            “If you call me Benedict, I’ll call you Dot. How’s that?” He smiles for the first time, and I think of the crude man who grinned at me over the lip of his canvas, eyeing my bare breasts. This smile is small and crooked, more of a grimace, unpracticed and unused. The opposite of a circus clown, but perhaps just as upsetting to young children. The thought makes me inadvertently smile back.

            “Fine,” I say. “Yes, that’s fine. Now are you going to paint, Benedict, or are we just going to chat?”

            He laughs, a short, keen sound, and that seems to be his answer. He plucks up the brush and sets back into his work.

            Two hours later, I pull a cotton robe over my shoulders as Benedict adds the finishing touches, of which there can never be enough, to the piece. From a standing position now, I linger near the settee, my gaze unable to settle. The flat’s layout is nauseating. It’s a tiny space, half kitchen and half art studio, the floor littered with stacks of books, crinkled paint tubes, and unfinished sketches. There’s an inordinate amount of furniture on the studio side, where I’m trapped, and a shocking lack thereof on the kitchen side. The whole place feels unbalanced, off-kilter. Reflective of the mind that put it together, perhaps. Unnerved, I start to inch towards the foyer where my coat hangs, intending to leave the man absorbed, unaware of my absence, but the floor creaks underfoot. Benedict snaps from a trance.

            “Oh, please,” he says. “Let me get your coat.”

            I let him because he said please, although he doesn’t sound too enthusiastic about it. He disappears into the foyer.

            I can’t say whether it’s curiosity or suspicion that draws me towards the painting, or if I even intend to take a peek at all. I seem to float towards it, thoughtless, willing to let my eyes consume it. My legs and breasts, milky white and slightly exaggerated, stretch across the velvet settee on the canvas, my face not truly my own but rather generally female. And in the middle of that Aphroditic figure, a dark brown stain.

            Benedict has returned, coat in hand. When I turn, he looks like child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, strikingly guilty yet pleading innocence with his eyes.

            “Paint it over,” I say.

            “Look at it,” he says, shaking the coat in hand. “It’s beautiful. Just look at it.”

            I repeat myself through clenched teeth, like an animal: “Paint it over.” I grab my coat from his hand as I pass him, the urge to hit him, slap him, harm him in some tangible way pounding at the thin skin of my mind as I do. He won’t do it, I know, not on the request of someone like me, but my face is burning and taught with fear that I can’t let him—a stranger—see. I leave him with a toneless “good evening” and scuffle out onto the London streets, headed for home.

⁂        ⁂        ⁂

            Lucille’s house has a leak again. Springtime showers have kept the roof damp and saturated, moisture gnawing through the wood. Drops cascade down to patter against the cast iron stove that sits against the far wall. They sizzle passively on contact—Lucille must have stoked last night’s embers back to life already, but the kettle is still in the wash basin. She hasn’t yet started her morning tea.

            The leak is a familiar trouble spot, one that my mother had patched up almost every spring when she was still around. On Sundays, when her employer insisted she take the day off—that’s when she came to see me. She’d splurge on the carriage fare to bring her down from the countryside and into London, still wearing her black maid’s dress and white bibbed apron, hair concealed under that horrid lace-trimmed bonnet. I could always identify the tell-tale sounds of the carriage horse’s metal-clad hooves clinking down the street, and my heart would swell. She paid for my stay in Lucille’s house monthly out of her paycheck, but in the springtime, she would patch the roof in exchange for one month’s rent free. I’d like to say she was generous, but really, she was just a show-off. I spent those Sunday afternoons squatted on the street outside the house, hand raised against the sun so that I could watch her work. She would hitch her skirts up to her knees— “The only time a lady can be indecent is when she’s doing a man’s work.”

            I had just turned twelve on the first Sunday that she didn’t show. I waited at the open window of my bedroom on the house’s second story, listening for the sound of the carriage horse. Lucille reasoned that the weather was too bad to make it down from the countryside—there had just been a late-winter blizzard, and the roads were slick with ice. My mother came the following Sunday, then missed the one after that, then returned again, then missed the next two. Her visits became fewer and farther between, until they stopped altogether. After the snow melted away, I prayed every night for the leak in the kitchen to spring, as if she might return to patch it up. The leak came back, but she never did.

            I grab a pail from the cabinet under the wash basin and set it on the stove top to catch the falling drops.

            “That leak’ll be the death of me.” Lucille waddles into the kitchen, stray hairs wiggling as she shakes her head at the ceiling. She has one hand on her bad hip, whichever one she’s decided is bad today, and the other on her chest as if she’s short of breath. “Either it or you,” she adds. Her cockney accent curls the end of her words. “You were out so late; I nearly went to comb the streets myself.”

            “Artists prefer the night,” I say, waving a hand towards the heavens. “They draw creativity from the moon, or something.”

            Lucille tsks at me as she waddles over to the wash basin in search of the kettle. “Cheeky, just like she was.”

            Never a day goes by where she doesn’t compare me to my mother—salt in the wound if I’ve ever seen it. I can’t blame her, of course. Old people reminisce as a form of grieving, because if they never stop grieving, the funeral is never really over. I can’t blame her, but I can’t thank her either. Best to just let her have her funeral.

            I’m headed for the door, mind set on St. James Park and the glorious show I’m sure to see today, when Lucille says, “It’s Sunday. Has she written you?”

            My next step falters, and I pause in the doorway. It’s been years since she bothered to ask that question. She doesn’t even check the mail slot for rent payments anymore, which leaves me to check it for death notices. “She hasn’t,” I say. “But she might.”

            The silence that follows is filled only by the ping of waterdrops from the unpatched roof.

            It’s late in the morning as I reach St. James Park along the River Thames, and the sun is almost at its pinnacle, preparing a lazy slip into the afternoon. The park is packed—absolutely stuffed. Tents hoisted, blankets spread, tea chairs erected for posh bums to rest on. The greenery is strewn with an amalgam of tussore silk, Dutch linens, and fine gingham. I stare, lips curving into a grin, and staring back at me are the perfectly circular tops of dozens of parasols, blushing ivory and crepe under the new spring sun. Of course, they must have parasols, lest they burn and ruin their porcelain skin. I find an empty spot on a slope, close enough to observe the scene but far enough away to not disturb it.

            If there’s one thing that’s predictable in life, it’s the schedule of the high society folk. It is spring, and the rain has eased for the time being, and therefore the lovely ladies and gentlemen of high society simply must promenade by the riverside. The tents and tables would be those of their families, their mothers taking tea in the shade while counting how many gentlemen beg to kiss their daughters’ hands. A mating ritual, that’s really what it is—the showing off of this year’s most eligible wombs.

            The scene plays out in front of me: the languid movements, the perfectly paired, color-coordinated couples strolling the garden paths, the hush of the Thames shifting in its bed. I could almost convince myself I was asleep, dreaming of a strange world in which humans were really just animals. Peacocks and tigers flashing their colors and stripes. How ridiculous it looks from afar, how absurdly lavish. I wonder if my mother ever thinks the same thing about the family she cares for, or if it looks different when you’re on the inside. Perhaps, despite their extravagant clothing, she knows them to be just as boorish as the rest of us. Perhaps she feels affection for them.

            Of course, she does. Didn’t she also promenade like a peacock when she came of age? She had a different gown for each gala, each ball—the daughter of a wealthy country gentleman is never to be caught in the same ensemble twice. Didn’t she, too, carry a dowry so large that young bachelors tripped over their trouser cuffs to win her hand? Before she got pregnant, that is, and threw it all away for a man whose name I’ll never know. Perhaps she shouldn’t have fanned her plumage so wide, and she wouldn’t have been sent off to servanthood under the hush of propriety. I might have known my father, my grandfather. I might not have been born at all.

            But then, who am to judge who a woman gets naked for?

            The ground vibrates close behind me—footfalls—and I glance up to see Benedict Barrow towering over me. He grimaces, the smug bastard, as if we should be happy to see each other. I look away, drawing my knees up to my chest.

            “Dot,” he says in that flat tone of his. “Haven’t seen you here before.”

            “Likewise.”

            “I come here to paint sometimes,” he says. I imagine he motions to a little easel set-up somewhere in the distance, but I don’t care to look. “May I join you?”

            I let out a grunt, some noncommittal noise that he apparently interprets as the affirmative. He settles on the grass beside me. My eyes fall to the ground, suddenly uncomfortable with the idea of him watching me watch the rich folk, although that’s what I came here to do. I have no other excuse at the ready, but I know the question is coming.

            “What are you doing here?” he asks.

            “It’s a nice day,” I say. “Just thought I’d enjoy it. Not much work on Sundays, anyhow.”

            He nods, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Even the wicked must rest, contrary to popular belief.”

            If it were anyone else, that would have gotten a laugh from me, but I can’t bear to give him the satisfaction. Wicked, indeed.

            A cool breeze blows in off the Thames, sending the tents and parasols swaying in a lazy dance. A large white sunhat tumbles across the grass with a man in pursuit close behind, undoubtedly on behalf of some beautiful lady. If I were alone, I would giggle, commit the scene to memory. Unfortunately, I am not.

            “I’m sorry about what happened last night,” Benedict says, and I go stiff. “I didn’t realize that it was so important. I painted over it, of course, like you asked.”

            My only response is, “Good.” I know he’s lying by the casual slip of his tone, but if I say anymore, I’ll give myself away.

            He seems relieved by my easy acceptance, visibly relaxing, crossing his legs Indian style. “Can I ask why it’s so important?”

            My fingers tear at the grass beneath me, and I look at him, take in the calculated eagerness of his expression, the shadow of genuine confusion. He wouldn’t understand my fear even if I explained, couldn’t comprehend my reputation’s fragile state. He is a painter, a generally disrespectable profession, saved only by the fact that it is a pursuit of the arts. Benedict Barrow can claim passion as his vice, the betterment of humanity as his goal, even as he sinks closer to impoverishment. There is dignity in his purpose, whether actual or performative. His mother can disown him while taking solace in the fact that he’s simply a “dreamer.” There’s no solace in your daughter being a whore.

            In my mind, I see his painting, my birthmark on full display, the birthmark that my mother used to trace with her fingers as she bathed me. She would say it looked like a cloud, and I, ever eager to be right, would tell her, “No. Clouds are white.”

            “Clever girl,” she’d say, pinching my side.

            I imagine her in her employer’s great hall, carefully polishing the silver as she does every Tuesday, only to look up and see that a new painting had been brought in. It might take a moment or two, as buried as I am in the recesses of her memory, to recognize it. Her eyes would linger on the brown cloud-shaped mark until they filled with hot, shameful tears. My stomach clenches in my gut.

            It’s only now that I feel the sting behind my nose, feel the slide of warm liquid down my cheek. I swipe the tear away with the back of my hand. Benedict stares out over the park, not seeming to notice. He might have forgotten that he even asked the question.

            “There’s someone who would recognize it,” I say. I hesitate, trying to ease the tightness in my throat, then add, “If they saw the painting, with the mark, they’d know what I do for a living.”

            He doesn’t acknowledge that I’ve spoken, not even a nod, just lets the words hang there like some limp, dead thing. I draw my knees closer to my chest. A game of croquet has been set up near the gardens, and the young men stand with mallets propped up on their shoulders like lumberjack. Fancy lumberjacks. The thought lifts my mood just a bit.

            “Pose for me again,” Benedict says, throwing the words out into the breeze.

            A sharp laugh explodes from me. “No,” I say, and he laughs too.

            Another minute passes in silence.

            “If I gave you something to wear, would you pose for me again?”

            “Something to wear?”

            “A dress. A gown.”

            “What’ve you got a gown for?”

            “Nevermind that. Would you?”

            He’s quite quick with his words when he uses them, isn’t he? I study his expression, eyes narrowed. I search for the hidden intentions there, on his countenance, the plan he’s undoubtedly spinning as we speak, but I find nothing. His gaze is characteristically vacant of anything but impulse and desire. I leave him longing for an answer as my mind wanders back to the painting, sitting on some easel in some corner of his flat, waiting to be sold—inaccessible. Just out of reach, existing only because I’ve allowed it to exist. Something hardens in the pit of my stomach.

            “I can’t paint the birthmark if I can’t see it,” Benedict adds, and one corner of his lips turns up in a smirk.

            I look out again over the grass, at the ladies in their glittering garments. A few have stopped to watch the croquet game, and they clap silently with their gloved hands when one of the boys makes a good shot. Benedict watches me watching them. He thinks he has me.

            “What kind of gown?” I ask.

            He offers me a hand and tugs me to my feet.

            His flat is just a few streets East of St. James Park, around the corner from an ornate catholic church that stands packed between rows of low-rent, low-maintenance residencies. I recognize the lane now in the light of day: a stretch nicknamed rue des affamés, which loosely translates to “street of the starved.” An affectionate nod to the creatives that flock to the area. How fitting for him.

            The flat is even more jarring in the day, without copious amounts of candlelight to romanticize its humility. It seems the décor simply fell from the sky, and Benedict never bothered to rearrange it. I wander to the middle of the room, uneasy, stepping around loose papers and books. Benedict retreats to a corner behind a folding room divider without a word. I glance at the front door, aware of all the empty space in the room, filled only with inanimate objects and our two bodies. My eyes flit around the room in search of the painting. They catch on canvas after canvas, some blank, some smattered with brushstrokes but ultimately unfinished, and a handful of completed paintings lined up against the far wall beneath the windows. None of them are mine, but I almost want to destroy them in its stead. My fingernails dig into my palms. He’s hidden it somewhere. If I try hard enough, I can pretend he did so out of shame.

            From the corner where Benedict disappeared comes the sound of a door opening, then closing again, and the swish of fabric against hardwood.

            “Here,” he says.

            I turn to him. From a coat closet in the corner, he’s pulled a dress, a full-length scarlet evening gown studded with false rubies and trimmed in gold lace. The film of dust and old age on the surface is apparent, but the color is as vibrant as if it were new.

            “The sun hasn’t touched it in years,” Benedict says. He carries it over, giving it a light shake. “It was my mother’s, but she has no use for it now.”

            The glow of the silk seems to pull my mind from the painting. I want to reach out, to touch it, but I hesitate.  

            “Do you like it?” he asks. “I know it’s a little outdated, but it’s the most expensive thing I own.”

            He says that as if it matters. “It’s beautiful,” I say.

            He holds it out to me.

            It’s ridiculous how fast I give in. I slip the dress on behind the room divider, telling myself that the painting could have been back there, and it was a good opportunity to check. It wasn’t.

            A long, oval mirror on the wall reflects my image, and I suck in a breath seeing it. The dress fits like a glove, the waistline falling just below my bust and hiding all of my curves in the flowing skirt. A stiff gold chiffon collar frames my face, the square neckline hides my breasts from view. Everything is enclosed, encased, like a suit of armor.

            Benedict sets me in his best armchair, an acceptable champagne-colored thing that could be passable with an artist’s touch. He gives me a book—System of Transcendental Idealism—and tells me to pretend to read.

            “Cultured ladies read,” he tells me, and I sneer at him. As if I don’t know what cultured ladies do.

            He moves me how he wants, until he finds the perfect angle, sun slanting in through the windows to fall across my cheek like a spotlight. Then, he takes up his position on the stool, and tucks into his work. At first, I try to turn my head ever so slightly this way and that, still searching for the painting among the piles of rubbish, but Benedict tells me to keep still, and I know I won’t find it today. We stay like that for hours, taking a break only to eat, until the sunlight ebbs away and casts the flat in graying night. He’s forced to abandon the piece for now, but I could have gone on for hours more—my muscles are barely tired, my skin white and cool under the touch of silk.

⁂        ⁂        ⁂

            I pose for Benedict Barrow twice a week after that day, always in the red gown; standing at the window, paging through a book, taking afternoon tea. I feel an ease in the work that I never have before, but then this isn’t work I’ve ever done—dressing up instead of dressing down.

            Every day, I look for the painting. The easels, canvases, books, and other rubbish moves around the room almost daily, but the one thing I want to see never appears. More than once I try to build up to the nerve to ask him about it, to quench my fears and leave the whole ordeal behind me, but I can’t seem to find the words. Benedict never seems to notice my pensive silence. He talks, constantly distracted, while he paints—stories of the family he never sees, the father he loathes, and I am more or less forced to lend an ear. Not that I mind it all that much. It seems to me that he hasn’t had someone listen to him in a long time, someone to think of as a friend. I haven’t either, although I refrain from telling long rambling tales about my childhood, content in the knowledge that I could if I wanted, and he would be forced to listen. We seem to have found a rhythm, the artist and I, come to an unspoken agreement about our relationship: he talks and paints, I listen and pose.

            As Spring is melting away into the long days Summer, the clandestine search for the painting fades from the forefront of my mind. If it were here and of any value to Benedict Barrow, I would have found it by now. I start to believe that he’s gotten rid of it, shoved it in some cupboard or closet to be forgotten by both artist and model. The new paintings are so much better. In the gown, my figure stands out like a bloodstain against the drab background—royalty among poverty—and I seem to almost lift off of the canvas toward the eyes. There’s no reason to keep the old pieces, strewn with the nude bodies of strange women. These are the real masterpieces.

            Benedict beams at each canvas when it’s finished, tells me it’s beautiful, tells me I’m beautiful, though only while riding that crazed, inspired high that plagues him in the afterglow of a finished work. His other pieces seem to disappear from the flat as the days go by, and with them, I imagine, my own nude depiction. I don’t ask, happy to see them gone, happy to let the memory of the night we met fade into surreality.

            It’s a humid Saturday night when Benedict meets me at his front door, breaking our little ritual. I usually knock twice, wait for his call from the main room, and then let myself in. The dress will already be slung over the lip of the room divider, and he’ll offer that crooked grimace of a smile, tell me he’s been expecting me.

            Tonight, he’s waiting at the door, and opens it as I raise a hand to knock. I jump back, startled, but Benedict is all teeth and hands, giggling as he pulls me inside.

            “Mr. Barrow.” I say his name with a mother’s scolding edge, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He bundles me through the foyer. My feet catch on various objects strewn about the floor, and he has to hold me up by the elbows.

            “I’ve done it, Dot, I’ve really done it,” he’s saying. He’s pulled me to the center of the room, closer to the table where a lamp is lit, the only light source in the room.

            “Done what?”

            “It’s happened, that’s what I’m telling you. We did it.”

            His hair is a mess, a flopping mass of dark spikes and curls—he’s been dragging his hands through it repetitively. His eyes are cloudy, glazed over as if he’s inebriated.

            “Have you been down to the pub today?” I ask, only half-joking.

            He laughs, giving me a good whiff of his breath, which reeks of Earl Gray but nothing else; he’s completely sober.

            “Tell me what it is and maybe I can be excited too,” I say, smiling. He holds me by the elbows still with clammy hands, gives me a gentle shake, hot breath wafting over my cheeks. For a moment, my stomach turns.

            “I sold a painting.” He breathes the words out. His eyes flicker wildly between my own. “At St. James Park, this morning. To a fine couple, a gentleman and lady with a daughter just of age this season. Rich folk, Dot. I mean rich.

            Though the sale of his art means nothing for me, I find his excitement infectious. “One of ours?” I ask.

            He nods, a sharp jerking movement.

            “That’s wonderful,” I say, if only to match his joy.

            Benedict releases me, letting out a long sigh and running both hands through his hair. In the lamplit room, his eyes glimmer—he might be crying, or maybe it’s just a trick of the light. He turns away, towards the little stove and wash basin in the corner, as if to take stock of the life he has now before he leaves it. He’s already forgetting that I’m there.

            “Wonderful,” I say again, a little too loudly. There’s a swimming in my gut that I can’t understand, so I try to swallow it. “You’ll be the talk of the town soon enough,” I add. 

            Benedict stands stock-still now, half-lost in shadow, gazing at the far wall. He could be in a painting himself, just now, the way the light is bathing his backside in a divine yellow glow. The way he stands removed from me, now the artist.

            “Which one did they buy?” I ask, quietly so that my voice doesn’t disrupt the refuge of the moment. I cannot end this, this pause before he says what I already know.  

            He is silent, glistening palms running through his hair again. My throat tightens. “Was it Lady in Red at the Window?,” I ask. My mouth is so dry. “That was my personal favorite, but you did such fine work on all of them-”

            “The nude painting,” Benedict says.

            “Oh,” I say, just before reality strikes me.  

            He half-turns back toward me, toward the lamp on the table. His features are a mask. He doesn’t look at me, won’t look at me, and if he did, I’m not sure that he would even see me. The bastard can’t even see me.

            My teeth are clamped down hard on my bottom lip, and I taste blood, though in my shocked state, I can’t understand where it’s coming from. My body trembles with each twitchy beat of my heart.

            “It was beautiful,” Benedict says. A smile is slipping absently over his face.

            I want to scream at him, but there—yes, of course, there it is—the wet electricity of tears behind my eyes. If I scream, I’ll cry, and maybe that’s what he’s wanted this whole time: the knowledge that he could have me and break me. My hand is over my mouth, holding it all in, and I’m running, running through the door, down la rue des affamés, passed St. James Park where high society promenades on spring afternoons, now sleeping under the blanket of night. I run home.

            Lucille greets me in the kitchen when I stumble in, ready with a dry towel to wrap around my shoulders. I hadn’t even noticed it was raining. I’m soaked down to the skin, wet hair matted to my face.

            “What a nightmare,” she says after a good look me, and I can’t help but agree. The painting is gone. My marked body is displayed like an exposé of my sin on some rich man’s wall for his wife and children to see. For his staff to see. For a maid who was once a mother to see, to recognize the cloud-shaped seal on her daughter’s side and know that she raised an artist’s whore. Despite all logic, my mind whispers, she knows, she knows, she knows.

            My limbs quiver as Lucille helps me into the bathtub. She doesn’t speak, keeps her eyes down and hands busy, for the sake of politeness if nothing else. I let her guide me like a child, settling me in the warm water, rubbing a washrag over my trembling muscles.

            She opens the drain once I’m clean enough, and gravity pulls the water into a torrent of yellow and brown, a whirlpool littered with debris from my body. My skin is exposed in the water’s absence, slick and red from heat and friction. My breath comes ragged, and my breasts heave in front of me, those bulbous lumps of flesh that men so covet, that they hang on their sitting room walls in front of the world.

            “She’s never coming back for me,” I say, and I choke on the words.

            Lucille kneels beside the bathtub, rubbing a calloused hand across my naked back.


BIO

Grace Ford is an undergraduate student studying creative writing at the University of Illinois- Urbana Champaign. Ford is attending the university on scholarship from her high school where she was awarded the Timothy Robert Creative Writing Award. She grew up in rural southwest Michigan, where she discovered her passion for writing at the age of nine, and she now lives in Springfield, IL with her family.


A Rage Against My Machines

By Torri Hammonds


I am convinced that I’m a walking Y2K bug.
That isn’t some delusion that puts me
  in the center of the universe;
If it requires electricity it has burst
  into figurative flames.
I’ve watched so many a computer succumb
  to the Blue Screen of Death,
that it no longer frightens me.

My coffee maker frequently stops doing the thing
  it is specifically made to do.
I’ve had cell phones that couldn’t hold phone calls
  if they weren’t plugged into walls.
My laptop burns the top of my lap.

I live an analogous life
  with my French press coffee,
and my cell phones, reduced
  to landlines.
I am bound to my desk with wires.

Each day is a new battle with a device
  that is supposed to make my life easier.
I am throwing up the white flag.
I am resigning myself to a life
  of slight inconvenience.


Tumult


Splash me with your
  sound waves.
Wrap me in your acoustic arms
  and rock me to sleep.
Reverberate so I can use
  my echolocation
to navigate this life.
Do you realize that we
  are on the same wavelength?
These sonic sensations
  sustain us.



BIO

Torri Hammonds is a currently a student at Columbus State Community College, on the long road to getting her Master’s in Library Science. Her best writing ideas come to her during moments of procrastination and when she has had too much caffeine. Her work has previously appeared in A Celebration of Young Poets. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her boyfriend and their cat.


Dust Bowl Venus by Stella Beratlis

Reviewed by Linda Scheller

California’s Central Valley is a 450-mile-long stretch of rich soil irrigated by an extensive system of canals. This extraordinarily productive region abounds in fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, and poets. The hot sun and wide sky have nurtured many noteworthy poets, including Philip Levine, Mai Der Vang, and Juan Felipe Herrera. Another is Modesto Poet Laureate Emeritus Stella Beratlis. Dust Bowl Venus, her new book from Sixteen Rivers Press, is poetry of place grounded in the Central Valley city of Modesto.

During the Great Depression, thousands of people displaced by drought and poverty made their way to California. One of them was Hazel Houser, a migrant from Oklahoma who settled in Modesto and became a prolific songwriter of gospel and country hits. She is the muse of Dust Bowl Venus, memorialized by Beratlis in poems exploring their shared passions and common struggles.

Beratlis writes about desire, folly, and reverence in stanzas that juxtapose incantatory fervor with plainspoken determination, as these lines from “We Write Songs in His Rent Controlled Apartment” illustrate:

                        I beseech thee, stainless quivering leg of bone and ligament,
            allow me to finish the entire song. I’m no lead guitarist.
                        Is the song better served by a sharp tidy solo
            or the Janus tremolo of pure feeling? I wonder.
                        Do not counter with what is known. Fingerpick the hell out of
            these strings, in this small apartment with its brief luxuries
                        and cigarette smoke.

Many of the poems make reference to ligaments, bone, and the heart, most poignantly when the speaker reflects on her daughter’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” lays bare the terror felt by a mother shown the image of a tumor lodged in her daughter’s chest. “Castle of the Mountain” brings the reader chairside to behold the bag of bright red chemotherapy drug and hear the tick and beep of the infusion machine. Bertatlis depicts a mother’s anguish, endurance, and tentative faith with sensitivity and precision.

Dust Bowl Venus is replete with love and its flip side, loss. “All About Birds: An Elegy” is dedicated to the assassinated Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As in many of her poems, Beratlis here employs questions and anaphora to powerful effect, emphasizing the grief of the beloved survivor:

                        Which galaxy

            contains you now? Which bird’s throat?
                        In the pines,
            the wind swept through the thicket, and I saw.

                        I saw.

But not all is gloom in this collection. Beratlis plays with language in asides contained within dashes like a hand slyly screening the speaker’s mouth, “et cetera” waving away a rueful reflection, and parentheses cupping a muttered justification. Numerous poems apostrophize with “O,” and sometimes “Oh” precedes a thought like a sigh. Archaisms such as “whence,” “woe be unto us,” and “thou” echo the King James Bible that Houser, a minister’s daughter, transposed into gospel hits. Simultaneously, the occasional “goddamn” or “busting” keeps the reader in the rough and tumble West. This excerpt from “Conversation with a Lover About the Louvins” exemplifies the poet’s whimsical word play:

                        First,
            step down into street; in darkness delight. Next,
            rye paired with pear, the pair pared

            to leather, bluejean and thigh. Hazel’s rules
            for songwriting: Dip from the deeper well. Well, we are.

Intimacy and distance are balanced by scientific allusions interfused with the human condition in references to physics, botany, astronomy, and geology. The long poem “water wealth contentment health” alone contains “neurotransmitters,” “epigenetics,” “atmospheric river,” “genomes,” “fractal,” and “gut-brain.” These notes of erudition embellish poems that prove both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Affectionate address—“my love,” “my dear,” “my citadel fortress”—connects the speaker with people and things that inspire joy and spark recognition. A tribute to Modesto, “Republic of Tenderness and Bread” marvels at the community’s kindness. Even poems of disappointment and heartbreak hold commendable grace as in “Fracture Mechanics” and “Instant Messaging with Broken Glass” which invoke hard-earned wisdom with dry humor and a shrug of resignation.

Throughout Dust Bowl Venus, music conveys wonder, vulnerability, and revelation. As well as Houser’s gospel harmonies and rhythm guitar, the poems evoke Paganini, reggae, assouf and corridos, blues, punk rock, and christos anesti sung by the speaker’s Greek family in a Livermore cemetery. Beratlis composes verbal music by means of repeated sounds and careful rhythms, with phrases that cycle back like the chorus of a song, and in the counterpoint of silence. Her judicious use of spacing and punctuation control the tempo to compelling effect. These lines from the poem “How to Possibly Find Something or Someone By Praying” demonstrate the poet’s understanding of the power inherent in end stop and enjambment:

            I’m a typewriter wreck on the highway;
            don’t look at me.
            You are throwing your voice
            into every corner as I hunt and peck
            the light fantastic.

            A neon Lucky Strike sign, vintage automobiles, and other carefully chosen objects conjure the zeitgeist of Houser’s Modesto. “Historic Structure Report” tenderly addresses a specific building downtown—“Hush, my monolith”—and describes its architecture in detail:

            The asparagus fern of commerce
            overspills your planters,
            thrives along your bones,
            while inside, borrowed-money ball gowns
            and loggia daydreams consider a dance. Your glass,
            columns, composite floors, and floral-stamped metal—
            those vertical striations raked in cement—
            all expressions of a certain mid-century mindset.

Dust Bowl Venus is the cartography of two lives. Led to the canneries and dance halls of the “beloved city” familiar to both Houser and Beratlis, the reader is urged to observe, consider, and cherish people and places. In “All About Birds: An Elegy,” the speaker counsels:

                                    Remember to etch images
                        and locations into your mind—
            this poem is a memory palace:

In a region of relentless heat and meager precipitation, nonetheless, plants, people, and poetry can and do flourish. In Dust Bowl Venus, Stella Beratlis maps one Central Valley city and the intricate traces of the heart.

Sixteen Rivers Press        ISBN 978-1-939639-25-7      
$16.00       Paperback       80 pgs.      https://sixteenrivers.org/order/



BIO

Linda Scheller is the author of Fierce Light from FutureCycle Press. Her writing prizes include the 2020 Catherine Cushman Leach Poetry Award and 2021 California Federation of Chaparral Poets Contest. Her book reviews and poetry recently appeared in Entropy, The Inflectionist Review, Oddville Press, West Trade Review, and The American Journal of Poetry. 



Hollywood, Guido Orlando, The Pope and The Mother

by M. F. McAuliffe



THE POPE

Was Pius XII. Who gave the world the commandments of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; who told the world what sin was, fleshly and deathly, and when and how and how often to do penance.

GUIDO ORLANDO

Is sitting in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel at 2 or 3 o’clock on a Wednesday in January, 1983. He is sitting there for the calm of the lighting, quiet and comforting leather chairs and lounges where time doesn’t pass or change. It could still be 1953, with this constant stream of wide-eyed tourists happy to spend and be astonished.

Opportunity has always walked through the door of this hotel, always found The Great Orlando – King of Contacts, publicity campaign manager extraordinaire, friend of the Pope, of former kings’ former wives, hamburger chain owners, Hollywood small fry, Ernest Hemingway –

He has always waited here. The currents of the day have always brought every kind of creature to the web of his perception. The post-war years were good. The post post-war years not so good – too much television, the studios falling apart. The post post post-war years are thin and tedious, the glamour gone, the fascination; the only glittering gatherings retirements, funerals, wakes.

The hotel remains, his oldest friend. And so he comes to sit and see what today will bring. These people are, yes, almost, maybe, no. Too many, too rushed, too scheduled, too planned, too Disney tourist –

His luck has vanished. He’s living on stocks and favours. He needs a writer.

He needs a writer because people are blind. People have to be made to see; they have to be told what to see. How can they see The Great Orlando in these lesser, daylight times without someone new and young to tell them?

There is a woman coming through the doors.

THE WOMAN

Whose name is Francesca, is of a certain age: dyed hair, wide mouth. Who performs the attentive, emotional work of carrying a conversation further, whose speech is powdered and laboured, whose face is slashed with lines as though by knives, a vertical surface of vertical scars, whose laugh is a vocalized smile. Who has stopped writing.

Whose husband had left her fifteen years ago for a woman fifteen years younger, whose every affair since then has been with a writer, been a temporary, unsatisfactory, hopeful, hopeless saga. Her last fling but one – on her way back to Australia for work – had been on Hydra. An Irish poet, she said, whose friends had formed a committee to get Seamus Heaney the Nobel Prize.

In Australia she was a temporary tutor sitting across from Jayne, another temporary tutor, in their temporary office. They were both new to the college, new to the city or the state; they were both filling in for lecturers on sabbatical. They were looking at the agenda for the Staff Committee.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Francesca, husky, half-laughing, half-strangled.

Jayne looked up and turned towards Francesca. They had both been drafted onto the committee, both hated it. The word committee reminded them Hinstantly of the Hincident on Hydra.

A committee to push for the Nobel! To push the work! they said. Jayne was as aghast as Francesca was amused. Work was good or it wasn’t, they said. Worth was slow, complex, immense, a filtering through decades or centuries of chance, usefulness and clarity slipping past time and change.

“Deciding a Nobel must be quite an undertaking.” Francesca was considering, elaborating. “I suppose there must be stipulations. Procedures. Lists.”

“Mm.” As Francesca didn’t say any more Jayne turned back to the staff committee’s list.

The world was a net, not a list.

“A committee’s the sort of thing a group of men would find reasonable, would do. A team passing the ball down the field for a goal.”

“Long live the kingdom of footy,” she said. Francesca laughed.

She pushed the agenda aside and pulled her stack of assignments closer. Francesca’s elaborations were so anxious to establish harmony they were wearing. Her parties were as fussy as her speech, full of introductions that introduced to no avail: old friends to new academics, new friends to experts in restoring old houses; tales of London, the ways of English and American crossword puzzles, wine from the Barossa and the Loire.

She didn’t want to agree or demur or argue or play compare and contrast. On its way to her cup of pens her gaze passed over the window – low buildings, smoggy trees, hazy, indeterminate distance, a gridded lack of mercy. She had to start putting out feelers for another job.

She gave the assignments the evil eye from the corner of her eye and saw, coincidentally, the assignments were a footy high. Oh, stop, she said to the larrikin streams of her mind.

Jayne was happy to see someone from home was coming to visit, but was still surprised when Francesca appeared in Los Angeles three years later to see her and her new American husband, a writer whose editor was not returning his calls.

Naturally Francesca encountered Guido Orlando as he sat at a small round table in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in early 1983. Tall, statuesque, long red hair and line-scarred face: she had the kind of used lusciousness he immediately recognized, a woman whose best gifts lay in the silk-soft flesh of her address book.

THE MOTHER

The winter evenings so dark so early. It felt like eight o’clock at five. Her arms were tired, the basket so full she could scarcely get her fingers around the handle. The string bag was a shapeless weight at her feet. Marriage had swallowed her. The beach and picnics, food handled and cooked, packed, cup and thermos; more baskets, her sister’s as well as their own, children born and fed and attended to, fed and fed and fed.

Glenelg on Fridays: the hairdresser, then Barnett the butcher, corned beef, flank, shoulder of lamb or lamb chops; the fish-shop next to it, butterfish, whiting, gar, bream; Coles, Woollies. The picture theatre at the top of Jetty Road, dark and uncrowded of a late morning, the entrance a dark square of presences as the tram carried her past, dark ghosts inviting her to darkness and light: Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford. How they swung their shoulders in the mansions where they lived, able to carry any weight and control where it went. Swinging their shoulders and legs they turned to the light with a quip and a dismissal. How nothing got them down.

The world came when they beckoned. Whether it came or not didn’t matter. How it was theirs to ignore from the beginning.

She almost missed her stop, rocking with the tram’s rocking, the old, comfortable leather seats, a tenth of a degree’s pale warmth because there was no draught from the doors, no wind behind the afternoon’s thickening darkness. The overcoat she’d made was warm, large, mohair; it swept, sweeping down her height, another arm or muscle to balance the weight of the shopping.

She got off at the tramstop, walked, turned the corner. The house was as dark as the street.

She put the meat and fish into the fridge, the rest of the shopping into the cupboards. Jayne was sick and still asleep. The Little Golden Book and the chocolate cat in purple silver paper stayed waiting in their brown paper bags, the bags twirled at the corners for the cat, flat at the corners for the book. She had to start dinner, see how the child was. Jay would be home at five, dinner immediately after. Tuna casserole: it was quick and everyone liked it. They could use ramekins instead of plates, eat in front of television. Jayne in her dressing gown if she was well enough to get up. Brian home from Lobethal for the weekend, easy to get on with.

#

Saturdays.

How they had become a battle and a grind.

Saturdays had been wonderful, dancing till the last tram, or sometimes going to the pictures with the girls from her table at work. They all loved the pictures, all talked and giggled about the awful side lanes the theaters emptied you into from the door under the red exit light, the crumpled newspapers, pie-wrappings, cigarette butts, trickles of water across the footpath. And the smell. And then all that gone as you stepped into Rundle Street.

They worked at the only milliner’s still open during the Depression. Laid off from time to time, they saved the ticket price and went when they could. The size of the auditorium, the semi-circular sweep of the balcony, sitting in the gods in the dark and the anticipation, the picture so large you were in it. You were still in it even as you walked to the swaying, rail-ringing tram. Even as you left the tram and walked home your mind still moved in thick, creamy light.

Before she was married she went home to her parents’ house, where she and her sister lived, instead of going home to the second best dancer in Adelaide. Jay was slight and quick, such a good dancer, provider –

Dancing! Helpmann so light on his feet at the Palais on North Terrace, the upstairs ballroom with the sprung floor and floor to ceiling windows looking straight into the plane trees; Helpmann such a dancer he’d gone to London, danced in the Royal Ballet, danced with Margot Fonteyn, danced in The Red Shoes.

After Helpmann left she danced with Jay, who was nearly as good, who wanted to marry her.

Had married her, Kathleen.

And taken all her freedom. She had to leave work; it was against the law for a married woman to be employed, taking a job from someone who needed it, unless she or her family owned the business. Now she had no money except the housekeeping, and though he was generous it was a donation; she knew it could change or stop. She saved from it, secretly, to have some hope of scope or decision. She lost control over her time: shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing. Though she could still walk to her sister’s in an hour she had to be back in time to cook the hot hotel dinner which was all Jay would eat, and a hot hotel breakfast every morning, even Saturday. Roast leg of lamb after Mass on Sunday.

Then the War, Jay working all hours, Holden’s making munitions instead of cars. She lived in silence, the sky was iron. The day France fell the whole city was silent, the colour of guns. Once television came all it was was guns, and that’s what they watched on Saturday nights after cleaning the stove, washing up, eating, cooking, preparing, watering the garden, gardening, trimming the edges, mowing the lawn.

There was no going back. Time wouldn’t stop; the war wouldn’t stop. It went on after it stopped.

How she had loved Marlene Dietrich, her cigarette smoke white as the gowns of the women her white shirts outshone.

#

The Hills moved in just after the maisonette next door was built, just after the War. The Hills made deep, rich garden beds: peas, beans, cauliflower, potatoes, turnips, trombone in winter; strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and lettuce, and loquats and apples from the trees in summer.

Their chooks laid big, rich eggs, yolks almost orange. Mrs. Hill sold eggs to the neighbours and charged the same as the grocer. She sent Jayne to the side fence or the Hills’ back door to pay and bring the eggs back, heavy and fragile, shells thicker than any she’d ever known, the eggs themselves so round and solid, so large and heavy they almost spilled out of the bag.

Mrs. Hill told her she made Alec hand all his wages over every week; she added the egg-money. The Hills were Presbyterian. They never went out beyond the pictures, never invited anyone home, never visibly turned a light on after dark; they were saving for a house.

Some months after they moved in Mrs. Hill invited her to the pictures; her group went to the Bay on Thursday nights. Over the fence she explained she couldn’t go to Glenelg on Thursday nights, she had to be home to cook dinner.

Mrs. Hill’s mother eventually came to stay, old and sick, to sit on the seat outside the back door in the long warm afternoons, her ivory fingers and hands as stiff as the knees under her crotcheted knee-rug and one black dress.

Violets, Iceland poppies, pansies; deeply fragrant, almost black Burgundy roses, pink Lorraine Lee roses, gerberas, geraniums, hydrangeas; hibiscus, frangipani. As they came into flower she cut little bouquets from their garden and sent Jayne next door to give them to Mrs. Hill for the old lady. Eventually, over the fence, Mrs. Hill explained that the flowers made a mess, the petals and pollen spread a sticky dust.

#

She looked at The Advertiser on Friday mornings to see what would be on in town on Saturday, but Jay was up till all hours laying cement around the house before the war, at Holden’s till all hours as soon as it started, uninterested after. If he wanted to go out on Saturday night it would be to a Holden’s or Hibernians’ ball.

Helpmann had been gone twenty five years. His body had been so light it was almost though he weren’t there at all; as though they were both moved by an idea of movement so clear and encompassing he was only a point of balance and impulse, an almost intangible will and joy.

She didn’t like the Bay. She loved the Mount Lofty Ranges and the Morialta Falls, water breaking on the rocks in a rich white flow, a stream of the same white flash that diamonds caught. Even when she was putting out picnic sandwiches or pouring tea from the eternal Thermos she felt the pressure of that effortless sharp break into splendour. Sometimes, in the tram, tired, on the way home from shopping, she could feel it at the back of her mind, the wish for it.

Brian was her great comfort. She could talk to him like an adult, describe things to him. He’d understand anything she meant at a glance; they’d be convulsed before a word was spoken.

Jayne was late and an accident, sullen and a nuisance. She didn’t want to do anything; she didn’t want to be anything. She didn’t want to go out or get dressed up or play sport or go to the pictures. When she finally asked her what she wanted she said she wanted a cat.

Something else to be attended to and fed.

THE DAUGHTER

The next afternoon, a Thursday afternoon in January 1983, Francesca and Jayne and her husband sat in The Great Orlando’s current apartment. Mae West’s former apartment, he said. Francesca asked flattering questions; Jayne’s husband took assiduous notes.

Jayne was puzzled – The Great Orlando had offered them neither water nor tea nor coffee nor anything else. She saw no signs of actual occupancy. The Great Orlando to be on the skids if he was bothering with the likes of them, she thought; they had no experience, contacts, influence, power. It was crazy, it was nuts; it had to be The Great Orlando bored and going through the motions. It was all of them going through the motions. She didn’t have anything like a real job; the ink on her green card was so fresh it could have smeared. Her husband had a personnel job in a factory; the factory was relocating to one of the Carolinas, and they were not. At the college Francesca’s position was now permanent, no longer temporary. And that was the extent of their collective wealth.

After The Great Orlando had opened and stood at his door, offered his right hand, (his left around a long slim cigar), had bade them enter as though the carnation in his buttonhole had made him a monarch, and after the flattering, anxious questions and the expansive answers and The Great Orlando had presented them with the last copy of his Esquire profile as they left, after they walked over the pink and green terrazzo, down the slightly damaged steps, managed their legs and backs and shoulders into the cab Guido had phoned for, after everyone in the back seat furtively pooled the contents of their wallets, Jayne sat.

She was displaced. She was lost.

There he was and had been, all unknown, all along. An ancient and unsuspected spider, a mechanism, a robot hired for one amount of money to pursue a vastly greater amount of money, to spin his threads across countries, across oceans.

The ocean was Glenelg. The Bay, the beach was the edge of Southern Ocean, dark, unimpeded, breath-chokingly huge and thick, its wrinkled skin lying and heaving to the horizon and then continuing, rounding the curve of the world not in a block but in a net of waves and layers, each layer its own temperature and gathering of creatures and ever-darkening water, down to the fire-bearing fissures in the skin of the seabed, to slotted doors into red-hot, liquid iron; the Southern Ocean liquid on liquid, so salt and vast and unfooted her mind struggled at the conception of it, and it continued to Antarctica, cliffs and states and countries of tall white cold ice, silent until it shifted and uttered vast subsonic groans, bigger than all the cream, sandy beaches and yellow or dust-red deserts of Australia.

And there this man sat, beside her where she couldn’t readily see him, find his face, his aspect, couldn’t dismember him with her eyes; in his suit, carnation and moustache, wanting money, wanting to fabricate money out of the stories he told, the people he’d met, the people he introduced, manipulated, had photographed and published in the papers of gossip and record.

There he sat, web-bare above the terrazzo expanse of Mae West’s former floor, framed by pewter-coloured wrought iron stair rails descending from a corner, just as he had sat, walked or sat once upon a time in a dark wood hotel room in Hollywood, with a thin Hollywood afternoon curtained outside, when he had thread-footed across an ocean, ignoring it. And then across Europe, to the Pope.

Hired by hat manufacturers to persuade the Pope to exhort women to wear new hats to church, showing renewed devotion to peace and hope and the world after war, thanks be to God.

To exhort women, under pain of sin, to buy new hats to save American hat manufacturers and him, the spider in the dark wood hotel room one thin Hollywood afternoon, from bankruptcy.

At his behest, the Pope, who owed him a favour, had sent his edict into her childhood, the light her parents turned on from the doorway, into her sleep in the dark mornings, into her chest of drawers, the drawer where her hats and berets were kept. Get up it’s time to get dressed we don’t want to be late

Her father commanding, her mother in the bathroom, angry, sweating, dressed in her corsets, yelling about being late. They were late every day every week and it was her fault. They would be late and the whole parish would see, it was her fault her hair was tangled and took so long to do (she’d combed it, just finished combing it), her mother combing her hair again, yanking on more tangles, pulling on the roots of the hair she was plaiting, poking her head forward poking her shoulder forward, pulling the beret from her chest of drawers down, pulling the bottom edge of the beret down onto the ache spreading across the back of her head.

“Damn’ man and his hats!” Her mother was yelling, poking her shoulder, pushing her forward. “New hats! I was a milliner! As though I haven’t made enough hats!” Pulling her hair tighter, the first knot, the root of the plait a dull, tugging pain. “Men don’t have to wear hats. They have to take their damn hats off!”

THE POPE

Was someone her mother wanted to speak to.

THE DAUGHTER

Her mother was looking through the tramstop window. They were waiting for the tram to town. Her mother wanted to go shopping for material for clothes, patterns and material for a summer dress, for pyjamas, for blouses, so they were going to go to Moore’s, Harris Scarfe’s, John Martin’s, Myers, up the escalators, past the Manchester departments, to the tables with rolls of material. The patterns were at the counter, in huge, heavy volumes. Though they looked at them all they usually got Simplicity.

She hated the patterns, the dresses, the material, being measured, poked, pinned, turned, pushed, and fitted, hated the mess of her mother’s sewing and sewing table, set up for weeks or months. She hated being told how to look.

THE POPE

Of World War II, of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, of sending Italian Jews to Germany. Pius XII was someone Jayne wanted to speak to.

“You’ve proved there is no God,” she would say. “We’re cursed with each other.”

GUIDO ORLANDO

And there he was and is and forever will be, in Esquire and his West Hollywood apartment, talking about his fantastic campaigns.

There he is, Jayne sees, a full-page photo at the front of the 1971 Esquire feature, nearly seven pages of a magazine which measured 13 ½” x 10” at the time, another one of those faces made more attractive by being half in shadow, veins on the back of a hand, a cigar, a cascade of medals, a knowing look; there he is, photographically surrounded by all those beauties, pretty girls and women who might as well have been machines machined into existence, the way he sold them, events, photos, reputations, outcomes. There he is in a modest Hollywood hotel talking feverishly though the night because he won’t spend the price of a sandwich to feed the Esquire reporter, nor the price of a dinner, either, though he insists on meeting at dinner time.

And in Mae West’s old apartment, that spacious ‘30s architecture, cool and clean, his skin is smelling of powder, is looking like paper; he’s a spider in a three-piece suit of armour.

There he was, falling into the past as first the taxi (dropping them all at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel) and then her husband, drove south (their ancient, third-hand Volvo) down the I-5, home to the South Bay.

In her mind Orlando is upright on the couch from which he rises twice daily – there are no more clients, he lives on the market because he knows there will be no more clients – to take his stocks for a walk. There’s a groove in the terrazzo where they’ve travelled out to the footpath, where he drags them by their leashes and Swarovski crystal collars like trembling three-legged chihuahuas.

She opened the window slightly to create some movement in the air.

The Great Orlando in Hollywood for decades – a happenstance, a spasm of cosmic junk, time, chance, money, talk; a tiny hidden Pope, a lobbyist, an agency, an army and proto-committee of one –

She closed the window. The air was as grey as the sky.

There must have been thousands of them. Tens of thousands; all the history of all the tumultuous plains, armies, monasteries, palaces, castles, roads, churches, cities, towns. All the minds, mouths, commandments…

By the hair on the back of her headie-head-head, the only question was how to stay out of their reach.


BIO

M. F. McAuliffe is an Australian writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her long poem “Orpheus” was staged by La Mama as “Orpheus, an Australian Tragedy” at the Courthouse Theatre, Carlton, in May 2000. From Nov 2016-Feb 2017 her poem “Crucifix I” appeared in the Yoko Ono installation “Arising” in the Reykjavik Art Museum. Co-founder and co-editor of the multlingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly and Reprobate/GobQ Books, her titles include the novella Seattle, the short story cycle I’m Afraid of Americans, The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems, and 25 Poems On The Death Of Ursula K. Le Guin. She is also co-author, with Red Earth Poetry Award-winner Judith Steele, of Fighting Monsters, and with Portland sculptor and artist Daniel Duford, of the limited edition artist’s book, Golems Waiting Redux.

Cassandra

By Matt Zachary

We were warned
more than once
and refused to listen
because the right answers
are the ones we want to hear.

No one wants warnings
when the sun is bright
and the money’s rolling in.


Learning to Live with Germs Again


At some point I will
offer you a sip of my drink
and you will accept
and our lips will, indirectly,
touch again, as they used to.

At some point our hands
will touch, intentionally,
or not. Our breaths will
mingle. Our flora and fauna
will meet, perhaps exchange.

And at that point someone
will catch someone else’s cold.


A Prayer against Plague


May the sun bring some salvation.
May light and heat burn without burning.
May lungs fill with nothing but breath.



BIO

Matt Zachary is a teaching assistant with literary aspirations. He is currently working on his first novel.




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